“A year from now,” says Aaron Perrino, indulging in a bit of healthy rock-and-roll fantasy, “I want to see a half-million-dollar deal from DreamWorks . . . ”
“A half-million? Why not more?” his bandmate Colin Decker shoots as he tucks into his beer.
“ . . . with three records firm, and creative control,” Perrino concludes, just as reality grabs bassist Jim Gilbert in its ugly claws.
“I’d be happy to sell 10 more records than last time,” Gilbert offers. Drummer Shawn Sears nods and shrugs a bit.
“If we can sell as many records as last time,” Perrino adds.
There’s a moment of silence around the table at the Thirsty Scholar, a pub in Somerville where the Sheila Divine have convened over beer and catcher’s-mitt-sized burgers to discuss their just-released second album, Where Have My Countrymen Gone (Co-Op Pop), as well as the past, the future, and their art. But only a moment, because the Sheila Divine seem to be happy, down-to-earth guys who are very good at what they do. Which has made them one of the most popular bands in Boston’s indie-rock world.
Their 1999 debut, New Parade sold a respectable 25,000 copies, and when they’re at home, they can fill the Paradise — where they’ll play a pair of CD-release concerts next weekend. Last summer they appeared on the Hatch Shell in a massive WFNX-sponsored show with Catherine Wheel, one of the British bands they are so often said to sound like. And though the Roadrunner label dropped them last year, they remain unbowed on every level.
In fact, they are about to embark on a noble experiment. Along with fellow Boston-based artists the Push Stars, Orbit, and Todd Thibaud, managers Michael Creamer and Ralph Jaccodine, and Newbury Comics, they are launching a coalition called Co-Op Pop that will serve as a label, a means whereby everyone can share information, and a distribution network (through Newbury’s Wicked Distribution arm) that will get the bands’ CDs into stores nationwide. Each outfit must pick up the tab for its own releases — production, manufacturing, marketing, print and radio promotion. So the challenge, given the intense competition for music buyers’ dollars and radio exposure, is still considerable. Especially since, as Perrino points out, “I never saw a dime from our deal with Roadrunner, and we all have day jobs.” Sears adds, “The only time we make money from the band is when we’re out on tour, and then it’s maybe $400 a month to make our rent — sometimes just barely. Out of town we’re still splitting $100 a gig some nights, and that’s among four guys.”
“Then there’s food, hotels,” Perrino chimes in, rolling his eyes and smiling.
Nonetheless, if any outfit has reason for faith, it’s the Sheila Divine. For one thing, Where Have My Countrymen Gone is exceptional. It expands the palette of their cinemascopic guitar-driven sound with stronger arrangements that ring from anthemic to dirty to experimental to boldly pretentious. Part of their sonic evolution is the addition of second-guitarist Decker, who joined just before the band recorded the album in August, with producer Brian Charles, at Brookline’s Zippah studios. Another reason is the growth in musicianship they’ve experienced during the past two years of touring and writing and jamming out new material in their rehearsal space. That especially applies to Perrino, whose unflagging sense of melody and soaring vocal command has matured to that of a pop star.
Then there’s luck. It’s followed them as closely as bodyguards follow Madonna. The Sheila Divine are the first serious band the original trio of Perrino, Sears, and Gilbert have played in. They booked their first gig before their first rehearsal. They were signed after just a few months, on the basis of a tape they slipped to the now-shuttered CherryDisc label, whose president John Horton was ready to ink them before he saw them live.
“We only had seven songs at that point,” Perrino recounts. They needed to write more — and good ones, too, because as their relationship with the Chinatown-based CherryDisc began the label was absorbed into Roadrunner, which meant the Sheila Divine were suddenly on an international independent label with marketing muscle. Perrino continues, “As all this happened, we were pretty much taking things in stride until we went on our first tour, with Manic Street Preachers. We ended up driving to Vancouver for the first date, and when we found out it was a 3000-seat club, we were like, ‘What the hell?’ ”
Nonetheless, New Parade rose to the challenge, using a sweeping expanse of layered sound and oblique but allusive lyrics to kick open radio’s doors for songs like the provocative “Like a Criminal” and “Opportune Moment.” Well, doors were kicked open in Boston, where the band swept the local-rock categories of the Boston Music Awards and the Boston Phoenix/WFNX Best Music Poll and rose to headliner status. Elsewhere, radio creaked open a bit. But that’s more exposure than is enjoyed by the vast majority of the hundreds of CDs that come out weekly in America.
And being dropped by Roadrunner may indeed prove to be the best thing yet for the band, at least to judge by the camaraderie they exude at the Thirsty Scholar — and the quality of Where Have My Countrymen Gone. The disc, made in 13 days, opens with the knockout combination of “Countrymen” and “Ostrich,” a neat summation of the Sheila Divine’s current virtues. First, there’s Perrino’s near-tenor voice dancing along the melody of “Countrymen” with the grace of a feather borne on a lifting breeze as a tide of reverb- and delay-soaked guitar shifts beneath. It’s damn pretty — and it just gets prettier and more powerful when the chorus erupts in a choir of six-strings and slamming drums. Then “Ostrich” comes on like a sharper holdover from their debut, Perrino and the band in heads-down attack, boiling about lost innocence as guitars bray and spit out the high one-string melodies that were the signatures of British outfits like the Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, and Catherine Wheel. Perrino gleefully cops to those influences, along with the Psychedelic Furs, U2, the Smiths, and “anything that was on 120 Minutes from 1989 through 1994.”
There’s also the lyrics. For the Sheila Divine, the sound is the thing. But after Perrino develops one of his crafty vocal melodies, he does try to replace the nonsense syllables that come first with something meaningful. So his lyrics are higher in the mix this time, and that allows his new vocal exuberance to shimmer through and makes his flashcard imagery more visible. Although there’s as much buoyance as anger in Perrino’s voice, his words provoke — he compares women to dictators in “Antidote” (which sports an unintentionally hilarious over-the-top piano-ballad arrangement) — and are defiant in underscoring the sense of dissociation that’s a symptom of our culture. It’s worth a trip to the band’s Web site (www.thesheiladivine.com), where the lyrics are posted, to get a bead on what the hell he’s singing about. For example, our discussion about “Countrymen” — which takes a European’s perspective on the second coming of the Bush dynasty — culminates thus:
“I don’t understand the line about ‘Will my woman ever fail.’ ”
“That’s ‘Will my warm heart ever fail,’ ” Perrino corrects.
“Oh, that makes sense.”
“I will say,” he adds, “you are about the ninth person who’s said, ‘What’s the deal with the woman?’ ”
“Even I thought that,” adds Sears.
Something that’s apparent at the Thirsty Scholar is that the Sheila Divine look like a band. They all have the same sense of casual style, and all four have the same kind of glasses: black half-frames flat on top, gently oval on the bottom.
“Do you guys get a deal buying glasses in bulk?”
“We have an endorsement,” Gilbert replies.
“Yeah, we can’t get a string endorsement,” Decker says, “but . . . ”
“ . . . the guy from I.Q. Optical in Harvard Square e-mailed us: ‘You have bad glasses. You need an updated look. Come see us; we’ll hook you up,’ ” Gilbert explains. “So Shawn went in and they gave him three pairs and said, ‘Send in the rest of the boys.’ ”
MORE ON CO-OP POP. Speaking of vision: Sheila Divine manager Michael Creamer’s has always been focused. “Do you have to write about Co-Op Pop?” he asks. “Everybody’s gonna think it’s a record label and start sending us demos, and that’s the last thing I want — a bunch of crummy demos. We’re not looking to put out anybody else’s records.”
Got that? At least for the present, Co-Op Pop is a club that does not want you as a member. But it is just in its infancy. The first release was the Push Stars’ Opening Time, on February 6; that was followed by Orbit’s XLR8R and now the Sheila Divine. A B-sides-and-leftovers disc from Letters to Cleo, whom Creamer also managed, is in the pipeline and may be followed by reissues of folkie Ellis Paul’s first discs and a solo album from Letters’ Kay Hanley.
The Co-Op Pop concept began gestating two years ago at a series of monthly meetings that Tim Collins (ex-Aerosmith), Creamer, Deb Klein (Morphine), Ralph Jaccodine, and other Boston-based managers of major-label bands held. “A frequent topic was how the major labels weren’t giving the bands the kind of support and attention they deserved,” Creamer says.
“When I saw Capitol Records kind of implode around the Push Stars, I began looking for other options — to do something on our own,” says Jaccodine. Creamer found himself in a similar position with the Sheila Divine, as did Paul Buckley, who drums in ex-A&M-label band Orbit and doubles as their manager. The three men approached Newbury Comics, with Jaccodine as the glue: in 1992 he had started the Black Wolf label with the chain’s CEO, Mike Dreese, issuing albums by Ellis Paul and the This Is Boston, Not Austin songwriters compilation. The label was short-lived, but its track record was good. The Paul albums sold more than 50,000 copies.
So Newbury comics agreed to lend its Wicked Distribution to the Co-Op Pop venture. According to Newbury Comics senior vice-president of logistics and administration Duncan Brown, Wicked works as a middleman with independent distributors Surefire in Somerville, Midwest Artists in Chicago, and Burnside in Portland, Oregon. Those companies, in turn, will sell Co-Op Pop releases to retailers and wholesalers throughout the US. “As far as where the venture is going, that really depends on what Co-Op Pop releases over the next 12 months,” Brown says.
But don’t send any demos to Creamer, okay?
The Sheila Divine will appear at the Paradise next Thursday and Friday, March 29 and 30. Call 423-NEXT.