Unchained Melodies

Technically speaking, with three-fourths of the band's members in their 30s, Stanford Prison Experiment is a senior citizen in the 14-to-24-year-old-demographic-worshiping culture of pop music, as presented in Rolling Stone and on MTV.

"That's a cultural pathology we're saddled with," gripes Mario Jimenez, the front man for the disaffected L.A. indie rockers. The 30-ish Jimenez may sound a little defensive, but with the big three-O already in the rear-view mirror for myself, his diatribe is sweet to my ears. I egg him on.

"Whether you're 15 or 50," he says, "what does that matter if you really like music?"

"Or whether you're a 50-year-old who wants to form a band?" I postulate with indignation.

"Right!" Jimenez declares. "The industry really plays up that aspect. Unless it's debunking what bullshit the emphasis on youth is, I don't even like to talk about age."

[Sigh] Two old men licking each other's wounds. 'Course, it's not like Stanford are the reincarnation of REO Speedwagon, exactly. Their fresh-faced looks, punk energy and 'bout-to-blow-up hunger are as youthful as a teenage garage band's and as ingenuous as the brothers Hanson.

So if it's not as brutal as metal and possesses more songcraft than grunge, and if it's too melodic for punk and too acidic for pop, and more progressive than rock & roll - what the hell kind of music does Stanford Prison Experiment make?

"I think we're just a heavy guitar band," Jimenez says. "I don't think any bands really strive to put themselves in a genre. They just do what they do."

A testament to the band's non-grunge sensibility is the schooled vocal phrasing with which singer Mario lets rip on the band's soon-to-detonate Wrecreation, which couldn't be more antithetical to the monotone whine of the Northwest Sound circa 1992.

"I like to play with space, to really stretch the lyrics out," Mario says, describing the way his voice wraps around the words, "but then I'll come in and cram as many syllables into a tight meter as I can, doing that staccato hip-hop kind of thing, only it's not hip-hop."

Stanford loathes the "sounds like Rage Against the Machine" thing that writers have slung in their direction in the hopes of boxing them into the rap & roll/hopcore/ rock-hop ghetto.

"It's such bullshit," Jimenez says. "We don't sound anything like them. People say that just because we opened for them."

In fact, the likenesses are superficial ones: a similar fan base, SoCal origins, and being Anglo joints fronted by Latino men.

"I don't really think about my race too much," Jimenez says, "but I know what it's like to feel different. When I was growing up in Glendale it was mostly all white, and my family were the only Latinos on the block, and all the kids in the neighborhood just assumed all this shit about you."

Stanford's lyrics convey the sort of conventional obliqueness we've come to expect in popular music, giving them a two-tiered quality: They could just as easily be a critique of American consumerist society as they could a lament about a beleaguered relationship. Somewhere along the line the band gained a reputation as a bunch of rabid left-wingers, probably because they tacked a Noam Chomsky monologue onto the end of their last album, The Gato Hunch.

"People were coming up to me saying, 'Who's that conspiracy theorist talking on your album?'" Jimenez laughs. "[Chomsky]'s just commenting on the facts, but people thought we were advocating some extremist kook."

Though not poppy in the Top 40 sense, the new release sports decidedly more songlike structures than the groove-oriented, walls-of-sound affairs that characterized The Gato Hunch and the band's self-titled debut. Jimenez swears, however, that Stanford's newfound melodic bent is not the result of pressure from his band's new home at Island Records.

"We recorded all the songs for Wrecreation before we were even signed, but the poppier sound was definitely intentional," he says. "It's just that we want to keep evolving as a band. Our goal was simply for this record not to sound like the last one."

Sharing the stage this summer with the likes of Jesus Lizard, Girls Against Boys and Jimmy's Chicken Shack should build Stanford's audience, as should the better money, better management and solid publicity from Island - hopefully an improvement over the distribution fiasco the band experienced with Los Angeles indie label World Domination.

"I'd have people tell me they couldn't find our stuff in record stores," snorts guitarist Mike Starkey with disgust. But he foresees greener pastures in the major leagues.

"I expected a bunch of clueless suits," he says, "but they're really laid-back over there. World Dom ran like a major, and Island has the feel of an indie, so it doesn't seem like we went from Kill Rock Stars to Sony."

Despite its members' protests, Stanford's heart still lies in consciousness-raising music. But they're an experience that stirs without force-feeding an agenda, pulls you in without proselytizing. As I watch them play to a handful of college students at a small club in Albuquerque, I envy wherever it is their craft transports them - eyes screwed back in their heads, mouths slack with creative absorption, sweat pouring.

"What pisses me off about what a lot of journalists say about us," Jimenez says, "is that, just because we think critically with our music, it means we're some angry, unhappy, miserable band. But it's like what I read somewhere once: Revolution should be fun."

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