Tsar, Reborn

“I want to represent all the things that I find beautiful about rock & roll, and one of those is danger, or what I call rock & roll desire,” says Jeff Whalen, lead singer of Tsar, pushing a wayward curl out of his face. “Rock has an incredible duality, like the great rockers that I like are all superskinny and almost sickly, yet incredibly powerful — Bowie, Jagger, Cobain. It’s about being the underdog, and being the reigning champ at the same time.” Whalen pulls his frayed hoodie closer as the wind howls down Polk Street in San Francisco outside the Red Devil Lounge, where the L.A. band is headlining tonight (and where, for the occasion, the bartenders have renamed their most popular drink — the Starfucker — the “Tsarfucker”).

Whalen knows all about that underdog/champ rock paradox: He kind of embodies it — perhaps now more than ever. On June 28, almost five years to the day since their ambitious debut, Tsar finally released their second album, the hit-and-run rocker Band-Girls-Money. Despite its lengthy back story, the album is as tight and essential as its title, cleaving Tsar’s glammed-out bubblegum sound right down to the bone.

Tsar formed in the late ’90s, when the Silver Lake scene was fumbling for an identity: No one quite knew whether glam-punks or Gram Parsonists would be the Next Big Thing. Neither scene really took off, as it turned out, but Tsar’s gigs at Spaceland did help them bag a major-label deal in 1999.

“It was at a time when all these bands in Silver Lake had that no-image image,” Whalen remembers. “We actually felt pretty punk that we were gonna show up to Spaceland, home of that kind of hipster scene, and be wearing lipstick and glitter and capes and doing harmonized guitar solos. The first couple times I wondered if we were gonna get booed.”

Tsar infused their pop with toughness and urgency, proving they were always more than the sum of their anthemic conceits, mathematical hooks, perfect harmonies and hip-jutting poses. For their fans, Tsar’s barbed wit, sharp wordplay, madcap optimism and moments of post-collegiate ennui all but erased the dark smut of the post-grunge bands that went before them.
It was Tsar’s fate to land with the Disney-owned Hollywood Records — a label that didn’t have a stellar record breaking rock bands but knew how to take a cream puff like Hilary Duff to the bank. “It’s weird,” says Whalen. “I had always considered us a dangerous rock-punk-glam band — and there we were, sharing space with Mickey and Goofy. People actually thought of us as a corporate construction, like a punk-pop Menudo,” he laughs.

“Mr. Whalen?” inquires a burly young admirer tentatively, after careening into the singer’s slight frame like a linebacker gone awry.

“Jeff,” Whalen corrects, steadying the guy and then backing away gently to study him through unearthly blue eyes smudged with eye shadow.

“Ah, er, Jeff. I wanted to tell you that we worship you,” expounds the fan, extending both arms. He’s standing there alone, but the “we” is self-evident: The club is swelling with the Tsar faithful — frat boys, bikers, dark creatures of the night and women in tight tube tops, the last especially impressive on this cold weekday night. “We’re having a bachelor party, and we hired a limo to take us here to see you, but we can’t get in.”

“That’s a shame,” says Whalen. “I’ll see what I can do.”

The fan grabs the singer’s hand and pumps it bizarrely with demon energy. “We love you,” he declares, “like no other!”

Despite the five-year gap between albums, Tsar fans still line up to see them, and talk about their shows in hushed tones. On Amazon.com, one customer reviewer bemoans, “How they slipped through the cracks is still a mystery to me.”

It’s a mystery to Whalen, too. He had visions of an album that was part Buzzcocks, part Electric Light Orchestra, fit to propel the band into the rock stratosphere. The label agreed, and hired Grammy-winning Green Day/Goo Goo Dolls producer Rob Cavallo to man the boards.

“They told us that our life was going to change,” says Whalen incredulously, “and we weren’t going to be able to trust people that we’d meet from then on, and we needed to stay really close to people who knew us when we weren’t anything.

“I have friends who’ve been in bands, and they get signed, and they get dropped. You’d expect that I’d be prepared for that. I didn’t expect to be moving back in with my mom.”

But that’s exactly what he did, driving 26 minutes back down the freeway to Long Beach, a psychic journey far longer than the 29 miles separating the city from the Burbank offices of Hollywood Records where his dreams almost withered.

But Whalen is nothing if not a fighter. (The singer wrote an entire novel in six weeks in order to graduate from UCSB, where Tsar’s original members first met.) “We got back from the great flop. It was rough, and our feelings were hurt,” he says. “But I vowed that I was going to keep this thing together. I’m not going to be a cliché of a band that had a big record signing, got their ass kicked, and broke up. It’s not interesting to me to be that person.”

What is apparently interesting is starting over. Whalen went to work penning new songs, and somehow finagled both an appearance on The Late Late Show and a Napster TV spot. The Late Late Show appearance caught the eye of TVT Records — home to the Ying Yang Twins, Lil Jon, Sevendust and Ambulance Ltd. “You could tell that Jeff had it. He’s all lips and eyes,” explains one exec. “And then there’s all those songs.”

Band-Girls-Money is a 33-minute spin-cycle of prickly oaths, big guitars, rough-hewn choruses about the death of innocence and the perils of life in the rock lane. “Wanna Get Dead,” “Wrong,” “You Can’t Always Want What You Get” and “Everybody’s Fault But Mine” are uncomfortably autobiographical but also more powerful for all the unshed tears and unexpressed anger at the travesty of their first brush with fame. More High Times–era MC5 and All the Young Dudes–era Mott the Hoople than the wryer glam ?stuff they played before, BGM gives Whalen and bandmates — founding guitarist Dan Kern along with recent recruits Derrick Forget on bass and Chuck Byler on drums — a chance to show a harder edge, and it’s not pretty. But it rocks.

“When Tsar played Spaceland, they were victims of having a couple of catchy songs,” says BGM’s producer, David Katznelson, founder of Birdman Records and the man responsible for signing the Flaming Lips to Warner Bros. “The danger is that people think because you have catchy songs, you’re going to be big. Tsar got signed on the strength of that, but they hadn’t had a chance to develop. They’d been playing their songs maybe less than a year.
“When I ran into them, I found a band who wanted to be a rock & roll band but weren’t allowed to. With Band-Girls-Money, the decision was that we’d make a full-throttle rock record, and we’d do it quick, no second-guessing. They just rocked it.”

“Hey, you got in!” exclaims Whalen from the stage, spotting the inebriated fan who near-tackled him outside the club. “Awesome. This one is for you.” The band rips into “The Love Explosion,” from their new album. The fan roars his delight, to the backdrop of Tsar’s smoke machine and flashing-lightbulb sign, which seems only marginally smaller than Kiss’s monolithic backdrop; although the club holds only 250 or so, the band plays like it’s Dodger Stadium. “Play ‘Kathy Fong,’” pleads a fan. “Play ‘Silver Shifter,’” shouts another.

“I’m sorry, we’re not doing any requests from the old album,” apologizes Whalen, his mobile, exaggerated features still for a moment. “None of this looking-back shit for us.” He sounds like he believes it.

Tsar plays Spaceland on Friday, July 8.


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