Letters To Cleo lead singer Kay Hanley is easily amused. The Boston-based alternative pop band is in Raleigh, N.C., and the venue – hallelujah! – has four pool tables.
“I am one happy camper,” Hanley said recently, muzzling the phone briefly to shout to guitarist Michael Eisenstein: “Hey, let’s play some pool after the sound check!”
This camaraderie may not seem like much, but it is a big step for Letters To Cleo. At one point, long before becoming the new darlings of the modern-rock world with the hit “Here & Now” and its CherryDisc/Giant debut album “Aurora Gory Alice,” the quintet was “this close” to packing it in.
“I had already started a new band and we had circled a date in the datebook for our last show as Letters To Cleo,” said Hanley, who falls short of naming the culprit for the group’s discontent during the recording of “Aurora Gory Alice.”
All she will say is when bassist Scott Riebling replaced the “negative member,” the difference was like night and day.
“When Scott joined, it was a cause for celebration,” Hanley said. “We finally felt like a band. Before that, there had been so many forces working against us. We weren’t getting along. Then with this tiny little change, our whole attitude changed.”
From there, everything fell into place. After “Aurora Gory Alice” was issued on local indie CherryDisc in late 1993, Giant Records caught wind of it, signed the band to a deal and agreed to rerelease it. Before they knew it, Letters To Cleo had a chart hit with “Here & Now” (which also figured prominently in the TV soundtrack for “Melrose Place”) and the accompanying video was an MTV Buzz Bin clip.
“It was all shocking, absolutely shocking,” Hanley said of the reaction. “Before all this, we were in the studio making a new record, putting down the basics in L.A., when I heard ‘Here & Now’ on KROQ. Then the next thing we know, we’re on MTV.
“Then we went back on tour, going out to make a last-ditch attempt to get our name out there. But instead of playing for three people in a smoke-filled club, it was 500 in a jam-packed place. It was completely crazy but not at all unpleasant.” Not ones to rest on their laurels, Letters To Cleo mails out its follow-up album, “Wholesale Meats & Fish,” on Aug. 1. From the opening track, “Demon Rock,” to the wispy closer “I Could Sleep (The Wuss Song),” the new LP finds the group in a more upbeat light.
And as for that album title …
“The reason we picked it was because it’s very open to interpretation,” Hanley said. “It can mean anything. But actually the title came from a sign we saw on the Bronx Causeway in New York. It was a hot summer day and we were punch drunk from being on the road, with a hole in the floor board on the van. We were breathing exhaust fumes the whole way, and then we saw ‘Wholesale Meats & Fish’ in big, bold letters on the side of a building. I’ll never forget the image.”
BWF (before we forget): The band’s third album, “Go!,” was released in October 1998. … Open Letters to Cleo on the Web @ www.letterstocleo.com.