By Alex Distefano
By Daniel Kohn
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Photo by Jeanne RiceIt's a moist and salty Saturday night at King Neptune's Nautical Bar in Sunset Beach, and no matter where you stand, it seems you're in the way. Long Beach's Lo-Fi Champion have just finished playing, and the small bar is packed with puffy-haired, frat-looking people. It seems an unlikely crowd for the pop trio—or for any live music—but Lo-Fi Champion's giddy set was well-received, and they've even managed to sell, on its first night out, a number of copies of their newest CD, EP-1.
The amazing thing about EP-1 is not that it brims with clever, unique images, or that it's packed with lilting, hummable melodies and catchy, syncopated rhythms, or that it manages to be wistful, funny and menacing all at once. The amazing thing is that until a few nights ago, the band was so unhappy with the album they didn't want anyone to hear it.
"We thought it was really bad," says singer/ guitarist Dan Perkins, laughing. "Then we decided that we just need to get over it."
Lo-Fi Champion have a tendency to be perfectionists. "Sweetness," a song on the album, is written from the perspective of the boyfriend of someone who's been raped or abused. The song is one such area of self-doubt. On the album, it's a gentle, quirky, beautiful pop song with three-part vocal harmonies asking repeatedly, "Did he take the sweetness of your love?" There's a hidden anger and strength, though, which mount when Perkins sings the lines, "You know that I could smash him with my Fender Telecaster/Did he take the sweetness of your love?" and then later sings, "This is it now, I'm pissed, and I think I want to smash him" and, "Just say the word, and you know that I will smash him."
The tension between the gentle melody and the darker meaning adds to the appeal of the song and raises questions about whether the guitar smashing is meant to be literal or figurative, but Perkins worries that the song is too poppy to convey its message. "I think to really work as a song, it has to be fierce, and it occurs to me that the song seems a little more fierce live. We didn't execute that as well as we could have," Perkins laments.
But the band hasn't always been so meticulous. In 1997, after being kicked out of his "punky, Primus-ey" band, Sacramento-born Perkins, 29, quit performing for a time. He'd played in bands since he was 14, but he turned his attention to writing and recording songs on his four-track. He named the demo that came out of those recordings Dan Lo Fi Champion—as a way to both boast about and apologize for the crappy, hiss-laden sound quality—and he drew a trophy on the cover of the tape. Word spread, and before long, he was being asked to play shows. He needed a band, preferably one with competent musicians since Perkins felt his own strength was writing lyrics, not wowing the crowd with his musicianship. Through an ad, Perkins hooked up with Roberto Escobar and Mike Vallejo, both from the defunct Brit-pop band the Flavor. The band, who dropped the "Dan" from the name, was formed.
Perkins has thought hard about what makes a good pop song. "I like really simple songs with a clear title; songs that, if you listen to them, you know what the song's about immediately," he says, citing Patsy Cline and Hank Williams Sr. as influences. But the more he talks about songs and lyrics, and as his voice begins to register to a tiny degree a sense of frustration and urgency, it becomes clear that for him, songs and lyrics are about communication and connection. "I don't care how good that person plays guitar or how crazy this person is. Just sing me a song about anything."
Perkins also strives to make his lyrics speak of the times, and to that end, "Jealous of the X" is a triumph. On first listen, it sounds like a typical male-female jealousy song; closer inspection reveals it's about a doomed relationship with a raver girlfriend: "I don't know Paul Oakentold/Or any of those other DJs/ All I know is that when Friday comes/I can count on your going away/Out in search of electronica/ While I stay home and play my guitar/And at 7 a.m., when I awake/There's still no sign of your car/That's why I'm jealous of the X/And I'm mad at E/I don't know what did I expect/But you love it more than me."
"Ecstasy was the most current drug at the time I wrote the song," says Perkins. "People say you can't write a new song and it's all been written, but that's bullshit because today is totally unique compared to last week even."
Which is why Perkins loves his influences, like, say Hank Williams, but hates most of the current musicians who sound just like Williams and make themselves irrelevant by singing about the same things Williams sang about. "If someone sounded exactly like Hank Williams and they sang about the Internet in an authentic way," muses Perkins, "now that would blow my mind."
Lo-Fi Champion play with Havalina Rail Co. Saturday at DiPiazza's restaurant and lounge, 5205 E. Pacific Coast Hwy, Long Beach, (562) 498-2461; www.lofichampion.com. Sat., 9:45 p.m. $5. 21+