Fun Without Pretense

As rock bands go, Echobelly can appear more than a touch pretentious. The multiracial quintet boasts a high-drama guitar pop approach much along the lines of the Smiths, a group in the upper echelon of post-punk's most notable whiners. Echobelly is fronted by an exotic, self-assured Indian-born chanteuse who prefers being referred to by her rather cumbersome full name -- Sonya Aurora Madan -- and who takes pride in coming up with brash, self-serving song titles such as "I Can't Imagine the World Without Me" and "Go Away." Backing Madan and her poised, supermodel elegance are an odd-looking bald Swede with protruding ears, a near-bald black female and a pair of university types who never have a problem looking disinterested. It's certainly not every new fan's idea of a warm welcoming committee.

But as British pop phenomenons go, Echobelly ranks among the least pretentious of an aspiring '90s crop. They're easily a few pegs below countrymen Pulp and Oasis, whose bratty smugness and inane antics are rapidly becoming tiresome. Perhaps Echobelly has outdistanced any egotistical displays because their attitude has more to do with being self-assured than being cocky.

"There is a certain arrogance about us, but not in a nasty way," says Glen Johansson, the bald guy with the funny ears who co-writes Echobelly's songs with Madan. "But I think it really takes time for a band to find themselves and discover what they're all about."

Actually, it's taken Echobelly about three years to find its true calling -- an arty, amiable ambiance that, on its debut, Everyone's Got One, was covered in a tough skin of angst-ridden playing and self-conscious lyrics. With their more open-ended sophomore effort, last year's On, Echobelly wisely shut up and let the music do the boasting. The CD drapes any overwrought Smiths-ian indulgences in a shimmering canopy of churning guitars, effervescent hooks and buoyant vocals courtesy of Madan (think Debbie Harry's semi-sweet shifts in tone crossed with Siouxie Sioux's disjointed elasticity).

Frequently, On's subject matter is grim. On tunes such as "King of the Kerb," an aural streetscape of hoods and various unsavory characters, and "Pantyhose and Roses," which deals with the sleazy details surrounding the death of British politician Steven Milligan, Madan sings, somewhat cryptically, of society's lows more than its highs, and of how the heinous and beautiful are often intertwined. But her exhilarating delivery is informed with a sense of controlled destiny (check the ultra-confident, to-hell-with-them-all vibe on "Car Fiction") instead of dreary fatalism. And if all of that is still considered pretentious by some, then, says Johansson, Echobelly will just have to live with it.

"The whole attitude thing really works in England; people like to see their rock stars being arrogant," he says. "Everyone loves an asshole."

Echobelly's co-founder, as it happens, is anything but an asshole. Polite, well-spoken and open to just about any line of questioning (including inquiries about his former job as an editor for the Swedish porno magazine Eros), Johansson is remarkably humble. Maybe, he quips, it has to do with his non-English descent.

Johansson, 28, grew up in Sweden on a steady diet of the Beatles and various punk and new wave bands. Eventually, he moved to London to pursue a career in music. In 1990, he met Madan, who had come to England from Delhi, India, with her family when she was a toddler. The pair began dating and shared a flat for a few months. Soon though, the two realized that they were more compatible as friends and creative partners than as lovers. Just to show there were no hard feelings, Madan and Johansson decided to stay roommates, and they still live together comfortably in London.

Echobelly -- the name is taken loosely from the idea of "being hungry for something" -- came along in 1993, when the songwriting duo recruited drummer Andy Henderson and bassist Alex Keyser, then the only true Brits in the band. One year and a promising EP (Bellyache) later, Echobelly acquired guitarist Debbie Smith, a proud lesbian whose parents are Jamaican natives. By 1995, Keyser wasn't seeing eye to eye with Johansson and Madan and left the band, soon to be replaced by another Brit, James Harris.

In 1994, Echobelly released the boisterous Everyone's Got One -- on which Madan addressed her struggles with her identity in the face of racism -- and earned accolades from American superstars such as Madonna and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck. Apparently, Buck was particularly impressed with Johansson's alternately harsh and pretty, tremolo-soaked guitar work.

After Everyone's Got One's showing on the U.K. charts (it creeped into the Top Ten), piles of international publicity and tours of Great Britain, the United States and Japan, Johansson and the rest of Echobelly braced themselves for the inevitable backlash from the British press. Surprisingly, it never came.

"They tried to do it to us, but we were too popular," Johansson chuckles. "We were never really hyped; we've had a lot of things written about us -- not all good. But we survived all that."

Johansson says that while the group's mini-melting pot of races and genders might be unusual for a English pop band, it's quite typical of the city in which the band resides.

"Most bands in England -- no matter how punk they claim to be -- tend to be middle-class white boys," he says. "But to be really honest with you, if you take a slice out of London, you'd probably get [our] kind of mixture of people. And we get on now better than we ever have."

Echobelly performs Thursday, April 4, at the Urban Art Bar, 112 Milam. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $7 (21 and over); $9 (18 to 20). For Squirrels and Superdrag open. For info, call 225-0500.

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Hobart Rowland