Nov. 29 at Jack Legs'
Val Strain is a live wire, buzzing with electricity. The lead singer and principal songwriter for SparkleDrive talks fast, catching her breath with a hasty “you know” or “like,” and stretching out her sentences by repeating words and phrases. Referring to her band’s plans to tour next year, she says they’ll start “full-time, full-time, full-time in February, you know, we think. I’d hate to be the first one to say March.” The start date depends on the release of SparkleDrive’s major-label debut from Aware Records, a subdivision of Columbia that’s also providing a budget to support the tour. The money, Strain says, is “waiting there, waiting there.”
“There’s always timing with labels,” she adds. There’s been talk of Columbia/Aware getting a SparkleDrive song or two onto a movie soundtrack, to seed the ground for the album. In the meantime, Val and her husband, lead guitarist Dan Strain, wait, working day jobsVal as an occasional “girl Friday” at Nicholson’s Stereoand playing the occasional “spot dates and regional stuff,” like their show this coming Wednesday, Nov. 29, at Jack Legs’. The band currently has no management and is booking itselfa situation it hopes will change before the album hits the racks.
If you’re scratching your head right now, wondering why you’ve never heard of this local rock band with a major-label deal, don’t feel too bad. As recently as this summer, SparkleDrive was known as Porcelain, the name under which Val and Dan Strain recorded two independent albums and played countless Nashville gigs. But, says Val, “We never did a real trademark search on the name.” When Columbia/Aware determined that it was actually going to release the band’s album, the label’s legal department looked for other acts with a claim to the name Porcelain. It found several musicians working with that name or some variation thereof, and one of those folks owned the trademark.
So a friend suggested SparkleDrive, which the distaff Strain likes because “it’s kinda feminine, kinda masculine.” And yes, she’s aware of the Virginia-based avant-country combo Sparklehorse, but Strain says she checked the name all up and down the Web, and after finding dozens of other bands with “sparkle” in their name, “it doesn’t sound that close anymore.” Mostly, she likes the idea of starting fresh, with two new membersdrummer Adam Farley and bassist Clint Harrisas well as the new name. “For the first time ever, we’re really really a band,” she says.
The Strains moved to Nashville in April of 1994, fleeing Washington, D.C., for a town that was “more mellow, more about music.” The couple had no jobs for the first few months, so they took the money they had saved before the move and recorded their first album. In October 1998, shortly after their second self-released LP became available, they got an offer from Columbia for a development deala small advance to record five masters for the label to evaluate.
Val Strain recalls, “We had friends saying, ‘Don’t take it, don’t take it,’ ” warning the young marrieds about the dangers of being in debt to a major. But Strain figured that incurring some sort of debt was “a given.” She says, “It was never like this big million-dollar album, you know. We were never like this huge Veruca Salt band with a big advance. Either you do great and you don’t worry about it, or you go bust and the label eats it.” Ultimately, she figured, “everything is recoupable.”
The five masters turned into 14, which turned into a full record deal with Aware/Columbia. The resultant, as-yet untitled album is polished and pleasurable, and it shows that the name SparkleDrive was not ill-chosenthe 11 finished songs on the disc deliver glittery pop dazzle with guitar-powered force. Strain admits that she has eclectic tastes. “I click around on the radio,” she says, “I like everything from Cibo Matto to Third Eye Blind.” She confesses that one of her favorite mix tapes has Mariah Carey on one side and Liz Phair on the other, and this disjointed mix of influences shows up on the opening track of SparkleDrive’s debut. “Baby Hold On” starts in trip-folk mode, with an electronic rhythm track and an acoustic guitar backing Val Strain’s throaty vocals. Then Dan Strain’s jagged electric guitar heralds the chorus, which features a harmony straight off a Wilson Phillips single. It’s the most modern of modern rock married to yesterday’s Top 40.
Val Strain acknowledges that a lot of the pop sheen comes from the production. “It is so weird what a mix can do,” she says. “The first time we listened to [‘Baby Hold On’], the chorus hit, and we were like, ‘Where’d that come from?’ ” Other tracks on the recordlike “Let Go” and “Climb Out”show a more rock-oriented approach, with the pop side coming through chiefly in the sing-along choruses. Dan Strain is mostly responsible for SparkleDrive’s sound, due to his role as the band’s original producer and Val’s collaborator on arrangements. But for their leap into the big time, the couple also got help from Nashville-based producer Roger Moutenot, who’s worked with Paula Cole and Yo La Tengo. “Roger had some great ideas,” Val says. Still, she adds, “Dan is, like, my soul mate, hero, producer.”
And Dan doesn’t mind Val’s lyrics, which are often soul-baringly direct, full of exhortations for someone to “Come Give Me Love” or admissions that it’s better to keep her feelings inside, where they’re “Easier to Hide.” She says that her husband doesn’t always pay attention to what the songs are about anyway. “He is so awesome that way,” she laughs. “Really, he is so music-minded that he doesn’t totally totally pay attention to what the words are saying right away.” Val says that Dan can remember the music to songs she hasn’t played in years, but he rarely recalls how to sing them. Which gives her a certain amount of leeway to write freely.
The openness of Val Strain’s lyrics provides the band’s primary appeal, which is supplemented by SparkleDrive’s infectious melodies and boundless energy. She says that she writes “from a personal perspective, but rarely are the songs exactly exactly about one particular instance. A lot of the time, I don’t know where they come from, and I have to figure it out later. And sometimes it ties into something that someone else is going through, something that reminds me of one of my own experiences.”
For now, those experiences and the songs that describe them are locked inside, as Strain looks out her window at the “big bad-ass van” that’s prepared to take SparkleDrive on tour. She’s practically bouncing off the walls, chomping at the bit to get back into the recording studio or to get out on the road. But she’ll follow the plan, so long as the van, the label money, the record, and the band are all “waiting there, waiting there.”
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