It's the eve of Sneaker Pimps' return to the United States, the country that yanked the band's britches when it was busy reaching for the twinkling cup of fame in the late '90s. Drummer David Westlake is reminiscing.
"We lost our innocence on that tour, on every last level," he recalls of their first trip to the colonies. Massive Attack had, for the majority of the decade, tiptoed like a bulldozer through the post-grunge tulips and paved a verdant walkway for jazz vocalists and DJs to walk hand-in-hand. Then in 1997, Sneaker Pimps' debut, Becoming X, became the next great trip-hop hope. Virgin Records called the Pimps a "priority band" and sent them the red roses of corporate affection: stretch limos and cross-continental jaunts with the likes of the Aphex Twin. Still, it was a bad time.
"For everyone in the band, it had been a dream to go on tour," Westlake explains. "But when you see behind the façade, it's a kind of depressing experience. Plus, we were drunk every single day."
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Lasting 18 months, the tour spanned the death of Princess Diana and finished in San Diego. "We got wasted, and Chris [Corner, guitar and vocals] decided that he wanted to see his mother. Immediately. He dove into the ocean and tried to swim home to her, even though it was the wrong side of the country entirely. Liam [Howe, keys] fishing Chris out of the ocean in his new-romantic suit was kind of a tragic end to a tragic tour."
Wayworn and hung over, the band returned home, dismissed its lead singer, Kelli Dayton, and recorded Splinter, which documented the group's stateside experience but was not released here. Then, Westlake, Corner, Howe, and guitarist Joe Wilson packed the car and drove to the French countryside, recording Bloodsport in a remote farmhouse with no telephone.
Westlake describes the resulting CD as "different and dark." Lyrically, the album is effective at expressing the bitter pills the band swallowed in the back seats of those limousines. Those who may have been expecting a lock-step follow-up to Becoming X may be disappointed at the band's attempt to move forward from its "cappuccino café" sound while also taking a small detour into the past. (To dispel any doubt that Bloodsport tips its bowler to Depeche Mode, compare its title track to the Mode's "Policy of Truth.")
"We coined the term 'pervert pop' for some of the tracks on the record," Westlake continues. "When we try to do something that we think is pop and spontaneous, it comes out sounding kind of contrary to that."
Pervert pop indeed -- not only for the way anything resembling a "pop" sound is violated by darker themes but also for the peek the album gives us at what the boys did with their pants down. At the end of an album-long parley into substance ills and social abuses, "Grazes" finishes off Bloodsport with a touch of true beauty. Corner's voice practically hemorrhages helpless devotion to a fleeting love while a nonchalant female vocalist files her nails over a gritty guitar.
"When we went to France, it was with the intention of deliberately putting our heads in the sand to escape the London music scene as we see it," Westlake says, noting that the U.K.'s "island mentality" has isolated its musical tastes as well. "It seems to be a closed community of people. The idea of Britpop, which was talked about in the late '90s, has never gone away. That's why you get bands like Oasis going all over the place waving the British flag."
If Sneaker Pimps are waving any flag on their new American tour, it's white and somewhat smudged. "We're all sort of slightly tepid, because the temptation to go nuts in America is really high," the drummer admits. "There seems to be a kind of nihilism when we go to the States, because people are so immediate there, and they're so reserved in Europe. I think that kind of rubs off on us a bit."
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Though they will be touring primarily with music from Bloodsport, the boys may also premiere newer material, which Westlake describes as "very, very, very mellow, acoustic, and quite pastoral."
Whatever it does, the band is more autonomous than ever, reckons Westlake. "It's deeper than getting rid of Kelli. It's been the struggle with music labels and against that kind of island mentality that I was talking about. And on a very, very boring level, the technology has changed, so we can record on a laptop on a tour bus."
Once reaching for the golden cup of fame, another set of lads from London contents itself by reaching instead for a few pints and their instruments.
"Even if we die poor," Westlake concedes, "we'll die creatively rich."