Any whichway you can

The New York garage rockers The Mooney Suzuki are finally hitting the big time. After five years of playing dives, they tell Steve Jelbert, they deserve it
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The Independent Culture

Sometimes, gallows humour is the glue that holds bands together. Backstage at the Coachella festival, in California, The Mooney Suzuki are holding forth on the differences between the British and American music scenes. "There's such a gap between how big English bands are in the UK and here," opines the drummer, Augie Wilson. Mentioning a couple of Blighty's representatives on this sunny weekend, he continues, "No one over here knows who Blur and Primal Scream are."

"Which is strange, because no one knows who we are here or in the UK,"adds the singer and songwriter, Sammy James Jnr.

The New Yorkers are a splendid example of how sheer dedication and resolve can produce results. Having reinvented themselves as rock stars in the best tradition of bar-room visionaries through the ages, they're now signed to a major label and at last find themelves being taken seriously. Named after the two singers of the Seventies German cult favourites Can (Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki) and taking much of their style from the great British invasion of the Sixties, healthily leavened with a dash of soul showmanship and the enduring power of the MC5, they've finally signed a deal with Columbia, after playing just about every, er, restroom in the States over the past five years. Their terrific, shameless Electric Sweat album from 2002, not previously released in Britain, is out here this week. It's a gem, packed with insanely catchy, instantly familiar tunes.

"None of us are good musicians," confesses Wilson.

"We have to fool the audience into thinking we can actually play," adds the guitarist, Graham Tyler. "The sum of all these mediocre parts transcends and excels beyond our wildest plans." Told that he does invoke some of Angus Young's best moves at times, he replies graciously: "Thank you. I appreciate that. He's a major influence."

They protest too much. When James is going through his impassioned soulman routine, it's pure entertainment. Even an apparently unscheduled fall leads to him throwing off the protective arms of the road crew and rushing back on stage, in the great tradition of James Brown at the Apollo.

They're practised enough now to fool anyone. Formed nearly six years ago, they've watched friends such as The Strokes and The Hives shoot to stardom. And while they've been on the road ("We've been in New York for a week in the past three years," they casually exaggerate), their hometown has seen a change of scene. Right now, New York is associated with a scratchy, funky sort of sound.

"I don't know anything about that," Tyler claims, sounding like Father Jack deflecting all doctrinal questions with the phrase, "That would be an ecumenical matter," in a classic episode of Father Ted.

"We've been on tour so long, we haven't heard any of these bands. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs? Are they British?" jokes James. "The average British NME reader is more in touch with what's going on in New York than I am."

In California, the kids seem to like them. In fact, many of them are waving pink foam hands, like those you might see at an American sporting event, emblazoned with the band's name.

"They were a big hit," says Tyler.

"Especially when we gave them away," adds Wilson.

"People love free stuff," says James. "It was accidental. They'd only let us sell two items at the merchandise stand, T-shirts and CDs. So we thought, 'Let's give 'em out.' And it worked."

"We stuck it to the Man. The Man didn't know what was coming," brags Tyler. "It gets to the point where you just have to shake hands with the Man, then stick it to him again when he's not expecting it."

The Man has already stumped up for a video for their best-known song, "In a Young Man's Mind" (as featured in The Osbournes), which boasts a guest spot from the omnipresent Jack Black as a gobshite English manager. "We met him and wanted to work with him," says Wilson. "We just told him, 'Do what you want to.' "

Tyler suddenly twigs my nationality. "Hey, you're English. Did you find it offensive?" Not exactly. "Anything in a different accent is funnier anyway, no matter where you're from," he posits.

Some of their lyrics are pretty funny, too, from the truly tortuous couplet, "The broken bone/ You know it goes into the cast," in "The Broken Heart", to the sharper observations of "In a Young Man's Mind" ("In a young man's mind, it's a simple world/ There's a little room for music and the rest is girls"). "I feel I'm at my most honest when putting on," James admits. "But 'In a Young Man's Mind' is as autobiographical as it gets. When I was a kid, working out Who and Led Zeppelin songs in my basement, I was like, 'Oh my God! This is all I want to do with my life.' And now we do that, and we talk to kids who learn our songs. With pink foam fingers."

Don't think they're not serious, though. Few musicians are so acutely aware of the pitfalls of the business and concerned that an audience long starved of rock'n'roll may be "satiated" just as the band have got their chance. So, have the years of struggle been worth it?

"Almost; as soon as we're making a living. I look forward to seeing what levels of vindication fate may offer us," says James.

As for their name, they defend it.

"It captures the band, in that you can get it on two levels. To some we're 'the Can band', and to morons it's 'Mooney Suzuki – like Milli Vanilli, right?'," says Tyler.

"As with everything we do, there's a tinge of obnoxiousness to it," adds James. "But all with a sense of humour. An idiot will look at a Picasso and say, 'A five-year-old could do that.' We want idiots to see us and say, 'Anyone could do that.' Let them try."

'Electric Sweat' is out now on Columbia. The Mooney Suzuki play Sumo, Leicester (0116-285 6536) tonight; Rescue Rooms, Nottingham (0115-958 8484) on Sunday; and the Barfly at the Monarch, London NW1 (020-7691 4244) on Monday