One minute he’s getting a gold record for sales of more than 500,000 copies for his first album, and the next he’s reduced to delivering flowers for a living.
Nothing, it seems, ever comes easy for Primitive Radio Gods singer-songwriter Chris O’Connor.
Four years ago, O’Connor was one of rock ‘n’ roll’s once-in-a-blue-moon success stories, a former member of the 1980s indie rock group I-Rails who became an air traffic controller in Los Angeles and got so burned out in that high-pressure profession that he dug out an old demo from his closet and shipped copies to every major label under the sun.
Much to O’Connor’s surprise, an executive at Columbia U.K. signed his one-man show known as Primitive Radio Gods. O’Connor’s “Rocket” album, five years in the making, was launched in June 1996, just as the single, “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand,” was climbing to the top of Billboard’s modern rock tracks chart. The song, cleverly incorporating a sample of B.B. King’s “How Blue Can You Get,” also appeared on “The Cable Guy” film soundtrack.
Though “Standing” was never released as a commercial single, there was enough radio airplay to fuel “Rocket” to gold status. O’Connor even added former I-Rails band mates, Tim Lauterio (drums) and Jeff Sparks (bass), and guitarist Luke McAuliffe to the group and toured North America.
Then, as quick as you can say “one-hit wonder,” O’Connor’s rags-to-riches story turned into a same-as-it-ever-was struggle.
“It was bad from the very, very beginning, coming over to Columbia U.S., because we were originally signed to Columbia London,” O’Connor said recently. “There was a lot of pressure to get songs into movies, and I kept saying no. Finally, we did do that one movie (‘The Cable Guy’). I also wanted to be able to do my own stuff. That’s what causes a lot of tension with any major label; you’re wanting to do it yourself. But they have a plan for you; whatever’s happening on the chart at the time, they try to push you in that direction and they want you to look a certain way and write a certain song to fit into a format.
“Then there was the whole thing about when we went to renegotiate, they offered us like nothing after they had already made millions of dollars and got the record for nothing. It was bad blood from the beginning.”
By early 1997, just as Primitive Radio Gods began work on a follow-up album, Columbia dropped them.
“That’s why it was such a shock,” O’Connor said. “It was like, ‘It’s fine if we fail, if we make a second record and there’s no hits and nobody likes it,’ but don’t we even get a chance to fail?”
Jonathan Daniel signed the band to Hi-Fi/Sire and everything, it seemed, was back on course.
“Finally, it was going to come out, we had a release date and everything,” O’Connor said, “but then at the last minute Sire – our new parent label – got bought by London, and Sire was gutted. We got stuck in this limbo, where London didn’t release it, yet they didn’t want to let us go, so we were back in this kind of purgatory for a year. It seems to be part of our destiny to have to go through a bunch of shit before we have to get something out.”
As they waited for another opportunity, the four took on day jobs. O’Connor, who had lived off the money he made from “Rocket” as long as he could, delivered flowers for a year.
Again, Daniel came to their rescue. He built his fledgling Kramden Enterprises around the group and enlisted Boulder, Colo.-based What Are Records? to distribute and market the group’s long-overdue album, “White Hot Peach.”
The album, an unexpected blast of brilliant, experimental power-pop, was made available last month on the Web sites Napster, Scour Exchange, stationMP3, Angrycoffee and Emusic and released in retail stores via W.A.R.?
“It took five years for the first record to come out, and now four years later here we are again,” a relieved O’Connor said. “Whether it’s the greatest record in the world, who knows, but it’s as good as most stuff out there. It’s a good record, and it definitely deserves to get out. This second one is a much better album, if for no other reason because we’ve had so long to work on it. ‘Rocket’ was just kind of tossed out, something I would throw out on the weekends when I got time off from work. Never before in our little musical journey making records had we worked harder and longer on songs. We had a lot of material to choose from; we had like 20 or 30 mixes of just one song. So obviously that’s going to make a better record, the more songs you have and the more you get to work on them.
“The making of this other one was done for the first couple of years where we were full-time musicians; we had the money and we were doing nothing but writing and recording. I bought some recording equipment and started getting into the recording aspect of it.”
“Rocket” was hard-edged, drawing upon O’Connor’s rock and rap influences. “White Hot Peach” takes a page out of the Beach Boys-meets-XTC textbook, from the lilting “Ghost of a Chance” to the spacious and crystalline “Motor of Joy” and “Whatever Makes McCool.”
“On ‘Rocket,’ there’s a heavier, more of a rock and rap influence, since I had been listening to Public Enemy,” O’Connor said. “Then I got burned out on that and really got into the Red House Painters and ‘Loveless’ by My Bloody Valentine and Guided By Voices. I got onto a different track, and of course, being in Southern California, there was a vibe there of the sunsets and the coast, playing slower and laid-back.
“The first album was made in ’91 and it didn’t come out till ’96. By ‘White Hot Peach,’ I was already listening to all kinds of different stuff and having different influences. We were changing and getting older. This new one is a little more current, because the last recordings were done in ’98. They’re all pop records, more or less, because they do have an ear to the ground.” “White Hot Peach” also debunks the notion that O’Connor is another Prince, doing it all himself. He co-wrote most of the songs with Sparks, and Lauterio and McAuliffe also contributed lyrically.
“The perception was that it was just me, and it was at the time that the first record came out,” O’Connor said, “but we formed a partnership. It’s a band in the fullest extent; the money gets split. If you look at the credits, Jeff sang as many or more songs than me. It’s definitely a band effort.”
By making “White Hot Peach” available for fans to freely download, O’Connor hopes more people will be exposed to the music and want to buy the album. It’s a gamble they’re willing to take, he says.
“We obviously don’t have the big machine this time, but we’re pumping it into radio,” he said. “It’s a lot smaller, more of a grass-roots type of thing, but we’re getting some airplay and we’re working on a video for the second single. It’s a lot of stuff done by Luke, 8mm footage made back when he was a teenager. We’re having a friend of ours piece that together. Just the fact that we’re on radio at all is pretty cool at this point, but we’ve basically had to start over.
“After this much time, you can’t really rely on people remembering your name or what happened back in ’96. Ultimately, this record could be just as successful, if not more, than the other one just because it’s better. It’s stronger in terms of songwriting, but it’ll take more time to work it.”
The four are already working on their third album. O’Connor crosses his fingers, hoping it doesn’t take another four years (and more anguish) to release it.
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “The first one I remember listening to was when I was 3 or 4, my brother had a single of the Beatles’ ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ I do remember having ‘Fopp’ by the Ohio Players; that might have been the first one I actually paid money for, and then when I was about 12, I remember going to a thrift store and buying an album by Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes, but when I got home, the record inside was actually Aerosmith’s ‘Toys in the Attic,’ so for the longest time I thought Amboy Dukes had actually done ‘Toys in the Attic.’ ”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “The US Festival when I was 17. I went with some friends in this bitchin’ Camaro. We went on the third day and saw Little Steven, Quarterflash, Missing Persons, U2, the Pretenders, Stevie Nicks, and David Bowie headlined it. All that in one day was pretty amazing.”
THE LAST CD I BOUGHT: “I got the Flaming Lips’ ‘The Soft Bulletin’ about two months ago. I love it. I’ve listened to them before and liked their stuff, but that record blew me away.”
BWF (before we forget): Tune into Primitive Radio Gods on the Web @www.primitiveradiogods.com.