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Photo by Jeanne Rice"You turned me on to Jonathan Richman!" Dan Perkins says accusatorily. He's jabbing his finger at me as he sprawls on the floor of Orbit Studios in Santa Ana, where his band, Lo-Fi Champion, is rehearsing.
He's talking about a 1997 Locals Only review in which I said that his song "Chill" had "a lonesome, innocent sigh to it, the kind you want to last forever, like a good Jonathan Richman ballad."
"I'd never heard of him before I read that," Perkins says. "I'd never even heard of the Modern Lovers until Roberto [Escobar, Lo-Fi's bass player] gave me one of their CDs. I thought they were going to be some '80s new-wave band. But I listened and flipped-they fit directly between Lou Reed and the Violent Femmes. Then I looked on the back, and it said, 'Jonathan Richman,' and I went, 'Whoa!'"
These days, Perkins lists Richman as an influence, along with an eclectic pantheon that includes Hank Williams, Weezer, Dinosaur Jr, Buddy Holly and Dick Dale.
The Richman aura, though, is what stands out most on "Chill" and the rest of that six-song demo tape. It was recorded in bedrooms and bathrooms around Long Beach and Sunset Beach on a simple four-track machine. Perkins slapped his first name on it and called it Lo-Fi Champion, a title that evolved into the name of the band he eventually formed last fall.
"If I was going to make this crappy tape knowing that the sound was gonna suck, I wasn't going to apologize for it," he tells me. "I was gonna brag about it. I even drew a trophy on the front."
The problem was the tape wasn't crappy at all. It was great. Muddled? Sure. And, yeah, it was loaded with enough background hiss to deafen most digitally minded audiophiles.
But none of that mattered much when Perkins opened his mouth and started spewing lyrics that a lot of songwriters only wish they could've penned. "Tracey" is a classic escapist vignette about drunken mothers, their boyfriends who act like they're your dad, and a guy-Perkins, it turns out-who just wants to rescue his girl from that life and take her far away: "Gonna get you some logs and build you a home/By a rolling river where the buffalo roam/And I don't care if we ever make it back/To that hole in the suburbs by the housing tract."
"It's a totally true story," Perkins explains. "I was just writing what was going on with me and her, though now her mom's remarried."
There's also "Kicked Out," a sad paean to unrealized rock & roll dreams, which is a romantic way of saying that it's about Perkins getting booted from his punk band, Debaser, for not screaming loudly enough.
"I wrote it when I was getting ready to go to the Foothill to see Man or Astro-man? play," he explains (Perkins drops lots of band names in his tunes-the Reverend Horton Heat, Thurston Moore and Hank Williams also make cameos in "Kicked Out"). "I was out of my band, reduced to playing in front of four people at a Diedrich Coffee, and I sucked."
Perkins has lighter stuff, though, like "Sebastian," a love song to a pet lizard. But maybe the most endearing thing about his tunes are the way they come off sounding so playfully innocent. Besides Richman, another obvious comparison would be Daniel Johnston, a singer/songwriter who also started out by handing around homemade tapes on the streets of Austin, Texas.
Perkins continued to hit the coffeehouse circuit in OC and Long Beach, and he freely admits he wasn't a very decent player at the time. "I wasn't great, but I could do enough to get through a song," he says.
In late '97, he decided to make some tapes for his friends (and mail one to a certain music writer, natch). One of his buddies was involved with Long Beach's Bong Leach art collective, who pretty much insisted that Perkins play one of their underground warehouse parties. A few weeks later, he was strumming in front of 500 people.
Steady solo gigs continued through last year, but Perkins had made the tape with an eye on attracting other musicians to form a band. He ran an ad in the Weekly, which got the attention of drummer Mike Vallejo, who brought along Escobar, both refugees of a Brit-pop band called Flavor.
Now Lo-Fi Champion is no longer just the ironic name of a great, rough demo tape, but a full-on band. Together only five months, they're doing a superb job of transforming Perkins' acoustic demos into a noisy, addicting rock & roll blurt. They've been getting a good amount of gig offers, too-pretty impressive for a band that has yet to make a decent demo of its own. Apparently, word is still leaking out about that '97 tape.
"This is the first band I've been in where we're having to turn down offers for shows, and we don't even have a demo of our own," Vallejo says. They hope upcoming recording sessions will lead to a CD by the end of August.
For Lo-Fi Champion-the title and the band-that's some sweet progress in a relatively short time. But more than anything, Perkins is proof that some of the best songwriters are still locked in their bedrooms, warbling into cruddy tape recorders.
"No one really gives a shit about how good you can play or how great a musician you are in the long run," Perkins says. "People just want a song they can sing or relate to, to pick up a new experience or a new thing."
Something that you want to last forever, in other words-just like a good Jonathan Richman ballad.
Lo-Fi Champion performs with the Bibs and the Len Brown Society at Que Sera, 1923 E. 7th St., Long Beach, (562) 599-6170. Wed., 9 p.m. Call for cover. 21+.