Interview by: David Medsker
Click here for David's review of SugarBomb's latest album
Pop music is the cruelest mistress. People have killed themselves for her fleeting affections, and not even those who know her best can predict which suitors she’ll favor.
Few bands of the last five years exemplify her fickle ways better than the pride of Ft. Worth, Sugarbomb (not, for the record, named after Calvin’s favorite cereal, Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs). Their 2001 album, Bully, is a modern pop classic, with nary a lazy track to be found though, we learn, that wasn’t for lack of effort on the label’s part. The musicianship is top notch, the influences are many and varied, and they can positively sing circles around their nearest competitor.
So it would make sense that, two weeks after Bully was released, Sugarbomb were dropped by their label, RCA. The label chose to keep SR-71, who would do a polka record if it was trendy, but dropped Sugarbomb.
Ah, but such stories are how legends are born. The press went gaga over them. The power pop circuit, the most cliquish, elitist form of music geek ever bred, worships them. Other bands stood in awe of their talent. Vertical Horizon even lent them their bass player. They were poised to expose the current tenants of the Top 40 for the hackneyed frauds that they are, only to have Lucy pull away the football at the last second. It may seem an ignominious ending to be dropped from your label mere weeks after the release of your album, but consider the release date:
September 25, 2001. Uh, yeah.
Despite these setbacks, you have no chance of getting a sob story from Sugarbomb founders Les Farrington (vocals, keys) and Daniel Harville (vocals, guitar). If anything, the ordeal surrounding Bully has only made them more focused. And if they sound occasionally bitter, that’s the natural reaction when the love of your life has replaced the picture of you in their wallet with what you feel is a clearly inferior model.
But first thing’s first: How the hell did this brilliant pop band come from, of all places, Ft. Worth, home of Pantera?
“Yeee haw!” Les jokes, trying valiantly to act the part. “It used to be that cities in the south were left out of the ball game, but the proliferation of the Web and satellites and cable television has opened the world up into a global community, and I think that we’re exposed to the same things everyone else is. Although there’s still a lot of cattle in the way while driving on the freeway….”
“I don’t get it myself,” Daniel admits.
Les elaborates a little more: “We are rednecks, but we drink our beer out of wine glasses. So we’ve moved up a little.”
A quick quizzing of favorite albums and songs shows just how diverse the backgrounds of Les and Daniel truly are. Desert Island Disc lists put Neil Young right next to Depeche Mode, the Bee Gees next to Radiohead. These two truly belong together. Which begs the question: What were their former bands like before, as Les put it, heaven entered their lives?
Daniel: Sugar. “It was ‘80s obligatory pop, Duran Duran meets Outfield, topped off with Oingo Boingo.”
Les: Bomb. “Before I met Daniel, I had a band called Herbert Herbert. It was heavier, more sample driven. And before that, I was immaculately conceived and was born as an adult and did not have a history.” (Laughs) Les wouldn’t elaborate, but further probing revealed, yipes, cueing up vocal tapes for his band mates to lip synch to.
Having an ally in Vertical Horizon came in handy when it came time to record the album. Cue Mighty Mouse theme, enter VH bassist Sean Hurley.
According to Les, “Our bass player at the time wasn’t cutting it, wasn’t playing correctly. He was having a great time in LA, though. So Sean had a week off, and he was gracious enough to spend his vacation from a very hectic tour schedule to come in and play on our record. He then completely blew our minds by coming in with all the music transcribed on paper, on a stand in front of him, as he sight-read the entire record perfectly.”
“He did the whole thing in two days,” marveled Daniel.
“Which took us five months,” Les deadpans.
The most startling revelation about Bully is that it had the potential to be even better. They received, you could say, misguided advice from the A&R department. Apparently, the boys were just too damn smart for their own good.
“When we signed with RCA, we had a lot of very good music,” Les said. “I’m not going to mention specific songs because I’m proud of everything we’ve ever done. But there are some songs on the album I’m not as proud of because it was a plug and play kind of thing. We wrote the songs and dumbed ourselves down, according to our A&R direction. I kept saying, ‘It’s too smart, we gotta dumb it down! Dumb it down!’”
Later, however, Les lets his guard down, and confesses which songs were late additions in an attempt to make the album “better.” Among the guilty: the title track, “Clover” and “Gone.”
“‘Clover’ is a song we wrote specifically for the A&R,” Les says sheepishly. “It’s fun, it’s quick, it’s throwaway. We had to look at songs less as a relationship and more like a one-night stand.”
“We wrote (‘Gone’) in the studio in LA as a last minute thing,” Daniel adds. “It was definitely fashioned toward that.”
“But we tried to inject some intelligence into it,” Les says hopefully.
Most ironically, this is how they came up with the album’s hit single, “Hello.”
“I wrote the verses for ‘Hello’ before I even met the Sugarbomb guys,” Les says. “When they kept telling us, ‘Dumb it down, dumb it down,’ we sent [the A&R guy] ‘Hello’ as a joke, as in, ‘Want it dumb, buddy? Here it comes!’ I was expecting him to go, ‘Well, not that dumb.’ Instead, he goes, ‘Wow.’ And I said, ‘I don’t understand this business at all.’”
This A&R svengali must have gone straight for their medication when they heard “After All,” which sounds so much like Queen that Jellyfish surely considered suing them for copyright infringement. Is there a place for a song so defiantly non-commercial on a pop record in these unit-shifting times?
“That was another song that our A&R guy said, ‘Too many Queen references, too much like Queen,’” Les chuckles. “Then, of course, SR-71 came out with the video with the big Queen harmony, (sings) ‘such a nice boy.’ And even the video, they ripped off ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’”
Yes, it all comes back to SR-71 who, in their eyes, were RCA’s model son to Sugarbomb’s red-headed stepchild, not wholly unlike the harassed girl on Bully’s cover. But time wounds all heels and, when last we heard from the lads in SR-71, they had moved on to ripping off Linkin Park.
Despite their cracks about the poor direction the band received from RCA, Les and Daniel are also the first to defend them. They understood that ultimately, this was a business decision, and sometimes that means protecting the bottom line at the expense of, say, making the world a better place.
“I’d love to say ‘damn RCA,’ but actually they’re being very cool with us,” Les admits. “They’re helping with other labels, saying what a promising band we are, telling them how easy to work with [we are]. They’re going to give up our record to another label without a fight, and I think they felt bad about [letting us go]. They only thing I wish they had done is not released our record, and let us go on and try to find a new home for it, and not make it like some used material.”
“They just had to pick their bands for the future,” Les says matter-of-factly. “It was business.”
As frustrating as it may have been to be told that their music was too smart, Les and Daniel knew, grudgingly, that the label had a point. It’s easy to blame the Big Five for lowering the standards of the music buying public, but the fact is, the public always has the last word.
“I don’t know if it’s the labels to blame,” Daniel offers. “People want McDonald’s. They don’t want gourmet music all the time. That’s why a lot of the music you hear is not rocket science.”
“We live in a very throwaway society,” Les acknowledges. “Everything is disposable.”
However, laments Daniel, “it does seem like the days of the true music craftsmen are numbered.”
“I love ‘Hello,’ but it’s not our shining moment,” Les says. “We wanted [Bully] to be like a Beatles album, where you didn’t know what was coming next. I think that’s what’s missing from music today. Every band is just one long song.”
And so it goes. Our heroes are down, but by no means out. They played it the label’s way last time, and are determined to learn from their mistakes. And Bully, for all its compromises, is still a hell of a first step. One only wonders what it could have been like had they been allowed to do what they originally wanted to do.
Les answers that last comment with a mock warning: “Well, get ready, because it will not happen again.”
And as it turns out, he was more right than he knew, but for all the wrong reasons.
Sadly, within hours of the original posting of this interview, I received word that Sugarbomb have called it quits. Their last gig is Saturday, June 7 at the ironically named Curtain Club. The reason Farrington and Harville sound so optimistic about their future is because this interview was actually conducted in early 2002, when they were still riding a strong wave of critical accolades. Why is it only seeing the light of day now? Well, that’s my fault. I was slow to transcribe it, guilty as charged. I certainly didn’t expect the band to break up the week after we finally went to press.
How did I not know about their breakup? It wasn’t for lack of trying. I called Sugarbomb’s manager three months ago, when I was putting the finishing touches on this piece, to see if there were any updates on the band’s progress that I could add. My calls were not returned. I called him again the day we went to press. Was put straight into voice mail.
No, instead I received the news about Sugarbomb’s demise from the vaunted Audities list, an e-mail list that consists of those elitist snobs I referred to earlier. (I tease them, but I love them. NotLame Records’ Bruce Brodeen, in particular, is the single best guy I’ve dealt with in the music business.) These guys are remarkably well connected, since half of the list members are in bands and the other half run record labels. Next time I’ll know: If a band’s manager is dogging me, check with the Audities list. They know everything.
I would like to wish Les and Daniel, along with the rest of Sugarbomb, the best of luck in their future endeavors. They’re both very funny, friendly and personable guys, and talent like that can’t be repressed forever. I look forward to hearing future projects from both of you, and I’m deeply sorry we didn’t run this piece sooner. Good luck, guys.