“Hello Tokyo! Hello Australia! Hello Africa!” Tsar’s mascara’d main man, Jeff Whalen, hits the Roxy stage with a skinny swirl, launching his band into a frenetic flash of power-pop paradise. In taut Navy-grunt shirt, white Levi’s and sneaks, the Compleat Rock Star edition 2005 whips his grand little combo harder, faster, furiouser, windmilling his ax in twin-guitar bliss with lead guitar dude Daniel Kern. Blamblamblam!
“It’s about being born to be alive!” Whalen bawls, stripping down to a sweaty T. And then Whalen, Kern and new members Derrick Forget (bass) and Chuck Byler (drums) lay out a ripping “Wanna Get Dead” from the band’s recent Band-Girls-Money album (TVT Records), followed by “Wrong” (“which is,” Whalen says, “always pronounced wrong”).
Yes indeed, and if you cast half a squinty eye at the band’s cheezee flash-bulbed TSAR logo, you quickly grok his POV. Tsar segues from one potential hit single to another, rarely pausing to breathe or even to allow the adoring hordes to properly hail the group with whoops and hollers. Which is too bad, ’cause if any band currently struts a stage with gleefully awesome power, grandeur and majesty, it’s Tsar. Exhausting, almost, or it would be if the band’s shtick weren’t so damn funny, so very pertinent and so very, very rocking.
Sure, they’re good-humored and cuddly cute in a Banana Splits kinda way, but Tsar’s visual comedy comes loaded with a decidedly heavy rock slam and twisted, even sinister lyrical undertones — call it pathos, if you must.
“We used to do a lot more of the twin lead stuff,” says Whalen. “When we first started doing it, it was cracking us up — ‘oh, we can’t do that’ — but it’s so weird how the things that started as jokes, how quickly you forget that it’s supposed to be funny.”
Whalen’s songs are the most brain-warping boiling pots of every classic rock sound from the ’60s and ’70s, but like the giants before him, he leaves the footsteps of his own eminence by smelting these influences down, so it never comes off as mere pastiche.
Stumbling out of the band’s cheapo rented maroon van — we’re talking intimate/stinky, not one of those Dolly Parton complete-with-bidet-type things — on one of their innumerable cross-country tours to drum up a little support for the glorious Band-Girls-Money, Whalen calls me from a skanky hotel room somewhere in exotic Canada. He’s eager to talk about this righteous rock & roll ragout we like to call Tsar, and the man is not at all jaded and bored and glum. You might say he’s a little too happy, considering he had to do all the driving today, from Baltimore all the way up to Ontario.
“You know,” he says, “when you’re in the van, and it’s just the band, you gotta split it up, regardless of how hung over or how much chicken you’ve eaten.”
No chauffeur, eh?
“We don’t have a liveryman as of yet, but, you know, this way we ‘keep it real’ — real tedious,” he laughs.
In a review of the band’s recent set at Spaceland, I enthused that Tsar onstage does not indulge in any of that wretched power-ballad baloney so many otherwise perfectly intelligent bands fall prey to. I mean, they just stride on out there and proceed to wham wham wham through these hellaciously highflying sets. And here I thought all rock bands had to play metallic weepers to go to No. 1 on the teenbeat charts. Hey Jeff, what gives?
“Well, I hope our Roxy set didn’t violate that too much,” he says, “’cause we did play one — ‘You Can’t Always Want What You Get” — which we never do, mostly because I have to put a capo on my guitar, and whenever someone goes to do that, you go, ‘Uh-oh, it’s time to pee...’ Actually, playing with no pauses between songs started when we didn’t want to give the audience a chance to not applaud.”
Yeah, but they really want to, especially because they can see how this band seems to enjoy what it’s doing — dag, that’s different.
“Well, yeah,” he says. “The thing is, if it’s not fun, then what the fuck? I mean, you wanna — you gotta — do something fun, creative, and if making rock records is what you do, well, there’re a lot worse ways that you’re gonna spend your life. If I do something I’m proud of, and know that it was worthwhile and I had a good time, then I’m only a little bit bitter [laughs]. As opposed to cripplingly bitter.”
There’s something else that even the most casual observer surely must notice about Tsar, too, a little item you couldn’t buy with a five-pound box of money: the ring of authenticity about their particular high-quality brand of rockness. Whalen appears to be one of TheChosen...
Jeff: “Oh my.”
No, no, it’s real, dude. This rock & roll... essence... must be like a siren’s cry from afar and shit, it’s simply got to be something you were called to do.
“I mean, sometimes I go, ‘God, I’m a weird-lookin’ dude,’” he says. “And then I go, ‘Why do I have this mug if I’m not supposed to yell about something?’ And then another time, we were recording the last record, I went to the bathroom and I came out and I said, ‘If I’m not supposed to be a rock star, then how come I just peed gold?’”
Okay, so when you went to see Cheap Trick the first time, or bought their record and checked out those so-cool M-Fer’s on Harleys on the front cover and the doofy dorks on the back, you saw that everything was visually and sonically correct. Same thing with Tsar, except they’re all a fairly comely ’n’ suave buncha fellers. The point is, the feel of this lineup, well, it just feels right, not just musically but as a collection of personalities. Which is a stroke of good luck, as two members had to be recruited just prior to the new album’s release, following the exit of the band’s original drummer Steve Coulter and bassist Jeff Solomon; both players had, along with Whalen and Kern, recorded the band’s super-acclaimed 2000 debut album and the follow-up, Band-Girls-Money.
Finding a new bass player was hard, Whalen says, “mostly because we didn’t want Jeff to leave. We got everybody that we knew, friends of friends and stuff, and nothing was happening, it wasn’t working. We were trying out people and they just were no good, or guys would come in and start talking about girls — ‘I want a little snapper!’ — and I’d say, ‘You rockon, we’ll talk to you later.’ And guys would come in and wouldn’t have shoes on or something. And we’re a shoe band, we got shoes.”
“We’re not shoegazer, we’re shoe-...”
“Owners. I mean, I lease these, but I do own a pair.”
With the addition of drummer Byler and bassist Forget, the band’s new lineup was not just complete, it had a vibe.
Says Whalen, “They have a lot of expectations to fulfill. Pretty much everybody, it’s ‘Ringo never, Pete Best forever,’ you know, whatever. Fans of the first record show up, and they’re pretty dubious, and then by the end of the show they’re, like, real happy.”
Time was not too long ago that Whalen was having problems wearing the happy face 24-7. You’d be feeling a bit low, too, after being Silver Lake’s biggest buzz band of the late ’90s, then getting snapped up by Hollywood Records to be groomed for superstardom blah blah blah, only to have that label treat you like an ugly foster child and then airily dismiss you when your debut disc doesn’t sell 140 buhjillion copies, despite unanimous critical huzzahs.
In classic major-label style, whatever supporters Tsar had at Hollywood ultimately departed the label, leaving the band adrift and vulnerable to attack. While Hollywood did get a new head of A&R who was, according to Whalen, a true music lover and very fond of Tsar, the label’s head honchos were so out of touch that the band felt like they were living in a purgatory-like limbo.
“The first album bombing was so crushing,” says Whalen. “It doesn’t matter how many rock biographies you read, it doesn’t matter how many friends’ bands declined and got monkeyed with — you are the exception, you know? And then your record gets good reviews, and you wondered how much better your life was gonna be. You didn’t have room for the possibility that it was gonna get worse.”
Whalen threw his woes into his songwriting, churning out reams of stuff but not feeling so great about the results. “There was something cruel about all of them. Then there was a period where I was trying to write a hit, which is a really weird thing to do, so that didn’t work out too well.”
Fed up with the game and more than a little with himself, Whalen finally just said screw this, or, more precisely, “I wanna make a record that I wanna make.” The aforementioned new head of A&R at Hollywood, one Geoffrey Weiss, fortunately was in agreement, advising Whalen to do just that. “And I’m like, yeah, let’s make a screaming, angry, funny record about pretty much what I was feeling. I’d write songs about looking at your situation and figuring out whether or not you really wanna rock — or what do you wanna do?”
Judging by the results he got on Band-Girls-Money, Whalen clearly made the decision to R-O-C-K. Yet despite Weiss’ advocacy of the band, the label’s big boss men were anything but clear on what a jewel they held in their hands.
“We almost called the new record Trendy Music for Imaginary Teenagers,” Whalen says, “because major labels go, ‘In Ohio, teenagers are not gonna understand this.’ And I don’t know any teenagers in Ohio. Let’s make music and do this thing for ourselves, that we think is cool, and for people we actually know, and then assume that people in Ohio are gonna like it, or not, or whatever. But if we’re just making up stuff for people we don’t even know, we’re assuming that they’re stupid and they have no imagination. And while that may be true... ,” Whalen laughs.
After a brief bit of downtime, Tsar somehow scammed an appearance on The Late Late Show, which one of the head cheeses at TVT Records happened to catch and which led to their signing to the label and the release of Band-Girls-Money. The rest is not history, so we’ll tell you more about it. First, though, an observation:
Jeff, surely these hard knocks you’ve described are the very stuff that great bands need to provide them with the worldly experience that allows them to go on to write and perform GREAT ROCK MUSIC, eh wot? I.e., wasn’t all this aggro really a blessing in disguise?
“Yeah,” he says, “it’s one of those deals where you see somebody on the news, and, like, their house burned down or something, they lost all their stuff, and they say, ‘But in a weird way, it’s like the best thing that could have happened to me.’ And then you go, ‘Can we burn down your new house?’ If that first record had made it, I bet I’d be a person that I could not stand. I think I would’ve been on drugs — more than I am [laughs]; I think I’d have hepatitis or chlamydia or something, and I’d just be really sad and really awful. I’d have a really cool mustache, but that’d be about it ...”
As Whalen singsin B-G-M’s“Straight,” he’s “goin’ to the devil like a bat out of hell.” And as any fool can plainly see, Tsar has survived with its jocular drive well intact, laughing in the faces of those who won’t hear. But listen closely to “Wanna Get Dead,” “Wrong,” “You Can’t Always Want What You Get” and “Everybody’s Fault But Mine” and you’ll hear Whalen lashing out hard — at himself, at the dirtbags of the record biz and the pathetic dreams of the pinheads who love them. Like Cheap Trick, Tsar only grows stronger when the laffs get ladled onto something a bit, shall we say, darker...
Says Whalen, “There’s nothing more annoying than a band that talks openly and bitterly and humorlessly about their struggles. It’s embarrassing, and it makes everybody uncomfortable. The great thing about rock & roll, what it can do as a full-service value structure, is provide mind-blowing heaviness and ridiculous comedy at the same time.”
Easier said than done, or lived, but Tsar are well on their way. And their rare rock potion, you oughtta pray, will keep them around ’til we’re old and gray.
“What else am I gonna do?” asks Whalen. “Am I gonna be some guy going, ‘I used to have a band’? One day, maybe tomorrow, one day in the future or whatever, some people are gonna be in some dormitory corner lounge and they’re gonna say, ‘Hey, did you listen to that Tsar album I loaned ya?’ And that guy’s gonna say, ‘Ee-yeah, I haven’t listened to it yet, but I wanna.’ And the other guy’s gonna say, ‘I think you should really listen to it, because it’s fuckin’ hot!’”