Chris O’Connor of Primitive Radio Gods calls it ”just good luck.” Others may see it as a modern-day Cinderella story, or a blushing case of karmic payback, but the return of Primitive Radio Gods, who appeared at a Santa Barbara club on July 5, was nothing if not bizarre.
The band hadn’t played a gig in five years yet had a single that was dominating alternative-rock radio, a video in the MTV Buzz Bin, and a Columbia Records album, Rocket, that debuted in early July at No. 60 on the Billboard 200. David Letterman had made an on-air habit of muttering, ”I’ve been downhearted, babe,” the raspy B.B. King sample that haunts the band’s mesmerizing hit, ”Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand.” And, never one to be outdone, Howard Stern began playing a tape loop of the song incessantly on his show.
Its infectious blend of hip-hop rhythm, perceptive sampling, subdued instrumentation, and apocalyptic, half-spoken lyrics may seem like a sound whose time has come, but ”Phone Booth,” like the rest of Rocket, was originally recorded five years ago, a time when O’Connor had good reason to be downhearted, babe.
He and band mates Jeff Sparks and Tim Lauterio — then known as the I-Rails — had broken up after toiling for four years in Santa Barbara clubs but failing to land a major-label recording contract. ”It was devastating,” O’Connor says. ”I thought, How can Tiffany get signed when we can’t? It just didn’t make sense.”
Holing up in a friend’s garage studio, O’Connor poured his frustration into what would later become Rocket, mixing sampled music and television sound bites with sequenced drum tracks and live guitar to create a sometimes melancholy, sometimes angry antiestablishment musical manifesto. Shortly after, O’Connor moved south to Los Angeles, where he took a job as an air traffic controller, and spent the rest of his time ”hanging out in pool halls, drinking, and listening to sports radio.” In 1994, he self-released his CD to virtually no response. Then, last summer, while cleaning his closet, he came across some leftover copies and tried a last-ditch blind mailing to record execs. In a matter of months, he was signed to Columbia, and in March he put the old band back together, adding Ventura, Calif., guitarist Luke McAuliffe.
When O’Connor stepped up to the microphone at his sold-out homecoming in Santa Barbara and looked out on what he would later call ”all those faces from way back,” he could muster only ”Hello, Santa Barbara. Long time no see.” Tongue-tied? Hardly. After five years of waiting, he says, he just wanted to play. ”It’s the only thing I’ve ever really given a f— about.”