New York City rock classicists the Mooney Suzuki will release their third album, Alive and Amplified, on August 10th. The group’s follow-up to 2002’s back-to-rock-basics Electric Sweat was curiously recorded with the hit-making production team the Matrix (Avril Lavigne, Liz Phair).
“There’s a time where what we were doing distinguished us from other bands,” says frontman Sammy James Jr. “Then it reached a point where dressing in all black and being a high-energy band from New York was not as unique as it had been. We thought, ‘Well, this will definitely be something different.’ For me, that’s how it felt like the most Mooney Suzuki thing we’ve done.”
The pairing came after the Mooney Suzuki signed with Columbia in 2002. The group had released a pair of Detroit rock-influenced records, the second of which, Electric Sweat was originally released by indie Gammon, before being picked up by the major. The group dutifully met with their label rep to discuss possible producers for its third album, resulting in one of the year’s oddest pairings.
“We had our list,” says James, “and [the Columbia rep] had his, and he said, ‘What do you think about the Matrix?’ On tour the previous year, with every magazine rack we saw on the road, we were inundated by the Avril thing. I bought the record on the road and we listened to it for five minutes before tossing it out the window, though not before careful scrutiny of the liner notes. Of course, we didn’t throw it out because we didn’t like it. The songs were great — they could’ve been Police songs or Doors songs or Cars songs in terms of construction. But we threw it out because of what it represented.”
Despite an ingrained suspicion of the formula that led Lavigne to platinum sales, the group heard the A&R rep out. “The first thing that went off in my mind was, ‘Oh my god, I’d just love to meet them,'” James says. “Of course, we were also flattered that they’d be interested in working with us.”
James and guitarist Graham Tyler met with the Matrix for three days out in California, and the two forces began butting heads. “The concept of collaborative writing,” James says, “that would represent the antithesis of what we do. But the manufactured pop of the Sixties is some of my favorite music, the Brill Building stuff and Phil Spector. It was like we were diving headfirst into the eye of the storm of the opposite camp to see what makes it tick.”
By James’ account, “it was not copasetic at all, it was war,” but both teams maintained a respect for one another. “The phrase that we kept repeating, both the Matrix and us, was that we were constantly trying to shove square pegs into round holes,” he says. “The final product is gonna be a shape that neither could come up with on their own. But we wanted that tension and conflict. We’ve put out two records and we’re still not Led Zeppelin, so it was time to do something different. We wanted something to knock us out of our normal routine.”
Among the sticking points was the band’s desire to keep things analog with live players and the Matrix’s penchant for filling a part with a computer. “Some things we could’ve spend all day on,” James says, “were the click of a mouse away.”
The final result finds the band turning away from the Detroit sound of their first two LPs to Sixties California pop. “I’d been listening to a lot of Beach Boys, 5th Dimension, Phil Spector and the Wrecking Crew,” James says, “so this huge, glossy, refined Los Angeles studio pop sound was very appealing. It’s very dense and patchworky and layered. Where we used to go for very dry immediate minimalism, and this was Technicolor maximism. It is a wall of sound. I like the idea that Spector designed the music to sound good coming out of a mono transistor radio speaker. I really think the Matrix designed their sound to sound good coming out of a laptop speakers or your MP3 headphones. They definitely have their own wall of sound, and we embraced that and enjoyed playing with it.”
But despite the sunshiny pop palette, Alive boasts such rudimentary rawk song titles as “Loose ‘N’ Juicy,” “New York Girls,” “Shake That Bush Again,” “Hot Sugar,” “Naked Lady,” “Love Bus” and “Messin’ in the Dressin’ Room.” “There’s a lot of Mooney Suzuki reinvention going on,” James says. “But the songs’ themes and messages, that’s not where it occurred.”