Tuesday, 13 November 2018

The Cunninghams: Nice Guys Who Just Want You To Be As Comfortable As Possible

Seven Pearson
Photo from the Zeroed Out CD
Originally published in Teenage Kicks #2 (Fall 1997)

By Devorah Ostrov

After our pre-soundcheck, hour-long interview with the Cunninghams was over, Michael and I were out in the Warfield's glitzy lobby, chatting informally and comparing fingernail polish with the group's impossibly cute frontman, Seven Pearson.

"So, who are your favorite bands?" he asks me.

"The Replacements..."

"We've been compared to them," he says with a smile.

I can understand why. Both groups play/played an appealingly chaotic brand of brash pop-punk that sounds/sounded as if they just might explode at any second (or in the case of the Replacements, fall off the stage). And Seven delivers his angst-ridden lyrics of alienation, drug abuse and dissatisfaction (with the odd uplifting number like "Bottle Rockets" thrown in for good measure) with the same raspy, "I'm-so-pissed-off," impassioned intensity Westerberg (and for that matter Joe Strummer) was so good at.

Seven and Eric onstage at the Warfield
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
(Seven also says that they've been compared to Redd Kross, one of my other fave groups, but I can't see that at all.)

Anyway, what it all boils down to is, the Cunninghams have a lot in common with many of the bands that you already know and love.

And that's OK, because as Seven and guitarist Eric Craig (sporting faded blue hair and the smeared remnants of the previous night's makeup) stress during the interview, seemingly in all earnestness, is that they want people to feel comfortable with the Cunninghams.

Hence, taking their name from the '50s-based sitcom featuring the Fonz. "We wanted a name that was really common and familiar," explains Seven. "An icon-type thing. I mean, we could've been called Charlie's Angels!"

Hence, throwing random pop music references into their lyrics: "Ruby Tuesday got a second wind," sings Seven in "Narcolepsy;" "Junior's Farm" can be spotted on the right in "Generic Song;" the antagonist of "Wannabe" is warned Police-style, "Don't stand so close..."

Seven Pearson
Cover pic for Teenage Kicks #2
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
"It's a Where's Waldo kind of thing," quips Seven. "And it goes back to making things familiar to people. When you're familiar, you're comfortable. We just want you to be as comfortable as possible."

Later that evening, as openers for INXS, the Cunninghams blasted ever so confidently and energetically through a 30-minute set, acquainting the largely indifferent audience (with the exception of myself and Michael, I think it's safe to say that no one was there specifically to see the Cunninghams) with just about everything on their debut CD, Zeroed Out.

And Seven (looking like a classic punk with short-cropped, jet-black hair and tight PVC trousers, but sans his trademark heavy eyeliner) made one member of the audience feel particularly comfortable when he stood at the very edge of the stage, leant over the barricade and shouted the lyrics from "Wannabe" in the guy's face.

The story of the Cunninghams begins, not as Seven likes to say, "in the Amazon jungle," but in San Diego and Seattle. Seven spent his adolescence in the former, listening to his parent's soul and Motown record collection. "For me, that was good," he says. "That kind of music is all about vocals."

As a teenager, he discovered Queen ("Freddie Mercury was amazing!"), the Police ("They had a lot of harmony, a lot of melody"), and AC/DC. "The first record I ever bought was Highway to Hell," he gushes.

The Cunninghams: Scott Bickham, Eric Craig, Seven Pearson & Eliot Freed
Photos from the Zeroed Out CD
"That was the first record I ever bought, too!" exclaims Eric, who grew up in Seattle. "I bought it used from a little record store a block from my house. I think the first five records I bought were AC/DC."

"I bought it from a kid at school," says Seven, marvelling at this new-found bond. "That and Judas Priest. What was the live one?"

"Unleashed in the East," fills in Eric. These guys were obviously heavy metal geeks in high school.

Seven Pearson
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
"Yeah," nods Seven. "And I stole Kiss' Destroyer from a kid down the street. I borrowed it from him and kept it. That one and Hotter than Hell."

Eric was also fond of Eddie Van Halen. But before he became just another flashy guitar hero, his teacher instilled in him the idea that anybody could be a great guitar player, but not everybody could write a great song.

At that point, he says, "I became more interested in changes and chord structuring and arranging. That was more interesting to me than playing the guitar."

A few years later, Eric had formed the grunge-era Jesus Headtrip. He recruited the by-then relocated Seven, who recruited second guitarist Scott Bickham. But that band "just wasn't happening," says Seven. "We came close to getting deals, but it just wasn't what we wanted to do."

About two years ago Jesus Headtrip morphed into the poppier/punkier Cunninghams. With the addition of Eliot Freed on drums, and an assortment of bass players, the group began recording demo tapes with producer Don Gilmore. Their last demo featured a good portion of the material included on Zeroed Out: "Bottle Rockets," "No Complaints," "Narcolepsy," "Wannabe," "Can't Wait" and "Alienate."

Scott and Johnny at the soundcheck
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Gilmore — who made a name for himself in some famous Seattle band which neither Eric or Seven can remember the name of — "knew some people in LA" and was instrumental (along with a series of live shows which created the proverbial "buzz") in getting the group signed to Warner Bros. offshoot Revolution Records.

"Without him, none of this would have happened," states Seven. "Thank you very much, Don Gilmore."

Still lacking a permanent bassist, the Cunninghams entered Seattle's Stepping Stone Studios at the end of last year, emerging with Zeroed Out. Its 13 brilliant tracks zig zag from the pop-fuelled nostalgia of "Days Gone By" and "Bottle Rockets" to the gritty reality of "No Complaints" and "Narcolepsy."

Between sips of water, Seven filled us in on the inspiration behind some of his well-turned lyrics, beginning with "Days Gone By": Ain't it funny how the time seems to slip away/What was cool before is now cliché...

Eric Craig at the soundcheck
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
"It's kinda about scenes," he says. "They just come and go. Not necessarily the Seattle scene. Just all scenes."

Meanwhile, "Bottle Rockets" takes its cue from Seven's own childhood memories:

We were young and out for kicks
We were million dollar babies
Knievel was crazy
Bubblicious on your lips
We were all out of control
Always believed in the rock and roll...

"The happiest times of my life were when I was a little kid," he states. "I was really naïve and stupid, just starting to learn about life — you're first kiss, smoking your first joint, taking your first drink. And everybody chewed bubblegum!"

Meanwhile, it turns out that the adrenaline rush of "Wannabe," was the productive result of a "bad mood": Your circle closed to me made to feel like something/Less not enough for you well who needs those kind of/Friends when all I need is me — my life's a mess...

"When we do 'Wannabe' live," says Seven, "it's usually the last song. So, sometimes when I get off stage I'm still pissed off."

And the unhappy tale related in "Narcolepsy" is true:

Zeroed Out
(Revolution Records 1997)
Zeroed out on Vicodin
Sugar smack your only friend
Peel away your face on a Saturday night
Where do you get the appetite?

"That person was really sweet," offers Seven, "and to see her get into that scene, to see her literally lose her mind and have to go dry out... It was just sad."

But the most personally revealing lyrics belong to "Take It or Leave It":

Hold on tight, take a ride till you're scared
Jump off
I'm a creep, never sleep and I
Don't need anyone...

"I've been sober for eight or nine months now," acknowledges Seven, "but at that point I was just starting to get sober. I was trying to come to grips with it. Drugs and alcohol, man! For me, it wasn't good. I was a totally different person. I was a creep. I'm still a creep some days, but at least now I know it doesn't have to do with being on drugs or alcohol."

In all, the recording process took about four-and-a-half months (two months pre-production, two months actual recording, two weeks mastering). That's a coffee break for Queen, but a fairly long time by punk standards.

The Cunninghams pose backstage at the Warfield 
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
"We just wanted to get it right," explains Seven.

"We worked really hard," says Eric.

Seven: "We didn't wanna put out a record thinking, 'We could've done this better.' Could've/should've... There was no way that was gonna happen."

Eric: "Every second that we were involved in it, we were constantly thinking, 'Is it good enough?' But now that we're away from all that, we can sit back and go, 'Yeah, it's good!'"

My photo pass for the INXS show. The
Cunninghams were the "suport" band.
With the CD completed, the search for a bass player began in earnest. "It's difficult to put together a band that has what it takes to go to the next level," contends Eric. "It takes years to find the different elements. You just have to slowly gather people together. You can't just put an ad in the paper."

As it happens, the Cunninghams put ads in papers all the way down the West Coast, then held auditions in LA. The first few hopefuls were dismissed outright. "We'd explain to them what we were shooting for," says Seven. "That the band was, y'know... poppy. And we had guys coming in who were bald-headed, buffed and tattooed. We were like, 'Ah... no.'"

"There were guys with hair down to their waist," chuckles Eric.

Seven can barely contain himself. "And they would send pictures to us where they would scribble out their hair with a marking pen. And we were like, 'So, this is what you would look like if you got in the band?'"

When cool-looking Johnny Martin, bassist for LA ska band Cousin Oliver showed up, the Cunninghams breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Seven messing around at the photo session
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Seven: "We kind of knew right when he walked in."

Eric: "We'd seen his band one night at the Whisky."

Seven: "We found him quite entertaining."

Eric: "He was really off the wall, and strange, and peculiar!"

Seven: "He definitely adds to our live show!"

Johnny joined just in time to be in the video for "Bottle Rockets," a simple concept featuring the group playing the song in the window of an LA furniture store ("They moved a bunch of stuff out and moved a bunch of crappy stuff in"), while various hired actors ogle them.

It took about 15 hours to film and caused one traffic collision ("This lady was driving along and she was looking at us, and she ran into the back of another car"). Maybe you've seen it on MTV's 120 Minutes; the Cunninghams haven't!

"The other night we were driving through Barstow," says Seven, "and I heard 'Bottle Rockets' on the radio for the first time! I was like, 'Jesus Christ!' But we haven't seen the video on MTV. Our friends are taping 120 Minutes for us."

According to Eric, "Bottle Rockets" was the obvious choice for the first video. "It's an easy song to bop your head to," he points out, "and it has catchy lyrics that everybody can identify with."

Johnny and Seven onstage at the Warfield
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
"What songs do you like off there?" queries Seven.

I tell him that I really like "Wannabe," apparently just like everyone before me.

Seven: "Everybody likes 'Wannabe.'"

Eric: "It's our oldest song. We almost didn't put it on the record because we were writing all these new songs. But the record company wanted it on, so we worked on it and Don helped us with it a little bit. So, it made the record, and everybody really likes it. It's probably gonna be our next single."

Seven: "Everywhere we've played, it's like, 'Man! That song rocks!' And we're like, 'Yeah, okay...' But after a while, it's like..."

Eric: "It's like that record 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't be Wrong. If they would've asked us, 'What do you want your next single to be?' We might not have picked 'Wannabe.' But everybody can't be wrong. It's not for us anyway. It's for the kids and the punters!"

"Bottle Rockets" CD promo single
(Revolution Records 1997)
"Punters..." He picked that up from INXS.

Before hooking up with INXS, the Cunninghams headlined their own cross-country club tour, which included a two-night stint in New York.

"We played CBGB's," says Seven with the proper amount of awe, "and the Mercury Lounge. It was cool!"

"Historic," agrees Eric.

Still, it was a decidedly low-budget affair, that seems to define the word "gruelling."

"I think in the whole eight weeks we had three days off," says Seven, "real days off when we weren't actually driving."

One day off was spent sightseeing at Graceland. But most of the time, "we saw a lot of truck stops," grumbles Seven. "We'd do a show, shake hands with people, then we'd all pile into the van, all sweaty and shit, and it was off to the next city."

The support slot for INXS came about through a mutual booking agent. And other than some embarrassing car trouble in Phoenix ("We were right in front of the place, getting ready to pull into the parking lot, and the van broke down.") everything is going smoothly.

Johnny, Eliot and Seven at the soundcheck
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
"INXS are really nice guys!" enthuses Seven. "I'll be sitting there, and it's like: I'm sitting next to Michael Hutchence! He's talking to me! He's stealing my french fries!"

"When I was in high school, I used to see them on MTV every day," says Eric. "And now I have the opportunity to sit down and have a conversation with him. And they've been really cool to us."

Does the INXS audience know who the Cunninghams are?

"No," admits Seven, "for the most part they don't. They don't even know that there's a warm-up act. There's this music before we go on, the lights go down and they think it's INXS. Then they're like, 'Hey! Wait a minute...' But midway through the set they're like, 'This is cool.' We're winning them over. Nothing's flying up on stage, so I guess we're doing all right!"

Seven takes his own photos backstage at the Warfield
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
How is the band doing back in Seattle? Are they hometown superstars? Other than opening for the Screaming Trees at one of those Miller Light Blind Date shows ("We couldn't even tell our friends that we were playing that night.") and a one-off opening slot for Third Eye Blind, they haven't been back to find out!

"We've been on tour since the album came out," laughs Eric. "We haven't had the opportunity to go home and headline our own show since all this happened. That'll be the fun thing! That's when we'll get to gauge how far we've gone in our hometown."

Johnny and Seven at the soundcheck
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Before Michael and I take our leave, I mention that the band members don't seem nearly as alienated as their lyrics make them seem.

"Did you get that vibe from the CD?" asks Seven, all innocent.

Uhmm... yeah. From "Wannabe" and "Losing Team," and the song actually called "Alienate":

I don't make much for company these days
Keep my thoughts all locked away
I'm ashamed
I'm ashamed

"Well, y'know," says Seven, "it's not a constant thing. You have your days... Even though life has changed now, I still have days where I think that nobody understands; nobody gets it."

* * *
R.I.P. Seven Pearson, who hanged himself in February 2001.

Here's a link to the Cunninghams single, "Bottle Rockets"...

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