Whistle While You Work
”I like making things,“ says Ben Eshbach. And so, by day, he‘s the guy at his family’s Burbank-based motorcycle-engine firm who works the CAD-CAM program, writing the instructions for the computerized machines that construct the tiny engine components for NHRA Pro Stock and Top Fuel nitro bikes.
And then, by night, Eshbach is one-half of the veteran pop-music nucleus the Sugarplastic, constructing (with bassistsongwriter Kiara Geller) the best guitar-based, hook-filled Classical Pop songs about devils, grandfathers, ex-girlfriends and paranoid purse-snatchers this side of Glasgow.
Of course, no division of labor is so night-and-day simple, even if Eshbach can josh, ”I have a real job — the Sugarplastic is my hobby. I come home from work, take a shower, crack open an ice-cold one, check my e-mail and then start writing music.“ In truth, the songs that make up the Sugarplastic‘s recorded output — three full-length albums (including the recently released Resin), a 1993 three-single box set and a top tune on the new Powerpuff Girls toon-inspired album Heroes & Villains — are written anytime and everywhere.
”We write 24 hours a day,“ says the amiable, scruffy Geller. ”Seriously.“
”I really like to create little worlds, little universes,“ says the dapper, fastidious Eshbach, ”and they’re all populated by different people, with everybody taking turns singing their part. Like a soloist and a choir, and then there‘s the Greek chorus that responds with the moral to the tale, or ’You better watch out,‘ and the other person begins to sing about what they’re gonna do next.“
The Sugarplastic‘s songs are melodramas in 100-second miniature: sparkling scores for shoebox dioramas, rendered in guitar-pop form. But on Resin, recorded with able new drummer David Cunningham in the wake of the band’s slightly improbable one-album tenure with a big-time record label (Geffen), something new has happened: The melodies and middle-eights intermingle with instrumental merry-go-round waltzes and microsymphonies to form that rare animal, a cohesive album. Scale, it transpires, is important. The Sugarplastic have scored big by aiming small.
Euterpe Advises 5-3-9-9-3-5
”We recorded almost 60 songs for this album,“ explains Geller. ”We carved it down so that each song really worked with the others — we dropped songs which didn‘t match with the mood of what the album became. Things just got thrown off.“
”We’ve probably thrown away as many songs as we‘ve recorded,“ says Eshbach.
”We have at least four or five albums’ worth of songs that are unreleased,“ says Geller. ”It gets to the point where you just record them and throw ‘em on the pile — which is now a huge pile.“
Resin features Geller’s first recorded songwriting contributions to the band: A gently back-masked ditty (”Rosy Malarkey“), an instrumental intermission and a sweet bit of sturdy folk-pop (”Novelty Man“). They‘re good. He is the Colin Moulding to Eshbach’s Andy Partridge.
”Ben taught me the art of writing songs in my head, which is what he always does,“ says Geller, ”so I‘m always driving around in my car, writing lyrics.“
”I didn’t have a stereo in my car for four years,“ explains Eshbach. ”That was the best time in my life. But now I have a CD player in my car, so I‘ve become a lazy ass. I don’t write in the car anymore. I write at work.
“Before I learned how to read music a year and a half ago, I had my own notation. So if I had a melody in my head that I knew I‘d forget, I’d put it on a piece of paper, write this real cockamamie notation. It sorta looked like music, but it was all based around certain note patterns that I know by heart, and I would give each one of those notes a certain number; instead of bar lines, it had a line for every kick and every snare. For a while I actually had a little tiny hand-held Casio keyboard, and I would figure out the melody and I would go, oh, okay, it‘s 5-3-9-9-space — 3-5. By the time I’d come home, I‘d forgotten the melody. I’d empty my pockets and then relearn the song.”
Where do all these songs come from?
“It‘s Euterpe, the muse of music,” says Eshbach. “We’re having a secret love affair.”
Sugarplastic songs are built with so many parts, voices, melodies. “Don‘t Look Down,” the song written and recorded for the Powerpuff Girls album, has at least three different voices (all performed by Eshbach) and a startling psychedelic xylophone closing solo. Resin itself is split between guitar-pop songs that wouldn’t be out of place on the first Traveling Wilburys album (like the delicious should-be hit “Talk Back”), songs that could be from the Sherman Brothers songbook (“Oh Leo,” “Little Ash Statue,” “Mercurochrome”), and wonderfully evocative, post–HitchcockRaymond Scott instrumentals (“Funny Cigarettes” and “Ben Takes a Walk To Lose Company and on the Way He Sees Some Ice Skaters”).
“We‘re easily bored, so we need really hooky, interesting things to happen,” says Geller. “Resin turned out like a soundtrack album in a weird way, with the bits and pieces and the songs. All those strange voices that you hear, like the three voices on the Powerpuff Girls song, and the imagery, the childlike qualities that you hear, that’s the way Disney influences the band.”
“I think Walt Disney music up until around the ‘60s is really beautiful,” says Eshbach. “Mary Poppins was beautiful music. It’s all Gilbert and Sullivan–esque. Disney stuck with a late-19th-century theater form up until the late 1960s, 80 years later! And then all of a sudden, boom! Overnight they said, Enough of this! And now it‘s all crap, washed-out MOR. Nobody I care to talk to has a favorite Disney song that came after the ’60s. Everybody loves ‘Chim Chim Cheree’ or . . .”
“. . . ‘When You Wish Upon a Star,’ the most magical song,” says Geller.
“‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ is really the best thing that Disney did, as far as music goes,” says Eshbach. “With Disney it‘s a work of art . . .”
“. . . with an emphasis on craftsmanship,” says Geller.
“It’s internally consistent, and we all know that ‘Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,’” says Eshbach wryly, “but I think that quote came from a very little mind . . .”
The Two Johns
The emphasis on craftsmanship and precision — “Every time we hand in demos to anybody, they say they‘re the most complicated demos they’ve ever heard,” says Eshbach — means that when the Sugarplastic perform the occasional live show, inevitably something is lost. And for Eshbach, nothing is gained.
“Our live set is so much different from what we record,” says Eshbach. “The recorded stuff has all sorts of parts and everything, and the live songs are pretty stripped-down in three pieces. I really don‘t like it. I’ve never understood the live-performance thing. Theater and music are the only two forms of art where you‘re required to do it live. I love hearing the songs in rehearsal, when nobody’s watching, but actually getting up there and having to perform it just boggles my mind. It‘s pointless.”
“You’re just shy,” says Geller. “Here‘s how I sum up playing live: I always go onstage thinking I’m John Lennon. I always come off thinking I‘m John Denver.”
“It’s like in fourth grade, on my show-and-tell day, I brought two records,” says Eshbach. “One was the soundtrack to Camelot, and the other one was some bagpipe music. And I put them on, and the class was completely quiet. It was maybe 15 or 20 years later that I realized that they must have been laughing at me!
”I guess I‘d feel a lot better if we were just a band covering Sugarplastic songs. I’d like to have somebody who looks like me learn all my parts and go up onstage and play the songs. Then I could be in the audience and hear what we sound like.“
Chuckles all around. The Sugarplastic got the last laugh.