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Psychedelobabble

Mike Thrasher, lead singerguitarist for the power trio Gwen Mars, has one of those names that‘s so over the top you just know he made it up. ”I get so much shit for that,“ the affably spaced-out singer says. ”But no, it’s my real name. If I could, I would change it.“

From its lyrics to Thrasher‘s unfiltered-Camel voice to the members’ thrift-store chic, Gwen Mars is the living, swaggering, fuck-it-all embodiment of the freewheeling band on the make -- right down to the dubious English accent. ”I‘m from Birmingham, Alabama,“ says Thrasher. ”I think Southerners can sound that way sometimes, especially when singing. I’m not doing it on purpose, but I‘m glad it comes off like that -- British rock is a big influence.“

Swelling the air with guitar-driven dream-pop, the stripped-down L.A.-based unit of Thrasher, Matt Westfield (bass) and John Boutin (drums) aims at Swervedriver, except its vision is Blurred from staring through the Church windows. Mostly recorded at the semifamous Pachyderm studios in rural Minnesota by John Fryer (Lush, Love & Rockets, Nirvana’s In Utero), the new Driving a Million is the sonic truce between mods and rockers in the Paisley Underground turf war. The melodies never individuate into solos or coalesce into riffs; they just shimmer, jangle and fuzz out, with a tincture of Moog for lift and the FX pedals permanently set on ”sitar.“

The only unifying theme on Driving a Million is the patent lack of a unifying theme. ”I guess relationships are part of what the album is about,“ says Thrasher. ”There aren‘t all these big ideas and stuff, it’s just us rocking out.“ Yet Gwen Mars‘ lyrics bubble with inspired nonsense. When Thrasher rasps, ”Neon Tom, he moves into view, a cellophane suit, at 4 o’clock,“ it recalls gifted poets like the Cars‘ Benjamin Orr. And how about ”If I coulda been as tall as you, I’d have been the smartest foolVenus you cleared my headBring us a little genius to twist my wrists“? Surely as whacked as John and the Walrus, no? Don‘t neglect the shagadelic chorus of ”Electro“: ”Everything was blowin’ their minds.“ How many bands could get away with a line like that? Not to mention the cliched diction, the brain-dead Valley Boy inflection and the quintessential cig quotient, which resonate with unadulterated rocker-dudism. Yet contrary to the classicness the band exudes like an Arrow 93.1 staple, Gwen Mars‘ aesthetic aims are progressive -- at least on paper. On ”Strawberry Ice,“ Thrasher declaims, ”I hate it when they ’save rock & roll.‘“

”It really bugs me,“ he says, reflecting on the cryptic line. ”You get all these bands who are claiming to be doing that. Saving it from what? There’s no such thing as pure rock. It should just be allowed to evolve.“

What makes Gwen Mars so compelling is the way hipness casually tumbles out of them. They don‘t have to dodge camp, kitsch or cuteness, because they don’t have an ironic bone in their bodies; they fully mean every syllable of their shroomy koans. They‘re mysterious but matter-of-fact, cool but never calculated -- even the band’s cosmic-sounding name is off-the-cuff. ”Gwen Mars was my kindergarten teacher,“ Thrasher fesses up. ”It just sounded . . . right. Plus, I hate trying to think of names for bands.“

It‘s bewildering to learn that these Anglophilic slop-fops attracted the attention of Dave Sardy, the East Coast producer known for his taskmaster efficiency with chest thumpers Slayer, Helmet and Vision of Disorder, but the metal maestro signed them to his SeeThru Broadcasting imprint. Getting noticed by a risk taker is poetic justice in light of the shabby treatment the group had previously received from the Disney-owned Hollywood Records, with which no band from Van Gogh’s Daughter to Insane Clown Posse has had a good experience.

”I‘m not bagging on them, it’s just that the A&R guy left shortly after he signed us, and we were worried no one else there would know how to handle us,“ Thrasher says of the nearly four-year hiatus in which time Gwen Mars‘ debut, Magnosheen, should have taken wing up the college-radio and commercial charts. But since the band barely toured behind the record, it fizzled like a UFO reunion album. ”We were pretty much biding our time, just waiting for the contract to expire.“

Even though the G.M. gig at the Viper Room in December was among their first in ages, there were no rusty chops in earshot. And the intimate, smoke-filled setting of Kenneth Cole leather jackets and strong drinks was the perfect comeback venue. ”I didn’t think anyone would remember us,“ says Thrasher. ”Most people don‘t seem to realize we’re from Los Angeles, but the turnout was really good. Who knows? Maybe they thought Johnny Depp would be there.“


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