By Roy Kasten
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"I've gotta be honest." You'll hear this phrase over and over in conversation with Evan Foster, frontman/songwriter for the Boss Martians and earnest music lover. His manner is as direct and unguarded as the band's alternately snarling and sentimental sound.
The latest Boss Martians album, last year's Making the Rounds, is equal parts shine and grime: dirty/loud R&B and punk, yeah, but glazed with Foster's emotional, radio-friendly vocals and hooks. It is probably the first new album in 35 years or so that could be equally enjoyed by freakbeat nerds and KSHE guitar warriors. It would sound equally at home at the Hi-Pointe or the Savvis Center. Too cool for arena rock, too expansive for garage rock ... maybe you could call it "parking-garage rock," but then you'd be wasting valuable time that could be better spent listening to Making the Rounds.
Not too long ago, though, the Boss Martians were aiming for a pigeonhole and hit it dead-on, becoming a beloved stalwart of the surf/hotrod music revival. Foster is honest about this part of the band's history, too. "We weren't just surfier," he explains. "We truly started as a purist '60s surf and hotrod band" -- albeit one colored by the somewhat unusual inclusion of an organ alongside the standard surf-instrumental lineup of guitar, bass and drums. This early element of the Martians' sound has continued to this day thanks to Foster's love of the instrument. "I really love -- really, really love -- organ in rock & roll. It doesn't matter what era. One thing that was cool was that it gave us flexibility to do some garage, punk, trash type of stuff, too."
But, as Foster tells it, his love of the dragstrip instrumentals the band was playing didn't keep him from loving other kinds of music and feeling the need to expand his own songwriting and start singing. "I've got so many influences and so many tastes in rock & roll," he says. "I'm a fan of rock & roll in general. I love so many different types of bands and artists and songwriters.
"We'd been doing surf and drag for some time, and I love those records, too. I'm stoked about everything we've done. But I want every album to feel like a really natural thing. I just don't want it to sound like 'Let's go bang another one out.'"
Making the Rounds feels as natural and unselfconscious as any rock record should, recalling a variety of classic touchstones as it reshuffles the grit-to-heart ratio from tune to tune. "Dreaming in Stereo" is a ready-made power-pop masterpiece with the kind of inevitable but unexpected hooks that pop miracles are made of and a lean new-wave sound. Of all the songs on the album, "Dreaming in Stereo" best reflects Foster's love for, in his words, "rock & roll songs delivered in a pop package in a Cheap Trick type of way." He's not the first to invoke the Rockford giants in discussing his gigantic hooks and crazed but melodic guitar leads, a comparison Foster finds flattering.
"It's always blown my mind the way those guys were able to deliver something so insanely memorable but never let up on the rock & roll," he marvels. "It's something I think a lot of songwriters tried to do, but it's really hard to find a great balance. Cheap Trick was one band that did it."
The ghosts of Nielsen and Zander also haunt the midtempo "Feel It Like Everyone," but this time in the company of a nifty Small Faces-like heavy psychedelic bridge and a thoughtfully ambiguous lyric. "I feel like I hit a mark on that one," Foster says. "It's got a cool stomping groove, and it's different from the rest of the album." The whole record is marbled with rich veins of R&B, sometimes sounding like a punked-over Black Crowes (as on "Heard What You Said").
"Making the Rounds" and "She Was the One" are perhaps the closest to the traditional garage rock of the band's native Pacific Northwest, a subject dear to Foster's Seattle-born heart. Bring the subject up and he goes on like a giddy superfan: "During the Northwest's formative pop-music years, starting in the post-Elvis years in the late 1950s, a lot of bands were coming out of the Northwestern corridor, bands like the Kingsmen and Paul Revere and the Raiders. There was a truly gritty saxophone- or organ-driven heavy rhythm & blues feel that became identifiable with Northwestern bands. Then the Sonics took that and injected some absolute atomic energy into the way they presented the R&B."
But Foster would rather try to capture the spirit of the era than the specific sounds. "I've gotta be honest," he says, "I'm one of the biggest garage-rock fans out there, but I won't try to ape the elements of garage rock. To me, bands that get called garage bands, like the Sonics, weren't garage bands, they were just unbelievably potent rock bands."
Foster is happy with the evolution of the band, but he had made his bed with retro-purism, and some listeners think he should lie in it forever. Certain elements in the surf/drag/garage community are about as flexible and forward-thinking as the Taliban and didn't approve of the new Martians sound. "I don't want to write to stay in one box or something like that," he says. "It was time to finally break ranks with the genre. I'm flattered that enough people cared about our songs to be pissed and bummed out that I changed the sound. I've got nothing but respect and appreciation for our fans, but I felt like the most important thing was to keep making honest, really heartfelt rock & roll."