Roommates Juliet Shango and Yukiko Moynihan just got fired from slinging hash at a Washington, D.C., eatery. As Moynihan puts it, "I'm just sitting at home, jobless." Fortunately, the summer's sultry weeks won't find these young women moping about an apartment sans air conditioning where help-wanted ads are used for placemats. Along with keyboardist/stand-up drummer Oakley Munson, guitarist/vocalist Shango and bassist Moynihan are scheduled to tour the country as the Rondelles, an act that's as cheery as it is raucous. The jaunt should soften the blow of losing daytime employment for the two, who've tiptoed lightly through their teenage years, fielding phone calls from indie-label royalty and tossing out seven-inch platters like so many Frisbees in the park while their peers are still trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up.
The three met while attending high school in Albuquerque, but they bonded because they all hailed from D.C. (to which they recently returned), not as a result of any shared musical proficiency. "Juliet learned by being in the band," Moynihan allows. "When she started, she couldn't play at all. Even now, she only has four strings on her guitar. And Oakley had never played drums while standing up, but I guess he knew how to play." For her part, Moynihan had plunked around on a guitar, but for all intents and purposes, she was a neophyte on the bass.
Like most self-starters, the players compiled a demo of their early efforts and sent it off to a slew of imprints. But instead of the silence that answers the initial forays of the average fledgling, the firms bit like fish at feeding time. Grime Records issued a Rondelles EP, He's Out of Sight, in 1997, and Teenbeat shipped an eponymous EP the next year. Shortly thereafter, Smells Like Records, an enterprise run by Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley, followed with the band's debut long-player, Fiction Romance Fast Machines. On top of that, Calvin Johnson phoned personally to ask if his K Records company could press a Rondelles single. "The fact that they were interested is just awesome to me," Moynihan admits. "It's still really flattering."
Although a great deal has happened to the Rondelles since their graduation from high school, the majority of the material they've put out thus far hails from their New Mexico adolescence. "We didn't have an album until last year," Monyihan explains. "And we write songs really slow, so all the songs on the album last year are pretty much our first songs, and they sound really primitive."
Maybe so, but the band's mod-by-way-of-the-soda-shop sound exudes the vintage charm of a pair of white vinyl go-go boots. Shango approximates the arch, bored disdain of Elastica's Justine Frischman when she sings, "There is a word for you: distraction" on the opener of the Rondelles' Fiction, which contains in its title a reference to a tune by the Buzzcocks, another British act the girls revere. According to Moynihan, "Juliet was into them, and then she taped me a song on some mix tape--and for the past year and a half, I've been completely obsessed with them. I was actually just listening to them before you called."
Although Munson doesn't consider himself a fan of Pete Shelley and company, his minimalist pounding contributes mightily to the Rondelles' upbeat punk snottiness. The spareness of his percussive thrashing is necessary given that he does triple duty for the group: He simultaneously shouts, keeps time and types out single-finger organ riffs that wax Wire-era new wave even as they elicit an early-Sixties beehive vibe. Recalling the first time she witnessed Munson's kooky dexterity, Moynihan says, "I started practicing with them a couple of months after they had gotten together but before it was a serious thing. I went over there and saw him playing, and I thought it looked so ridiculous! But the drum set he uses is really basic--just a snare, a high hat and a bass drum. And the keyboard he uses isn't exactly super-sophisticated or fancy, so they're both simple pieces of equipment."
In the studio, where the Rondelles were recorded by Ryan Martino, the Albuquerque technician behind Venus Diablo's latest CD, Munson still chose to work his artful one-man-band shtick. While it's all routine to his bandmates, those they meet on the road react to his abilities with amazement--or confusion. "We're just so used to it now that it seems really normal," Moynihan says. "But when we set up on stage when we go on tour and we play a place, the sound guy always looks at him like, 'Ummm...how are you setting this up?' It takes skill, definitely."
Moynihan knows this from experience: On some numbers, she wrestles with keyboards and drums in order to allow Munson to doodle on guitar. Playing musical chairs has provided the Rondelles a new flexibility, as have recent collaborations with electronica dabblers on efforts like Fiction's secret final track, a broad left turn that features looped voices and a programmed rhythm section. "We met this guy named Ian who does turntables, and he put that song together for us," Moynihan notes. "His brother lives in D.C. and has a studio in his basement. A few months ago he did a beat for us, and we went in there and listened to it and wrote a song along with it." The results pleased them enough to add this new cut to their upcoming disc, slated for release later this year.
Obviously, the band isn't afraid to veer from winning formulas for the sake of growth--or to ax them altogether. An example of the dewy humor and clap-worthy grooves Rondelles boosters have grown to love is "Mission: Irresistible," a tale told amid nerdy keyboard chatter that even feminists eager to dispel myths about female math disability could enjoy. Moynihan describes the concept: "Usually you're writing some song about Bobby on the football team, and we were trying to write a song about the guy who never gets a song written about him"--in this case, a bespectacled math-team geek who tutors Shango's seductress in geometry. But Moynihan hints that themes touching upon juvenile school days and boy trouble (like "Catastrophe," whose refrain announces, "I wish he had a crush on me!") may be slated for extinction. "When we were in high school, we weren't really interested in writing political lyrics," she says. "It was just kind of a joke. We were like the Shangri-las--girls-in-the-garage type stuff--and it seemed like what you're supposed to write about for that kind of music." But, she warns, "when our new album comes out, you're not going to hear any more songs about milkshakes."
While the Rondelles have no investment in clinging to teenybopper motifs, their collective youth--Shango and Munson are newly twenty, while Moynihan lingers at nineteen--has proven to be a desirable novelty. For instance, Rhino Records recently tapped the band for a project in which Nineties teen acts, including Ben Lee and Phantom Planet, performed covers of soundtrack hits from Eighties teen movies. "They sent us a tape of songs we could do," Moynihan says, and after considerable debate, they picked Modern English's mushy "Melt With You" over "Oh Yeah" by Yello. "We could have chosen a different one, but we decided that would be the easiest. 'Melt With You' was one of the catchier ones on the album." Not content to play it straight, the band hacked the bloated tune down to a bearable length and tinkered with the words many a Gen X virgin smudged her black eyeliner to. "One of the lyrics goes 'Making love to you was never second best,' but Juliet changed it to 'Making out with you was never second best,'" Moynihan snickers.
Opportunities like this one seem to fall into the Rondelles' lap on a regular basis. Not only did Steve Shelley issue the combo's flagship LP, but he asked the musicians to open for Sonic Youth at the Ogden Theatre last summer. A week later, however, when the Rondelles returned to Denver to play a date with the Minders at the 15th Street Tavern, they were reminded that even bands born under a lucky star aren't exempted from the occasional crummy letdown. Not only did the "crowd" at the Tavern consist of roughly four patrons, but because of their underage status, the club's proprietor demanded that the Rondelles remain outside until their set and promptly leave the premises afterward. "It was our first day of the tour, and it was our first show, and the Tavern's not in the best neighborhood, I guess," Moynihan says. "There were these crazy people on the corner going insane and yelling and hitting each other, and we were like, 'God!'" But the doleful one-night stand was mitigated by the hospitality of the Minders, who gave the greenies a place to stay and cooked them breakfast the next morning. "They're the most wonderful people," Moynihan enthuses.
As this response implies, the Rondelles remain untainted by either cynicism or premature cockiness. "It's always been this fun thing, but sometimes I'm like, 'Geez! High school! That was almost three years ago,'" Moynihan says with world-weary awe. "We've been in the band for almost three years, and suddenly we're putting out our second album and going on our second tour this summer." Then, as the interview winds down, she asks, "Did I answer okay?"
So far, so good.
The Rondelles, with the Maybellines. 10 p.m. Monday, July 12, 15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street, $5, 303-572-0822.
Get the Music Newsletter