|Boston Phoenix | 03.20.2000|
To paraphrase the band's song-publishing slogan, pop may have indeed freed Papas Fritas, but it's also what binds them together -- and it's almost what broke them on the way to making their long-awaited third album, Buildings and Grounds (released last week on Minty Fresh). This is easily their most polished, cohesive effort to date and it just might be the best record of their seven-year career. But according to singer/guitarist Tony Goddess, who writes the bulk of the band's material, the belated follow-up to 1997's merrily schizoid Helioself (also on Minty Fresh) almost didn't get made. He talks about the album in the same way people talk about wholly unexpected surprises.
"I kind of feel that there was less pressure [recording Buildings and Grounds] because we almost didn't make it to this point," Goddess explains while reclining on a couch inside the Milky Way Lounge and Lanes in Jamaica Plain, where in a few hours he and bandmates Keith Gendel (bass, vocals) and Shivika Asthana (drums, vocals) will kick off the opening night of a five-week, 35-city US tour before heading out to Europe for an additional five weeks of shows. "Our first album came out right when we finished college, and we never had to go through that postcollegiate 'What am I going to do with my life?' kind of thing. It was already decided that we were going to tour. And we went on tour for a really long time." Barely two months after returning from the road, the band began recording Helioself, then hit the road in support of that disc's release. Papas Fritas were on tour for the better part of a year. They came home exhausted, and unsure of their next move.
"After touring on Helioself, that's when we all went through that that postcollegiate 'What am I going to do with my life?' thing," says Goddess. "We had a manager at the time who didn't think that anything could be accomplished on an indie label, and he messed with our thinking a little bit. So it took a long time for this one. I've just got to figure out how to make a living doing this. But the world of success in the music industry seems so far away at this point that all you can do is just try to make your best record."
Gendel and Asthana say the band's self-imposed sabbatical was crucial in helping Papas Fritas assess their future. And it enabled them to come up with what all three members think is the best album of their career. "With Helioself, we were all kind of going for it," says Gendel. "We tried to get signed to a major label [Goddess claims the band came close to negotiating a deal with either DreamWorks or Geffen before the latter got swallowed up in the first wave of mega-mergers that hit the music industry a couple years ago], we had a manager, we had a booking agent for a month, we made a video. We were naive enough to think that we could actually have a successful pop career. Eventually we gave up on that. This record's about just making music." Asthana agrees: "I think it [the break] gave all of us a sense of 'Okay, we're doing this because we want to do it, we're doing it on our own terms.' That's how we came into the process."
Papas Fritas' reappraisal of their identity has led to few striking new developments, the most obvious being the music itself. Buildings marks the band's decisive move away from their endearingly scattershot indie-pop clatter. The group's geeky charm is still intact, but from a production standpoint the new disc is a plush, streamlined affair that, with few exceptions, is more cream than fizz. And whereas Helioself songs like "Rolling in the Sand" and "Captain of the City" paid quirky homage to '70s glam-rock icons like Mott the Hoople, the lion's share of tracks on Buildings bow with sincere reverence to '70s icons of a different sort -- namely, Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac. "On the first record, I didn't know what I was doing with the technology, and it was an eight-track recording done in a room the size of that pool table," Goddess says, pointing to the table a few feet away. "With this record, I wanted to make it original-sounding. Hopefully, in the way we recorded the drums and the way it comes out of the speakers, people will hear it and know it's us."
Despite a move toward primarily digital recording technology, and songs that are built on 32-track rather than eight-track foundations, Buildings still sounds like Papas Fritas -- top-of-the-line Papas Fritas perhaps, but Papas Fritas nonetheless. The harmonic interplay of the three members' voices and the tightly woven melodies make for a batch of succinct songs that gleam like iridescent jewels. "We wanted to make a more mellow-sounding record, more like the first one," Goddess says. "I tried to simplify things a little bit on the second record and make the songs more basic and sing-alongy, and I wanted this one to be more jazzy. And it's been three years, so hopefully my musicality has grown, and I wanted to show that."
Goddess says his musical ideal for Papas Fritas would be "Fleetwood Mac in the studio and the Replacements live." On Buildings, he's very nearly attained his goal for the former. With its supple groove and a cushion of multi-tracked "aaahs" framing Goddess's oblique lyrics about a mysterious woman, "People Say" sounds like one of the few songs about a mysterious woman Stevie Nicks never wrote. "I Believe in Fate" may trigger an even greater sense of dŽjˆ vu, as a double-tracked Tony trades verses about infidelity and misunderstanding with Shivika like an indie-pop Lindsey and Stevie amid a soft-focus glow of keyboards. Elsewhere, "Far from an Answer" sounds a little like the Cardigans -- or it Ambrosia? -- on a really good day. But as with the Mac, no amount of sugar can sweeten the bittersweet undercurrent. Given the band's disillusionment with the music industry, it's hard not to read something into couplets like "What can you do when it feels like no one listens?/Where can you turn when you're turning on yourself?"
There are flashes of the old Fritas here and there, like the snappy new-wave noir of "Way You Walk" and the whimsical "Vertical Lives," a Gendel contribution that borrows a bit of Gary Glitter's stadium monstrosity "Rock and Roll Part 2" for the clap-along bridge. The straight-ahead, fast-break rocker "What Am I Supposed To Do?" even features a splendidly knotty guitar solo by Goddess. "We got all this flak about being too kiddie or Sesame Street or something," Goddess explains with a grin, "so we wanted to steer away from that a little bit, and then it was like, 'Are we really going to want to play all those songs live? They're so mellow. So I came up with a couple of more rock-and-roller ones and threw them on there."
The new songs should benefit from the addition of two touring members: guitarist Chris Colthart and keyboardist Donna Coppola, whom the band are taking on the road to flesh out their sound. Colthart is Gendel's housemate, and his own band, Solar Saturday, have toured with Papas Fritas before. "We have a particular dynamic," says Asthana, "so adding someone you don't know on another instrument can be a little tricky. It's much easier when you're friends." Gendel says that after seven years, it was time for a change: "It's fun to have more people on stage, it's a bigger sound, and there are more layers. The new record has a lot more space, and it's a groovier record. And one of the concepts was to be able to jam out on songs more and free up the roles, so that, for example, one of us can stop playing and the music doesn't stop."
In some ways, the new approach reflects what Gendel claims has always been the band's desire to avoid being lumped into the indie-rock pack. "I felt that a lot of the time we were trying to distance ourselves from that whole scene and reject it in a way. We are indie-rock if you're thinking about rock that's independently manufactured and distributed. But we've always been really anti-lo-fi. We think you should try to sound as good as you possibly can. There's no point in trying to be lo-fi on purpose." For a band who formed in college during the early '90s, weathering stylistic shifts on the pop-music landscape and building individual post-grad lives around a pop group can be a tricky proposition. "Now we all have separate lives," says Asthana. "Tony lives in Gloucester with his girlfriend, Keith's in Somerville, and I live in Cambridge. We all hang out, but it's much less of a bubble we're living in now, it's much less three against the world. We've established lives outside the band, whereas before the band was our lives."
Goddess likes to think of the band as a new, improved Papas Fritas. "I think we've made our best record yet, but you can't satisfy everyone. When you go to different places, you find different people who like different things about you. But nothing's really changed for the group. I think we understand ourselves better."