A couple of years ago, a crazed Mooney Suzuki fan bum-rushed the band during a show and squirted mustard on singer/guitarist Sammy James Jr.’s fuzz box guitar pedal. The guy was apparently pissed that the garage rockers had “sold out” and signed with tiny indie label Estrus Records for their 2000 debut, People Get Ready, so he shouted, “Why don’t you have Estrus buy you a new one!”
If that’s how he felt then, things could get much uglier next year when the band releases its as-yet-untitled third album, the first under its new deal with Columbia Records. Not to mention the fact that it’s also pairing up with a crew of increasingly popular producers.
“Most people only do a few songs with them, but we’re doing our whole record with the Matrix,” said James. Yeah, you heard right, the Ricky Martin/Avril pop hitmakers are getting their hands dirty with the garage rockers for the follow-up to last year’s Electric Sweat, and James couldn’t be more excited.
“When our A&R person brought it up I was totally psyched because I’m fascinated by the Avril thing,” James said. “I thought those songs were great. If ‘Sk8er Boi’ had been written by Ric Ocasek it would have been a great Cars song.” James realizes that the hookup might further inflame the band’s underground fans, but he’s not sweating the expected heat.
“People would have reservations about who we worked with no matter who it was,” he said. “Once more than one person knows you exist, there’s nothing you can do that will please everyone. People got pissed when we bought a van! We just want to make something that our fans will enjoy. Fact is, a lot of people who like that raw, filthy garage-y music have a pop fixation, too. And, it’s not like we’re going pop.”
The band flew out to hang with the Matrix for three days in June, emerging with three new songs. “I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through the first day,” James said. “The second day was much better and by the third day, I could really see working with these guys.” Part of the appeal was that both parties felt like the project was a totally unexpected move, with each side moving toward the other as the sessions went on.
“These guys are the real deal,” said the Matrix’s Scott Spock. “They’re as credible as the Who or [T. Rex leader] Marc Bolan in their day. It’s an honor to work with them.”
The Matrix wrote and recorded 10 songs with Avril Lavigne for her debut (five of which made the final album), but this is one of the first times Spock could remember recording an entire album with an artist.
Though known for their slick production of songs by Liz Phair, Britney and Ricky Martin, the Matrix – which also includes husband-and-wife team Lauren Christy and Graham Edwards – have no interest in turning the Suzuki into pop tarts.
“We were a little frightened at first because we thought, ‘We have this reputation of doing these soulless pop joints,’ ” Spock said. “But we’re not cookie-cutter machines. They have a good sense of what they want to do. We take the best parts of an artist and magnify them so the public can lock into it.”
Mooney Suzuki will bring a dozen songs into a Los Angeles studio this week, but James said the group is prepared to spend the first of the scheduled six weeks writing new tunes with the Matrix. Among the songs members plan to record are three new ones they performed on Lollapalooza this summer, “Primitive Condition,” “Messin’ in the Dressin’ Room” and “Back at the Shack,” which were inspired by the three-day writing session in June.
“After working with them I was very inspired, because they obviously know how to write a hit song,” James said. “They gave me lots of insight and ideas, so I locked myself in a room for a week and said I’d write a song a day using that Matrix energy.” Another song that could make the cut is a blues jam James wrote before meeting the Matrix, called “Honeybee.”
The as-yet-untitled album is due out in early 2004. Meanwhile, the band can be heard on the title track to the new Jack Black flick, “School of Rock.” The majestic rock anthem was a collaboration between the band and the movie’s screenwriter, Mike White (“The Good Girl”). “They sent us the screenplay and a sheet of lyrics Mike White had written and I switched around all his grammar so that it was incorrect,” said James, who called the opportunity to work with “Dazed and Confused” director Richard Linklater a “fantasy,” akin to writing the end credits song to “Revenge of the Nerds.”
The nod to Suzuki came after Black and Tenacious D partner Kyle Gass struggled to come up with a song that had the right gravity. “I tried to write all the songs and then I failed,” Black admitted. “It took me and Kyle 10 years to write our album, so it wasn’t like I was going to be able to crank out all the music in the movie in four months.” In search of a big finale, Black said he was inspired to tap Mooney Suzuki after seeing them open a show for the Strokes earlier this year. “We still didn’t have the big finale song [and the Mooney Suzuki] were so high energy and funny and rocking that I asked them afterwards if they would be interested. They said ‘Yeah, yeah, we will write a song.’ And they did and it was kick-ass. They saved the day.”