The 88 front man Keith Slettedahl on Backing Ray Davies

Singer/guitarist Keith Slettedahl is a happy-go-lucky guy, as witnessed by his band the 88's irresistibly upbeat lyrics and catchy hooks. But the last couple of years were a little dark for the serenely-married Pasadena dad. The band got signed and dropped by Island Records. But they did manage to land on soundtracks for TV shows such as How I Met Your Mother and 

From left: Adam Merrin, Anthony Zimmitti, Todd O'Keefe, Keith Slettedahl
From left: Adam Merrin, Anthony Zimmitti, Todd O'Keefe, Keith Slettedahl
Piper Ferguson

OC Weekly (Arrissia Owen Turner): Why do I feel like we're breaking up? On your second CD, 2005's Over and Over, we were seduced and you were full of love and life. Then on 2008's Not Only ... But Also things seemed a little rocky? The most recent 88 release, This Must Be Love, seems kind of sad. Are things looking up for the next round of songs?

Keith Slettedahl: I grew up listening to a million songs about a girl or love and that influenced me. Sometimes an idea just sounds cool in a song, so it's not always literal. The rocky relationship was with our label. It wasn't a creatively satisfying experience. For This Must Be Love, I would go home from the studio and do whatever I wanted. But the next one is going to be a real band record. That's what I am looking forward to doing. As far as the subject matter, I knew that we were not in the right situation. Songs are sometimes written when I'm in a bad mood. It's just a snapshot of the moment. No one puts a gun to your head though. We could have easily walked away. When we signed, my wife was pregnant. It was probably all financial if I'm being totally honest with myself. You grow up with this dream in your head of a record deal. We had reached this goal, but it wasn't what I thought it would be. We had to get through that to remember why we got into this business. For me, at 36, now I know that it's OK to still have fun playing music. I lost that along the way somewhere.

So this was your freak out record?

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Recording those songs by myself in my room, it was like when I started writing using a four track. I just let the songs go where they did. In the studio, everything was analyzed. This chorus has to happen here, this lyric doesn't make sense, this has to cut here. The people we were involved with were trying to take off all the edges.

So what are the new songs like?

Before we were just having conference calls about nothing. Then we started getting together all the time to record, jam and just make stuff up. I brought ideas to the band and they would make it into this other, better thing. The four of us have never been more excited about playing music together. These four guys--it's just really, really fun for us. Now that we are doing what we think is right, all these great things are happening. It's very clear to me that it wasn't the right fit, and as soon as we let go of that and I let go of those ideas, all these things started manifesting.

What's your take on the whole song placement thing? You guys have done remarkably well without seeming to try.

It was Danny Benair from Natural Energy Labs. We gave him a CD sampler while we were outside of a show with fliers. He liked it. He started placing stuff. It was totally lucky. It turns out he grew up on my dad's street. Very random. He knew my dad's whole family. He saw my last name and asked, "Do you know Conrad?" It was meant to be. The good thing is that the songs were written with no regard for TV or film.

Has not being pigeonholed into any one music scene helped or hurt the band when it comes to bookings?

I'm not sure. We've played with everyone from Smashing Pumpkins to Elliott Smith, and we're going to be playing with Ray Davies. I think it's a really good thing not being categorized.

How excited are you that you're going to be playing with Ray Davies, the man you are so often compared to?

I don't have any words for that. I don't know how to explain it. I'm just really excited. There is nothing I can say. I would just sound like a total dork and go crazy about it. He's the tops with me, the greatest ever. The Beatles, him and Dylan are my biggest influences.

How did it come about?

He was looking for a band to do a month-long tour and open up the show, and at the end of his acoustic set back him up on some kinks songs. We heard about it through the grapevine and so we put our name in the hat. He wanted to hear us do some Kinks songs, so we recorded six songs and we sent it to him and he liked it [laughs giddily]. I am just trying to stay cool about it.

The 88 perform with Extra, Curtains for You and Mphase Thursday, Feb. 18, 9 p.m. at Detroit Bar, Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; $5. 21+.


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