Remember when 2001 seemed like it was a looong way off? Remember when rockets to mars existed only in the films of Ed Wood, had visible strings and were wrapped in what looked like tinfoil? Well, good morning Mr. Van Winkle, it's 2001. Space is the new rich man's hideout, and you can bet that if Mars had oxygen, it'd have an Olive Garden, a Blockbuster, and a Bed, Bath & Beyond by now.
Meanwhile, back on Earth in Cincinnati, 2001 is shaping up to be a great year for local releases, especially for those rooted in the vital Pop movements of the Apollo era — Greenhornes, Bears, and Simpletons, to name a few, with Stapletons on the way.
Drawing less on the '60s, and more on the high-energy Power Pop of the '80s and '90s, Rockets To Mars are an evolving Rock band on the verge of their first full-length release. Underneath the Halflight, in stores Tuesday, will be the 32nd release from Lunch Records, a label run by the drummer of a Boston band, Orbit. (The Rockets To Mars/Orbit coupling, as predestined as it sounds, actually grew out of a chance meeting at 1997's SXSW Music Festival in Austin.)
Jay Hopper, RTM's front man and sole original member, sees the debut CD as, "a culmination of the last five years." Hopper, as the chief song writer, has seen his supporting cast change over the life of the band, but in drummer Benson Wright and guitarist Mike Breen, he's found stability.
Wright has emerged as an excellent singer as well, often smoothing the rough edges of Hopper's straining vocals with his sweet harmonies. Departed bassist Brad Quinn was the final cornerstone of the band, as it appears on the album. Quinn and Breen are long-time music journalists (full disclosure: Breen is the music editor of CityBeat) and both have extended histories of playing in bands. The accumulated experience and the gifts of those involved combine to make Underneath the Halflight a rewarding listen.
The 11 tunes contained within are universally infectious and instantly accessible. Most are three- or four-chord, up-tempo rockers that pile hooks on top of one another, à la Weezer or new flavor American Hi-Fi, not exactly the mook-rock aggression that seems to be king of the hill right now. I asked Hopper if he thought his band might've more easily co-existed alongside bands from a different era, say the early '80s, when The Cars, Church and Blondie were recording.
"I think we take a little from several eras. I've definitely been listening to Pet Sounds a whole lot lately. The Cars, Blondie, yeah. And '90s bands too, like Teenage Fanclub and even Dillon Fence, but there are some bands making records right now, like Supergrass, Weezer and Superdrag, that are basically axe-driven popsters. We're not an island."
Fans of the Rockets To Mars live show will be pleasantly surprised by how well-executed the CD sounds. "Before we did the record, we broke each song down," says Hopper. "And we tried to make sure everything made sense with everything else, and that nothing unnecessary was kept."
It's in this pre-production stage that having professional critics in the band pays off. Ultimately, it's heard in the band's direct simplicity: the interplay of the two guitars, the two voices, and the bass/ drums. Hopper says, "The record may be a little smoother than we actually are, and I think our shows are not yet as rock as they will be."
Aside from their explosive live shows, Rockets might be best known within the community for organizing and hosting the Popopolis show for the last three years at Newport's Southgate House. With it, the band unites national, regional and local bands to collectively wave the Pop music flag. It's attracted the attention of out-of-town Pop-heads. But despite talks of expansion, or music biz participation, the fest has chosen to stand alone. Last year's event was headlined by Knoxville's Superdrag but, in all, a dozen bands, interspersed with acoustic soloists, shared the stages at the Southgate House.
Members of Promenade and the Simpletons each returned the favor of inclusion by guesting on the Rockets' record. The event was named "best show" on many year-end scorecards, and Jay himself risked severe whiplash as he body-rocked before the audience he helped to construct. In fact, using Mick Jagger's "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" as a reference point, I asked him what would have to happen before "satisfaction" would be his: He says he "got some" at Popopolis. With the current focus on the album's release, plans for this year's Popopolis have yet to gel entirely, but Nov. 10 is the date reserved for the fandango.
To celebrate the release of Underneath the Halflight, RTM will host a CD release bash on Saturday that promises to complete a long-developing cycle. The band has worked through lineup changes, watched some of its signature songs rise up and then fall off of their set list, while playing a load of shows, both in town and out.
The fortuitous label association has set the band up with what Jay calls a "second home" in Boston. There, the band is met with increasing enthusiasm, which translates into "merch" numbers, as the band sells T-shirts and discs. Lunch Records has hired a team of independent promoters to work the record to radio, so there is hope that a growing list of cities will fall in line behind Boston to give Rockets their due.
The opportunity to travel to different cities has brought RTM into contact with some of their favorite bands. Rather than being intimidated, Jay feels these experiences have made the band more confident, as they discover the common ground these touring musicians share. "Even though we all have 'real' jobs, we have the mentality that we're as good as what's out there."
Indeed, it is 2001, and Rockets To Mars are for real.
ROCKETS TO MARS appear Saturday at the Southgate House.