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Friday, June 27, 2008
Teenage pop stars know how to operate
"It's kind of embarrassing," says Taylor Henderson, violinist with teen sensations Operator Please, as she recalls the Australian release of the Queensland band's breakthrough single, "Just a Song About Ping Pong."
"All the promo we were asked to do was about 'playing ping-pong with Operator Please,' and we were so bad at it."
Blasting into clubs worldwide with this punky, spunky calling card, a fiery 2-minute slice of laser-sighted riffing and apoplectic rhythm, the band have created their own albatross: It's not a good idea to sing about a sport at which you suck. And while Henderson insists the song is "as two-dimensional as it sounds," the Australian media apparently had a field day digging for deeper meanings, suggesting that the song contained a subliminal political statement about Australia's relations with China, and other such nonsense.
"I think it's funny that all the meaning is in the title," shrugs guitar-vocalist Amandah Wilkinson, head songwriter, after she arrives halfway through the interview on the final day of the band's 6-week world tour, the day after their triumphant show at Daikanyama Unit in Tokyo.
"Whatever you get from it is what's on the surface, seriously," says Ashley McConnell, the band's bassist, who oozes confidence and does most of the talking when Wilkinson's not around. "If you wanna delve deeper then fine, but you're wasting your time."
Now between 17 and 19 years old, the band's members have already been together three years — and as such, they've had to put up with all sorts of stick because of their age.
"It's kind of a double-edged sword," says McConnell. "The age thing gets people's attention; they automatically want to dig a little deeper. But people can be really condescending, especially older musicians. They're like, 'Why do these kids get to do what they're doing, when I've been doing it so much longer?' "
"We played a festival in Australia," recalls drummer Tim Commandeur, who was raised on a diet of jazz and "musicians' music." At 18, he is not the youngest in the band, but he does look it. "Some people had gone to the effort of making a big bedsheet painted with the words 'Operator Please shut up and f*ck off,' which they held up."
"Why bother?" says McConnell, momentarily breaking his air of cool by tucking into his miso soup with a spoon. "I'd like to see someone at a festival who has the time to see every single band they want, let alone (wasting time on) a band they don't."
The dramatic, riotous new-wave track "Yes Yes," from which the name of debut album "Yes Yes Vindictive" is taken, is the band's reaction to this attitude, with lines such as "Just out of curiosity, can you tell me how old you think I should be?"
" 'Yes Yes' was like a statement against what people expect of us," says McConnell. "People see our age and they expect a certain thing, and the lyric 'Yes, yes vindictive' in the song is like, you think we're all for it, but there's a vindictive side. It's two fingers up, but in a catchy way."
But the band's age was also a practical problem. When they started out, the members were not yet of legal drinking age (and in some countries, such as Japan, they still aren't). Of course, music venues in many countries face strict licensing regulations that may prevent them from admitting underage performers as well as customers; and even if their licence allows for an all-ages show, they may be unable to sell alcohol, which makes it harder to turn a profit. Booking a young band can be just too risky. As McConnell says, "When we first started, there was hardly anywhere that would let us play. And even now, sometimes Taylor and Tim have to sit outside until they play, then come in and play, and then go back out."
Wilkinson, McConnell and Commandeur met at high school, and formed the band along with violinist Stephanie Joske and keyboardist Sarah Gardiner. After things turned sour with Joske in 2006, Taylor was auditioned to join the band; and in searching for a replacement for Gardiner, the band played some shows with session musicians before recruiting Commandeur's cousin Chris Holland in April 2008, around a week before starting this tour.
"It's really cool," enthuses Holland. "It's a really good opportunity — when else am I gonna be able to do anything remotely like this (touring)? When we move onto newer songs, it'll be good to have something that I've been involved in; then I can enjoy and appreciate playing it more."
"With our old keyboardist, it wasn't as harmonious as it is now," admits McConnell. "It was a bit stressful. (Playing in the band) wasn't for her, and that caused a lot of problems. But it's good that Chris took over, 'cos he was someone we knew."
"I think Chris deep down is as retarded as we are, so it's working out really well," adds Henderson.
"Yeah, we're retardating him," jokes Wilkinson. "Every member who comes into the band, we somehow corrupt them. Timmy used to be a really good boy."
The band seem to have an affinity for Japan. Wilkinson has a cousin living in Tokyo (which is why she was late today); McConnell studied Japanese at school, where it was compulsory, although he says he's largely forgotten it. They take any opportunity for sightseeing. They're in awe of the fashion in Harajuku, where trendy kids "put in all that effort just to go shopping," and of the efficiency of Japanese venue staff.
McConnell says he's keen to learn more about Japanese music. Operator Please played together with Kansai art-noise band Limited Express (Has Gone?) in Tokyo last December, and McConnell is also a fan of The 5,6,7,8's, whom he knows from "Kill Bill Vol. 1," and Maximum the Hormone, having discovered them through their drummer Nao Kawakita's side job as a host on Space Shower TV.
Although "Yes Yes Vindictive" was released just a few weeks ago in Japan, in Australia it has been out since November, and the band are ready to move on. By the time you read this, they will have arrived home from their latest tour, ready to work on new material.
"I've got new songs I need to go home and work on," says Wilkinson. "There's a way I want these songs to sound, what's right for them, but I don't know what it's gonna turn out like. But most of the stuff is probably a lot harder.
"I love writing," she continues. "It's my only means of relief. Even when something negative happens I try to turn it into something positive by making something out of it. I've never been a person who can solve problems easily. I can't. I always take it to the next level so that it turns into a bigger problem. So for me, I get rid of that through writing and through making something."
From vindictive to vindicated, Operator Please make up for a lack of sporting skill with a unique worldview and ample songwriting nous. Wise beyond their years and yet happy to embrace the goofier side of life, Operator Please are sure to be on the line for a long while yet.
"Yes Yes Vindictive" is out now.