The Rentals' debut album, Return of the Rentals, was self-produced for $5,000 but garnered them a record contract and airtime on MTV. Their second album, Seven More Minutes, led to tours with rockers Blur and Alanis Morrisette.
Brett Atwood noted in Billboard that the group's "official" biography seemed to be borrowed from an espionage novel: the members were supposedly the sons and daughters of employees at the American embassy in Prague. Founded in 1978, the band played synthesizer tunes until guitarist Rod Cervera was arrested for espionage by the Czech police and spent 12 years in prison. The bio claims that the band was "discovered" by pop icon Madonna on a visit to Prague, when the reunited band was performing its first concert in 15 years.
Despite this homage to Communist-era bands, and their exciting story, this biography is fictional. The truth is that the band is not from Prague at all. Rentals bassist Matt Sharp was formerly a bass player and singer for the band Weezer. In that band, according to Jake Brown in an article on the Glorious Noise website, he was noted for "jumping around like a maniac and singing those falsetto harmonies." Sharp did not leave Weezer, but started the Rentals as a side project in 1994 when he got together with a few friends, including drummer Pat Wilson, violinist Petra Haden, and guitarist Rod Cervera. Initially, Brown wrote, the new band was "laughed off as a one-joke novelty act."
The band's debut album, Return of the Rentals, was released in 1995. The sound featured a heavy dose of synthesizers mixed with lyrics about how technology has led to a sterile world in which real communication and connection is often lost. Sharp told Brown that resistance to technology and artificiality is a recurring theme in their music: "I think the more you write, the more you realize that there's a few kind of issues that come up over and over again."
The group's music video for the album's song "Friends of P." was shot on a low budget of only $400. According to Atwood, in the video "the disinterested members" of the group appeared "comically stiff and aloof" as they performed in front of a plain white background. Despite this no-frills approach, however, the video received airplay on the MTV show 120 Minutes. The stark style of the video was deliberate, imitating videos of bands from the Eastern Bloc of Europe during the Iron Curtain era. The band shot the video with an old camera belonging to Cervera that came from the World War II era. "At the end of the production, we found out that it had all been shot at the wrong speed," Sharp told Atwood. He added that the music "would always be two or three seconds out of synch." They initially feared that the film would be useless. Sharp noted that when they made the video, they made it as a lark, and didn't think anyone else would ever see it. They had no recording contract and no professional editing equipment or experience. Despite these troubles, the video did well, and the group won several MTV Video Music Awards in 1995. The song "Friends of P." also received airplay on commercial radio. Part of its charm was its 1970s retro feel, heavy on moog synthesizers and female harmonies. Jake Brown noted that much of this ambience was due to keyboard player and vocalist Cherielynn Westrich: "Her vocals added real humanity to the sometimes sterile sounds of the synthesizers and the formulaic nature of the entire album."
Westrich got into the band almost by accident. The Rentals were trying to find a record company to put out an independent single for them, and Sharp asked Westrich to pretend to be in the band, so they could meet with record company executives who would presumably enjoy looking at Westrich. Westrich told Brown, "I hadn't even really heard the songs at that point, but I helped him out. He then asked if I would sing on the album."
Sharp told Brown that he was startled by the success of "Friends of P." He said, "That was probably the most surreal time I'm ever gonna go through in my life. It made life seem awfully silly, all that stuff, because that song was recorded for, like, nothing, and the whole record was made for five grand. And the frenzy behind the scenes with that record was just as chaotic." The band got a contract with Maverick records as a result of the success of the video and Return of the Rentals. They also went on tour with the band Blur in 1995 and 1996. Westrich told Brown, "It was very rock and roll, being rushed into a van from the backstage entrance and whisked away to some exclusive European club with VIP treatment…. It was like being in a cartoon." They also toured with singer Alanis Morrisette. "The band she played with were so funny and nice," Westrich told Brown. "We would all just hang out and laugh and do fun stuff." However, they were clearly not world-renowned. On the solo tour they undertook to publicize the record, they played in at least one venue where audience members kept yelling, "Who are you?," according to Michael Mehle in Denver's Rocky Mountain News.
Sharp told Atwood that he enjoyed the freedom that the band had: "It's very fulfilling to be able to completely do your own thing with no influence from the record companies. That's what the Rentals are about." Sharp was angered by perceptions that the Rentals were a mere side project for him. He told Mehle, "How would you feel if you put a lot of time, a lot of thought, a lot of money into something, and then you finally put out the final product and people say, 'That's cute—that little side project.'"
In 1999 the band released Seven More Minutes, which featured the band's characteristic mix of synthesizers and rock instruments. The group composed the songs in Spain and recorded them in London; British guest singers on the album included such Brit-pop superstars as Blur's Damon Albarn, Elastica's Donna Matthews, Lush's Miki Berenyi, and That Dog's Petra Haden. Sharp told Brown that the album was created "to celebrate a friend of mine, and I always thought about it … in epic terms for her, like this sort of fantasy of people all through Europe singing the songs in pubs and that kind of thing…. I probably could have grabbed an acoustic guitar and sat her down and said, 'This is what I've been trying to tell you,' and it would have been a lot easier and it would've taken a lot less time." However, he also added that Seven More Minutes "was a lot about learning how to produce a record of that kind of ambitious scope, and it was the first thing I really tried to do out there on my own."
In the Yale Herald, Sean Collins wrote that the band's sound had changed since the release of Return of the Rentals, and that Seven More Minutes did not have the earlier album's "puppy love nostalgia and Moog-machine riffery." In its place were "cynical odes to continental hedonism, bewildered examinations of failed relationships, and a lot of garagey guitars." He noted that the tracks featuring guest singers were often the most interesting. A reviewer for the CDBaby.com website wrote that "the new music unfolds like a late night conversation with a long lost friend."
After releasing Seven More Minutes the band broke up, and its members continued with their own projects. In 2003 Sharp released a solo EP, Puckett's Versus the Country Boy, for In Music We Trust Records.
For the Record …
Members include Rod Cervera , guitar; Petra Haden , violin; Matt Sharp , vocals, bass; Cherielynn Westrich , vocals, keyboards; Pat Wilson , drums.
Group formed in 1994; released Return of the Rentals, 1995; released Seven More Minutes, 1999.
Addresses: Record company—Maverick Records, 8000 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048.
Return of the Rentals, Maverick, 1995.
Seven More Minutes, Maverick, 1999.
Billboard, October 28, 1995, p. 102.
Daily News (London, England), April 16, 1999, p. L24.
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), December 8, 1995.
Entertainment Weekly, March 19, 2004, p. L2T4.
"The Glorious Noise Interview with Cherielynn Westrich," Glorious Noise, http://www.gloriousnoise.com/?pg=cherie.htm (July 2, 2004).
"Glorious Noise Interview with Matt Sharp," Glorious Noise, http://www.gloriousnoise.com/arch/00091/ (July 2, 2004).
"Matt Sharp," CDBaby.com, http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/mattsharp2/from/coeus (July 2, 2004).
"The Rentals' Seven More Minutes," Yale Herald,http://www.yaleherald.com/archive/xxvii/1999.04.23/ae/p13britpop.html (July 2, 2004).
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