The Road Well Traveled
Dishwalla's new album, their second, is entitled And You Think You Know What Life's About. The title is a sarcastic one, because after releasing what would become Billboard Magazine's Rock Song of the Year in 1996, the band toured for two and a half years and realized how little they really knew about life.
"It's different from being in a small town in Santa Barbara to being on the road all over the world," says 28-year-old J.R. Richards, the band's vocalist and lyricist. "I think we realize how much we haven't figured out, how much we didn't have a grasp of things."
The search for knowledge has been a constant theme for Dishwalla. The band rose to prominence on the strength of "Counting Blue Cars," a power-chord-driven radio hit that asks, from a child's perspective, questions about the existence of God. The song's catchy melody, driven by Richards' delivery of the line "Tell me all your thoughts on God," appealed enough to listeners to earn the album Pet Your Friends gold status. Extensive touring followed, and that raised even more questions for Richards, who, like other younger rockers supporting a record for the first time, realized that success isn't just about music and audiences.
"A lot of people in this situation would probably sit back and say, 'Is this worth doing? Is there enough good still coming out of this?'" he says from Santa Monica, just days before embarking on the second leg of a three-month tour. "I love to play and write music, and I hope I can always do that, but I'm learning to deal with these other things I never wanted to know much about. Legalities of business, the politics involved with radio stations and labels -- it's very soap opera-ish. But it's still worth being involved in all this, to be able to play and write music."
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Richards admits that he has a tendency to emphasize the negative aspects of a situation. Asked for highlights from his years on the road, he has trouble coming up with even one.
"It's been such a blur," he says. "I tend to remember all the places where I got hurt or where something bad happened. I don't know why those things tend to jump out; they just seem to be markers. I can tell you places where I broke my foot or got 16 stitches or where we almost crashed. I tend to remember those things."
After he's pressed, Richards finally recalls what he considers a positive experience -- which involved his getting arrested. "The last time you play with a band, you play jokes on each other. We played with the Goo Goo Dolls on a military base in Kentucky, and the military police were the security for the event. Somehow, the [Goo Goo Dolls] convinced the military police to arrest us on stage, in the middle of the show. They threw us in the back of the paddy wagon and handcuffed us. I thought they were serious, that someone did something stupid. They held us for about five or ten minutes, then they started laughing at us."
One of the reasons Richards has such a tough time coming up with highlights is the isolation he felt while on tour. As "Counting Blue Cars" scaled the charts in 1996, Dishwalla was constantly on the road, where Richards felt cut off from the outside world. "You have no idea what's going on around you and how well you're doing as a band. It's trippy to be on a bus and get a phone call once a day, and someone tells you where you're at," he says, referring to the chart and industry-feedback updates the band got from management and its record company. "You have no idea if they're being straight with you, or are they blowing smoke up your ass, playing devil's advocate or what. So you get trapped in a sense of paranoia that you don't know what's going on around you. You feel like you're out of control."
If nothing else the band's success supplied Richards with new songwriting material. While working on Pet Your Friends, he pondered big-ticket issues, such as the existence of God and how people communicate (covered by the album's second single, "Charlie Brown's Parents"). But while touring he turned inward.
"Being on the road and seeing so much of the world made me think about how I view things," he notes. "I don't really talk a lot on the road. I do it purposely to save my voice, and there's not a lot of communication that goes on because I'm basically with the same people. That made me spend a lot of time thinking about how I view things."
As an example Richards offers "Once in a While" from the new CD. The track opens with the line "When you close your eyes, do you like what you see/Inside your mind."
"I was thinking a lot about the type of person I am -- how people view me and what perspective they have when they meet me as a person," explains Richards. "It's almost a self-diagnostic look at myself, trying to decide if I'm a good person or a complete asshole.
"I always have to make a conscious effort to be extra nice to people. I try to be a nice person, but, if you're not careful and say one bad thing that can be misconstrued one way or another, it can be interpreted as a bad thing. It's something that a lot of people that are really famous probably have to deal with. You have to be careful, because you can get a reputation for being a mean person if you had one bad day."
Touring may have been a hassle, but recording the new album -- at least by record-industry standards -- wasn't. Before the process began, Dishwalla -- rounded out by Rodney Browning (guitar), Scot Alexander (bass), Jim Wood (keyboards), and George Pendergast (drums) -- built its own studio, referred to as "the Paradise Ranch," in a two-story house on a 48-acre property in the band members' native Santa Barbara. Working with co-producer Marc Waterman, they were able to record without the usual time constraints imposed by a studio that rents its space by the hour.
As a result Dishwalla had plenty of time to experiment. And You Think You Know What Life's About is layered with atmospheric keyboard sounds, techno-influenced electronic drums, and many other effects, not all of which were used successfully. Musically the album is often bombastic, some of the songs smothered by the special effects. Some of Richards' lyrics, meanwhile, are vague, obtuse, or cliched, as in these lines from "Once in a While": "Don't go to the other side, for nothing at all/Better make it worth your while/ Gonna break down that wall, gonna take the fall."
Richards, however, is happy with the new album. In fact, he feels that the freedom the band had while making it may have been worth the trials suffered during that first onslaught of fame.
"I think the new record is better than the last one," he says. "There is so much more depth here than on 'Counting Blue Cars.' With this band it's so important to me to get that out where people can see that."
Even if it means hitting the road.
Dishwalla will perform at Buzz Bake Sale '98 on Sunday, November 1, at the Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach. Other bands on the bill include: Goo Goo Dolls, Better Than Ezra, Soul Coughing, Seven Mary Three, the Urge, Reel Big Fish, and Gravity Kills. Gates open at noon. Tickets cost $15. For tickets and information, call 954-523-3309 in Broward or 561-966-3309 in Palm Beach.
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