With a name like Papas Fritas, a moniker meaning “fried potatoes” in Spanish, one may expect to hear Latin music. But the band, bound together by a common affection for pop songs and known for their geeky charm, embrace simple, powerful melodies and carefree lyrics. Tony Goddess, who does most of the songwriting for the group, said that he sometimes wishes he could pen harsh thrashers like Korn and other hard-edged rock acts. “Coming up with something with snappy energy is harder than atonality,” he told Jim Sullivan for a Boston Globe interview, while at the same time admitting to his teenaged metal-rock phase. “But I’m not the kind of person that dwells on negative emotions. Music can help you transcend rather than dwell… I never felt we were one of the ‘cooler’ bands, but when people talk about us, they’ll say we aren’t trying to put anything over on them—we’re just trying to make music.”
In 1992, the members of Boston’s Papas Fritas formed a band together with one goal in mind: to create catchy, simple, and honest pop music that makes people feel good. Tony Goddess, the group’s guitarist and vocalist and the bandmember who came up with the group’s name one day in his Spanish class, and Shivika Asthana, a drummer and vocalist raised by parents who emigrated from India, both originated from Delaware, where they played in a high school marching band together, while bassist and vocalist Keith Gendel moved to the East Coast from the southwestern city of Houston, Texas. The trio met while attending college at Tufts University in Somerville, Massachusetts—Goddess majored in English and music, and Asthana and Gendel majored in bio-psychology.
In the beginning, the three students viewed their band as a mere hobby, spending their first couple of years together playing at basement parties and recording tapes for friends on Goddess’s Tascam four-track machine. But their focus started to shift when Matt Hanks of Sunday Driver Records released three of the band’s songs in 1994 on a seven-inch single entitled “Friday Night.” The band’s last four-track production, “Friday Night” fully illustrated the band’s live sound and included a song that caught the attention of Minty Fresh Records called “Smash This World” when it received airplay on a Chicago radio station.
As word of the record spread, Papas Fritas decided it was time to start acting like a “real” band with regular touring, promoting themselves, and improving their singing. In the summer of 1994, the trio signed with Minty Fresh and progressed to an eight-track studio—affectionately named Hi-Tech City—that they built in the basement of their house on Electric Avenue in Somerville. After recording two new songs for a seven-inch single, 1995’s “Passion Play/Lame to Be” (Passion Play was also issued as an EP with three additional songs from old tapes), the band concentrated on their debut album.
Determined to give the record a sonic identity all its own, Papas Fritas spent nearly six months perfecting the 13 songs that would compile their self-titled debut, and in October of 1995, Papas Fritas finally hit store shelves. With childlike innocence and enthusiasm, the group’s first outing focused on sunny melodies, recreating in a referential way the classic pop sounds of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Kinks. The album’s release also coincided with the trio’s college graduation, leaving Papas Fritas ample time for promotion and tours. Thus, they performed for audiences across the United States, then traveled to Europe, where the group toured with the Flaming Lips, and finally Japan. Returning home after months on the road in September of 1996, Papas Fritas settled down to focus on the next record. This time, they relocated their studio to a wooded area in Gloucester, Massachusetts, setting up in an old, rustic school house they dubbed The Columnated Ruins. The new location proved complimentary to the band’s desire to make a more organic and natural-sounding record, and in April of 1997, Papas Fritas released their second full-length LP, Helioself.
A direct result of the trio taking the band to a more serious level, the album generated favorable reviews from the mainstream press, including Melody Maker and Rolling Stone. “Helioself offers more than just clowning around…,” wrote Village Voice critic Rob Brunner, for example. “Papas Fritas have created a sort of grown-up version of little-kid music, capturing
Members include Shivika Asthana (born in Delaware; daughter of Indian immigrants; graduated with a degree in bio-psychology from Tufts University), drums, vocals; Chris Colthart (touring member; joined band in 1999), guitar; Donna Coppola (touring member; joined band in 1999), keyboards, percussion; Keith Gendel (born in Houston, TX; graduated with a degree in bio-psychology from Tufts University), bass, vocals; Tony Goddess (born in Delaware; graduated with degrees in English and music from Tufts University), guitar, vocals.
Formed band in 1992 while attending Tufts University in Somerville, Massachusetts; released single “Friday Night” on Sunday Driver, 1994; signed with Minty Fresh Records, released “Passion Play/Lame to Be” and debut, self-titled album, toured Europe with the Flaming Lips, 1995; released Helioself, 1997’; released Building and Grounds, 2000.
Addresses: Record company —Minty Fresh Records, P.O. Box 577400, Chicago, IL 60657. Publicist—Matt Hanks: [email protected], Anthony Musíala: musíala @mintyfresh.com. Website —Papas Fritas Home Page: http://www.papasfritas.com. E-mail —Keith Gendel: [email protected], Shivika Asthana: shivika @ibm-.net
the knowing naivete of a precocious child… These painstakingly constructed songs fondly evoke childhood silliness without simply aping it; the fun is in hearing familiarly goofy sounds recast as sophisticated pop music.” Soon after the album’s release, Papas Fritas hit the road again, spending the better part of the year on tour in support of Helioself. They returned home exhausted, and for the first time felt unsure of their next move. “After touring on Helioself, that’s when we all went through that postcollegiate ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ thing,” Goddess told the Boston Phoenix. “We had a manager at the time who didn’t think that anything could be accomplished on an indie label, and he messed with our thinking a little bit.”
“It wound up getting pretty tiresome,” Asthana further explained to Magnet magazine’s Jud Cost, “so we got away from each other for about a year, got jobs and settled down. And that’s definitely helped. We’re like a family that sometimes doesn’t get along, but we still care about each other a lot.” Since then, and after negotiations with major labels DreamWorks and Geffen fell through in the midst of record company megamergers, the group decided to concentrate on their music, rather than worrying about making it big in the record industry. “We used to have this mindset of, ‘Let’s get big—let’s get really huge, ’” the drummer continued. “But we’ve gotten away from all that. It just didn’t fit our personalities.”
After the band’s self-imposed sabbatical, during which time they reappraised their purpose and identity, the trio returned to the studio in June of 1999 to mix a third album. Two months later, in mid-August, Papas Fritas introduced two new members that would join them for live shows: guitarist Chris Colthart and keyboardist/percussionist Donna Coppola. With the new additions, Papas Fritas then traveled to New York in September to perform at the CMJ (College Music Journal) festival for “Minty Fresh Night.”
Completed in October of 1999 and released in March of 2000, the more immediate and slower-paced Buildings and Grounds revealed a new side of Papas Fritas. “We made a concerted effort to write more songs in minor keys,” revealed Goddess to Cost. “And we tried to make this record more sophisticated, so I’ve been able to play four- and five-note chords instead of just three-note chords.” Likewise, Gendel described the outing as a conscious effort by the band to leave behind the childlike overtones of their prior albums. Made of “sterner stuff,” noted Marc Weingarten of the Village Voice and described by Cost as “a spooky, minor-chord gem that glows with the intensity of a peat fire in a cemetery,” Buildings and Grounds won praise as Papas Fritas’ most consistent and stimulating album.
Although Goddess is content with remaining independent and the group’s new album, the songwriter, who at one time worked at a local record store in Gloucester called Mystery Train, realizes the importance of knowing what music buyers are listening to. “It’s cool being aware of what young kids are listening to,” he told Cost, “because I know how much music meant to me at that age. It’s one thing I’ve always loved about pop music: I love a record, and seven million other people like it, too. It makes me feel like we have something in common. I don’t like music to set me apart from people. I like it to make me feel I’m not alone. I love that Christina Aguilera song ‘Genie In A Bottle, ’ for example. I wish I’d written it.”
“Friday Night,” (seven-inch single), Sunday Driver, 1994.
“Passion Play/Lame to Be,” (seven-inch single), Minty Fresh, 1995.
Passion Play, (EP), 1995.
Papas Fritas, Minty Fresh, 1995.
Helioself, Minty Fresh, 1997.
Buildings and Grounds, Minty Fresh, 2000.
Boston Globe, March 10, 1997; July 24, 1997; March 18, 2000.
Boston Phoenix, March 2, 2000.
Guitar Player, August 1997.
Magnet, April/May 2000, pp. 39-41.
Melody Maker, December 9, 1995; October 4, 1997.
Rolling Stone, May 29, 1997.
Village Voice, May 13, 1997; April 11, 2000.
Washington Post, March 10, 2000.
Papas Fritas Home Page, http://www.papasfritas.com (May 12, 2000).