”We get pegged as a happy pop band,” says Candypants guitarist George Baby Woods, “but there’s, like, one happy song on our record. The rest of them are all kind of obnoxious, or negative, or just kind of sad and bumming.”
“Never-ending bliss loses its pull,” adds Candypants keyboardist Danny McGough. “If something’s sounding really happy, we’ll try to make it fucked up in a way.”
Welcome to the sweet-’n’-sour world of Candypants. Released late last year on Sympathy for the Record Industry, the L.A. quintet’s eponymous debut wraps playful, organ-driven pop melodies around dark dissections of what Eric Burdon once referred to as “Man! Woman! Desire! Love!” Most modern pop music pretends to come from a hermetically sealed universe where teenage crushes and everlasting love somehow exist without the pleasures or complications of sex, but Candypants delivers the complete package with a frankness that’s as refreshing as it is unsettling. “Attila the Honey” likens a manipulative paramour to the infamous warrior, and “Cherry Picker” has a nasty chuckle at the expense of men who chase much younger women. “Dishy” and “Beat Head” take the “Maneater” metaphor to places where Hall & Oates never would have dared, while “Mandelay” may well be the first song since Queen’s “Staying Power” to extol the virtues of erection-prolonging cream.
“All the boys like ‘Mandelay,’” giggles Lisa Jenio, the band’s pocket-sized vocalist. “I don’t know why.” Primarily responsible for the record’s lyrics, Jenio honed her ample writing skills as a regular contributor to Barely Legal, Chic and other raunchy men’s mags; still, she insists that Candypants is hardly just a musical extension of her day job.
“The reason I’m always thinking about sex isn’t because I write porn,” she says. “It’s the opposite — I write porn, and most of the songs, because I’m always thinking about sex. Not just the physical act, but everything leading up to the act, and the consequences, good and bad, especially for girls. It’s the most fascinating thing to me.”
The Candypants saga dates back to 1993, when McGough first fell in love with Jenio’s Ronnie Spector–like voice. “Lisa had just moved out here from New York,” he remembers. “The first time I saw her perform I was like, ‘I want to make a record with her!’” Unfortunately, various other obligations (McGough and Woods did time with the 7 Deadly 5, Victor Banana and Cheeseburger, while Jenio sang with the Stool Pigeons and played flute for the Negro Problem) ensured that a good five years would pass before Candypants could actually begin to take shape. “We started working on some stuff sort of casually,” says McGough, “and then we got the weirdest record contract of all time.”
It seems that a demo of “Monkey Boy,” the giddy bubble-gum track that leads off Candypants, found its way onto the desk of an exec at a certain major record company. Desperate for an entry in the teen-pop sweepstakes, the label shelled out big bucks to put Candypants in the studio with a certain “hot” producer. But once they heard the results, the label folks threw more money at the band to simply go away. “We basically scared the shit out of the record company,” McGough laughs. “They thought we were gonna be kind of in the Britney Spears realm — ‘Oh, little kids are gonna really love this!’ — but I think some of the lyrical content was a little bit more than they’d bargained for.”
Instead, most of Candypants was recorded in McGough’s home studio, with help from bassist Sheldon Gomberg and drummer Billy Blaze. Though Elvis Costello’s manic Get Happy LP is the most obvious sonic influence, there’s also plenty of country, jazz, blues and even a little bit of psychedelia in the mix.
“We have a lot to draw on, because we all like different stuff,” says Woods. “I’ll usually have something in mind when I start working with my little tape player, but it gets really far removed from where it started. People will be like, ‘Where did you get that?’ ‘Well, we fucked up!’”
For Jenio, though, it all goes back to the raw, spirited blues of the 1920s and ’30s.
“I love those old-lady blues singers,” she says. “It’s not that I was thinking about them while I was writing these songs, but they were definitely in the back of my head. There’s Victoria Spivey, who did ‘Moanin’ the Blues,’ and Lil Green, who did ‘Why Don’t You Do Right’ before Peggy Lee. Then there are singers who I only know one or two songs by, but they kill me, like ‘You Ain’t Gonna Feed in My Pasture Now’ by Maggie Jones and ‘Keep Your Nose out of Mama’s Business’ by Harlem Hannah. Now that is some girl power!”