SweetLou's songs surge and soothe like a red Sea Breeze: all vodka and the Raspberries. It's the heady, sticky stuff of first-time romance. But for SweetLou founder and frontman, Bryan Cohen, this musical cruise has not always been smooth sailing, and getting a first release ashore has proved a Homeric effort.
SWEETLOU BIJOU, SKIP PERI Tractor Tavern, 206-789-3599, $7 9 p.m. Fri., March 21
The voyage began in the early '90s when Cohen, then playing with Anton Neutron, met Ryan Mefferd of Smokelahoma. "I always wanted a lead guitarist who could sing great harmonies, and that was Ryan," says Cohen, "so when the opportunity came, we hooked up." They played twangy Americana as Bryan Cohen and the AM Disasters and self-released the CD Gone Awry in 1999. It was well received, but Cohen wanted a follow-up with more pop.
"The pop songs seemed to go over best, and we wanted music that really excited you when you were like, 13, 14 , 15," says Cohen. "I was 13 in 1983I remember the Cars and Cheap Trick. There was just something about those guitars and synthesizers that remind me of falling in love and having your heart broken for the first time. I know people dismiss the '80s and new wave, but at its best it was Devo: art and angular and fun. It got mushy and bloated, like Flock of Seagulls, but there was a lot of music that was fun to grow up to. We wanted that."
"We" was Cohen, Mefferd, bassist Paul Christofferson, and a drummer's seat that rotated with Spinal Tap-esque frequency. They reteamed with Disasters producer Jimmy Sangster for preproduction. Vocally, the sound was soaring. "Paul could sing those really superhigh harmonies, you know, that sound like a girl. Ryan's vocal arrangements were brilliant." Then the drummer left. Fortunately Ben Smith, one of the best (and busiest) drummers in the Northwest, was available.
"We can't [overstate] the importance of Ben," enthuses Cohen. "We had lost momentum and confidence, but when he came in, from the very first day, the songs got played right. And after every song he would say, 'That's a great song.' I mean, it really filled us up, he's so positive. [The record] probably wouldn't have happened without him."
Still, it took three studios, various guest musicians, string arrangements, and another six months to get American Singles to a releasable stage. The album finally bowed in April 2002, but SweetLou still hadn't reached the elusive shore.
"The feedback for the CD was positive we sold the first run, but it was suggested that if we get some of the vocals up one more notch up, we'd have some really great lead tracks. I talked to my vocal coach, Sue Carr, and she pushed me to contact some other producers. Sue's really experienced. She's worked here with, like, Chris Cornell, Adam Czeisler (Sweetwater), Layne Staley, and Jerry Cantrell. She's in L.A. now, always working, so I took her advice," Cohen says. "The next thing I know, [producer/ engineer] Dave Bianco, who's worked with tons of artists including Tom Petty, calls and says, 'I dig your voice and the tunes. I think we could upgrade them.'"
Cohen and Mefferd went to L.A. in December and rerecorded the vocals for three tracks: "So Wrong," "She's Got a Way," and "Radio Heaven." The sweetness remained, but the songs gained a lot more snap. That done, American Singles was repackaged and remastered with a rerelease planned for March 2003. Then Mefferd resigned.
"He needed a break, and I understood his position, but I was bummed," admits Cohen. "He was so much a part of everything for so long." Fortunately, no bridges were burned, and after three months away, Mefferd returned. "It's a good thing," says Cohen. "We've also added keyboard player Andrew Nelson, so we're solid. I'm looking forward to the rerelease party at the Tractor.
"And with everything, I think it's just really kind of cool that we've been able to go yet another round. So far, the Mountain has been very supportive, and we'll be playing out more, so we'll see where it takes us. A friend of mine says it takes three years to break a band in Seattle. I have to think that's true."