FORGOTTEN ALBUMS OF THE 90s: SUN 60′s ONLY
While Seattle is deservedly regarded as a nucleus of the 90s rock scene, there were some pretty exciting groups a thousand miles south in Los Angeles also responsible for some of the decade’s best musical moments. Stone Temple Pilots faced serious critical scorn, but quickly emerged as solid, consistent hitmakers. Red Hot Chili Peppers thrived thanks to the addition of guitarist John Frusciante and the universal appeal of songs like “Under the Bridge.” But while Sun 60 may not have been in heavy rotation on MTV or radio, their poppy but boundary-pushing sound makes their trio of releases required listening for any self-respecting 90s rock fan. Only, the band’s sophomore effort, might just be its finest hour.
“We had just finished writing the songs for the record and decided to really challenge our production and interpretation of our songs,” says Joan Jones, lead singer of Sun 60. That process led to a number of prominent guests dropping by the studio, covert recording sessions, and even the band obtaining a helicopter.
Under the watchful eye of Scott Litt (best known for his work with R.E.M. and Nirvana), the band wasted no time in bringing their diverse batch of songs to the next level. Several tracks boast a stellar back-up squad: Dave Navarro, the Jane’s Addiction guitarist on the eve of his ill-fated stint with Red Hot Chili Peppers; Jack Irons, already a veteran of RHCP, then playing drums in L.A.’s underrated Eleven, and later to join Pearl Jam; and Alain Johannes, a prolific producer and then the frontman for Eleven.
Sun 60 guitarist/pianist David Russo was happy to have the “remarkable” Navarro’s guitar work on two tracks. “Piano is my main instrument and I had just picked up guitar in order to bring some different textures into the mix but, really, I’m kind of dismal,” Russo humbly reflects. “[Dave] elevated ‘Never Seen God’ to a whole different level.”
Navarro’s impressive riffs on that funky track are matched only by his work on “Mary X-Mess,” Only‘s opener. Arguably the band’s greatest song, written as Jones’ “way of dealing with the holidaze,” it’s abstruse lyrics might not make it a favorite for carolers (though I certainly wouldn’t slam the door on anyone singing lyrics like, “Claim her drink tasted just the like the smell of the ham which made her sick 12 years ago”) but it’s certainly a good way to spice up a predictable Christmas playlist. It’s a perfect storm of Navarro’s wild guitar, Irons’ manic drumming, and Jones’ charming vocals (think a rockier Suzanne Vega).
The album offers more than chaotic rockers, though. Most of the band’s favorite tracks are the softer ballads, like “All of the Joy.” “That song came about quite simply and quickly,” Russo remembers. “I have a clear memory of the night and the joy. It held a lot of personal truths for me and the memory of sharing that with [Joan] is the most compelling.”
Jones cites “Pressure” as a particular standout. Written towards the end of the recording sessions, getting it on the album required some stealth on her part. “It was a Sunday and it was a day off,” she says. “I wanted to mess around in the studio and make up some stuff.” With the help of her friend Marc “Sugarshroom” Friedenberg, she began recording the song on free tracks of another song that the band was in the process of overdubbing. “['Pressure'] is moody and quiet ‘cuz we didn’t want to get in trouble for being in the studio that day,” she explains. Her plan was thwarted when a furious Russo unexpectedly came to the studio and kicked them out. But the bigger surprise came a day later, when Jones, expecting Russo and Litt to chastise her, learned that they loved the track. The group completed it and it became the album’s closing cut.
Truly, Only has something for everybody. There are inspiring anthems (“Hold On”), sludgy blues (“Tuff to Say”), warm acoustic numbers (“Tell Me Like You Know”), and harmonious grooves (“Water x3″). Whether that worked against the album commercially is unclear, but Jones has mixed emotions about the label’s commitment to the band. “Epic was a good record company for Sun 60 but there was always a battle,” she says. “They were one of the only majors that actually knew the value of college radio and touring. They did lack vision with the new wave of female performers that were not just rock or pop in a box. […] We battled on videos and imagery. They always wanted me to look like something I wasn’t.” Case in point: the director Epic hired for the “Hold On” and “Never Seen God” videos never finished them. The band members took it upon themselves to complete the videos, including a helicopter scene over Hollywood Hills.
Another problem with the label emerged shortly before the band’s publicity push for its third album, Headjoy, was about to start. A turnover at Epic removed much of Sun 60′s support base. With one album still left under their contract, the band could leave the label to get some much-needed cash. Hollywood Records was willing to sign Jones…as a solo act. For Russo, who was never interested in performing on stage, it was an easy decision. “Personally, I was ready to move on,” he says. “Sun 60, to me, was never more than an expression of my love for Joan. I never really cared about being in a band. […] It wasn’t an authentic life for me.” Since leaving Sun 60, he embarked on a European tour with Sheryl Crow; did various studio work; and scored over 40 films and TV shows, including Sin City, Pineapple Express, and Grindhouse. He’s currently scoring the third season of the CW’s Nikita. “I think what’s next for me is to continue to make music every day of my life in whatever fashion I can,” he says. “That’s really it.”
“It was a real shame that [David] and I couldn’t artistically move forward together,” Jones says. “The band had really become a well-oiled machine and was a lot of fun.” She has recorded several solo albums since leaving Sun 60, including 1998′s acclaimed Starlite Criminal. A regular performer at Arnold Palmer’s in La Quinta, CA, an injury kept her off the stage for most of 2012, but she’ll be back in action on New Year’s Eve. She also hopes to record next year.
Only is a record with a wide range of emotions, so it’s only fitting that Sun 60 shares that legacy for its creators. “Sun 60 is bittersweet for me,” Russo admits. “It was an unbelievable time for me and I was privileged to witness some magic that Joan created. She was a force of nature. A beautiful force of nature.”