Top three reasons for starting a supergroup:
1) Collaborate with other known musicians for like-minded artistic pursuits.
2) Revive ailing careers with a time-tested publicity stunt.
3) Maximize the waning charm of aging rock stars over young girls.
Matthew Sweet is quick to admit that the Thorns are about all three.
“We have been trying to get the screaming teenage girl market,” Sweet says, laughing. “It seems like they are the only ones who actually buy records anymore.”
If that’s the case, the Thorns must not be a total loss for the Lolita demographic. With little fanfare, the singer-songwriter trio of Sweet, Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins has sold almost 200,000 of their eponymous debut. It’s a far cry from Billboard blockbusting, but the sleeper success of the release has rescued the trio’s members from dreaded “where-are-they-now” status.
Though Sweet’s 15-year string of crystalline power-pop records may earn him the lion’s share of name recognition, his only gold record, 1992’s Girlfriend, is a distant second in sales to Mullins’ 1998 platinum shocker, Soul’s Core. If the name of that record doesn’t ring a bell, think back to the wondrous hit single, the sickeningly catchy spoken-folk, “Lullaby,” which peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard singles chart. The fame of Pete Droge comes in a distant third, though he did have the peripheral, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers-esque novelty single, “If You Don’t Love Me I’ll Kill Myself,” a song that went top-30 on the college charts.
So putting the three of them together is hardly pay dirt in major-label terms, but the Thorns’ harmony-thick outpouring of sunny roots-pop has earned them scads of attention. In fact, the sugary collaboration has amassed critical comparisons to folk-pop’s holy trio: Crosby, Stills and Nash.
“Of course we’re all fans of Crosby, Stills and Nash,” Sweet says. But it’s hard to get a word in edgewise as the effusive pop crooner/songsmith rattles off a list of other acts the group admires — early power-poppers like the Nazz and the Raspberries, the brothers Everly, contemporaries like Golden Smog and the Jayhawks … even former tour mates the Dixie Chicks.
Continues Sweet, “When the label realized that they had something going with this project, they kind of wanted to capitalize on that [Crosby, Stills and Nash] association and asked us if we would play under our last names. But we weren’t really into doing that. When this project came together it really became its own really organic thing — not just three different songwriters — and we wanted to name it as such. We had to fight for the pure idea of what we were doing.”
The story of how the band came together is less than organic, though. The group was “made” by a group of Hollywood music execs. Russell Carter, who manages both Sweet and Mullins, had the original idea to put together a songwriting group. The first version included Mullins, Droge and Toad the Wet Sprocket main man Glen Phillips. Things with Phillips didn’t work out, so Sweet stepped in.
“I muse a lot on how to explain the beginning of the Thorns,” Sweet says. “It’s difficult for many people to think about because it didn’t have a natural nexus; it wasn’t a situation of a bunch of guys who go out drinking all the time deciding to put a band together. It was born out of a different situation.”
The three got to know one another through front-porch jam sessions at a Santa Barbara ranch and a whistle-stop showcase tour through the United States. Although fan interest in the band rose from their respective pedigrees, they were soon functioning as a unit.
“Die-hard fans thought it would be the end of our solo careers,” Sweet says, “but we didn’t plan to reinvent our careers. Maybe the label thought we were, but we didn’t. It’s escalated so much that it is hard get my head around now, but going into the thing we never really looked at it like an assault on the world.”
It’s ironic, then, that just a few months after the lineup had solidified, they wrote and released a full-length debut and toured the world. For a bunch of solo songwriters accustomed to calling their own shots, isn’t doing the band thing a bit, uh, thorny? Not according to Sweet.
“Early on we all struggled a little to understand the way we all could work together,” Sweet says. “There were some moments of real frustration, but I realized it wasn’t the other guys — it was more the nature of any three people trying to collectively make artistic decisions. That process is fraught with peril. It’s hard to keep moving. But early on we would just step back, outside of ourselves, when it would get difficult. Soon we all become so entranced by the project that it was hard to remember that it was supposed to be a side project.”
But when the leadoff track on The Thorns (“Runaway Feeling”) lurches from the gate, it’s obvious the record is anything but a cheap, rent-gig side project. The mid-tempo ditty is built around a bittersweet chorus in which Sweet soars, “Tell me I’m the one you wanna play with,” while Mullins and Droge fill out the melody with lush major-chord harmonies. The song, which has received pockets of airplay in the United States, sets the stage for a record that drips with syrupy, retrofitted pop gems. The band plays a chameleon act throughout, ambling from achingly simplistic tracks like “Think It Over” to the atmospheric theme song, “Thorns.” With the hands-on treatment of drumming godhead Jim Keltner, the record’s feel is laid-back and familiar.
In an ideal world, any of the band’s reedy up-tempo numbers or forlorn ballads would have a home on the radio. But that’s just wishful thinking.
“It’s gotten to be where things in the industry are really hopeless and maybe there is nowhere in it for the Thorns,” Sweet admits, bemoaning the project’s round peg fit in the square hole of contemporary music. Sweet’s personal struggle within the industry has led him to self-release the import-only Kimi Ga Suki*Raisu (translation: Love You and Life), a new collection for his insatiable Japanese fans. “The big labels aren’t set up to do little things anymore. Since we’re with a big label, I think they have a hard time knowing where to place us.”
Sweet’s right. Just look at the band’s recent tour mates — from alt-country stalwarts the Jayhawks and Lucinda Williams to cowboy-hatted country divas the Dixie Chicks. Only a year after their debut gig, the Thorns have played stadiums (with a full electric band) in front of 30,000 and boutique acoustic showcases (as a trio) in front of 300.
But regardless of venue size or performer tenure, the old pro Sweet still confesses to a modicum of stage fright.
“If there is one thing we’ve all done individually, it’s paid our dues,” Sweet says, chuckling. “Initially I thought this group would be about a third as hard. But, really I’ve found that there is more pressure because the other guys are always on and you don’t want to be the one who messes up.”
Messing up isn’t an option given the close harmonies and the intimacy of the group’s performances. “When we would do the harmonies in large venues it would be really magical — to hear the sound of just voices in echoey, cavernous places.”
And word is, there is some sort of aural magic that happens at a Thorns’ show. In fact, the defining moment comes toward the end of their sets when Sweet, armed with a ukulele, gathers his posse around the microphone for an a cappella rendition of one of their slower songs. And if there is one time-honored pop truism it’s this: Close-knit shows sprinkled with comely ballads equal young, record-buying girls swooning.
“There was a night in Royal Albert Hall with the three of us singing harmonies, and I was standing there and hearing the harmonies echoing through the room. I could hear it coming back to me and it was ghostly. People just swooned.”
See the Thorns Saturday, Nov. 29, at the Palace of Auburn Hills (3 Championship Drive, Auburn Hills; call 248-377-0100) with John Mayer.Nate Cavalieri is an itinerant writer for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]