Oct. 15, 1998
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It has to be tough being born under a shadow. The Pharoahs were conceived under a massive mountain of one -- a mountain of 5 million discs.
That's how many copies the Gin Blossoms sold of their two albums. And while the groundbreaking Tempe band may have gone the way of the dinosaurs, two of its members have re-emerged as members of the Pharoahs.
"It's a great history we had as the Gin Blossoms," said Robin Wilson, lead singer for the Blossoms and now for the Pharoahs. "It's something I'm really proud of. But this is different."
There's no doubt it's different, as the guys work in the Tempe recording studio that Wilson owns with Pharoahs drummer (and ex-Blossom) Phillip Rhodes. The place is dubbed Mayberry Recording Studio -- "Home of Elvis Presley, Barney Fife and Phillip Rhodes," the answering machine intones.
The recording equipment looks overpoweringly expensive - proof that some money rolls in after you make a quadruple-platinum album. The studio also houses a publishing award for Til I Hear It From You, the Blossoms' contribution to the big-selling Empire Records soundtrack.For all of its LA touches, the place still has a frat-boy, Tempe air to it. Blame it on the Power Ranger figure propped on the piano or the overflowing ashtray. Maybe it's that the "Whoa, whoa, whoa" chorus of the kitschy '70s pop tune Magic is blaring out of the stereo, and the guys are loving it and mocking it at the same time.
"Listen to this part," says Daniel Henzerling, the Pharoahs' lead guitarist and also a member of local faves the Grievous Angels. "It is just a total hook."
Bassist Brian Griffith, who moonlights with Dead Hot Workshop, bobs his head in time to the burbling rhythm of the old Pilot tune. "It's very Elton John," Wilson offers, in a voice that sounds remarkably like David Spade without the cruel irony.
Magic may be more than just a slippery trip down memory lane for the Pharoahs. It's the kind of pop miracle that the members hope to catch. Wilson and Rhodes were at the top during the Blossoms' brief yet spectacular reign. They know how tough it can be to get back there.
"I feel like I'm going to college for the second time," Wilson said, reaching for another cigarette. "I already know what to do. I think we should have a really good chance."
Living through the soap-opera rise and belly-flop of the Blossoms has taught the two some lessons. And the rest of the Pharoahs have learned their own lessons, both from watching and participating.
It was 1992's New Miserable Experience that momentarily moved the Blossoms to the top shelf of the rock and roll rack. The hits flew fast and free, sweet yet bitter jangle-pop singles such as Found Out About You and Hey Jealousy.
Then the clouds began to appear. Principal songwriter Doug Hopkins, fired from the band in '92, took his life with a bullet to the brain the next year. Disputes within the group followed. Then came the dreaded sophomore album in 1996.
"I was bored with our material the day that Congratulations I'm Sorry came out. The Gin Blossoms was rewarding for a long time, but it lost that . . .," Wilson said, searching for words. "It's hard to say. But it was like a train that you couldn't stop."
Rhodes nods his head. He remembers the feeling.
"Everything just changed," he said.
After the Blossoms busted up, old relationships began to be renewed in that circular, Peyton Place way that seems to exist only in the world of music. Griffith and Henzerling first met right out of high school in '84, two guys who "wanted to be rock stars," Griffith said.
The four pals played together in various combinations and mixes, crossing paths on a regular basis. In January 1997, they decided to join forces. Perhaps the biggest difference between this band and the Blossoms: This time, the guys know what they want.
"No one in this group has any problems with being a part of show business," Wilson said. "There is no 'Should we have a song on the Beverly Hills, 90210 soundtrack or is that selling out?' kind of thing.
"We will do things like play for radio-station secretaries. We will do all that needs to be done to get attention (for the disc)."
So far, the group hasn't been starving for attention. The foursome signed with A&M Records (the Blossoms' old home) 10 months after forming. It's an offbeat union: The record company acquired the Pharoahs much in the way a just-married man can get a new stepchild. Even so, the powers that be still had to give the thumbs-up to the new congregation.
"A&M owned Phillip and I, and all that that statement implies," Wilson said, tapping down another Marlboro Light. "They still had to like our band, and they liked us."
One thing the members didn't want to do was go in with a sound that said Gin Blossoms, only with different faces. There is some consistency, due to Wilson's vocals and Rhodes' sturdy backbeat, but the music sounds punchier and more spacious, with guitars that snarl instead of ring. If the Blossoms had a wistful smile on their face, the Pharoahs have a cocky sneer.
One song represents the birth of the Pharoahs. Now, the Change has a Cheap Trick-ish hook and in-your-face presence (it could also be that the guys are listening to various mixes of the tune at alarmingly loud levels). But there's no mistaking the song for the Blossoms or Dead Hot or the Angels.
"We're a pop-rock band," explains Henzerling, a Brophy Prep grad. "We're a bit more aggressive than the Gin Blossoms. We're different from Dead Hot Workshop. It's distinctive from all those."
The guys hope to make sure that the distinction is clear from the get-go, one reason for Now, the Change.
"The record is kind of symbolic," says Wilson, who naturally falls into the role of spokesman. "Now, the Change is the one I want people to hear. That's the one that kind of announces this is a new beginning."
New, but old. Titled From Beyond the Back Burner, the disc is expected to be in stores early next year. The cover art is impressive, created by underground comic-book artist Geoff Darrow. But the disc was produced by John Hampton, who did the chores for both Blossoms discs.
"It was comfortable," a laconic Rhodes said with a shrug, sitting behind the drums.
The grand legacy isn't an uncomfortable one. The Pharoahs perform a couple of Blossoms tunes in concert. And the fantastic bloodlines are one reason the guys have been able to secure local bookings, no problem.
When the band is billed, mention of the lineage is usually made - "featuring ex-members of the Gin Blossoms." But the group's confident performances have earned them a spot on the local roster.
"Between the three groups we've been in, we have enough credibility to pull people into the clubs," Griffith said. "We all have histories."
"They're definitely good," said Charlie Levy, manager of Gloritone, another Valley band made good. "They are great players and are just awesome. They can do whatever they want to do around here."
The guys are limiting their performances to occasional gigs and opening spots for acts such as Cheap Trick. Levy thinks once the album drops next year, the band easily will move to the next level.
"Look at the Pistoleros," Levy says, naming another band with Blossoms connections. "They used to play and draw 30 people into Long Wong's. The day their song got on the radio, over 350 people would come to see them. There was no difference between them two months before the record and seven days after, but the record made them a big deal. It's all people's perception."
And once Beyond the Back Burner hits, maybe perceptions will change about the Pharoahs. Maybe the day will come when the people think of the Gin Blossoms as "that band the Pharoahs were in before."
"I think the chemistry is there," Griffith said. "Nothing is guaranteed, but I think we have a chance."
Then again, there is the matter of the name. Yes, the transposition of the "o" and second "a" is intentional. "It's spelled like that on purpose," insists Mick Brigdon, the band's very British publicist.
It dates back to a drunken night many years ago when Wilson and Griffith decided to hit a tattoo parlor for no discernible reason. The end result was two left arms emblazoned with a word sure to drive copy editors crazy.
"The tattoo artist didn't have a dictionary," Griffith said with a shrug.
If the band catches on, kids everywhere will be using that spelling. The members can only hope.
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