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The Elevator Drops Lift Off And Get Serious

By Matt Ashare

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  You may remember The Elevator Drops from such entertaining pranks as enclosing a swatch of "an original John Lennon bedsheet" in their first single, "Lennon's Dead"/"Elevator to Heaven" (Curve of the Earth). Or, more recently, for trying to pass off a cover of the Police's "Invisible Sun" as Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" when they were asked to contribute to a local VH tribute disc (see "Off the Record,"). Or for a particular gig (which they were hoping I wouldn't mention) they played downstairs at the Middle East a few years ago as Letters to Leo. If not, it's just as well. Because with their second album, People Mover, just out on Time Bomb, not only have The Elevator Drops made like Kiss in 1980 (by taking off the clown make-up that's been one of their trademarks), they've also decided to clean up their act and even repent. Never mind that the newly unmasked Elevator Drops will be celebrating the release of People Mover by headlining upstairs at the Middle East this Friday, which is Halloween.

"We'll freely admit that in the spirit of fun we occasionally stepped over the line," admits singer/bassist Dave Goolkasian over drinks at Thornton's in the Fenway. "We thought the music scene around here was a little too serious, so we tried to lighten things up a little. But somewhere along the line we offended a lot of people. So I think we need your help with this article because there's a big misconception about The Elevator Drops: everyone seems to think that it's our goal to be lunatics and to freak people out. That's only partly true. We want to make good music and have fun doing it. But I think we got to the point where our clothes and our act were so loud that people couldn't hear the music. We had to get bigger and bigger amps, but still people couldn't really hear it."

Goolkasian makes a good point: the edgy hooks and playfully tweaked melodies on last year's Pop Bus (Time Bomb) were overshadowed by the extra-musical antics he, guitarist Josh Hager, and drummer Scott Fitts engaged in. And it didn't help that two of the disc's catchiest tunes -- "Be a Lemonhead (Beautiful Junkie)" and "Drop 19 (I Wanna Be A)" -- were inspired by somewhat dated local references. The first took aim at Evan Dando, whose 15 minutes had already expired; the second skewered a local band (the Drop Nineteens) who'd broken up over a year earlier without making much of a mark nationally. The Elevator Drops did subsequently score opening slots on tours with the Rentals and Garbage. ("The funny thing about Garbage," recalls Hager, "is that [singer] Shirley Manson told us she didn't understand why we wore make-up and then a few days later we noticed that the guys in her band were starting to paint their nails black and wear heavier eye make-up.") But they also found themselves on the road as part of a package featuring Psychotica and the Impotent Sea Snakes, two rather unpleasant shock-rock outfits who make Marilyn Manson seem sophisticated.

All of which caused The Elevator Drops to rethink their strategy before recording a second album. "We didn't want to end up hanging out with Weird Al Yankovich," Hager points out. And, though Hager, his brother Paul, and Goolkasian are all accomplished studio technicians who ably handled the Pop Bus sessions, the band's shenanigans had convinced Time Bomb that an outside producer was needed. (Fort Apache's Tim O'Heir was recruited.) That confluence of forces apparently created the right conditions for a creative breakthrough for The Elevator Drops, who have found a way to deliver substance and the occasional touch of silliness -- ear candy and food for thought.

It doesn't hurt that the jokes -- like the two instrumental electronica parodies, "The March of the Kraftwerk Replicants," "The Theme to the Gary Newman Show," and "Tokyo Techno" -- on People Mover are subtler, briefer, and more timely than "Be a Lemonhead (Beautiful Junkie)" and "Drop 19 (I Wanna Be A)." Or that those tunes tie in well with the more serious theme of the album, which in cryptic fits and new-wavy starts seems to be about the impersonal nature of the increasingly technology-driven world. The darker tone of the disc and its title were inspired by the city in which it was recorded, Detroit,. (The disc is named after the "People Mover," a robot-operated monorail that circles Detroit's downtown.)

"Detroit was the perfect combination of being futuristic and plagued by the problems of reality," explains Goolkasian. "We wanted to blend things in terms of technology and guitars, and Detroit really spoke to us. It just felt right."

"One of the things everybody should see if they want to know what America is really about is Detroit," Hager elaborates. "You think about it as being a bustling, happening city in the '70s -- the Motor City -- but you go there now and there are weeds growing out of the main highways."

"When you're on the People Mover you can look out and see the craziest hell of Detroit," Goolkasian continues. "And then, in the middle of all that mess, there will be a giant new building. And the people in Detroit think of the People Mover as being a failed plan itself. I remember one day we had to go pick up some equipment, so I asked this guy if we could take the People Mover there. All he said was, 'The People Mover don't help nobody out.' You know, Detroit is supposed to be the heart of America, so it's like the heart of this country is dead."

Back in Boston, where the economy appears to be in much better shape (though the roads could always use some work), The Elevator Drops may have unwittingly stumbled on to the beginning of a rock trend embracing pop's new-wave past. What with the Dambuilders, whose violinist, Joan Wasser, cameos on the People Mover single "$7 Single" and whose last Elektra release delved into the '80s; the Future Bible Heroes, a synth-driven outfit featuring local DJ Chris Ewen; and the new Helium disc, which features some unexpected new-wave moves, there's certainly enough fodder for speculation. (Elsewhere in the country, Chicago's Pulsars, Olympia's Satisfact, and the Weezer offshoot the Rentals have, to varying degrees, been bringing back the sounds of the '80s.)

"We remember Boston from when we were kids as being a very new-wave town," Hager acknowledges. "It was very forward-thinking musically. We got to the point where we could all play and we had a band and we were so disappointed because we looked around us and all that new-wave stuff was gone."

"One thing that's funny to us," Goolkasian interjects, "is that people today are saying things about rock being dead and electronica taking over. But if that were going to happen it would have already happened, back when the Cars, Devo, and Kraftwerk were around."

There are a few Kraftwerkian vocal moments on People Mover. But the touchstones for The Elevator Drops are more along the lines of popsters like Devo, whose "Whip It" whip can be heard cracking behind the sequencer patterns of the disc's opening track ("Sentimental Love"), and the Cars (Ric Ocasek was reportedly interested in producing the band), as well as the proto-new wave of David Bowie, whose influence is most prominent on two of the disc's best tracks (the sentimental "Right Back Home" and the orchestral rocker "$7 Single"). Goolkasian's voice is even reminiscent of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust upper register. Yet the disc's most impressive feat of aural manipulation draws from three decades: the quirky rocker "Coke & Amphetamines" opens with a drum fill lifted from '70s titans Led Zeppelin's "Rock & Roll," then segues briskly from a Beatles chorus of harmonies to an atmospheric refrain of U2 guitar harmonics before finally settling into a Police-style reggae-tinged groove. That tune, more than any other, proves that The Elevator Drops are still merry pranksters at heart. They've just moved on to tackling bands more universally known than, say, the Drop Nineteens.

"People should continue to expect us to do pranks," admits Goolkasian. "That's just not all they should expect."

To drive that point home he describes how the band have been gearing up for their Halloween show at the Middle East by playing biker bars and pool halls in Western Massachusetts and New Hampshire. "The last one was the most challenging. We finished our set at this place called Breakaway Billiards in Clinton, and instead of clapping the guy came up and asked us to play covers for another hour and a half. We obliged, but we each were playing different cover tunes at the same time. We got paid, but he did say that he'd never have us back."

It probably won't be the last bridge burned by The Elevator Drops, at least not if they can help it.

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