The Boston Phoenix
June 1 - 8, 2000

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Familiar names and faces

Clayton Scoble's Francine and a third Janovitz brother

Cellars by Starlight by Jonathan Perry

In his dream, Clayton Scoble is getting drunk with Kim Deal. "We're sitting up in these bleachers watching a Pop Warner football game and we're drinking beer," Scoble reveals over a glass of wine at the Green Street Grill. "And at some point she looks at her watch and says it's almost 11 p.m. and the liquor stores are going to close and we better go and get more beer."

We're talking about the origin of "Pop Warner," the title and leadoff track on the new five-song EP by Francine, Scoble's new post-Poundcake project. The Pop Warner EP (Q Division) is a teaser for a forthcoming full-length debut, 40 on a Fall Day, which is due out this autumn, and I've asked Scoble -- who's seated at a table with the rest of the band -- whether the tune's ache of nostalgia was drawn from a particular adolescent experience.

"Some songs do pull from provincial memories," he allows. "But no, it was pretty much just dream recall -- and a little Kim Deal obsession."

Pixies-era Kim Deal or the Breeders Kim Deal?

"Oh, the Amps Kim Deal, because I was telling her which songs I liked on the album."

A particular dream indeed -- and if you're familiar with Scoble's detailed work in Poundcake, that shouldn't come as much of a surprise (sample lyric from "Pop Warner": "On the way over, something she said just won me over/She likes Joan Jett's '82 version of `Crimson and Clover' ").

Recreational sports also played a role in the formation of Francine. It was shortly after Poundcake had broken up, and Scoble was passing around a bunch of new demos (two of those songs, "Staged" and "Overthrown," are on the EP in more or less their demo form) in an attempt to recruit members for a new project. Drummer Steve Scully, who'd been playing in singer/songwriter Jen Trynin's band, got one of those demos. "The first time I saw Steve after I had given him a tape was at a softball game," Scoble recalls. "And he's in the outfield and we're just standing around and he sort of breaks the silence and says, `So, uh, I listened to your tape, man.' Long pause. `It was freaky.' "

Scoble had known bassist Sean Connelly (who also plays in the sci-fi lounge band Astroslut) from when Connelly had tried out as a replacement bassist for Poundcake. And guitarist Albert Gualtieri was touring as a guitar tech with Tracy Bonham. "I came home one time," says Gualtieri, "and there was a phone-call barrage from Clayton on my machine."

Scoble continued to pester prospective members, and toward the end of 1997 Francine came into being. "I felt an -- I don't know if I'd say urgency -- but I didn't want to lay fallow for too long," he explains. "I felt it was important to just get out a bunch of ideas, not edit them too much, and get it into the hands of the people at Q Division because that was the relationship I had established. And much good that did, because the first tape I gave them, they were like, `That's great, call us later.'"

Q Division co-owner Jon Lupfer, who produced Poundcake's 1996 CD, Aloha Via Satellite, and likewise handled production on the new Francine album, recalls being taken aback by Scoble's initial demos: "He had sent me a few things and I didn't quite get it. Clayton has a pretty voice and I think he was trying to screw with the way he was singing in order to make it less pretty. But he was trying too hard. He almost had a Lou Reedy, Pavement quality, like he was speaking his way through the songs, and I thought it was kind of affected." Scoble admits as much. "I was in the middle of a major Pavement bender. I just immersed myself in them and absolutely loved them. And when I started working up a batch of songs, there was a very conscious awareness of allowing myself to borrow any sound or vibe I wanted and not worry about it. And if it turned out to be a Steve Malkmus tribute, fine."

Dogged by the comparison ("We got the Pavement thing slapped on us one too many times," says Connelly), Francine eventually carved out their own identity, and a reworked batch of demos got Q Division's attention -- even if a few of the songs slated for 40 on a Fall Day ("I Do Too," with its laconic, pedal-steel lope; "Aw Shucks" and "Mean As Hell," with their ramshackle wordplay) still betray a Pavement-esque flavor. Says Lupfer: "Clayton did a great job on those home demos where he played everything. And even if the sound quality wasn't there, the vibe really was. There was a certain spirit to it. What we wanted to do was not lose the feel of those demos. And I think we got most of it pretty well."

Whatever comes next, Scoble says, is a bonus: "I'm having more fun playing music now than I have ever before, maybe because I've lowered the stakes a little bit. Look at the charts. Need I say more? I'm not a 23-year-old hunk who goes to the gym a lot. I'm not going to win that battle, so I may as well just have fun, play with guys I really like who are great players, and if anybody likes any of the songs, that's a gift."

Dragstrip Courage When Scott Janovitz first heard his older brother Bill's band, the then-teenage Beatles devotee wasn't so sure he liked it. "I heard the demos Buffalo Tom did at Fort Apache, pre-first album," Janovitz, now 25, remembers. "It was like, `This is really raw.' It wasn't my kind of thing at all. Around the time Birdbrain came out, I started appreciating that stuff." Later, when Scott and friend Mike Quinn started a band called Rhino at Providence College, things had come full circle. "I was probably trying to sound like those guys [Buffalo Tom]," he admits.

When guitarist Janovitz and bassist Quinn moved to Boston after graduation, Rhino morphed into a new outfit called Dragstrip Courage that now includes former Calendar Girl drummer Dave Foy plus keyboardist Liz Debiase and lead-guitarist Jesper Urban. For Janovitz, whose musical pedigree carries with it certain expectations, forging an identity separate from his brothers' was key -- middle brother Paul Janovitz, who produced an earlier Dragstrip Courage EP, plays with Cold Water Flat. "The idea is important," says Scott, whose band plays O'Brien's in Allston this Friday (June 2), "but it was never an important issue for us because I really don't think we sound like either of my brothers' bands."

The group's self-released debut, Echo Rock (Vinyl Ritchie), does bear the stamp of a band who know how to craft classically structured guitar pop -- which is something all three Janovitz brothers could be accused of. But the glistening, gilded textures of "Don't" (a slow stunner that opens the album) and the spangled charm of "Say Something Cruel" -- delayed bells, organ, lots of blissfully Byrdsian folk-rock harmonies -- owe more to earlier Dragstrip influences like Teenage Fanclub and, yes, even the Beatles than to Buffalo Tom. The disc's title comes from a '60s-era how-to-play-guitar instruction book Janovitz had lying around the house.

"The last thing I wanted this to sound like is an indie-rock record, because it's totally not," he says, recalling the band's 24-track recording sessions at New Alliance studios this past December and January. "It's a vocal record, and everything is recorded really well. We wanted to use the studio as a tool, and we were producing ourselves, so literally it was just Quinn and myself in the studio." (After laying down his drum tracks, Foy went surfing in Costa Rica; Debiase and Urban hadn't yet joined the band.)

For the fledgling outfit, recording was a daunting experience. "At first, every time we went in, it was just lacking in direction," Janovitz continues. "But ultimately, we got rid of all the blatantly big guitars and stuff that was just so easy to throw in there that might have sounded good to people but for us was just the same old crap. It sounded like every other band. So we got rid of all that stuff and started layering different pieces, experimenting with different sounds and keyboards and percussion."

Quinn, who writes the material with Janovitz, says that "Radiate" -- a dramatic number the band had always treated as a noisy rocker live -- represented a turning point in their studio approach. Underneath all the volume, Quinn and Janovitz discovered, was a remarkably pretty song. "We'd always played it with big, blasting distortions on the chorus -- and I even played a distorted bass -- and that was the first one where the guitars disappeared," Quinn says. Although it would be an overstatement to say the guitars have disappeared, they do glow rather than blaze, and the tune's been transformed into a softer, more melodic showpiece.

Because Quinn works at New Alliance (he engineered the album with Marc Schleicher), the band were able to use the recording studio after-hours -- or before hours, as the case might be. "We might be one of the only local rock bands who started a mixing session at 7 a.m.," he says with a laugh. "The challenge was just the mental perseverance, because we'd be putting things in and throwing things out, and it could get pretty weird -- there were some 15-hour days. It's a good thing we didn't have 36 tracks. We'd still be in there."

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