By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
Soundtrack of Their Lives
The 88’s songs have been used on TV almost that many times
Adam Merrin and Keith Slettedahl have been playing together half their lives, but it wasn’t until late last month when they finally released a major-label album. Not Only . . . But Also, the third full-length from their LA-based band the 88, is, by all appearances, the breakout they’ve been so patiently waiting for. “Go Go Go” was an iTunes Single of the Week, and the band did a Halloween set on KCRW’s influential Morning Becomes Eclectic. All it took was them signing to Universal’s Island Records, working with Babyface, and landing songs in five movies and more than two dozen TV shows.
“I think it’s turned a lot of people onto the band,” says Merrin of the 88’s small-screen dominance, which includes four episodes of The O.C. and a performance on How I Met Your Mother. “After we have a song on a show, the plays on our MySpace page just go through the roof. And when we’ve toured, it’s helped bring people out. I’ll look out and see people singing along with the words in places we’ve never played before.”
Merrin, who plays keys and co-writes songs with singer/guitarist Slettedahl, recognizes that exposure comes from strange places these days. It wasn’t so long ago that he was giving away CDs outside a Supergrass show. One landed in the hands of Danny Benair, who places music in film and television.
“He called us the next day and said he’d love to represent us,” Merrin remembers. “That whole world was new to us. I didn’t even know it really existed because this was about five years ago. It was definitely not in our plan of how to make it.”
Though Merrin and Slettedahl, both 35, have been at it since meeting in high school, the 88 weren’t born until 2003. With a penchant for hooky anthems and performing in full suits, the trio—now completed by drummer Anthony Zimmitti—made a good case for the revival of power-pop with their first two albums, Kind of Light and Over and Over. They got the chance to back up the late Elliott Smith for a show and toured relentlessly, all the while honing their bouncy brand of Beatles- and Kinks-inspired tunefulness.
That core is still there on Not Only . . . But Also, despite the bigger budget and commercial expectations. “We definitely wanted to keep [our] sound,” says Merrin. “We didn’t want to change completely and sound like everybody else. But we’re also open to suggestions. [Producer] Matt Wallace really looked at the arrangements carefully and helped us that way.”
The result is a diverse dessert tray of glossy pop goodies, from the arena hugeness of “Love You Anytime” to the simply chugging “Waiting for the Next Drug” to the funk-infused “Like You Do.” Then there are the two songs produced by R&B mastermind Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, who happens to share a manager with the 88. It’s not as odd a match-up as you might think; Babyface has been branching out into rock lately, and the back-to-back tunes he helmed—“Sons and Daughters” and the leadoff single “It’s a Lot”—certainly don’t sound out of place on the album.
“I admit that when we first heard the idea, we thought it sounded pretty crazy,” says Merrin. “But we met with him and really hit it off. He said, ‘I don’t want to change the sound of the 88. I just want to record you guys and make it sound big.’ That’s what he did, and I was really happy with how [the collaboration] came out. It just sounds huge.”
The smooth transition from self-released records to a major label is largely thanks to how comfortable Merrin and Slettedahl are with each other. Merrin describes band practices as almost an unspoken thing, with the two relying on intuition and shared experiences to shape their songs. Even filled out to a five-piece live and with a new drummer since their last album, the 88 are still the product of an 18-year friendship, not unlike Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood of fellow power-pop aces Fountains of Wayne. And sure, a hit on the scale of that band’s “Stacy’s Mom” would suit the 88 just fine.
Speaking of suits, the band continue to dress to the nines when playing live. “We’ve modified it a little bit,” says Merrin, “but we still wear shirts and ties. We’ve been doing that for 10 years. We take it seriously, and that mindset seems to help.” If their subliminal takeover of TV and graduation to a big-league label is any indication, it’s working.
The 88, Satisfaction and Yellow Red Sparks perform at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Thurs., Nov. 13, 9 p.m. $10.