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It's always great when a rock band reminds us how unnecessary a guitar can be. Had we declined to mention it, you probably wouldn't have noticed the absence of the axe in Mr. Elevator and the Brain Hotel's kaleidoscopic jungle of barreling drums, lumbering bass and screaming organ. Hatched from the South County music scene, fraught with jangly surf rock acts, the trio was an anomaly in its sun-soaked surroundings. Even tracks with titles such as "Staring At the Sun" managed to skip the beach entirely—opting for a heady, San Francisco psychedelic sound, hinged on trance-inducing grooves, squalls of white noise and ominous, carnival-style keys.
All that racket doesn't leave much room for a douchey guitar solo.
"We tried a guitarist once," said keyboardist/vocalist Thomas Dolas. "It was really weird. He just got really stoned and tried going off on every song, but it just didn't work at all. He didn't even say 'bye to us after he auditioned."
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One thing Dolas does have in common with most guitarists is the small arsenal of effects pedals at his shoeless feet during live shows. Together with Andrew Minter's warm bass lines, accouterments such as phaser and wah-wah assume a vital role when combined with Dolas' fiery-fingered approach to the ivories.
"I definitely don't have proper technique," Dolas says, despite having classical training as a kid. "It's more like a punk rock piano, just based out of jamming."
But Dolas could easily pass for a nimble-fingered reincarnation of the Doors' Ray Manzarek on tracks such as "Right Where You Ought to Be," a stoned throwback to the days when shimmering organ laid the groove foundation, bolstered by skipping drum beats that fit tighter than a pair of orange, polyester pants.
While they may only have four songs on their Staring At the Sun EP (released in May), each track—from the song titles to the lyrics—says something about this power trio of retro revivalists' journey. In a little over a year together, the band went from jamming on crappy amps and cheap keyboards in drummer/vocalist Wyatt Blair's garage to gigging and touring extensively all over OC. Titles such as "Stranded" perfectly sum up the band's frustration coming up in San Clemente, Laguna Beach and Dana Point, where the fight to cultivate a hometown audience was arduous at best.
"There used to be a great music scene there, like five years ago, and all of that just left," Blair says. "We tried our best. There's a cool Anaheim and Fullerton scene; both Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa have great scenes. But it sucked because we had to drive everywhere to play shows."
Though the band migrated up to Echo Park several months ago, they remain a fixture in and around OC, lending some sharp, Silver Apples-inspired chops to fests such as Eclectic Roots and this weekend's Moon Block Party in the Downtown Pomona Arts Colony. Recently, the band embarked on their first major West Coast tour to Seattle and back.
Since releasing their debut EP last month, Mr. Elevator's plans for an upcoming tour and a forthcoming full-length album early next year suggest that they're serious about taking their careers up a few floors. Blair, who in addition to being the band's drummer, recently started his own label, Lollipop Records, says the band have graduated from recording slap-dash demos in their bathroom to spending quality time on quality recordings in local studios.
"We've really worked hard to home in on sound that slips in between the cracks of a lot of different genres we love," Blair says. "The songs are a bit of a throwback, but we're always looking to throw in that curve ball that the bands who inspired us didn't think of."
This column appeared in print as "Going Up!"