Viola is now a ripe old 29by Brett Milano
Someone in Boston must have vivid memories of Mike Viola & Snap, but I sure don't. I remember that the band existed, that they played a bunch of mainstream bills at the Channel during the '80s, and that Viola formed the band at some absurdly young (mid-teenage) age. And I must have heard them play at some point, because I had them mentally filed away in the category reserved for bands from that era who had commercial aspirations and never made an impression -- a category I like to call "bands who opened for the Stompers."
So along comes the new EP by the Candy Butchers, a buzzed-about, major-label (Blue Thumb/MCA) New York outfit. They're a two-man band (one on drums, the other on everything else) whose singer/guitarist/writer/keyboardist is the very same Mike Viola, now a ripe old 29 after a decade and a half in rock. On their EP Live at La Bonbonnaire -- named after a favorite nonmusical hangout in the West Village -- Viola and longtime sidekick Todd Foulsham don't sound like guys who used to open for the Stompers. In fact they sound as if they'd be more comfortable opening for Squeeze, Crowded House, or Jules Shear, to name the most obvious influences. (The opening "Bells on a Leper" pulls the trick of setting a beaty, '60s-ish chorus to a deep-thinking, non-'60s lyric -- "I wear my heart like bells on a leper" -- a favorite trick of Shear's.) Like many acoustic pop outfits (stand up, Guster), they occasionally sound precious, but Viola's songwriting craftsmanship saves the day. He hasn't spent 15 years making home demos for nothing.
Reached by phone last week, Viola confirmed my suspicions about his old band. "We had about three fans," he admits (though it likely wasn't that grim: they did get WBCN airplay with a mid-'80s radio tape, "Bang-a-Lang"). And he recalled being interviewed for this very column back in 1982, when it was written by Joyce Millman. At the time he was a 14-year-old performer who'd just gone to Los Angeles to make an album with the legendary eccentric Kim Fowley. "I remember her interviewing me; she was trying to make me look like this cool, introspective, Elvis Costello child prodigy. And I'm going on about how Ozzy's the best. I saw myself as a pioneer blending the pop and the rock together; this was even before Bon Jovi."
While in LA, Viola briefly joined a glitter-pop band called Candy. His replacement, Gilby Clarke, now plays in Guns N' Roses. As for the album with Fowley, it was abandoned after Fowley's girlfriend ("Her name was Bambi, I shit you not") started making passes at Viola. He returned to Boston and got an abrupt return to the real world. "I went back to high school in Stoughton, and I always hung out with the rock-and-roll kids out there. But I come back from LA looking totally androgynous, with my spiky hair and my corduroys. My first day back, this kid Ricky sees me like that, turns around, and hits me in the face."
Viola's memories of his Boston club days -- during which he opened for everybody, including Roy Orbison in his last-ever show at the Channel -- don't seem especially rosy. "Honestly, I never left my room. I was just some guy who stayed at home honing his craft, with a very patient girlfriend." In the last couple of years before moving to New York in 1990, he played the subways instead of hitting the clubs with a band. "In the subways you're faced with all kinds of music at once, and I liked that. I'd play `The Spirit of Radio' [by Rush] for a friend who had dreadlocks down to her butt and she'd flip out. Then she'd play me some Bob Marley." The arena-rock leanings were pretty much gone by the time Viola got to New York, where he built the kind of following he hadn't had here. "People would come up to us and say, `Hey, I love that pop-revisionist thing,' and I'd say, `No, we're just doing this because we can't find a bass player.' It's easier to find your audience there than it is in Boston, though I'll grant that we're much better now."
The EP is a teaser for a full-length disc, produced by David Kahne of Bangles/Fishbone fame, that's coming out in January. Meanwhile, Viola already has a big hit -- a song he mentions only in passing, but something that's likely to make him famous and overshadow the rest of his career. Next week sees the release of a new Tom Hanks movie, The Thing You Do, about a one-hit wonder rock band. And it's Viola who sings the title song, which Hanks mimes to in the film (the single, now getting substantial airplay, is credited to the film's fictional band, with Viola listed only for "additional vocals"). Which means there may be a possibility of hitching his career to the film, as John Cafferty did with Eddie & the Cruisers. "Not really, because it's not my sound," he says. "I played guitar and I co-wrote the song, but it was written to order. On the other hand, I don't want to shy away from it, because any exposure is good exposure -- yes, I've become a careerist now. I don't think I'll have a fan base of people who want to hear the song. If I do, I'll play it, maybe to my chagrin."
INCINERATOR EPIncinerator singer/guitarist Lillia Halpern was responsible for the best Neil Young cover I've heard from any local band in the past year -- a lovely, understated version of "I Believe in You" that she played in a solo set at Charlie's Tap last spring. The song has an open-hearted, melancholy quality that perfectly fits Halpern's voice, and you'll hear something similar in the songs she wrote for her band's new Incinerator CD EP (on their own Breather label). The six songs offer a moody take on pop, benefitting as much from Halpern's understated vocals as from Skeggie Kendall's production. Instead of keeping things soft and pretty, Kendall maintains a contrast between the airy vocals -- which are often layered and echoed in Cocteau Twins style -- and a raunchier guitar sound. The rhythm section's flexibility helps too. On "Spin U Round," Owen Burkett plays a loopy bass line that does just that.
The disc's emotional tone can be summed up by its opening and closing numbers. The first song ("Please Don't Get Me") is about waiting for a phone call that never comes; the last one ("Phone Call") is about giving in and dialing an ex-lover who doesn't remember. An attraction to sad romantic themes perhaps? "Yeah, but sometimes you've got to get it out," Halpern says. "I worry sometimes that the sadness might turn people off, but it might spark something good. I think my honesty has always been a bit intense for some people, and I've felt that even in the music scene at times."
In fact the songs on Incinerator are fairly nonspecific with the personal details, but they do show an increased confidence on Halpern's part. It wasn't long ago that she was visibly shy on stage. She admits that's still the case sometimes, but it's getting better. "I want to tell people something about who I am as a person -- trying to be upfront, but not in a pathetic way."
COMING UPBig night at the Middle East tonight (Thursday) with the Ass Ponys playing upstairs and Lydia Lunch (reading) and Blonde Redhead (playing) downstairs. Meanwhile Rattle Heater and Tex Arkane are at Bill's Bar and Bone Dry System are at T.T. the Bear's Place . . . Tomorrow (Friday) finds James Montgomery returning to the House of Blues, Groovasaurus beginning two nights at Harpers Ferry, Arcwelder hitting T.T.'s, and the Outlets headlining a punk extravaganza at the Rat.
Scrawl play the Middle East Saturday with the new Quivvver opening; and it should be worth a trip upstairs to catch Velvet Crush. The same night Redwood play the Phoenix Landing, Marshall Crenshaw pops up at Mama Kin, and Tree tear up Axis . . . El Vez hits Johnny D's on Sunday, Jonatha Brooke tells her Story at the Paradise, and Sun Ra alumnus Michael Ray (whose "surprise guests" probably means a Phish connection) begins three nights at the House of Blues . . . Acoustic semi-legend Rosalie Sorrels hits Johnny D's on Tuesday . . . And for those of you who were waiting for it, the original line-up of (gasp) Foghat reunites at Mama Kin Wednesday.