Cherry Poppin' Daddies

By Dominick A. Miserandino,
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Steve talks about how it feels to be the most successful swing band in the country, with the hit,

DM) Most of your fans who know you from your hit song, "Zoot Suit Riot", how many do you think will be thrilled and how many will be disappointed by your newest record?

SP) Well, that's a good question. We have a lot of fans who know us from back in those day, because we have been around since 1989, especially on the West Coast, and we have a lot of people who know what we do. At least they know that we don't just play swing. Even during the year "Zoot Suit Riot" came out, we'd throw in two or three songs, just enough that we figured we could get away with...Stuff that we wanted to play ourselves, but during that time it was all the swingsters who'd would show up, and we felt kind of obliged to play that stuff more. You don't ever want to disappoint people. When we've played shows recently with this new set, people really respond. It doesn't get boring. It's not the same old beat the whole way through. People are responding well to it. I think it's something that you've got to see. Even though there's lots of genres presented, the thing holds together, so I don't think people will be freaked out that we don't sound the same on each song.

DM) When it comes time for the guy to file your CD in the record store's category, it sounds like you'd be apprehensive about their putting it under "swing."

SP) When they file us in "swing", I guess that's fine. I don't really care... I think we're more of a pop/rock band, or something like that. Even "Zoot Suit Riot" wasn't pure swing, it was a fusion of rock and swing music, or at least that's how I thought of it.

DM) What do you think caused the popularity of swing so suddenly in the late 90's?

SP) I think it was bubbling underground for a long time. There's a "roots revival" every once in a while, it seems. It comes up from under ground when the music gets kinda bland and too "poppy to live" kind of thing. Pop is just the absence of any sort of style. Every once in a while style has to come back in some way, shape or form. It was just a mistake that swing became popular. The DJ's had these play lists where the sets were same-ish, sort of like it is today, and they'd put on swing, and they'd get calls on it because it was different. And then there was a confluence of variant factors of other bands playing swing music... I guess it was just one of those things in the stars. It's the kind of music that has some sort of universal appeal. It's not an identity kind of music. It couldn't stick around with the youth, because it doesn't appeal to the young boys enough. It doesn't pump up their testosterone as much as they'd like it to, but swing did seem to do better with girls.

DM) Well, speaking of popularity, I recently was thinking about how, since "Zoot Suit Riot" came out, every time I've been to a wedding or any other sort of party like that, you always hear the band play it.

SP) (laughs), Because they think it will stand in the interest of the generations.

DM) Do you think it will?

SP) It seems to. My grandparents like it. I think that what rock and roll is, it has to do with young people's identities. That's what sets them apart from the other young people. It also has a little bit to do with biology. That's why metal and heavy rock will never go away, because it makes powerless high school boys feel powerful.

DM) So what social group does your music attract?

SP) The misfits, people who aren't one thing or another. I think people who are more secure in not needing to attach themselves to any particular movement or group. Just the misfit crowd, of which there are a lot of people. And, of course, there are a lot of girls, in a lot of ways, because they're more open to things... guys are really simple, they just like the sound of an E crowd on a Marshall stack with a really gruff vocal. They're not going to like anything that sounds pretty because it means they're a fag. (said sarcastically)

DM) But your music sounds a little "pretty."

SP) Sometimes it does sound pretty, which is why I don't think we connect with young guys in search of their sexual identity. They guys who were into swing were pretty secure...they felt secure enough to go dancing with a girl. In our culture, that's not something that's done by everybody. It's just too freaky and scary for most guys, whereas banging your head is not.

DM) Do you think that "Zoot Suit Riot" will stand the test of "wedding time" and be played in weddings for years to come?

SP) (laughing) That's what you really want to know! I think it will be played a lot, because at least for a while, any time the generations have to meet, like at weddings and church socials, they'll play that song.

DM) So considering that the infamous song is getting you continual name recognition and "wedding" air play, even though it does differ a little bit from the sound of the rest of your music, does it haunt you or are you thrilled by it?

SP) Both, really. The thing is, in a way, I think it thrusts us into a really weird state. For instance, in swing in general, because it spans the generations, it's seen as quasi-reactionary and somewhat squeaky clean, which is not us at all. It kind of put us in a place where we didn't feel real comfortable, as far as how we we're seen. And a lot of other bands and commercials spun it that way... squeaky clean and good for everybody--and since that's not how we were, we ended up with an image that didn't feel right. Not that we'd want to be the other extreme, but I'd say we're somewhat in between.

DM) If you could erase the past and redefine yourselves as a band, who are you?

SP) I think that "Soul Cadillac", the new record, is probably more similar to the way we fit on our other three records and pretty much a lot like how we are... we're diverse, we don't really define ourselves by genre. We just write songs and try to make them work within however they work. I think we fit with Ween and that kind of thing more.

DM) To use your own term, are you "squeaky-clean"?

SP) No, definitely not. We have probably the most heinous names in the history of rock. We've come out of punk rock. There's a kind of a dual nature to the band. On the one hand, there's a pretty sensitive side, and on the other hand,a despairing side.

DM) Despairing and crushing, the two thoughts that come to mind when I go to a party. (said sarcastically)

SP) Well, the lyrics to these songs, even on "Zoot Suit Riot", the song isn't my magnus opus of songwriting. It's about a period of time and an innocence in American history that was blatantly racist. It's a real pretty song, but what it's about is southern racism and the lynching of a black person.

DM) So how many people, do you think, hear the song and catch on to what it means?

SP) Well, I don't think that many people do. Look at "Drunk Daddy" on the "Zoot Suit Riot" album. It's about child abuse, essentially, and it's a swing song and everybody dances around to it.

DM) And do you think they're pretty much oblivious to what they're dancing to?

SP) Yeah, I think so. People are not trained to look into the interior; they're petty much surface. They're trained by capitalism, I think, to be that way. "Buy it because of the pretty surface." That's a planned obsolescence wired in. We put a pretty surface on things, just like everything else in this corporate society; hopefully, there will be some truth to it.

DM) When you sing a song which melodically might sound happy, but textually doesn't have the happiest message, what are you thinking and feeling at that time of diverging emotions?

SP) In a way, that's how I think of psychodelia. You know, L.A. is the creepiest place in the world to me, because the light is sort of soft and muted and nice and sunny, but Manson exists there. So, the clich?? is the horrible, scariest place in Transylvania, but in actuality, it's Los Angeles. So, in effect, you can use things that are not clich??s, to make it even scarier, or to make the point even more....

DM) Dramatic?

SP) Yeah, dramatic. It goes through undigested if you use the same old clich??s. If you use the same old clich??s, you don't feel the impact of the atrocity. I've seen people dance to that song and, in the middle of it, stop and start to understand what the words are and just cover their mouth and walk to the side of the floor. It would be way more dramatic than some heavy riff. It's way more powerful that way, to me.

DM) Speaking of that dichotomy, how many people have listened to the name of the band and have been oblivious to the meaning of the three words strung together?

SP) The thing is, our name is not meant to be like that, it's like those postcards of Jesus that you turn sideways and it waves. You can look at it one way or another way. I like that ambiguity to things. That's why I don't want to say it's this way or another way. But your question, really, is how many people really get that? And I'm just saying whoever gets that is whoever I'm talking to. If people want to just look at it, at the surface, then that's their problem, but I don't write it that way. I don't go, "I'm going to try to communicate only to the people who look at things from their perspective."--because then I'm screwing myself, because I'm giving this impression to the people like that that I'm just surface, or the world is just surface. The world has an inner life, and the stories are not just black and white clich??s.

DM) It's kinda funny how you talk about the dual message because the song, the band's name and the band itself have two completely different levels. I could never imagine Tom Brokaw saying the words, "Cherry Popping Daddies."

SP) Well, when we were on Letterman and Leno, they both said our name and did not like it. It was like they had a mouthful of poop. They knew that they were going to a mass audience. Jay Leno said very quickly, "The Cherry Popping Daddies, but it's not what you think, they're really great." And when Letterman did it, he tried to say it fast so that nobody would notice. But they say it and they're freaked out because they're trying to appeal to this mass audience. Pop culture is trying to offend no one. We didn't come out of that; we came from the loyal opposition. We came out of that punk movement. How can I deny that? I started this band a long time ago, and we just used it. We didn't know that in 10 years we'd turn into some sort of happy, peppy, feel-good things.

DM) I realized that I was oblivious to the meaning of the name for quite a while.

SP) Well, my brain doesn't kick in every day either. Some people are upset by it, but it just happens to be our name. It's kind of too late at this point. We've been around for 12 years. It's not meant to insult people's wounds. Our band's ideas were started in a very different time and a very different head state. We come from the northwest sub-culture, where alternative rock originated. We wanted to do something different on our own, and we just ended up doing our own thing. Why would I have to be just swing and nothing else? We don't do that, we play more than that.

DM) Then that leaves me with one big question. Is it easier to say that in hindsight? That is, is it easier to say you wish they focused on more than just your swing music, because you've already reached that guaranteed level of success with "Zoot Suit Riot", and that brought you to the point where the band is always going to be known to some degree?

SP) (pauses, thinking) That's a good question. "Zoot Suit Riot" came out of a very practical thing. Our manager thought we should put all of the swing songs on one big album instead of having them out across all three. People would come up to him at his table and ask which ones had the most swing songs. He figured if he had all the swing songs on one CD, then he could have a record to sell every night. We had it for a while, Mojo saw how many we were selling on our own and signed us. In hindsight, hmmm, the only change that happened is that when we started blowing up, we figured we should start to tailor our set to more swing.

DM) But once you started "blowing up", you must have felt more security, being guaranteed that level.

SP) Right, right. And we probably couldn't have done it just by being our wacky selves all along.

DM) That's why I wonder, hypothetically, if the past four years had gone without the hit, "Zoot Suit Riot", would you be begging for the focus to be on the swing or still feel a bit disturbed that people don't see both sides of you?

SP) Yeah, no... hmmm, I remember what it was like to never have a reach around from the press, or anything like that. It would suck, yeah, maybe in retrospect it was easier, because we did get that insured... but at the same time, I have to fight the wrong understanding of us. It's almost like a typecast, like the professor on Gilligan's Island. Yeah, it was great that he was on Gilligan's, but now he can't get a job because he's typecast as the professor, and before that show he was a well-known actor who acted with Marlon Brando and the likes. Now, no one can look at his face without seeing the professor.

DM) So to sum it up, how do you feel about being the most successful swing band that's not really a pure swing band?

SP) I feel fine, I feel good about it. I'm not disappointed by anything that's happened; I'm just trying to see if I could be more easily understood the way I am. You're right, I will always be understood as being a cardboard cutout swing band thing, but I would like to be understood more deeply by society. If it doesn't happen, so be it or whatever. I'll try, I'll try my best but if it doesn't work out... there could be a million reasons why it might not but I'll try my best.

 

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