The Three O’Clock: Their Time is Now
by Erin Amar, band images by Chris Haston
When the lineup was finally announced for this year’s Coachella music festival, the big news quickly became how many festival-goers did not know who headliner The Stone Roses were. But for me, that story hardly registered. Taking my first gander at the event’s flyer, the band that caught my eye was far from the headliners. Listed way down at 151st out of 178 bands, in tiny print nearly at the bottom of the sheet I found the most exciting news I could imagine, an unexpected reunion: April 14 and 21 – The Three O’Clock.
For those who worshipped the neo-psychedelic renaissance that took place in the late 80’s LA music scene, The Three O’Clock were central figures. Coining the moniker “The Paisley Underground” to describe the fledgling movement, The Three O’Clock’s cherubically-voiced singer Michael Quercio immediately and unintentionally became spokesman for a scene that grew to include The Rain Parade, Opal, The Dream Syndicate, Green on Red, The Pandoras and others, all bent on employing Rickenbackers, harmonies, tambourines, synthesizers, and an acoustic guitar here and there to fashion a sound evocative of the sunshiny groove of 20 years earlier. While the Bangles may have risen to become the genre’s valedictorians, The Three O’Clock themselves were hardly to be trifled with. Over the course of 5 albums the band created some of the era’s most breathlessly sparkling college-radio pop, including tight, guitar-driven anthems like “Jet Fighter,” “Her Head’s Revolving” and “With a Cantaloupe Girlfriend,” each neatly accented with Quercio’s near-impossibly-twee vocals.
Growing up in the northeast, far from the California sunshine, I considered my own mania about the band during their heyday to be unique, but once the small string of reunion shows the band have planned were announced, I soon found out I wasn’t alone. On the big day 4 different friends emailed or called to tell me about their own excitement over the band’s impending reunion, and it wasn’t long before the blogosphere began to erupt with articles as well, the best of which was titled “Coachella 2013: The Three O’Clock reunite, nuts to the rest of the lineup
Tonight (April 10, 2013), another bit of evidence surfaces that I was not alone in holding the band in the highest regard – the band play live on Conan O’ Brien. I caught up with Three O’Clock drummer Danny Benair to hear more about the reunion that has all these paisley poppers minds spinning, and hearts racing.
Rocker: I wanted to find out what was going on, has the band really reformed?
Danny Benair: Over the years, the band had been approached about reforming and playing on various occasions, but it never seemed appropriate or somebody didn’t want to do it, or it just didn’t seem special enough. But I guess starting last August, it started coming up as a possibility about Coachella, and our manager from the old Three O’Clock days, John Silva (who also managed Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Beastie Boys, Beck) came to us and said, “It looks like there’s a possibility to do this.” And so we then had to start taking it seriously, and then really by about October, it was locked up, and we sort of sat around and had a secret for about four months that nobody knew. So I don’t think we all had made some giant decision that, yes, we need to reform, it sort of happened by conversations and meeting up, and I think everyone thought that something like Coachella is way too special to not do.
Rocker: Was Coachella intended to be a one-off or did you think you’d do a string of shows?
Danny: I think our first thought was, “If it’s Coachella and out, we’re very flattered, and then we go back into our cave and that’s that.” But there’s been a fair amount of interest, so it seems, realistically, we’ll probably, for starters, do four or five shows, and then I don’t know. We’ve been approached for all kinds of things, but what a lot of it comes down to is just being practical about it. You have four people that all have other careers, so it’s about what can we do and what can’t we do, what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense. It’s just being practical about it. Right now, we’re having a lot of fun, rehearsals have been great, and it could lead to more.
There’s actually been label interest, which is craziness too. I’m in the music business still, so I look at it very realistically, as, “OK, this is great, I’m not sure what’s going to happen”. Everything is nice, in a sense, because it’s nice that anybody cares at all. I’m realistic, and we’re a little blip, so I don’t want to overemphasize us reforming, what it might mean.
Rocker: Is it strange for you to return to the rhythm of band practices after such a long break from it?
Danny: The first rehearsals were grueling, being a drummer and playing three hours, it’s a lot. It’s getting much more comfortable and the rehearsals are fun. At first, it was… yikes! Especially for me. I was the furthest away from playing, so it was definitely more of a trek back.
Rocker: I understand that not all of the original members are going to be on these shows.
Danny: Our keyboard player, Mickey, for years, he’s been pretty adamant that he never wanted to play again. Back in December, when we were committed to Coachella, for about 24 hours he committed to doing it, then he backed out. Then we met right at the beginning of the year, and for another 12 or 14 hours, he committed, then he backed out again.
Unfortunately, your life moves on, and he couldn’t commit the time and energy. It’s not that we don’t love him, we really wanted him to do it, we just had to make a decision. I’m a purist, I love the whole original band, I don’t want to go see a reformed band and it’s just the drummer and three guys who never wrote any songs, never sang or anything,… I think Buffalo Springfield had that happen when their drummer went out with no other original members, and that’s not what I want to do. We all wanted to make it as pure as possible. But Adam Merrin, is really the perfect replacement for Mickey and he’s 100 percent committed. He’s helped out in numerous ways, I can’t even say how many, he’s been great.
Rocker: A lot of times when people split up there are some bad feelings. I don’t know why the Three O’Clock broke up, but when you got back together, were there any bridges that needed mending?
Danny: Michael and Louis sort of had a partnership in writing, and so when Louis left in ’85, it was tough. But about three years ago, Michael, Louis, and I had dinner together, and that was really the first time Michael, Louis and I had sat down together. We had a great dinner, and we just kind of discussed things in a very broad, general manner, not like, “Oh, we should play a gig,” or anything, but discussed the “what ifs.” But it wasn’t like we had a rift to mend. I think everyone was pretty enthusiastic about it, so that turned out to be OK.
Rocker: You have that new Burger Records live album coming out for Record Store Day. How did this come about?
Danny: Yeah, it’s crazy! We’re ripping off a Seventies bootleg idea, and it’s going to be really fun.
The record was my idea. There are a lot of recordings of live gigs from the band, and a few that we all seem to like, so we picked one from pretty early on that we thought the quality was pretty good. There was this Seventies bootleg company called Trademark of Quality where they would make these colored vinyl albums with a stamp on the front, and Burger is going to stake a slant on that, and we’re going to do a Trademark of Quality-style bootleg of one of our live gigs. It was one that we all thought was fun and it’s got a lot of energy, it’s got some mistakes in there, but we all thought it was cool, then we’re going to have a reissue come out in, I think, June, it looks like Omnivore is going to do a reissue of unreleased stuff. So we’ll have the Record Store Day release, then we’ll have the reissue, then world domination, obviously. All seven or eight people that care will be totally enthused by it.
Rocker: I was a huge Three O’Clock fan myself, but the only time I saw you live was when you opened for R.E.M. here in Boston in 1989.
Danny: Boston was one of those cities that was really nice to us, we played there a lot.
I remember playing there with R.E.M. The R.E.M. tour was insane, but they treated us great and it was a really fun tour. Being on tour with them was fantastic, and you couldn’t have had a better headliner in how they acted towards us, it was truly, truly nice, and their crew were fantastic.
Rocker: Do you think that tour got you exposed to a lot of people who would have never known about you otherwise?
Danny: Without a doubt, and I think that R.E.M. fans were really receptive. A lot of times, you open for a band, and the audience doesn’t care at all. They are in the lobby, they’re drinking, they’re showing up late,… but we actually were really treated great by the audience. In Cleveland or Detroit, The Replacements were on the bill, too, and they got in tons of trouble with R.E.M.’s road crew, and it was the only date they played on the tour. They were very funny, but the road crew wanted to kill them, “You’re breaking stuff!”
Rocker: So your band was comparatively well-behaved on the road?
Danny: Well, we didn’t break any equipment, unless we owned it. I think every band slightly misbehaves, I don’t think you can find a band that doesn’t misbehave a little bit. We didn’t misbehave with R.E.M., that’s for sure. They were very nice, and if that’s going on, I think the last thing in the world you want to do is have them turn on you.
Danny: Yeah, we spent the next night with them in Cleveland, just hanging out, and boy, they were out of control, in a very fun way, but man, they were out of control. It was like me and Paul Westerberg and Tommy and our guitarist, who replaced Louis, Patrick, the four of us went out and we formed a band that got onstage and never played a note, we basically took over equipment from another band and got onstage and then Paul Westerberg said, “Thank you, goodnight.” We didn’t even know what we were going to do, it would have just been insane. I remember that evening, it was really out of control.
Rocker: Will Coachella be the largest stage you guys have ever played on?
Danny: It sort of depends on if we end up in a tent and there’s six people. We played with Echo and the Bunnymen and with R.E.M., and we played like 15,000 people. It sort of depends on what time we play, if it’s tumbleweeds and 10 people or a tent that’s filled or we’re outside and it’s packed. Potentially, it could be the biggest crowd, but it’s hard to know.
Rocker: Is that your kickoff?
Danny: Our first date is Pomona, and that’s about a week before Coachella. We’re playing that, and then we’re going to…I don’t think there’s anything else right before Coachella, so there’s going to be that and a week to ponder what we just did, then jump into Coachella probably fairly cold, and then we’re going to play San Francisco that week between, and then play Coachella again, and then there will probably be one more date after that that’s not been announced, but there’s probably at least one more date, then we probably go back into a cave and disappear like old bears.
Rocker: I wanted to ask more about what you do for work now, which is licensing music for use in TV and movies. It’s one of the last areas where musicians can still derive income from their music. Do you ever sell your own songs into licensing?
Danny: We got a bunch on the TV show The Carrie Diaries. They’ve already been on. It’s been cool. The best use was actually on the pilot, “Jet Fighter” had a pretty big use as Carrie goes into New York for the first time, so that was probably the best of the four uses, but it was kind of fun. We’ve had a few over the years, every once in a while. You never know. So it’s great, and it’s added income.
Rocker: Is “Jet Fighter” the most recognizable Three O’Clock song?
Danny: I think to people that might know us a little bit, it’s probably “Jet Fighter,” but I don’t know. To me, I don’t think that’s our best song, but that’s OK.
Rocker: What do you think is your best song?
Danny: I think my favorite song is on Arrive Without Traveling and it’s called “Spun Gold.” That’s my favorite Three O’Clock song, it’s a personal favorite. I don’t know why.
Rocker: Some fans can have an attitude about, “How can you be selling your songs?”
Danny: It’s a chance you take. A band like Sonic Youth are totally cool with it. But a band like the Beastie Boys,… I used to publish them when I worked at Polygram, and they said ‘no’ to everything. It depends on what your outlook is, what you’re expecting. That has a lot of say in it.
Rocker: What is the setlist for the upcoming tour like?
Danny: It’s not going to include anything from the albums that Louis is not on, and it wasn’t even that Louis even made any comment like, “I won’t play them,” I think the band made a decision that it would be Salvation Army, Baroque Hoedown, Sixteen Tambourines, and Arrive Without Traveling, and then a few weird songs we did that weren’t on albums, or were weird covers we did back then that we would consider. The setlist is pretty long to pick from. I think most fans will be pleased with the setlist, at least in some way or another.
Rocker: Covers? So maybe some “Lucifer Sam,” then?
Danny: Maybe. I played it last night, I can say that much.
I’m a fan first, and I recall, before I was in bands, what seeing a band meant to me. I really can see every side of it. I don’t mean that in a condescending way at all, I think it’s great. If someone likes what we did, that’s fantastic. When you’re making music, the first thing is you hope is that you like what you do, and then if you find someone else likes what you do, well that’s even better. We’re trying to play a set that we think everybody will like. We’re trying to make it as authentic as what they’d expect to see if they went and saw it back in ’85.
Rocker: I really hope we’ll see you on the east coast sometime.
Danny: It could happen, I’m leaving it up to you. It’s going to take people that care to instigate it. That’s going to be step one, I think. Make something happen in Boston and we’ll come out there. We’ve got an agent. You have my number.
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