The Sneaker Pimps are most easily identified with their slow-grooving single "6 Underground," a moody little pastiche of trip-hop beats, chilly xylophone, and a sampled sound check ("a one-two, a one-two"). Over it all sings Kelli Dayton, a 22-year-old waif with the sort of heliumized voice that's currently in fashion. But there's a more revealing track on the band's debut, Becoming X (Virgin Records). It's called "Post-Modern Sleaze."
Its opening lines: "She looks ahead, she paints her toenails red/She's wet and wild, a typical Nineties child/She makes every move they make/She takes everything they take/She must be a Thelma or Louise/She must be a postmodern sleaze."
Dayton didn't write the song; her fellow Sneaker Pimps, Liam Howe (keyboards) and Chris Corner (guitar), cowrote it, as they did the entire album. But Dayton, as the trio's frontwoman, must also act as their spokesperson. The song, she explains, speaking by phone from her new home in London, "is about the effect of the media on certain groups of people." It paints a picture of a fashionable but vacant young girl who apes whatever she sees on TV or hears on the radio. There isn't an original thought in her pretty head.
The term postmodern, contrary to the wisdom of MTV marketing execs, is not a synonym for "fast-moving." It's a label for, among other things, the cultural cul-de-sac so many artists live in today: a place where appropriation has replaced inspiration, where commentary overshadows creativity, where originality is a thing of the past.
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The Sneaker Pimps' song, then, is a rather strong statement considering its source: The band's best-known track ("6 Underground") borrows its xylophone riff from John Barry's score for the James Bond movie Goldfinger; the Sneaker Pimps' name comes from the Beastie Boys, who coined the phrase for a friend who procured their shoes; and the group's singer, the pierced-and-tattooed Dayton, didn't write one song on the album.
"When we get back from America, we're going to start writing the next album together," Dayton notes. (She's referring to the band's upcoming tour, which may include a stop in South Florida early next year; this year's tour, including a scheduled appearance at Chili Pepper, was cut short so the band could work on an album of remixes.) "First and foremost I am a singer, but I've always written, and I think it's very important to say what I'm feeling. It was very hard to sing the album, and there were points where, if it hadn't been such a good body of work, I wouldn't have been able to."
Though relatively young and only recently freed from the narrow confines of her native Birmingham, England, Dayton speaks thoughtfully, intelligently, and sometimes quite wisely. She responds to accusations of artistic theft, trendiness, and substituting style for substance with refreshing candor. A certain earnestness makes its way through her trilling West Midlands accent. It's enough to make one think the Sneaker Pimps might actually have something to say.
Dayton grew up in Bartley Green, a suburb of the depressed, industrial Birmingham. "My family's there, but I still get a cold shiver down my back when I think of it," she says of the area. "It's one of those places where people laugh if you're doing anything artistic."
Corner and Howe spotted her in a local pub, singing with what would be the last in a series of guitar bands, which she now describes generally as "not very good... not very individual, and not very intellectual, either." Corner and Howe -- "the boys," Dayton calls them -- were then writing and playing together under the name Line of Flight. But they needed a singer.
"They saw me playing live and obviously realized I could be doing better stuff," Dayton recalls with a laugh. She at first didn't think much of these two lads from Newcastle, but their music intrigued her. It was her first introduction to a sampler.
"A big point of sampling," she says, "which has really been overlooked by people in America, is that for a lot of English kids it was a way to bring an orchestra into your bedroom for not very much money. There's no way if you're on the dole that you can afford to pay other musicians. But you can make a whole symphony of sound with a sampler."
The Sneaker Pimps have relatively light fingers when it comes to pocketing music. While Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs is enjoying a hit song ("I'll Be Missing You") built on a sample of somebody else's hit song (the Police standby "Every Breath You Take"), the Sneaker Pimps weave their stolen goods into original melodies. Also, they have chosen less obvious jewels: a bit here from the art-pop of David Sylvian, a bit there from the avant-garde composer Luciano Berio.
"You always have the choice to take the artist to court if you feel betrayed," Dayton recommends. "We sent the record to people, like John Barry, and we did that because we respected him and what he's done in the past. I think the reason people like Beck do sampling is out of respect and being secure enough in their own musical ability to turn it into something evolving, something more relevant to today's society."
Some might call this artistic license. But, in a way, the Sneaker Pimps are operating entirely without one. Just as they feel free to reinterpret the works of others, they're happy when others reinterpret theirs. "Each of us has our own take on a song," Dayton posits. "Usually we're very ambiguous about what it means. And the songs, when they're handed over to the public, you give up all rights on your meaning and emotions. It doesn't stop where the artist created something." Perhaps that explains why the menacing "Low Place Like Home," which rails against the bleakness of the Newcastle 'burbs, applies just as well to Birmingham or even parts of Broward County.
Even the band itself doesn't always see eye to eye on its own songs: Howe and Dayton clashed over one line in "Post-Modern Sleaze." "Apparently, he'd read the story about Thelma and Louise causing wives to leave their husbands," Dayton explains. "So he put the line in there. But I doubt very much that totally happy women would one day run off just because of a movie. So I told him off about that one. But when I'm singing, I always put a different story in there anyway."
Maybe it's this noncommittal attitude that caused one reporter to accuse the Sneaker Pimps of promising little -- and delivering just that. Dayton seems perfectly aware of this, just as she realizes that the band may never escape the "trip-hop" label and inevitable comparisons to Tricky and Portishead, two other sampler-based acts from gloomy English towns. "The less imaginative people call it trip-hop," she contends. "It's funny to me that I'm working with people who have to package it and sell it, and that's fair enough. But that's not our job as musicians."
What is the musician's job, then? It used to be creating music. Now it seems to be re-creating other people's music. Dayton's heard this argument, too, and her defense is quite disarming.
"It's like language," she avers. "It's only rarely there'll be new words invented, or new colors, if you like. But it's what we do with the colors and the words that will always be changing.
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