The post-grunge era was an especially adult-alternative friendly time. Bands such as Sister Hazel, Live, Gin Blossoms and Tonic rose out of the ashes of grunge and their small venue roots to find a space in heavy rotation. For a short time they dominated airplay on both radio and MTV. Power chords were traded in for classical guitar arpeggio; outward aggression for somber introspection. Maybe it was the Mediterranean climes, as opposed to those dreary Seattle skies, but Santa Barbara in particular was a breeding ground for this “new” sound with a more optimistic slant on the human condition. Two bands, Toad the Wet Sprocket and Dishwalla, surfed the wave to the top of the Billboard charts. If you owned a radio or television in the mid-’90s, then you have probably heard of them.
Dishwalla was formed in Santa Barbara in 1992 by original members, frontman J.R. Richards, bassist Scot Alexander, guitarist Rodney Browning Cravens and drummer George Pendergast. A few years later, the quartet would become a quintet with the addition of keyboardist Jim Wood to the line up. After several years of developing their chops, rising through the ranks of the local scene, they signed with the A&M record label and cut their debut album, Pet Your Friends – think, “Counting Blue Cars.” For better or worse, the line “Tell me all your thoughts on God,” is forever emblazoned onto your psyche.
While the adult-alternative/modern rock movement was in vogue, the band was phenomenally successful. Pet Your Friends went platinum selling over 1,000,000 copies. In 1996, the band played at the Billboard Music Awards and were awarded “Rock Song of the Year” for “Counting Blue Cars.” They toured extensively on a national and international level, playing gigs with notable peers Sheryl Crow and Blind Melon.
But a mere two years later, by the time Dishwalla had released their sophomore album, the verbosely titled And You Think You Know What Life’s About, the American music scene had made an abrupt about face. The young-adult market that had sent Pet Your Friends platinum had been replaced by an even younger market of pop adoring teens. Sales were hurt further by the marketing of the album, which came in the midst of one of the largest mergers the music industry had seen in decades. At perhaps the worst possible time, Dishwalla’s sophomore effort was released as corporate giants Universal and Polygram joined forces.
Though the second album never achieved the commercial success of Pet Your Friends, it was imbued with the same combination of poetic lyrics and soul-driven rock. The band continued to prosper by touring extensively – playing such high profile gigs as Woodstock ’98 – and providing songs to various soundtracks, including “The Avengers” and “American Pie.”
Dishwalla is currently in the process of touring for their upcoming third album Opaline, slated for release on April 23 of this year. The album also marks the addition of drummer Pete Maloney, a veteran sessions player who joined the band during their last tour. Opaline is the first release on a new label, Immergent Records.
“The [vice president] of [Artists & Repertoire (A&R)] at Immergent was the original A&R that signed Dishwalla to A&M,” Maloney said. “When he started up with a new company and became the head of A&R, we jumped at the chance to go with him. Every band needs a champion, a point person that comes in and fights for them and he’s been just brilliant for us.”
Deciding to leave their established label to sign with the fledgling Immergent was a bold and risky move for Dishwalla. Interscope is a big player with a much higher profile and the resources to propel any record to notoriety. But bigger is not necessarily better. In the music business, a true ally is a rare find.
“It’s a smaller label, much more of a family. Everyone is working toward the same common goal,” Maloney said of Immergent. “There’s always pros and cons; there’s always risks because it’s a new company. At the same time they’re really driven to succeed with this record.”
Taking a risk on Dishwalla, Immergent hopes to make a name for their new company; taking a risk on Immergent, Dishwalla hopes to stake a place in the musical world on their own terms and with better business relations. Both are pinning their hopes on the success of Opaline, an album that – including the time taken to switch labels, write and record – was two years in the making
For most bands, writing songs is an exclusive process that may involve only one or two members. The genesis of a Dishwalla song, however, is a truly a collaborative effort.
“The way we do it is we all write together, so while it may be a lot more time consuming … the end result is five voices kind of blending into one,” Maloney said. “So you have a lot of variety, but it takes a little while to kind of hone it till its cohesive. We just pretty much put in the blender for maximum blend.”
But this lengthy songwriting process is not the only reason the album was so long in the coming. With a captious attitude all around, each song deemed outdone by the next was put on the backburner. The cycle of perfecting one album led to enough material for four.
“We had about 40 or 50 [songs] to draw from and then we narrowed it down to ten or eleven, three of which we wrote when we were in the studio making the record,” Maloney said. “After the first batch of songs we thought, ‘These are kick ass,’ but then we [would] write another song that would take it to the next level, then those songs would pale in comparison. … [We] would keep going [until] it started to plateau. … That’s when we knew we were ready.”
Though they have set a bar for themselves, only time will tell if the achievement on Opaline will strike a chord with the listening public. If outside musical influences on the band are any indication of success, Dishwalla appears well equipped. Maloney is inspired by such artists as Jeff Buckley, whom he cites as an example of a critically acclaimed songwriter who has never enjoyed commercial success.
As well, Maloney notes bands such as Radiohead, Coldplay and Travis, as bands leading a current resurgence in the importance of the songwriting craft. These bands, now at the height of their commercial success, have filled a need for their audience, just as Dishwalla once did with Pet Your Friends. But with so many bands vying to attract a fickle public, no one can divinate which new band will break, or if a formerly great band will rise again.
“The climate has changed since ‘Counting Blue Cars’ was a top 10 hit. It has changed dramatically, as it always does. Any landscape that is consistently saturated with new material is always going to pitch and roll with different changes like this,” Maloney said. “[The] only thing we can do is not worry about fitting into the current climate because that climate two years ago is not the climate now. We just set out to write the best possible songs we can, … void of any outside influence.”