High Felicity

The timing is just right for the Lo Fidelity Allstars.

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DirectedBy: Andy and Larry Wachowski Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Hugo Weaving WhoWhat: The Matrix
An Allstar at every position: (from left) Phil Ward, Martin Whiteman, Andy Dickinson, and Johnny Machin.
An Allstar at every position: (from left) Phil Ward, Martin Whiteman, Andy Dickinson, and Johnny Machin.
The British Invasion is a bit of a misnomer. Granted, it was an invasion of sorts—one of popularity, record sales, sold-out concerts, and marketplace saturation. But in a cultural sense, bands like the Beatles and the Stones hardly resembled the Norman conquerors who crossed the English Channel in 1066, the dirty foot soldiers who permanently thrust their bloodlines and language on the hapless locals. Most likely, Norman blood flows through such British rocker veins, but those robust, hirsute Brits crossed the Atlantic not as warriors but as cultural refugees and devoted admirers. The Beatles rocked out their early albums with Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry covers. The Stones formed over a sloppy pile of Brian Jones's Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, and Robert Johnson records. Their landing hardly constituted an act of war. They loved American music, and they wanted to join the club.

Now nearly forty years later, the Lo Fidelity Allstars are staging a modest British invasion of their own. Though they have managed to attract surprisingly large crowds in their first forays into the United States, the Allstars invade much as the Beatles and the Stones did, with wide open eyes and ears.

"We're like little kids," says the Albino Priest (a.k.a. Phil Ward), a sample man with turntable fingers. "Whenever we go into a new city, we have to put the right music on for that city. Especially a big city like San Francisco. We had Sly & the Family Stone pumped right up when we saw Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. All the influences for Lo Fi are all-American—from hip-hop through house and techno. It originated over here. Last time we were on tour for a month [in the spring] we ended up [buying] 300 records of soul and funk for two dollars each."

A lot of articles on the Allstars will blend references like Fatboy Slim or the Happy Mondays with a few newly (or not-so-newly) minted terms (skunk rock, big beat, trip hop). But with half a listen, it's obvious that the Allstars owe a greater debt to the dance music of the States. Released last year in Britain and recently here, their first album, How to Operate With a Blown Mind, has a distinct sound—irrepressibly funky but with a dark, British twist. Their admiration for American music, however, permeates every track, from the boogie-soul organ on "Battle Flag," to the hey-mutherfucker rap posturing on "Kasparov's Revenge," to the big disco beats and airy strings on "Lazer Sheep Dip Funk."

All the same, the Allstars have not had an entirely easy time with their American landing. The band had just recently lost their lead vocalist, the Wrekked Train, who no longer felt comfortable with the band's rising fortunes. And right around the same time, the band's higher visibility drew attention to its sometimes sneaky sample habits. A particularly miffed Kelly Deal mobilized lawyers when she found a blatant Breeders sample (the "Ah-ooo-gah" vocal from "Cannonball") on a track from Blown Mind. (Don't look for it on the album; it's been stripped from the American release.)

But after a tricky initial period, the band has had a successful go in the States. Only in-country for the last few months, Allstars have enjoyed ever-growing crowds. On the phone from Orlando, Ward raves about a Monday night show that attracted three times the crowd anyone anticipated. "It was a mad show, one of the hottest shows we've ever played," he says. "Absolute madness—a lot of booty shakin' going on." And for Allstars, it should only get better. This week they arrive as openers for the bands who soundtracked their summers, Crystal Method and Orbital, as part of perhaps the biggest electronica blowout of the summer, the Community Service Tour.

Though much closer in reality to McCartney/Lennon nice guys, the English country boys have been saddled early on with the grinning reprobate image of Jagger/Richards. Publicity photos of the band in prison and a long circulating story about turntables set aflame don't help matters much. But aside from the occasional flare-up of hubris ("The bass line from "Battle Flag' is probably one of the catchiest things written in the last five years," Ward says), the band keeps the stage shows wild and the egos in check.

"If you're a band in England and you come out and you have a regional accent, and you don't play the sort of pop star game, you don't go to the show biz sort of things, people seem to think that you're some sort of hooligan. That's rubbish," says Ward. "The turntable thing was decided in the heat of the moment. We were on the bill with three straight-up guitar bands, and no one was talking to us. Everybody was there to see them, so we thought, all right, let's do something so they'll remember us. It was sort of a spur-of-the-moment thing. It was an old turntable, and we just set fire to it.

"People seemed so surprised when we first started—the amount of times our press company actually got phone calls from people saying, "They're actually nice people.'. . . Everyone expected us to be horrible and rude."

Because they're not horrible and rude, or consumed by ego like some Brit bands, the Allstars were able not only to survive but to continue to enjoy rising fortunes after the departure of their singer. Ward explains: "We were never a band that was just going to have a frontman and the rest of the band not be involved. All the music on the album, we treat it just like another sample—no more important than the bass guitar, no more important than the drum pattern. That's just how it works with this band. Sometimes you want lots of vocals, sometimes you don't. Sometimes the bass is the dominant feature, the main thing in that track. But it changes from track to track."

Of course, it takes a bit more than a pile of influences to manage a successful run of the U.S., or anywhere for that matter. Aside from their sly conglomeration of late 20th century urban dance, the Allstars keep another trick up their sleeve—a big, raw sound that bridges the gap between rock blowout and electronic nirvana. Blown Mind is a ranging affair, and the band may indulge in a few too many impulses. More than one track slips away from the tight song construction that characterizes their best work, and the album hardly stands as definitive anything. But the best of it benefits from their assemblage of the live instrumentation and the prerecorded. Beats and samples commingle in perfect accord with bravado vocals, aggressive bass, occasional guitar, and heavy, heavy drums. The band emphasizes this in concert, joining a bassist, extra keyboards, and live vocals with a scratch-and-sample maelstrom. It makes for a band that even a rocker could love. "Because we're a live band," Ward says, "it helps people over here who are so used to the straight-up rock sort of thing, where it's all bass/drums/guitar."

As for their early success, however, Ward gives most of the credit to timing: "I couldn't imagine doing so well in America five years ago. I may be wrong, but it just seems that there's more and more bands coming through who experiment with technology. It seems to me that the dance music is still quite underground, but there's lots of shops, especially dance shops opening up. When we got to San Francisco, it's obvious that there's a really big scene going on over there. I think we just came out at the right time, when Prodigy can have a number one album over here, and Chemicals can sell so many records. I'm hoping it's because people in America are beginning to realize that there's more than just rock music."

In the meantime, it's probably a good idea for the Allstars not to take anything too seriously. "It's all fine and good," concludes Ward. "When the second album flops, we'll see who our friends are then."

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