In 1994, an East Coast act called Combustible Edison got caught up in a wave of hype that was either enviable in the extreme or a terminal drag, depending on your level of tolerance for shoveling quip quotes to the trend-wary heavyweights at Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek and the New Yorker, along with the entire creaky flotilla of music-oriented publications.
The five-piece band had released a debut CD called I, Swinger that hearkened sonically (vibraphones, Farfisa organ) and stylistically (cigarette holders, band uniforms) back to ill-remembered days when all those Martin Denny LPs littering the world's garage sales were actually purchased with paper money, by people, in stores. More or less concurrently, wacko Mexican composer and hi-fi easy-listening pioneer Esquivel was seeing his long-waning fortunes revived through his inclusion in the Re/Search publication of Incredibly Strange Music, Volume I and the Bar/None re-issue sampler of his Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music.
Also concurrently, the American press was itchy for a new angle, having run its own grunge fixation so far into the ground there was no daylight left to type by. I, Swinger was a product of the Sub Pop label, still familiar to trend-spotters as spawner of Nirvana. Thus, the members of Combustible Edison suffered no shortage of pithy quotes about their individual defections from the faux-lumberjack cloddishness of the new heavy metal; endured no lack of sartorial "fabulousness" to counter the by-then official SlackerWear fashion sense; showed no hesitance to draft cheeky manifestoes for the New Lounge Lifestyle, umbrella drinks and all.
For its efforts, Edison had the honor of serving as centerpiece to a rash of glossy lifestyle articles in publications few of their friends likely read.
Add that hoopla to the effects of whatever fan base the band had already developed, and the result is a mere 40,000 copies of I, Swinger sold. The new Schizophonic, out since April, has moved about 20,000, which, says Edison guitarist Michael Cudahy (a.k.a. the Millionaire), is "very respectable in an indie label way, but considering that we were in Newsweek, my friends think I'm rich. You'd think from seeing it all that we'd be on top of the charts. We're a successful club act; often our shows sell out. But they're clubs; they're not theaters. We're playing in front of 200 to 1,000 people. We're not doing like Tori Amos."
It's not as if Cudahy ever believed the hype in the first place. "We've all been doing music stuff for years and years, and we don't really care, you know," he says. "It was gratifying to see some attention, but I've been a working musician since 1980, banging my head against the wall. I kinda learned to disregard that kind of thing. For one thing, demonstrably it does not sell records. And [as for the] press, if you believe the nice things they say, you'll have to believe the bad things, too. So you can't take any of it very seriously. It was nice, it was interesting, but it doesn't have anything to do with what we do. It's another industry entirely."
Combustible Edison -- the Millionaire, lead vocalist Miss Lily Banquette, bassist Nicholas Cudahy, keyboardist Peter Dixon and drummer/vibraphonist Aaron Oppenheimer -- are in the music-making industry, and no matter how many times some reporter has attached an editorial "with a wink" disclaimer to spokesman Millionaire's protestations of love and devotion to the inherently camp lounge aesthetic, he insists that neither the band, its music nor the highball-style attitude driving it are anything but completely sincere.
Schizophonic backs him up. It's mostly instrumental mood music, with zero angst and abstract content identifiably inspired by Esquivel and his easy listening compatriots of midcentury America. There's no evidence, however, that the band has tried to overload its output with novelty, no irreverent remakes of kitsch classics, none of the tongue-in-cheekisms that often identify joke outfits and bandwagoneers. In fact, Cudahy is so earnest (an approach rarely undertaken in conjunction with wit) as to see distinct musical motion in the progression between releases.
"For Schizophonic, the songs were all written once we had existed as a band for a while, whereas on the first record, a bunch of the songs were written even before we were a band -- before we had any intention of playing together," says Cudahy. "[Schizophonic] was more personal, had more to do with our experience and our sounds, aesthetic and taste than the first one, which, to my mind, was us still learning our craft."
Cudahy is talking about Schizophonic in the past tense because its tunes were ready to go well more than a year ago, but both the CD's recording and its release were delayed when the band got the call to open two weeks of theater dates for Bryan Ferry, then yet another call to score Four Rooms, the 1995 omnibus film featuring segments from directors Quentin Tarantino, Richard Rodriguez, Alison Anders and Alex Rockwell. Two Esquivel tunes were licensed for the soundtrack, and Combustible Edison did the rest.
"The experience of doing the soundtrack gave us a lot of ideas as far as recording," Cudahy says. "It also gave us a lot of ideas about composing -- about a whole bunch of things which we haven't really had a chance to put into effect."
Any future progress will surely fall under the rubric of the newly preferred "easy listening" genre tag, rather than the "lounge" definitions already well on their way to passe, shoved there by trend-happy day-trippers and gag bands trying to cash in on the fun. "Some people don't think Schizophonic is loungy enough, which is not a big concern for me," says Cudahy. "In fact, I take that as an encouraging sign. That implies to me that it has more to do with us than with our record collection."
"I refer to it as 'easy listening' because that's the vaguest term I can think of to use," he adds. "It's not a kind of music at all; it's just an attitude toward playing music. I think it's virtually limitless. The strength of it not really being a kind of music is that anything can go in one end and get ground up like sausage. Sausage isn't really a kind of food. I think there's an infinite number of ways the music can proceed."
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One such route Cudahy mentions is toward a more danceable sound; another is a certain abstract technical modernity of sound. "Originally we thought of it as static sitting-and-drinking music, and now we're like 'Hey, I like it when they dance.' We're not technophobes," he says. "We're trying to do our little step-by-step bit to drag this sound into the future as a viable vocabulary."
"This sound" might be something Cudahy's a little loath to define too closely, especially since Newsweek and company have already jumped at the chance to peg lounge music as the anti-grunge, just another blip in the fashion parade with a shelf life no longer than that weekly publication, or this one. But just as the years spent toiling at alt-rock sea level left Cudahy with the perspective to handle the publicity flood, the publicity flood has left him with the perspective to stick with the music when the tide recedes.
"It's just like any other kind of music," says Cudahy. "Some of it's brilliant; some of it sucks. It's one of those things where people say, 'Will easy listening stick around, or is it gonna be gone in a couple of years?' Well, it's always gonna be there; it always has been. Will it be hip? That's the question. It's maybe not the first time it's been popular, but this is probably the first time it's ever been hip."
Combustible Edison performs at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, November 16, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $7. For info, call 869-