The Hard Ones

You don't have to be a paranoid android to know who's gonna show up at a Radiohead show. It's like a modern-rock rogues gallery: You've got your music-nerd types (the guys in the seventh row squinting hard at guitarist Jonny Greenwood's new bank of keyboards), your Top 40 refugees (the guys in the second row wondering why guitarist Greenwood's not playing guitar), your hippies (the kids way in the back not really watching the show) and your college-radio stalwarts (do those guys still exist?). But who's there an hour before Radiohead saunters onstage, when it's still light outside and the couple behind you--they're the professionals who were grad students when "Creep" was out--are cracking open a case of wine coolers? Who's either eager or earnest enough to show up on time, early even? Who's, this summer anyway, watching the Beta Band? That's a tough one. For here's a band way weirder than Radiohead that makes music way more normal than Radiohead's, a band that almost anyone could like, yet most people don't, a band that could be great but usually settles for, "Um, yeah, OK." Who among Thom Yorke's faithful flock will bend an open ear? Beta Band drummer Robin Jones doesn't know.

"It was a bit of a shock to walk off the plane and step into Red Rocks," he says of the outfit's first night opening Radiohead's current U.S. tour last month in Colorado. "But we seem to be winning over some converts."

If a show in southern California a week later is any indication, he's right: As the ticket-holding assembled file into the Santa Barbara Bowl, the kind of natural amphitheater that makes you wonder if nearby neighbors could stream the show on the Internet for free from their back porch, the band is halfway through its set, and the guy next to me (art student, probably, but quite possibly a misplaced hippie) is freaking out, wondering why he's never heard of these guys until his girlfriend reminds him of that scene in High Fidelity when John Cusack and his buds sell five copies of the band's The Three E.P.'s in five minutes. He nods his head slowly and then quickly. "Um, yeah, OK."

The band is playing "Squares," the blunted tripped-hop number that opens its new album, Hot Shots II, and, intrigued, I ask the guy what he likes about these guys. He tells me they remind him of Beck, but before Beck made "that stupid Vultures record." Definitely a misplaced hippie, I think.

"We're not working to any sort of strict guidelines of what you're supposed to do," Jones says a week before when I myself put the Beck question to him, asking him about the band's eclectic approach. I'm interested because Hot Shots II is the most clear-headed record the Beta Band has made, doing away with most of the long-winded fake-dub noodling that clogged its 1999 self-titled full-length. That record was released in a flurry of hype that grew up around The Three E.P.'s, a domestic collection of British singles the band issued in late '97 and early '98, the records that made it England's hottest buzz band by virtue of crafting songs that careened from baggy-pantsed folk-rock to lo-fi house to drifty film-score work to Eno-like ambience. The tasters seemed to promise great things from the band, but the debut just sort of lost track of it all.

"It was generally a disappointment for us," Jones says of the album. "It's kind of the first mistake we'd made. We had grand dreams of what it was gonna be, and then it was just a bit of a disappointment to find that the magic didn't get weaved, basically due to lack of preparation. We sort of went in there with a couple of C90 [tapes] of possible demos and then just assumed as we ran on it would all work itself out and we'd come up with great songs of great production. But it just didn't happen."

Several things did in the record's wake, though, including a world tour and the revelation that concentrating on the music may not be such a bad idea. Hot Shots II shows the approach wasn't a bad one, streamlining the band's murky melange to the point where it sounds like music in the 21st century is just supposed to sound like this: Take "Won," an almost-cover of Harry Nilsson's "One" that starts out with a faithful keyboard bounce but quickly coagulates into a surprisingly convincing Dirty South-via-the-North of England banger. Or "Al Sharp," which folds processed acoustic guitar into singer Steve Mason's gorgeous multi-tracked choral cosmos. Throughout, it approaches--and successfully skirts--pop conventions like only a band who once flipped the script on Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" could.

"It's the culmination of a year of thinking, 'What a crap record we made,'" Jones says. "'Is it worth doing anything? If it is, then let's set to work and just get on with it and do something good.' And that's obviously what we've decided to do. We spent three months pre-production, pre-studio, just the four of us in a room, working through every song. We knew exactly what songs were going on the record; we demoed them up to such a stage where we could've released them then, but we then took that and went with a producer into the studio proper and really honed it down, edited parts out, really just worked on it till we were happy with every bit of it."

But is it enough for the Radiohead heads in the nacho line in Santa Barbara? The misplaced hippie's ecstatic, but what about the Boone's Farm fans behind me? "Why is that guy wearing a turban?" I think I hear one of them say, confused by the band's habit of dressing as foreign nationals or old-school cowboys or astronauts when it takes the stage, even if it's still light enough outside to see the ocean. Jones can wait for them.

"I guess we're just wary of jumping in the deep end and everyone saying, 'You're great,' and then disappearing without a trace. We just want everything to build naturally and slowly. And hence we were a bit evasive. At the best of times."

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Mikael Wood