Pop'll Free You, Too
Papas Fritas Captures The Deep Cultural Accents Of Popular Music.
By Roni Sarig
July 8, 1997: TO UNDERSTAND THE Boston-area three-piece known as Papas Fritas, start with their name. Say it slowly, slurring your words like a true American. It sounds like you're saying "Pop Has Freed Us," right? As in, "the truth shall set you free," or maybe even "Jesus saves." Well, if ever there was a band that holds the ideals of Pop sacred--that bows to the gods of Pop--this is it.
Then there's the name's more literal reading. Papas fritas is Spanish for french fries. And as head-potato Tony Goddess explains, "Everyone says french fries are junk food and pop music is junk music, but people can't stop eating french fries and people love pop music. People think pop music has no musical value, but pop is a form. Just like the blues has a 12-bar form, jazz has an A-A-B form, and concerto has its movements, people have expectations now for a pop song. And it's just as legitimate."
Like the Cardigans, with whom the band has toured extensively, Papas Fritas capture an innocence and melodicism that harks back to earlier eras of music. But unlike the Cardigans, or other groups such as Hanson, who've already hit number one with a similar aesthetic, Papas Fritas isn't exactly riding the crest of the current pop-band resurgence (after all, they're playing at the fledgling Theater Congress this week). Papas Fritas, though, have intellectualized the role of pop in our post-alternative rock world, and are more outspoken about its value than any of their better-known peers.
"Music to me is a representation of your culture, or where you live, of the music you heard growing up--all these factors," Goddess says. "So I try to write songs that sound like they're part of a culture. We get accused of being retro, but I don't think of it like that. Retro is saying, 'Brian Wilson used a harpsichord here, I'm going to use a harpsichord.' But I think we say, 'He used a harpsichord there because it related to the lyrics this way, or because he was fulfilling the rhythm, melody, harmony, and tone roles in this way, and what would be applicable to Papas Fritas?' "
Listening to Goddess talk, it would seem that Papas Fritas' take on pop is a lot more complicated than it needs to be. But their point all along is that the best pop--from Cole Porter to the Beatles--is in fact a lot more complex than it sounds.
For instance, on their recently released Helioself, a more confident and colorful follow-up to their 1995 debut, Papas Fritas' songs are often reminiscent of children's music: The sea chanty "Words to Sing" or the saloon rag "Rolling in the Sand" are so bright and shiny, and whimsically cartoonish, the Muppets could sing them. Given the chance, though, Goddess will tell you about the 9/4 time signatures he uses, or the key modulations, or the way he prepares his piano with thumbtacks to capture a certain sound.
"People always say we sound like Sesame Street music," Goddess recalls, somewhat defensively. "But the music sounds like Sesame Street because someone crafted it like that. It doesn't just come out of your mouth like that. We're trying to, as completely as we can, define a picture for the listener. From who sings it, and the integrity of the lyric relating to that, to the instrumentation." Then, as if catching himself in a moment of pretentiousness, he adds, "This all sounds very 'muso,' but it's supposed to sound so natural that you don't even think about. It just feels right when you hear it, so you say, 'I've heard this before, I understand it instantly.' "
A mutual understanding of pop is what brought the three members of Papas Fritas together in the first place. Goddess (who plays guitar, piano and sings) and drummer/singer Shivika Asthana went to high school together in Delaware, and both attended college at Tufts University in Boston, where they met bassist/singer Keith Gendel. Their musical backgrounds, though, were in many ways quite different. Goddess learned guitar from his father, then went on to study jazz and music theory in school. Asthana spent summers in India, where she learned sitar as well as traditional Indian dance. The dance style, which requires separate body parts to move in different rhythms, prepared Asthana for her later work behind a drum kit.
"Initially, pop music was just music we could all play. It felt like folk music," Goddess says. "And we spent a lot of time playing at people's parties and at the bar on campus. It's the vocabulary we have in common."
That said, it's also the band members' different backgrounds that complement each other. "I'll come up with a chord change and think in terms of history or technique, and Shivika, who has a couple R.E.M. albums and Beatles records, just thinks about whether she likes it or not. I wish I could be more like her, more natural, instead of technically figuring out what the next chord should be, but it's a good balance."
In addition to their common pop language, the three also share a complete ignorance of professional recording techniques. Still, Papas Fritas managed to self-produce both albums in their 8-track home studio, now located at Goddess' house in the old fishing town of Gloucester (45 minutes north of Boston). "A lot of sound for us is just really intuitive, thinking of it as a physical phenomenon as opposed to an electrical one," Goddess explains of the band's approach to recording. "So instead of EQ-ing out the bottom end on the guitar to get rid of the muddiness, we'll wrap it in a towel and put cardboard over the soundhole so all you'll get is the bright strings, and not the body resonating."
Despite the limitations of 8-track recording, the band prefers it to working with outside producers. They tried a professional studio once and hated it, as Goddess recalls. "We'd be like, 'Make the guitar sound like tin foil.' And the producer's like, 'What the fuck? You guys gotta learn to talk.' And we'd say, 'Well we could make it sound like tin foil if we could control the knobs.' "
Papas Fritas' combination of home-style production values, smart songwriting and full-blown arrangements, makes Helioself one of the best indie-pop albums in recent memory. All the songs are instantly familiar, but none are blatant rip-offs (though the Motown send-up "Sing About Me" comes close). It's as if these tunes were pulled from our collective unconscious, built on decades of constant bombardment--from TV, on radio, in department stores, wherever.
It's the kind of music that inevitably becomes society's great unifier. And if you believe, then Pop can free you too.
Los Angeles' Sugar Plastic and local Wise Folk Malcontent open for Papas Fritas at 8:30 p.m. Monday, July 7, at the Theater Congress, 125 E. Congress St. Tickets are $5 at the door. Call 544-2427 for information.
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