If you've been to a local show over the past few years, you've likely seen Melinda Cooper play. She's performed with the likes of Union Electric, Humdrum, Cassie Morgan & the Lonely Pine, Celia's Big Rock Band, and most recently (this past Friday, in fact), as an auxiliary member of Bruiser Queen. Despite this pedigree, Cooper has seldom performed her own material. With Town Cars, however, she has stepped into the lead. Over the past couple of years, Town Cars has played around the city with a revolving lineup, generally including drummer Corey Woodruff and keyboardist/vocalist Jenn Malzone (better known as the leader of Middle Class Fashion). This week, Town Cars releases its debut CD, Hearts and Stars, on its own Extension Chord label. It's a solid, to-the-point listen, with a sound steeped in everything from 1990s indie rock and 1970s singer-songwriters.
Town Cars celebrates Hearts and Stars with a listening/release party this Saturday, October 11, at the Tick Tock Tavern. Cooper and I met at her rehearsal space deep within the Lemp Brewery complex to discuss Town Cars, as well as her own upbringing and musical past.
Mike Appelstein: You are known primarily as a band member as opposed to bandleader. Have you always written your own songs?
Melinda Cooper: Well, my first band was with two of my friends. Tops Queen was the name. We all wrote songs together. Brad Vaughn and I played in A Bit Shifty; I think we had thirteen musicians coming in and out of it. I've been writing steadily ever since, but if you and your songs don't fit into projects, you find a place for them or put them to bed. When we first started playing out, it was just me, and then Jenn [Malzone] started playing along. Jenn really got me motivated to play. She'd say, "You need a place to put these songs." Later I met Corey. We joke that he's the only other full-on member and I'm selfishly staking a claim.
When did you first start playing?
I started playing piano when I was four years old. I learned the beginning of [Bette Midler's] "The Rose." I'm from Granite City; Brad and I both went to Granite City High School. My family was part of Assembly of God, which is like Pentecostal without the rules. Women can wear pants. We could trick or treat and read Lord of The Rings. You can't really go to the movies. It's basically humans making up their own rules.
But you did have music in your house?
My two older sisters and I were required to learn to play the piano. Our music pastor at church was also our piano teacher. I asked him how to play the electric guitar. He had a bass, which I still play. He told me that if I take it home, bring it back for the next week's lesson and play a song on it, I could have it. We had a steel guitar in our church, but it was mostly keyboard and piano. Whenever someone in the band didn't show up for that service, I would fill in. I learned to play the drums that way.
I had some great experiences [at church]. My music pastor has become a good friend. My cousin, who actually passed last week, gave me my bass amp. I was a teenager when I started playing the bass, and the pastor gave him that amp. My bass belonged to a deacon's daughter who was caught with another girl in the church. So she was shunned at the church, and they kept the bass. I have all these pieces [of equipment] that are so significant to me.
So at what point did you discover music that was yours, outside of the church environment?
I loved Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand at first. I remember hearing ABBA's "Take a Chance On Me." That was when I was pretending my sisters and I were in a band. I wanted to be the one writing music and playing, and I wanted my sisters to be the singers. One of my sisters is actually a great singer, and the other's a great pianist. But I discovered punk rock through Jim Utz. He worked at Vintage Vinyl when they had a store in Granite City.
How did you know about Vintage Vinyl?
Well, it was next door to the Ponderosa Steakhouse. Every Sunday afternoon, after church, we'd go to the Ponderosa. I'd ditch my family and visit Vintage Vinyl. Jim introduced me to bands like Excuse 17, and I discovered bands like Lush and Helium. Also, 120 Minutes was happening, and my best friend since age twelve loved all the same stuff. She was obsessed with the Lemonheads. We'd just go to Vintage Vinyl and look at records. Jim would encourage me to explore record labels. So I'd hear a band like like Small Factory, look at what label it was on, order catalogs and get them weeks later in the mail. That's how I discovered labels like Kill Rock Stars, Candy-Ass and Chainsaw.
Continue to page two.