The Long Way Out
Photo by Robert GiampaA few years ago, I was having a conversation with Smile front man Michael Rosas. I was wringing my hands over some relationship something or other. "Don't be such a what-do-I-do," he admonished. "Huh?" I asked, confused. "There are certain people who are always 'What do I do? What do I do?'" he said. "You know what to do. Just do it."
Rosas, you see, is a man of action. He's not a blur of activity, necessarily, but he's taken with finding the most efficient, appropriate and timely response to a situation. He occasionally falters in the execution.
On the euphoniously fluid "The Long Way Out," a recent unreleased Smile track, the complicated musician sings about staying in a relationship too long. "I just let things deteriorate, fall apart, instead of being a man and taking care of the situation," he explains. On the shimmering "Walk Away Sunny Day" (also unreleased), he sings "about saying fuck it and moving on from a situation you think is bullshit." In the song, he's much more eloquent of course. Poetic, really.
You'll probably never get to hear these songs, though, which are really some of Smile's best, because the band is breaking up. I think I speak on behalf of all of Orange County when I say this decision really sucks ass.
"People are really mad," says a bemused Rosas. "They've expressed huge amounts of anger over the fact that we're breaking up. I think a lot of fans literally want to beat us to a pulp."
So why then, aside from the fact that they're stupid and selfish fucktards, are they breaking up? Back to those poetic lyrics: "When you feel that the feeling has died off/And you fear that once you begin you can't stop/A conversation interrupted by the telephone/And not a breath or a sound then the moment is gone/Walk away, sunny day/Seems so wrong, to wait so long."
These lyrics were written some time ago, but they seem to cut to the heart of the matter at hand: Rosas felt the band was treading water. For the first time in a rocky 10 years, the group had lost momentum. Some members with other commitments would most likely be quitting in the near future. Others would be quitting if those certain ones didn't quit—not in a bitter, angry way, but in an "I want to be in a band that's actually doing something and going somewhere faster" kind of way. Caught in the middle, Rosas knew a major shakeup/revamp was in order. As the only remaining original member, he just didn't have the heart to go through it all again.
"I've just been through this too much," he says. "At a certain point, from a fan's perspective, it gets old. It doesn't seem like the same band anymore, so I figure we may as well break up now instead of later. I'd rather end on a high note."
All four members—Bob Thompson on bass, Matt Fletcher on keyboards, James Fletcher on drums, Rosas on guitar and vocals—want to keep playing music. For a while, there was a rumor that the band minus Thompson would re-form with a new name and new image. While that isn't out of the question, Rosas says there are no definite plans yet.
"Obviously we've talked about different things, but I personally made the choice to hold off on any serious ideas until we wrap this up. I definitely want to start another band, but at this point I don't know when or what it's going to be."
A veteran of semi-seminal OC hardcore bands Inside Out and Head First, Rosas formed Smile in 1992 with Inside Out bassist and fellow Woodbridge High student Aaron Sonnenberg. The two placed an ad for a drummer in the Recycler, which led them to the prosaic Barstow home of Scott Reeder. "He was completely different from Aaron and me," Rosas remembers. "He was this Barstow rocker guy. Long hair, checkered pants, ripped Pink Floyd tank top and a bandana on his head. He was the best drummer I'd ever played with in my life." The threesome released a seven-inch ("Resin"), and then in 1995 released a sludgy bombastic yawp of grunge called Maquee on the San Diego-based Headhunter label. Rosas' particular lyrical yens—insouciant or wry fatalism, revenge fantasies, bizarre suburban Gothicism—made early appearances here. On Maquee's very self-conscious "Rock Anthem for the Retarded Teenage Hipster Population," Rosas sings: "Before we start, I'd like to say that we're all done/Remember what we started for, remember it was fun/Now we try so hard to look like we don't try/The only things that we become are all the unimportant things we buy/ . . . The only thing we learn from our mistakes is that we make a lot of mistakes." Smile smelled like teen spirit back then.
Before long, Atlantic Records came calling, signed the band and gave them a hefty advance. The musicians quit their day jobs, moved out of their parents' houses and began touring the country. Atlantic rereleased Maquee, and "Staring at the Sun" was getting airplay. Rosas remembers pulling into a Colorado town and hearing promo spots on the radio for their show that night. When they got to the club, there was a line down the block; the show was sold out.
"It was like a dream come true for us," Rosas remembers. "We felt like we'd made it. We realized being on a major label and having a song on the radio can really do a lot for you, because before that, we'd toured and we were playing basements and pizza joints to, on some nights, one person or the bartender or the other band, but a lot of times the other band would leave and we'd be playing to nobody. To go from that to this was amazing. I was having the time of my life."
Smile stayed on the road for about a year and a half before taking time off to work on a new album. It was at this point that things started getting messy. Sonnenberg hadn't loved touring the way Rosas and Reeder did. It was clear he was going to quit. The band found an easy replacement in John Doe Thing bassist Bob Thompson. Meanwhile, recording in San Diego with Mark Trombino, the band began to feel what Rosas describes as "resistance" from Atlantic. To make a very long story short, Smile ultimately asked to leave the label; Atlantic obliged and even let them take their unfinished album with them. Eventually Girl Crushes Boy came out on Headhunter, to whom Smile were still contractually bound. Though Rosas was never entirely happy with Girl Crushes Boy, most listeners regard it as a masterpiece, and much more in keeping with the sound that Smile grew into—jangly, layered, Beatles-influenced '60s pop—than Maquee.
Interestingly enough, like a train passing itself in the night, the damn album took so long to come out that it had the opportunity to be about itself; the disputes with the label about the recording of the album served as inspiration for many of the lyrics on the album. To further add to the house-of-mirrors effect, Rosas imbued the album once more with a crippling self-awareness. Unlike on Maquee though, where Rosas basically jumped out and said, "Hey, I suck, and I know I suck," by the time Girl Crushes Boy was released, Rosas had learned to how to subtly thread the self-awareness into the narrative so it didn't override the songs. On "The Best Years," Rosas sings, "I spent the best years of my life/Trying to wiggle out of sight."
"It's about the idea of not being a part of life because you're afraid of being lame or getting caught up in something that's fake or swallowing bullshit," he told me at the time the album came out. "It's about having a complex, because not only are you fed tons of bullshit, but you're also fed tons of bullshit by people who believe they know what the bullshit is and they don't believe it, and so you're also weary of them and just weary of yourself and afraid that you might actually swallow some bullshit at one point and then you'll be bullshit so instead you just don't partake in anything and just observe and criticize because you're afraid of making a mistake or doing the wrong thing or doing something that's not cool or doing something that is cool because doing something that's cool might not be cool."
Rosas lightened the gravitas a bit on tracks like "Instant Brain Damage" ("We saw good movies, drank so much coffee, I swear I think my face is turning blue"), in which he detailed the banality of dating in such a clever way you hardly noticed how bleak the song really was.
At this point, about 1999, Smile, with the addition of Matt Fletcher on keyboards, began playing around again in OC and Los Angeles. They were rebuilding their fan base. Things seemed to be on an upswing when Reeder told Rosas he was quitting to join San Clemente hard rockers Fu Manchu. "I think he left because he wanted to be in a situation where he felt inspired again," Rosas recalls. "He knew I would understand and I totally did even though it was still sad."
Sad? Rosas was fairly devastated by the loss. Matt Fletcher brought up the idea of his brother James, who'd played in a number of Costa Mesa bands like Film Star and the Women. Smile tried him out. It worked. Once more, the machine swung into gear. A five-song demo was recorded and sold at shows; Smile was selling out Chain Reaction and doing well in LA. Which, oddly, brings us to the present.
If you feel there's something missing from the story, I feel the same way—the only real things we have to go on are Rosas' assertions that (1) someone was bound to leave the band soon; (2) if he didn't, someone else would have; and (3) it wasn't really about that anyway.
"I can't say I'm 100 percent confident in the decision to break up," Rosas admits. "But I have to stick with it now."
Smile perform with the Pharmacist's Son at the Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600. Sat., 9 p.m. $6. 21+.
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