Brandon Malik and Todd Wicks, one half of Detroit power-pop quartet the Prime Ministers, gather at a Chinese restaurant in Ferndale to talk up their new album, Compromiser. Malik politely asks the waitress for a bowl of streamed broccoli, unconsciously miming a bowl with his hands. "We don't have bowl," she responds. "You have to order dish." This initially implies that the place doesn't serve steamed broccoli. In fact, though, she means broccoli isn't served in a bowl but rather on a dish. As she walks away, much to Wicks' amusement, Malik deadpans: "I didn't want to haggle over a receptacle!"
Haggle or no, the Prime Ministers have been playing Detroit since 1999. Now in their mid-30s, hair visibly graying and with kids of their own, they've hit a point where most bands would simply rest on the idea that their families even allow them to play "rock band" in the garage on weekends. But the Ministers have aimed to consistently improve and evolve, and Compromiser is the culmination of 10 years of smart moves and even smarter songs.
"We're really happy with it," says Wicks — who, like Malik, is a guitarist-vocalist. "It sounds so cliché to say it's our best yet. But it really is."
"We're still listening to it," adds his bandmate, before sensing that listening to one's own CD might sound a little vain, so he adds, "Well, I keep coming back to it."
"When you're on a level where the tangible reward is your own finished product, it would be sad to say we never listen to it!" Malik says.
Indeed, one play and it's easy to appreciate why even its makers want to hear it repeatedly. The band — including bassist Nedry Coho and drummer Ron Vensko — claims "well-mannered rock 'n' roll and courteous power pop" as its M.O. Compromiser offers perfectly executed examples of this method. Such songs as "Double Rings," "Learned From the Best" and especially, "We Are the Reward," sound like long-lost Smithereens songs as recorded by a band equally inspired by Britpop and the Replacements.
Although their lyrics focus a lot on the hum-drums of aging — dealing with adult responsibilities or finding love at 35 — the band's fan base still tends to skew a little younger. In fact, one of their most glowing iTunes reviews reads: "The Prime Ministers just did a concert at my school (one of the main guys is my teacher) and it was amazing!" Malik is a middle-school teacher — his students are some of the band's most ardent fans. Hence, the subject of "We Are the Reward" is literal: After his students complete a citizenship and community service program, the band then performs a "rewards show" in the school's cafetorium. "So we literally are the reward — pizza, ice cream and the Prime Ministers," he says grinning. "And it's a good ego boost," adds Wicks, "going from some small venue where people stand with their arms crossed, looking disinterested, to kids clamoring for autographs and doing the worm onstage."
They're surely not stuck in the pre-digital age, but Wicks still recognizes the best way to get their music out there is to get it into people's hands. So they'll be handing out copies of Compromiser for free at this week's CD release show.
"We were selling our CDs for five bucks at gigs, but one day we put out a sign that read, 'Free Coasters' and they just disappeared," Wicks laughs. "So it's certainly worth trying." Yet another sign of a band that's embraced its inner compromiser and is reaping the rewards of meeting halfway.
The Prime Ministers' CD release party is Saturday, June 20, at the Pike Room, 1 S. Saginaw St., Pontiac; 248-858-9333. With Speedy Greasy and Imperial Darling.
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