Minibar – Try, try again
The second album from Minibar, Fly Below The Radar, includes a song titled “Unstoppable”. Featuring Simon Petty’s earnest vocals backed by sweeping guitars and a waltz-like beat, it wasn’t written about the band’s battles in the music business, but it could very well serve as their theme.
The quartet has already experienced the highs of early notices, landing a major-label recording contract, moving from London to Santa Monica, recording a big-budget debut with Grammy-winning producer T Bone Burnett. The lows soon followed. The critically acclaimed Road Movies fly below the radar to the cutout bin, the band toured with virtually no label support, and ultimately lost its record deal.
Other bands might have packed it in, but Minibar simply regrouped, accepted the helping hand of some famous friends, and re-emerged wiser from the experience.
However, Minibar hasn’t escaped completely unscathed. When questioned about the band’s major-label experience, Petty tries to put an end to it. “To be honest, I don’t want to talk about it,” he says. “I don’t want it to look like I’m whining about Universal. It’s not constructive.”
Although you can sense the underlying pain in his voice, Petty would like to believe that whatever disappointments the band experienced have helped Minibar in the long run. “I think we’ve been forced to become a much tighter unit not just musically, but as a band in the broadest sense of the word,” he says. “We were forced to define ourselves musically and also kind of group together. They couldn’t divide and conquer. We were forced to become quite resilient.”
It would be difficult to divide and conquer Minibar. Since July 1999, Petty, bassist Sid Jordan, guitarist Tim Walker and drummer Malcolm Cross have lived together in a two-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica. The front room/kitchen serves as the band’s recording space. While it may sound like some sort of sitcom in the making, the Minibar bunch get along quite fine, thanks, or at least well enough.
“I have to be so careful — if I tell you anything about my living situation and it appears in print, it’s going to make my living situation worse,” Petty quips. Once again, he chooses to focus on the positives. “We live four streets from the sea and walking distance from a fantastic bar, Renee’s, the Third Street Promenade, and it’s peaceful. I remember the first time we went to Santa Monica, we thought, ‘God, we’ve got to move here.'”
On this afternoon, Petty has opted to give his flatmates a break. He’s holed up in a booth overlooking the beach at the Cheesecake Factory in Marina Del Rey, California, picking at some white chocolate raspberry truffle cheesecake, and catching up on band business in preparation for the release of Fly Below The Radar. It’s Minibar’s official return after the disappointment of Road Movies, or as Petty calls it, “The big-budget blockbuster straight-to-video album.”
It’s not a bad comparison. Like a direct-to-video movie, Road Movies did help Minibar develop a loyal cult following and win over some key friends. Alt-rock singer-songwriter Pete Yorn has called Minibar “one of the greatest bands I’ve ever heard,” while members of the Wallflowers became so enamored with Road Movies after being turned on to it by a mutual friend, they contacted Minibar and offered free studio time.
“A friend of ours, Ben Peeler, who was playing with them on their last tour, gave them a CD of our first album on the way back from Japan,” Petty recalls. “I suppose they were so bored, they listened to it. They really liked it and rang us up and said, ‘Listen, we’ve got a day of downtime at Sunset Sound. Would you like to come here and record some music with us?’ We were like, ‘Let me get this straight, you’re in a fabulously successful group and you want us to come record music in Sunset Sound. What is the catch?’ And they said, ‘No catch, just come down.'”
As a result, Wallflowers keyboardist Rami Jaffee and bassist Greg Richling co-produced three tracks on Fly Below The Radar. Jaffee produced one other track by himself and contributed keyboards to five songs on the album. More than half of the album was recorded at Jaffee’s Chicasa studio following the initial two-song session at Sunset Sound. The remainder of the album was recorded at the band’s apartment, save for three songs cut at Mad Dog Studios in Burbank with producer Dusty Wakeman, known for his work with Lucinda Williams, Rosie Flores and Jim Lauderdale.
While Minibar once again worked with producers of some renown, the bits-and-pieces recording approach to Fly Below The Radar was a far cry from the excess of Road Movies, which cost half a million dollars to make. “It was an expensive record,” Petty admits. “T Bone is a huge producer, so he’s expensive, and we also recorded in studio D at the Village Recorder, this ridiculously opulent studio. It was just fantastic.”
While the surroundings may have been the stuff that rock star dreams are built on, the sessions at times were nightmarish. “We did ten weeks, and that was just the recording,” Petty says. “Then there was the mixing, and remixing…We were a young, scratch young, inexperienced band. T Bone wanted to record us live, and we weren’t good enough, at least to start with. And, I lost my voice for four weeks. I couldn’t sing, which was probably psychosomatic nerves. I couldn’t sing.”
Still, the band made the most of the situation. “We rented the Nevermind drum kit because we needed big drums,” Petty recalls, “and we sent back a set of Swiss handbells because they weren’t chimey enough.” Soon, however, reality set in. The record came in well over budget. “It was partly our fault because we were inexperienced, and partly their fault because they didn’t monitor the situation whatsoever when we were recording our album. If you don’t come down to the studio for ten weeks, you can’t complain about what it sounds like at the end of ten weeks,” Petty says.
“It was a pretty dark record,” he continues. “It was T Bone. He’s a maverick and he likes fucking things up. He’s a pretty dark guy; that’s what I like about him. He told me once that he tries to get as much dissonance onto every record he makes as possible, because he knows it’s all going to be mixed down and mastered out in the end any way, so the more you can throw on there, the more interesting it’s going to sound.”
The band’s soaring West Coast-style harmonies and British charm may have initially seemed intriguing to the Cherry Entertainment Group, a division of Universal Records. But once Road Movies was completed, the label seemingly had no desire or no clue how to promote the album. Universal didn’t even arrange a record-release party; instead, a celebration was held in the backyard of noted groupie-turned-author Pamela Des Barres.
Undaunted, Minibar hit the road, touring on their own tab. “We were playing with people like the Jayhawks and Wilco, but [Universal] didn’t give us any money because they didn’t feel they were appropriate bands,” Petty recalls.
Minibar saw things differently. “Those are bands whose audiences would be extremely receptive to a slightly quirky four-piece who obviously listened to a lot of West Coast music,” Petty figures. “They are appropriate bands in that sense, but they’re not appropriate bands in the fact that they’re not huge.”
Minibar also came to realize they weren’t likely to get played on commercial alternative radio. As Petty explains, “Two or three years ago, there was no room here for anything remotely melodic, let alone any sort of twisted fey Englishman going, ‘I think I need a holiday from myself.’ Get fucking real. I think we were fairly aware we weren’t going to be an overnight sensation.”
Still, no matter how grim things looked, there was something that gave Minibar hope. In July 2000, before Road Movies had even been released, the band landed a gig opening a show on Wilco’s sold-out three-night stand at the Fillmore in San Francisco. It was an eye-opening experience that inspired Minibar, even after Universal declined to renew the band’s contract in late 2001.
“It was like, ‘See what we can try and do? They sold out three nights in a row; you only have to do that a couple of times every quarter and you’ve got enough to survive on as a band,” Petty recalls. “They were in that kind of uncertain period and they were just fucking phenomenal. We thought, ‘That’s it. That’s exciting and weird, and sad, and beautiful,’ and all those people loved them.”
The fact that Wilco ultimately prevailed in its battle with record-company politics also inspired Minibar. “They fought the system and won. They sold their record back to their record company. Well done boys, and it’s a great record.”
While Minibar is no longer sleeping with corporate giants, that’s just fine with Petty. The release from Universal gave the band the freedom to record again on its own terms. After putting out a limited edition EP (titled Unstoppable) on their own last year, they’re releasing Fly Below The Radar on the Los Angeles independent label Foodchain, whose roster includes the late Betty Blowtorch, Garageland, and the Januaries. “We have an option on the record company rather than the other way around,” Petty says, “so if things go great, brilliant’ if it doesn’t, there are no hard feelings.”