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Band Crush: Papas Fritas

May 19, 2011
Papas Fritas now: Gendel, Asthana & Goddess (l-r)

So, it is now, what, 2011? The future, we’re smack dab in it. Now, I know for many of you, the future sure looks like the present and you’re wondering what is so great about this future-present anyway? Food is clearly still not in pill form and Max Headroom has made little headway into our daily media. Yet, here we are, living the Asimovian life in the future …

Of course, with all this talk of future, what a better time to think about the past. Lately, I’ve been spending most of my time listening to the new record by Urge Overkill – a band that hadn’t released an album since 1996, when I was a freshman in college. I tried to put this into perspective in my head by thinking that it would be the equivalent to someone in 1996 listening to a band that hadn’t released anything since 1981 … so here’s to The Knack!

Anyway, nostalgia for the unremembered 1990s seems to be all the rage, and honestly there is nothing wrong with that. I loved the 1990s, and the Boston music scene in the 1990s was the bee’s knees. Lemonheads, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Belly, Frank Black, Breeders, Juliana Hatfield, Buffalo Tom, you name it, it was on 120 Minutes (or Alternative Nation, whatever it was called after Dave Kendall left). Green Day prompted a riot at the Esplanade (which meant I saw Juliana perform from a boat moored offshore to prevent all us Hatfield fans from doing the same… I think?) Times were good to be from Boston, and there was even a New Generation of bands to play Picard to Evan Dando’s Captain Kirk: Papas Fritas, the Push Kings, Star Ghost Dog, Mary Lou Lord and more. Yet, somehow that revolution never happened – the great indie rock/pop uprising was usurped by rap-metal and the scene became a footnote in the flannel-heavy decade.

Yet, now, we all look back with fond eyes – and with nostalgia comes reunions. One of my favorite bands of the last decade of the 20th century was Papas Fritas. They were one of those bands that perfected the fine art of pop music (the good kind) and they were quintessentially college music to me. Heck, I’m pretty sure the second song I ever played as a college DJ was “Smash This World” from their self-titled 1995 debut album. (What was the first you ask? “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” Yeah, you gotta start somewhere.) During my brief stay at WFNX, “Hey Hey You Say” from their second album Helioself was rocking the airwaves during the summer of 1997 (along with Third Eye Blind and Smash Mouth… the shame) and by the time the decade closed, Papas Fritas was heard in almost every household in America (OK, this was thanks to “Way You Walk” from 2000’s much under-appreciated Buildings and Grounds being used in a Dentyne commercial) … and sadly, that was it for Papas Fritas. Five quick years of pop music of which I loved every moment, and seeing the band in a packed show at the Middle East was one of those decade-defining moments for me.

So, was I thrilled to virtually interview Papas Fritas member and local rock god Tony Goddess for my longtime pal Ashley and Boston Band Crush? In short: Hell yes. Starting tonight in Gloucester and continuing to tomorrow night’s Harpoon Fest before heading overseas, Papas Fritas will be playing their first shows in a decade, with Tony, Shiv Asthana and Keith Gendel breaking out all the hits. Well, the hits in my mind.

BBC: What’s bringing on these reunion shows for Papas Fritas?
Tony Goddess: Primavera asked us, which is an honor, and it had been roughly 10 years since our last record/tour so, well, we said yes. Once Primavera announced, promoters in other countries reached out so we decided to try and make a little tour fitting it all in in two weeks (practice & gigs).

BBC: Was it an easy decision to reunite?
TG: For me yes, I’m gigging all the time so was very happy to do this. Shiv has two young children so I think it was harder for her to make the decision to leave them for a few weeks. But her daughter is coming to Paris so I think she’s ultimately very happy to have a chance to play for her family.

BBC: How has the Boston music scene changed since Papas Fritas’ heyday in the 1990s, especially considering how visible on a national scene many of the acts were?
TG: Hmm, that’s hard to say. I think Boston is so big and diverse that it has 100 music scenes. It’s not small/limited enough that there is one scene. That was the case then and is the case now I’d say. In the ’90s it did seem like there was a preponderance of loud distorted music in the clubs/press, though its indie pop exports seemed to make just as big an impression out of town as the guitar rock. I don’t think that has changed either… though you can’t argue with the massive success of Godsmack, Shadows Fall, Killswitch Engage, Converge, etc.

BBC: Do you think its easier for bands to gain notoriety now with digital distribution and social media or in the “old model” of music promotion from the 1990s?
TG: I think they are both generally long hard slogs ruled by chance and luck, though these days if your number comes up on the spinning wheel the exposure does seem much more instant.

BBC: What is it like to reunite Papas Fritas after over a decade? Was it easy to get back into sync as a band? And how about coming back from the post-Papas Fritas lives of you, Shiva, Keith, Chris and Donna (if they’re all coming back for the reunion)?
TG: Well, Donna and Chris aren’t taking part of this reunion tour. My wife and Jenny Dee bandmate Samantha Goddess is handling the keyboards and chiming in on backing vocals. So far we’ve practiced twice and it feels great. Like falling off a bicycle! PF ended just on the cusp of the internet/cell phone era so it actually seems easier to jump in and out of our civilian/music lives now.

BBC: What current Boston acts get you most excited? How about outside Boston?
TG: I’m always excited by John Powhida and Chandler Travis. And will travel anywhere in a 100 mile radius to see Terry Adams’ NRBQ or The Spampinato Brothers. Up here in Gloucester, Willie Alexander is my main man and the BF’s and the Bandit Kings satisfy my Replacements and Pretenders jones on the regular. Outside of Boston, well, I’ve loved the Flaming Lips since I was a metal head who bought their records name unknown because of the gnarly skull artwork. Can’t wait to get the new Urge Overkill (Nash Kato seems to spend a fair amount of time in MA). Anything on Daptone Records. I really like Phoenix also. When their first record came out I was very excited to hear a pop/indy band incorporating some dance/r&b textures/rhythms into their music. Spoon started to turn me on in 2001 with Girls Can Tell.

BBC: Are you all thinking of making this more than just a tour?
TG: No plans as of now. Everyone has jobs/marriages/lives! We had to pass on another tour in July just because we wanted to see how this felt first before making any commitments but I don’t think we’re ruling anything out long term.

BBC: Where did you think Papas Fritas could go during the high of the band’s popularity?
TG: Well, I thought we could go to Australia. Our records came out over there but we never made it there! I think we knew it was just going to be a slow, steady journey but we also knew it was a matter of time. People wanting to go back to school, start families. Every tour and record was more successful than the last. We saw a lot and had a lot of fun and true experiences. I’ve got not complaints.

BBC: What was the biggest surprise to you once the band was in the “scene”?
TG: I’m not sure what you mean by “scene”: local scene or record scene? We were so naive in the beginning we didn’t know what a publicist was, so I remember being pretty turned off that there were people who made a living trying to convince writers what bands were cool. I’m over it now! I also remember being very confused and surprised by how byzantine the accounting sides of the business are. Synch fees, mechanical royalties, public performance, etc. I had no idea how many people stood to make $ from one hit record. I s’pose that testifies to the power of music that there’s so much potential for so many people.

BBC: If you could open for any act today, who would it be and why?
TG: The Flaming Lips, because they make people feel good in the face of adversity without being explicitly escapist. Basically our m.o. I’d like to open for John Sebastian. He’s still doing it and The Lovin’ Spoonful songbook is massive and inspirational. Wayne Coyne told me back in ’96 that our music reminded him of John Sebastian and I didn’t even know who he was talking about; now it seems totally obvious. ’70s theme show music (“Welcome Back Kotter”) penetrated my brain before I even was aware it was happening. And Phoenix, though only half our set would turn their fans on. PF always aspired to the Beatles LP template. A ton of catchy/melodic tunes that were totally diverse yet managed to hang together through the performance/production.

BBC: What was the best thing about the Boston music scene during the 1990s? How about now? What about the worst in both time periods?
TG: All the places to play has always been good. Though again, because we’re such a big and diverse group of scenes it always seemed hard to gather the momentum/support you might get in a smaller town/scene. Also, I never enjoyed the volume so many local bands seems to play at. I have no idea why even the pop groups wanted to play so loud.

BBC: If you could hop into the TARDIS, what would you tell 1995 Tony Goddess?
TG: I’d explain what a mechanical royalty is! Keep writing. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Enjoy it !

BBC: Thanks Tony!
TG: You’re welcome! My pleasure.

Papas Fritas then

“The Way You Walk”:

Erik Gonzalez grew up outside of Boston and spent too much of his time in the radio station at Williams College. He used to write a lot about music when he lived in Seattle for a little website called Three Imaginary Girls. These days, he writes about a different type of rock.

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