The 88 is going back to the beginning
By Naughty Mickie

You may not know their name, but you know their music. The 88, lead singer and guitarist Keith Slettadahl, pianist/keyboardist Adam Merrin and drummer Anthony Zimmitti, has had songs placed in television shows such as "90210," "Gossip Girl," "Grey's Anatomy," "How I Met Your Mother," "Numb3rs" and "One Tree Hill," plus HBO's "Weeds" and in films like "Failure to Launch," "You, Me and Dupree" and "Surviving Christmas." Their tunes can also be heard in the video game, "Rock Band 2," and in commercials for Target, Sears, Microsoft Zune and other companies. The band has even been featured in #25 of the DC Comics series "Manhunter."

The 88 was named best pop/rock band by the LA Weekly Music Awards and best band in Los Angeles by L.A. Alternative Press. They have opened for artists such as Smashing Pumpkins, B-52s, Flaming Lips, 311 and The Pogues and have served as both the support act and backup band for Elliott Smith. Their most recent album is "Not Only... But Also" (Island Records).

The 88 formed in 2003.

"Adam and I went to high school together, so we've known each other a long time," Slettadahl begins. "We started playing music together shortly after we graduated from high school, actually the last day of high school we made a song together. It's the first thing we've ever done and we've been pretty much playing together ever since. It's really been me and Adam all these years.

"We met Anthony probably five years ago now. We were already The 88 with a different drummer and different bass player. We had another guitar player and just over the years, you know."

The group has gone from five members down to three. I wondered if this was a conscious decision to make things easier, both for more cohesiveness and better economics.

"It wasn't easier, it was just the way things happened. I don't think we ever decided that we wanted to be a smaller group, this is just how it evolved." Slettadahl explains, "The biggest thing is the older you get, your life tends to have a lot more responsibilities in it. It's really hard to keep a band when people have kids and wives and all these different concerns come up. It just gets more and more difficult to keep that youthful attitude like, 'This is going to be good, awesome, we'll just get in the van.' Our bass player left for that exact reason because he had a second child and just couldn't be away, he wasn't happy. We totally understood and are still really close."

There's been a number of rumors as to where The 88 got their name, so I asked for the truth.

"It means a lot of things, but basically somebody saw it on a French Kicks record, they're a band from New York, one of their songs is called 'The 88,'" Slettadahl answers. "It was in a list of hundreds of names for bands that we were throwing out there. At the time it was the one name that everyone in the band could get behind one way or another because it's kind of a reference to Rocket 88, which is supposedly the first rock and roll song by Ike Turner and Jackie Breston. Our drummer at the time was into old blues and old jazz, he thought that was cool. Also the obvious reference to 88 keys on a piano, which has always been a big part of our band, Adam's piano playing. And more than anything, it was a name that you didn't instantly have a connotation to, you didn't think, 'Oh they're this kind of band or they sound like,' so we could put our own stamp, our own meaning to the name."

Slettadahl was athletic growing up rather than musical.

"I was much more into sports. I got a guitar when I was 12, but I didn't really play it." Slettadahl says, "I played baseball pretty obsessively until I was 18, but I picked up the guitar near the end of high school and started messing around with it and I got really into it. I was always really into music, even as a kid, but I never played it, but I was pretty obsessed. Through high school I was obsessed with a lot of bands. I got my dad's record collection when I was 15 and that was pretty much it, I never looked back after that."

Before The 88's career was solid Slettadahl had worked in tile repair for a few years and delivered food.

"The ultimate musician's job is telemarketing, which I think every musician's done at one time or another because they don't make you cut your hair, they don't care how you look, which was really important to me when I was 19 and 20 years old," Slettadahl adds. "I'm still a huge sports fan. I go to a lot of Laker games, that's a passion of mine."

He's also a Dodgers fan and is married with a one year old daughter.

We return to band topics by discussing Slettadahl's approach to the material.

"I pretty much write all of our songs, but some of them happen with the band, just ideas that happen when we're making up stuff together. That's something that I really want to get into more." Slettadahl shares, "The last record we made is not indicative of what we do. I think when we get together and play there's a very special thing that happens and by that I mean it's really special to us.

"It's always, for me, the music first because for me everything is melody-driven. The hardest thing for me is coming up with stuff to talk about."

I comment that many of their song lyrics seem to flow.

"That's because it's all based on the melody," Slettadahl replies. "If you write words first you're trying to fit this idea to the melody. I love writers that can write in a narrative style and tell stories, but that's never been me, I'm not very good at it. I want the words to sound cool, I like the sounds of the words and the rhymes.

"With the last record I thought I got away from that. We had this idea to make it fit more into a mainstream kind of world and we found out that's not really where we belong. I've been having a lot more fun with writing again because I think it was pretty torturous making the last record."

"Do you feel that the band has evolved with 'Not Only, But Also...'?" I ask.

"It's not the songs so much, it's the way it was approached, to me, it's not a fair representation of who we are." Slettadahl explains, "I think we're more interesting than that. But again, that's the thing, you'll have an opinion, I'll have an opinion, my wife will have an opinion and that's where we found ourselves making our last record, was like 150 opinions and what we allowed to happen was our opinions meant the least. That's a dark place to be if you're a creative person or trying to be a creative band. You're constantly second guessing what comes naturally to you. That's no way to make anything no matter what you do. You're trying to guess what some faceless nameless entity would want to hear to sell the most records.

"I like a lot of the record, it's not like I think it's a piece of shit. It's just because I know what the experience was like and I learned a lot. In the future, it's not OK for us to put out anything that we don't 100 percent believe in, whether it's three verses of two songs or one bridge on the whole record that I don't like. We're the ones, we have to live with that forever, nobody else. I don't buy in to a lot of reviews. I used to, when I was a kid, I read them in a completely different way, now being on the other side I see them in a whole different kind of light."

I comment that I don't trust reviewers who are quick to criticize an artist, but have never been on stage or played an instrument.

"I totally agree, but I think also that just because someone plays music their opinion can't matter more than if they don't," replies Slettadahl. "At the end of the day, I can't go there because it doesn't work for me and you could just drive yourself crazy. Of course this is coming off the experience we just went through, so today you're talking to me and I'm very sure about this, but talk to me in a year."

What is the key to The 88's massive success?

"I don't know what it is, but I know what it's not." Slettadahl clarifies, "I don't want to keep harping on the last record, but that was a good example of going against ourselves in a way and ignoring a lot of feelings we were having and just going along with this process. For two years everything came to a grinding halt, we'd been really busy and moving and doing things before that record and then we signed a major deal and everything stops. Now it's real clear to me, but at the time I didn't know.

"We have always just made songs that we liked. That's the most important thing, you have to find out, it's so obvious that it's kind of embarrassing to realize that you didn't realize it. It's like, 'If I'm not excited and I'm not happy, then no one else is' because that's what people really want, for you to be excited about what you're doing and when you're not, I think it shows through." Slettadahl goes on, "The producer we worked with on the last record is a phenomenal person and I'm really glad I met him and I know him. He's an amazing guy and we met all kinds of great people, it's not a knock on anybody, it was really our decision to let everyone dictate what we were going to do.

"Since we got out of the record deal we recorded a bunch of songs and I don't know what we're going to do with those, but they exist. They were done in a very different way than we've done it before, they're all started a home, home recordings, so sonically it's not really like the other record. That's why we're not really sure what we're going to do, but the plan is to do dates with the B-52s and come home and figure out what makes the most sense recording-wise and start being a real band again, a creative band that gets together and makes songs and feels excited about music.

"I think for a couple of years there there wasn't a whole lot of playing, there was a lot of talking, we did a lot of conference calls, but not a lot of playing. So I asked myself, 'Why doesn't this feel right? Oh, yeah, we haven't played.' No shows, everything waiting, waiting, waiting. (To play is) the only reason to do it, right? But we had to experience it to figure out what we want," Slettadahl continues. "It could be the best thing we've ever gone through because I think we feel closer as people and musically I think we have a much clearer idea about what we want to do and, more importantly,  what we don't want to do.

"We're starting to rehearse a lot of (the new) songs with the band and get them up to speed to start playing live. I think what we're finding is the old idea of making a record of 12 songs and then playing 12 songs for a year is not appealing to us. If there's another way to do it, I would be really excited about doing that. Now with the Internet I don't know if you need to stick to that old model, I'm not sure what we're going to do, but it's very exciting because we're excited about what we're doing again. We really can't go wrong and really that's all you ever have and it's easy to lose sight of that, but if we're not excited about it, what's the point?"

Find out when you can catch The 88 live and see where their career goes next at www.the88.net

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