Dishwalla have made their mark on the international music scene with their probing and intelligent songwriting. Though their music has a distinctly pop sound, their lyrics deal with a range of emotions and issues; sometimes weaving a tale about war from a child’s perspective, at other times delivering a radio-friendly “young love” ballad. Their hit “Counting Blue Cars” was one of the most-played songs of the 1990s and set a standard they knew would have a hard time topping. Though they struggled to stay relevant while their label went through a difficult merger, they eventually found their niche at a smaller firm and made a comeback on their own terms. Their song “Somewhere in the Middle” from the album Opaline broke into the Billboard Top 40, ensuring that they would avoid the dreaded “one-hit-wonder” tag.
Scot Alexander was playing bass for his band’s new hit single “Counting Blue Cars” at the Billboard Music Awards in 1995 when he saw something that amazed him. “It was unbelievable,” he recalled in a press release for their album Opaline published on their website. “I remember looking into the audience at that show and watching Santana nod his head to our song. That was cool.” Especially since only a year ago he had wondered if the band was going anywhere.
In 1991, J.R. Richards and Alexander met when they went into the same record store, struck up conversation, and found that they shared similar musical tastes. The two became fast friends and Dishwalla was born. The group, first called Dish, formed in Santa Barbara in 1991 with Richards on lead vocals and Alexander on bass, along with guitarist Rodney Browning, and drummer George Pendergast. They decided to take their time in making the band work, spending most of their first two years together composing and refining their music in a small rehearsal space. Their goal was to get their sound and style defined before they hit the unforgiving Los Angeles club scene.
The quartet developed a sound based on a variety of musical influences including the Cure and Depeche Mode. Once band members agreed they were ready to go they discovered that their name, Dish, had already been taken by another band. They settled on Dishwalla—the name for satellite-pirates who make cable available to the masses in India. Alexander thought the name was appropriate since he hoped the band would bring its own gift to the world. Dishwalla’s hard work paid off as they hit the club scene and quickly developed a healthy fan base. Ironically, after spending a couple of years refining their sound they became known as a band with many different styles. Clearly, their range of musical tastes was a heavy influence on their sound.
When Dishwalla felt they were ready they decided to take two major steps. The first was to tour; the second was to make a demo tape. The tour lasted almost two years and helped the band build a regional following. Their demo tape consisted of the songs that were most popular with their fans. Since they had no label they decided to release it on their own.
The demo earned them a spot on the A&M roster. Soon after signing to A&M, the band found out about a tribute album to the Carpenters. Even though the album was near completion when the band found out about it, they persuaded the producer to give the then-unknown band a spot on the album. “We were signed to A&M already, but we didn’t know about [the tribute album] until we read about it in the LA Times,” bassist Alexander told David Sprague of Billboard. “We rushed out and recorded an 8-track demo and took it to [producer] Matt Wallace and kind of forced our way in.”
A&M recognized the band’s mainstream sound and felt they could be successful. After scouting a performance at a club, they were so excited by what they saw that they decided to send Dishwalla out on tour as the opening act of Better than Ezra. This was also unusual since it was a heavy commitment to the band even before their first album came out. “We’re fortunate that this is a band that’s [even] better live than on record,” Kelly Mills, A&M’s director of product development, told Sprague. “That’s why we’re getting them out on the road as quickly as we can. They’re so exciting live that we can build a base even before there’s a record out.”
For the Record…
Members include Scot Alexander, bass; Rodney Browning Cravens, guitar; Pete Maloney (joined group, 1998), drums; George Pender-gast (left group, 1998), drums; J.R. Richards, lead vocals; Jim Wood (joined group, 1998), keyboards.
Group formed in Santa Barbara, CA, c. 1991; signed with A&M Records, 1994; released first album, Pet Your Friends, 1995; released follow-up, And You Think You Know What Life Is About, 1998; played in Woodstock, 1998; released Opaline, 2002.
Awards: Billboard Music Awards, Rock Track of the Year for “Counting Blue Cars,” 1996.
Addresses: Record company—Immergent Records, 2231 S. Carmelina Ave. West Los Angeles, CA 90064, phone: (310) 207-5181, website: http://www.immergent.com. Management—Highway One Management, 391 40th St., San Pedro, CA 90731, phone: (310) 519-8086, e-mail: [email protected] Website—Dishwalla Official Website: http://www.dishwalla.com.
In August of 1995 Pet Your Friends, the band’s first LP, was released with more buzz than usual. The album had eleven tracks, all of which were produced by the Butcher Brothers. Reviews were good overall, with comparisons in the mainstream press that ranged from the Cure to Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Even with the wind at their back, however, it took a while for the album to get mainstream attention. A&M believed in the material enough to stick with promoting it for almost a full year, an unusual effort in the music business. The first single, “Haze,” failed to catch on in the market but the second, “Counting Blue Cars” was finding an audience—unfortunately, not a big one. The band kept touring while their label kept promoting and, finally the effort paid off. In 1996, ten months after its release, the album broke the Billboard 200. Soon after, “Counting Blue Cars” was the most-played song in the United States with a memorable line in the refrain that made it easy to remember—“Tell me all your thoughts on God, cuz I’d really like to meet Her.”
“This song doesn’t go away,” Bill Gamble of WKQX101 in Chicago told Carry Borzillo of Billboard. “It’s like any passive record; it took a long time to get started and once it kicks in, it continues to test well and has no burn.” Suddenly, Dishwalla was famous. As Richards noted on their website, “After a slow start, things just happened all at once. I remember playing at the Billboard Music Awards and realizing how far we had come. The year before, we were still working day jobs or going to school, then there we are playing on this television show in front of millions of people with guys like LL Cool J and Rod Stewart sitting in the front row. It was completely surreal.”
They continued to tour with acts like Sheryl Crow and Gin Blossoms, which pushed Dishwalla in front of even more potential fans. Soon their famous song began to haunt them a little. Everyone wanted to hear it but the rest of their album was being ignored. “We’re all anxious to get on to the next single and see if there is something else here other than that one song,” Richards told Borzillo in 1996. “I don’t want to be on one of those one-hit-wonder ‘90s compilations.”
Luckily the album had another mainstream hit. “Charlie Brown’s Parents,” a song that played with the odd voices of adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons, peaked at number 24 on the Billboard charts. When all was said and done, Pet Your Friends yielded two hit singles and sold more than one million copies.
In the midst of a merger, A&M Records was in trouble. The legendary company was forced to focus on a select few bands and, as it turns out, Dishwalla was not one of them. When they released their second album And You Think You Know What Life’s About they did it with almost no promotion from the same company that had shown them so much previous support. It was a confusing time for the band. “It was a frustrating situation because everything involved with the album was beyond our control,” Richards said on the band’s website. “We did the only thing we could: we stuck it out and moved on.” They tried to keep on track with even more touring and contributing to a number of soundtracks, including The Avengers and American Pie. Also in 1998, the band welcomed keyboardist Jim Wood as an official member. The group performed in Woodstock ‘98 and capped off the year with a cover of “Policy of Truth” for the Depeche Mode tribute album For the Masses. It appeared, though, that the band would fade away if Interscope, their newly merged label, didn’t give them the attention they knew they needed to thrive.
For a full year they tried to get out of their contract, writing a lot of songs in the meantime. When they were finally free they signed with a new independent label called Immergent Records, who promised to keep music industry politics as far away from the band as possible promised and to give Dishwalla the freedom to make music they wanted. With the departure of Pen-dergast and addition drummer Pete Maloney, the band went back into the studio with producer Gregg Wattenberg to record Opaline, their third album. The finished product was released in April of 2002 and was the first to include a DVD-audio single; a new format that promises superior audio and DVD-quality video extras.
Reviews for the album were favorable and the band continued to tour to promote it. Though the fame and radio play of “Counting Blue Cars” hasn’t returned, Dishwalla insists that’s fine with them. “At the end of the day, you have to be happy with what you are, and we are,” Alexander said on the group’s website. “I don’t think we’ve ever fit into the current niche and to be totally honest that’s fine with us, we know who we are.”
Pet Your Friends, A&M, 1996.
And You Think You Know What Life’s About, Interscope, 1998.
Opaline, Immergent, 2002.
Billboard, April 15, 1995; August 17, 1996.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, September 9, 2002.
Sarasota Herald Tribune, August 23, 2002.
Dishwalla Official Website, http://www.dishwalla.com (February 10, 2003).