Plenty of bands coming down the proverbial pike can brag, if they're the bragging types, about the uniqueness of their particular style. Every band has its own little bag of je ne sais quoi. Local up-and-coming combo the Satellite Pumps, for their part, certainly indulge in creating a rich and appealing setting for their music. It's a bona fide Cadillac style—and I'm talking about a late ’50s Coupe de Ville gunning down a not-so-proverbial Kingston Pike with a trunk full of hi-test white lightning. But when I dropped by to chat with them recently, they won me over with a substantial display of simple character; since I hadn't seen them play before, they performed an entire set for me, in full regalia of coat and tie and cocktail dress, as if they were playing for a full house. And then they served cake.
Like such good manners, the Satellite Pumps sound is vintage, hailing from that 1950s nether region where country and western had not yet fully given way to rock 'n' roll. It's a sound suitable for barroom, barn dance, or company Christmas party, which is exactly where the group had its inauspicious beginning (the best kind, of course).
"My mom called me up," says bassist and singer (and a baker of some fine cake) Joy O'Shell, "and said 'Joy, it's two weeks to our Christmas party and we really need somebody to play, do you know anybody?' So we called ourselves Darlin’ Daughter and the Do-Ma-Prouds, played for about 45 minutes, and made an amazing amount of money."
O'Shell and guitarists Adam Hill and Harlowe Starrbuck later enlisted local hero Kelly Sprouse on drums and set about forging a more solid thing. Songs like "Killing My Heart" and "WSM 6-5-0" ring with the classic textural meeting of Fender electrics and a big banging acoustic box, carried along by an old-old-school shit-kicking backbeat and a gracefully no-nonsense rhythm. Everything old is new again, and earnest songwriting cuts to the top to make the whole package timeless. Hill, the group's primary singer and lyricist, offers a most literate and historically aware explanation of their songwriting motivation.
"I think there's a really good tradition in the 20th century of American loners, or American noble cynic-neurotics," says Hill, "like Humphrey Bogart to Paul Westerberg. It's guys like Neil Diamond and Roy Orbison, those great heart-on-their-sleeve characters."
Hill populates his songs with these characters, drawing on the common historical thread of the cynical lovelorn loners who somehow retain their ethics in the face of amoral existentialism: from ’20s hot jazz clubs and cabaret bohemia to ’40s film noir. It comes about full circle, of course, through country and rock music, from Hank Sr., to Westerberg.
"I'm trying to represent that guy who's in the honky tonk, and he's not really interested in drinking all night and sleeping with every girl he can," says Hill. "But he is there because he'd like to find somebody. He's not content to just sit at home and read a book."
With this thoughtful and well-anchored theme in check, Hill cuts to the chase in his lyrics with a flair for one-liners. Case in point is the song "Killing My Heart": "You gotta have a crush if it's just a brush with destiny/You gotta have an ache, if it's just for the sake of wishing we/Didn't know to fall in love, you probably need some help/Well, you know I've always done it all by myself/And it's killing my, killing my, killing my heart."
"A lot of times, it's really pathetic—I'm really just trying to impress somebody," says Hill of songs like this one. "If I like some girl and she doesn't know it, I hope I write such a killer song that somebody says 'Gosh, that's a cool song, who's it about?' And they'll go tell her, and she'll be impressed with that song."
They also like to impress audiences with a tasteful bit of showmanship, notably through their snazzy stage attire. Coat and tie is required for the gentlemen, and Ms. O'Shell dresses to the nines in vintage cocktail dresses.
"If you're going to play, you might as well look like you're going to play," explains Hill. "I get sick and tired of bands showing up in their T-shirts and shorts."
"It's like they're trying to be this 'I'm in my garage' kind of thing," says Starrbuck. "And we're not in our garage when we play, we're out there to entertain."
"If you look at a picture of a great blues man," continues Hill, "or a great old honky-tonk singer, are they wearing their jammies? No."
As Starrbuck says, "They're wearing their Sunday best."