Dimestore Darlings with Keith Campbell (far right) as producer during sessions for “Sunrise Semester” in February 1994.
The Legend of the Dimestore Darlings
By Rob Shapiro, producer and spirited adviser
The early 1990s, particularly in New York City, was a magical collective explosion—like London in the mid-’60s, or Minneapolis in ’84. Music was adventurous and good. Fashion, technology, art, and commerce were about to undergo major changes. It was all topsy-turvy: The nerds were being handed the keys to the empire, and with the coming of the Internet, writing and thinking were just about to be very ‘in’. Musically, every day you could hear a new band, and chances were that you’d like it. From the sublime to the ridiculous, it was all there, all explosively churning.
And there’s the proscenium, around which I have the dubious honor of telling the tale of a promising band that fell apart too soon.
Our story starts in January 1993, when Land-of-Lincoln-bred guitarist and word worker Jay Wilkins ran a classified ad in the Village Voice looking for like-minded bandmates. It’s a classic, familiar story. Justin Kirk, actor, saw the reference to fellow Twin Cities tortured souls “The Replacements” and called. He was in a group, the Beedies, but they were on the verge of splitting due to his best friend-partner in the band developing an unhealthy crush on Justin’s girlfriend at the time, which was just as unhealthily reciprocated. So, by summer of that year, no more Beedies. Instead, the remaining Beedies merged with Jay and a bar pal, and the Dimestore Darlings formed, burned equal parts Big Star, Replacements, Husker Du, Cheap Trick, KISS, SCTV, and any smaller number of lesser known, browned-out K-Tel ’70s AM and cultural staples, distilling a ’90s condensate of very specific social and entertainment touchstones, cured in pot smoke and bottled in Hell’s Kitchen. In other words, a good time.
There were four players: Jay, Justin and Aaron Conte (drummer from the Beedies), another actor relatively fresh out of school, and the lone straight-and-narrow local of the bunch, ever genial Queens native and Irish soak Steve O’Donnell on bass and sweat. Justin and Jay were all atwitter because both had horrible Gibson Sonex guitars (the 180 Deluxe, as Jay reliably informs me), the venerable maker’s sharpest tip in their 1980 nadir; they took this to be some sort of sign of brotherhood. They were wrong. Brotherhood did not stem from shared suspect guitars; it came from the BAND, that verge of adulthood gang-bond, a mortar of audacity, socially acceptable homo-eroticism, naivete, in-jokes, and the indescribable thrill of making a very loud organized noise together.
Over the next few months, they rehearsed and wrote, and after what seemed like very little time, they were booking gigs at small local joints on bills put together by the usual strange girls hoping to be big industry players, or the usual sallow, yellow-toothed, wispy-bearded, black-leathered smell factories posing as rock promoters. CBGBs, the Continental, and Street Level, which has the honor of hosting the first Darlings gig in April ’94, among others, witnessed the carbonated poses of the Darlings’ dual-pronged Sonex attack.
In performance, the shows were almost studiously ramshackle—one minute veering toward Replacements-style meltdown, the next to KISS-borne grandiosity. Swimming around were Bob Mould harmonies, Purple Rain quotes, passive-aggressive infighting, equipment breakdowns, Doc Martens, torn jeans, the occasional dress; in short, the standard-issue look of a garage band circa ’94, with some magic mixed in. Jay sang eyes closed and tossing his tresses (recently amplified with Clairol Nice ‘n Easy Deep Golden Blonde, which Jay inner-validated by claiming it sounded the most “porno”), while Justin prowled around, knocking into him and nodding at adored ’70s rock tropes. Steve sweated and belted out his tunes in a red-faced determination that looked like he was about to have a heart attack at any minute. Aaron played with an endearing earnestness, eyebrows up as if to ask if his playing was good. While the action was elsewhere, he would secretly pour water on his floor tom and snare prior to the big closing of “Cynthia’s Sorority” so that when he pounded the drums at the liftoff, water would shoot up in a giant visual stamp. The combination of it all added up to genuine charm, and the charm attracted attention. Things were looking good.
The Darlings went into the studio in February 1994 under the direction of Jay’s friend Keith Campbell, from the band Idle, that winter and came out with its first four-song EP: Sunrise Semester, composed entirely of Jay’s songs, the title taken directly from a recurring SCTV sketch—an excellent move.
Jay had a very strong pop sensibility, think Cheap Trick and power/flash, and the recordings perfectly captured the band gelling. “She’s So Sublime” established the template—at core, dueling distorted yet still jangly guitars, swing-feel drums (a la Peter Criss) and basic, fundamental bass with little embellishment, on top, Jay’s plaintive, Roger McGuinn-type lead vocal, direct guitar solo, and Jay and Justin’s solid, simple harmonies all played with an ear to excitement and drive. “Don’t Know Why” added the buzzsaw guitars and Justin’s “I’m Bob Mould” harmonies. In all, it was a good snapshot of a band playing, of what they sounded like live. It was unfussy and honest. You can smell the room they’re in as they cut the record. It’s all very close to the source.
More gigs, more laughs. Aaron, who’d been playing with the Darlings and an early incarnation of Nada Surf, started thinking about quitting Nada Surf to focus on the Darlings—good press and a growing fan base—and the clock moved forward. About nine months later, they went back into the studio, and this time I know a bit more about it because I was there, behind the mixing desk, with the astonishingly handsome Noah Evans engineering.
This whole session was ridiculous, hilarious. We had no time to cut. It all had to be recorded and mixed in about 10 hours, then immediately shipped off to be pressed…because Jay wanted to make a festival submission, and he wanted to send off vinyl EPs as opposed to the much easier cassettes. Why vinyl I don’t really know, but the brutal schedule and the addition of copious amounts of cheap vodka (Justin…) and truck-stop uppers (Jay…) didn’t help matters much. But I digress.
We were downtown at Dessau Studio on Murray Street, right across the street from Jay’s brother’s artist loft. The room was up a long flight of stairs (when carrying heavy gear) and had a real NYC rock-and-roll vibe, Eisenhower-era filth, and an outer hallway that smelled like feet. But it was a surprisingly good-sounding space, and once the dented and bruised mics were up, we started in fast and furious (our only option).
We emerged 30 hours later with the second EP in hand: What Is My, What Is Mo?—the title the result of a Justin and Steve misread of Gene Simmons asking the musical question “What is my charisma?” It was heavy on the kick drum, frenetic, and a strong move forward. Justin’s “Sometimes It’s Me” and “Damage” were both genuinely surprising with their lyrical depth, and the grooves themselves had a dizzying, reckless feel, a kind of walloping gait that left no room for instrumental niceties, but were still both interesting and accessible, particularly “Damage,” which had a rough-hewn Keith Richards vibe and a drunken nose-sung vocal that worked perfectly. It’s a great song. In all, What Is My, What Is Mo? was an adrenaline-fueled, determined sound of a band blasting off, which Jay nailed when he yelled “I’m stressing out” in the second track, his “Waste of Time.” And Aaron plays the living hell out of his kit throughout. A fun time had by one and all: Imagine the Keystone Kops, loaded, making a record against an insane deadline and you get the idea—fun but exhausting.
Jay sent this EP around and the reviews that came back were strong. So now things were moving faster. But when things move, everything shifts. First and foremost, Justin’s acting career was starting to take off. His Broadway turn as Bobby Brahms in hit-of-the-season Love! Valour! Compassion! came right as What Is My? What Is Mo? was released, seriously hindering gigs—an eight-show-a-week schedule will do that. At the same time, Jay got bumped up to copy chief, which meant both his name being higher on the masthead and a hell of a lot more responsibility. Aaron quit playing with Nada Surf, announced over the phone in a conversation that rapidly turned ugly when Nada Surf issued an “us or them” ultimatum that Aaron thought was both laughable and an insult to his friends. He cast his lot with the Darlings; why not, the trajectory looked stratospheric. It was all out of balance. The only one standing in the dead center of the Darlings’ ring was Jay, and his control was slipping.
Still, the Darlings soldiered on. It was too much fun and too good to stop. They decided to go into the studio again in the summer of 1995, using Aaron’s job as a gopher/assistant at the Power Station to get some spare overnight hours in one of the rooms, with the goal of ultimately netting a new EP. We all met up at around 9pm, for the first of what we planned as a series of overnight sessions, catching Beavis and Butthead in the waiting area (Justin and I fell off the ottoman in hysterics seeing “Cornholio” for the first time), while everything was put in place. By the time we were ready to record, I was getting a fat head and feeling like a big shot. This was a cavernous, first-class room, with great gear; the drums were going to sound fantastic, and we could run the guitars full-out. It was a great feeling of power sitting behind that desk. This was going to rule. And it DID rule, just, as usual, not as planned. We were getting terrific, full sounds for the drums and guitars, but couldn’t get anything other than a fading, buzzing flatulence out of the bass. Nothing we tried would help, and we were running out of time, so two of the guys from the studio went into another room and grabbed someone else’s bass, which turned out to belong to Chic’s Nile Rodgers. We plugged it in—problem solved. Steve’s bass was apparently broken, but now we could record.
Wrong. Power Station higher-ups caught wind of our surreptitious solution—it was strictly against policy. There was a flash of trouble in the hallway, and by the next day we were all booted. Aaron and the two studio guys lost their jobs, and needless to say, we had no EP. The coup de grace was that Steve’s bass wasn’t even broken: He’d forgotten his bass required a 9-volt battery to power the pickups; the battery was dead, the pickups were fried: $1.59 for the battery at the corner bodega would have kept Aaron and pals in employment and me and the Darlings in the studio. Fuck.
Not one to give up, Jay managed to corral everyone again in January ’96, this time at Noah’s Westbeth basement studio, again with the team of Noah and me at the helm. By this time, though, the writing was on the wall; those life changes among the crew were bigger and less flexible. Jay had recently turned 30. Justin was a bona fide Broadway star (complete with stalkers and the like) pursuing a romantic relationship that was, for lack of anything better to say, a bad idea rapidly becoming a complete disaster. Aaron was months away from splitting with his girlfriend over a similar bad idea (and hilarious disaster! No more must be said! At least for now…), and I was married with a baby daughter.
But on we went. Noah’s studio in Westbeth was a cramped, tough place to record. It was all reflective cement, with a low ceiling and stuffed with amps, speakers, wires, cables, guitars, basses, drums, stands, ashtrays, dinners, etc. Conversations happened out in the common hall, because there wasn’t space for anyone in the control room beyond Noah, me, and one other person. And again, we only had enough dough for four sessions, meaning we had to be smart and prepared…not exactly a value in the Darlings’ universe. Despite all this, or maybe precisely because of it, we ended up with what is sonically the best, most complete Darlings recording: the four-track (the demos always had four songs, one of Jay’s odd obsessions) Senior Ball: The Spirit of ’96, a terrible pun, but a good title, and a great EP.
The sessions got off to a bad start. On the first night (the sessions were always at night), and the only time where everyone was due to be there, the basic tracking wasn’t going well. We were trying to cut “Superheroes” but the vibe was awful. Justin was belligerently careless (or carelessly belligerent), Aaron was lethargic and playing like he had sunflowers for sticks, Jay was getting uptight (not unusual), and Steve was his usual bonhomie self. The performance refused to build up steam or have any life, and we were running against overplaying the track. So Noah and I intentionally pissed off Aaron, hoping that by making him mad, he would spark and flail away at his kit. We threw on the fluorescent lights (ruining the carefully choreographed mood) and calmly told him that we couldn’t understand why he couldn’t play for shit. We shrugged and said, “One more take, and if it sucks as bad as those, dump it.” Seconds later we were cutting the take with a FURIOUS Aaron pounding away. The band sounded like a car with no brakes careening down a hill, completely out of control with the wheels about to fall off—in other words, perfect. When the track finished, Aaron threw down his sticks and stalked out of the studio, slamming the door. He returned minutes later, ready to tell us to go fuck ourselves, but we apologized, explaining how we’d provoked him, and he burst out laughing as we played back the track.
After that, the sessions were a blast, creative and fun as hell. We used a bass speaker as a bass microphone on “Cynthia’s Sorority,” many extra guitars and alarms on “Superheroes,” and double-tracked Jay’s slide-guitar lead on “Stuck.” We used multiple amp set-ups with remote A/B switching to allow Justin to play “Cynthia’s Sorority” live for all that nice sonic bleed and all-at-once vibe. The performances were more assured: Steve’s playing in particular was much more pronounced and strong, the textures were richer, and the songs themselves, split evenly between Justin and Jay, showed a real range and portended a great future.
The reviews were excellent, and the future, alas, was great—just not for the Darlings. They embarked on a tour, during which Aaron got himself into a kind of trouble only he could foster, causing the end of his previous relationship. Shortly thereafter, he hooked up with the lovely Veronique, a beautiful girl who was not merely a friend of the band, but also Steve’s girlfriend. That didn’t go over so well with Steve.
So, with that irreparable split, and with a drawn-out sigh of capitulation to the obvious from Jay, the Dimestore Darlings met their end on October 12, 1996, with a final show at CBGB. Both Aaron and Justin had called it quits earlier in the month, so everyone knew that this was it. As always at CBs, the rules about overplaying were strict and the staff (the door and booker staff) were full of what can be best described as “shit,” and I say that with all affection, because that’s the way it should be. The reverse, of course, was never true: The club could bump you back several hours in the bill at their discretion, somehow not pay you (by miscounting your total audience paid), reject your guest list—in short, just about anything. On this night, the soundman decided that the Darlings had gone on long enough, and he announced into the monitors that they were done. The band thought otherwise and launched into “She’s So Sublime,” always planned as the last song to ever be played by the Darlings. The soundman, irritated, cut the mics, which put a special gleam in the band’s eye. They played anyway—and louder—Jay taking to the edge of the stage to shout the lyrics. They ended with the longest, most clichéd, and irritatingly drawn-out ending ever, which Jay punctuated by throwing his guitar up in the air and letting it fall to the stage, thereby cracking the neck. The denouement? When Jay went to get paid, the promoter counted out the money and threw it to the floor at Jay’s feet.
Here the curtain closes on the Dimestore Darlings, and on our little tale. And that, save for the songs—which is where it all lives and breathes—is the end of that.
Music is the only art I know of that bonds so closely to the experience of life that it can make you remember a smell, and there really is nothing like falling in love with a band.
About the Dimestore Darlings, it must be said: To know them was to love.