Usually reserved, the members of the Lassie Foundation are raucous tonight. All five are squeezed into the burgundy-Naugahyde corner of an anonymous Santa Ana bar they call band headquarters. It's a seedy gem of an establishment. There's the requisite gum- and ash-riddled ground; the lonely, hunched-over old men drinking away their retirement money; '50s-era, boudoir art knockoffs of pink women with teardrop breasts and curvy hips; red-velvet wallpaper; and an elevated stage show complete with a Las Vegas light extravaganza.

The evening's live entertainment is diverting. Jason 71, the Lassie's bass player, is pumping his fist in time with the hip thrusts of an onstage entertainer air-humping to an artificially processed bossa nova. The band's drummer and newest member, Jason Boesel, accompanies him with a manic karate-chop, hand-jive cha-cha. The rest of the band is simply staring in awe at the stage show, blindly drinking from a collection of domestic bottles. It only gets weirder when you know that the dance is being performed by a baby-faced, 50-plus-year-old man —a frightening cross between Wayne Newton, Tom Jones, fat Elvis and Neil Diamond.

The Lassie Foundation has earned the right to blow off a little steam. They've just spent the past 10 days holed up in a Huntington Beach recording studio—up to 10 hours at a time—finishing up their second full album. If every band is allowed to call one of its albums its Sgt. Pepper's, this album will be the Lassie Foundation's Sgt. Pepper's. This might be their turning point, but the band doesn't necessarily see it that way.

"I wouldn't say it's a 180-degree turn from what we've done," says guitarist Jeff Schroeder, the spitting image of Sean Lennon. "I'd say we're just refining the sound a bit more—using a variety of instruments, working with better recording equipment. It's a cleaner sound."

But that is a 180. The Lassie Foundation have been criticized for relying on heavy reverb, fuzzy distortion and flangy guitars. Now, they've tossed all that aside. Perhaps they've gained confidence as musicians, become better songwriters, or decided to experiment. The Wire-esque harmonizing is still there. Same with the jangly guitars and bouncing bass lines. But they've let go of the smothering layers and embraced cleanliness.

That's why you could call their latest and the Leaving California EP (a small, ironically titled collection of rarities recorded in 2000 that will be released in March) a love letter to critics who labeled them shoegazers—when they weren't calling them My Bloody Valentine revivalists. In fact, if you ever meet the band, mention the My Bloody Valentine comparisons and then sit back and enjoy the fun.

"Ahh, man," Schroeder half-groans as he rolls his eyes. "You can't control how someone's going to describe your band. All you have to do is actually listen to the music, and you can figure out we were really never that similar to [My Bloody Valentine]."

When the Lassie Foundation formed back in late 1995, it was called Lassie and wasn't so much a group as a side project. "Eric [Campuzano, guitarist] and I were already in a band together and wanted to do something different," says lead singer Wayne Everett while he sucks on what must be his 15th cigarette of the night. "It was just the two of us at first, but every now and then, we'd call in a friend to lay down a backing track. Eventually, a few of the people who contributed to our first release became the band."

The result of that first release, 1996's California, was a bit on the indulgent side—not their best work, certainly—more like your classic, technology-driven studio production. But it laid the foundation. And California was certainly evidence that Everett was wasting his time behind his drum kit. The delicate lilt of his voice contrasted perfectly with the band's loud feedback and reverb histrionics.

"It was scary the first few times singing," he admits. "Actually, it's still scary. Every time. You go up there, and you're completely consumed with what the audience is thinking." How does he deal with the terror? "Alcohol, of course."

In the four years following California, the Lassies released records and picked up permanent members. The music was morphing—more focused, less grandiose—but the reviews and comparisons remained the same. But never mind the critics. Leaving California and their new album reveal a more disciplined band. There's still the hallmark wobbly, distorted guitar, but it's used sparingly now; you'll find it difficult to hear an isolated guitar track through an entire song. The same goes for the new sounds they've added to their repertoire: the horns, makeshift Moogs, Farfisa keyboards and female vocals. In short, the group has created simply structured pop songs with minimal use of their arsenal of instruments, yet somehow the tunes sound richer and more full than the rich-and-full things they've done before.

Some influences on the new tracks are going to be red-flagged by critics reaching for an easy putdown. If this isn't the band's Sgt. Pepper's, for instance, perhaps it's the Lassie Foundation's version of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds?

"Nah, this isn't our Pet Sounds," Jason 71 says, quickly losing interest in pursuing the question and turning to the stage, where the Vegasy crooner with muttonchops has jumped on a nearby table and is thrusting his crotch into a young girl's face. "We haven't recorded that one yet."



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