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Tucson Weekly Committee Rock

Number One Cup's Four Members Know How To Work Together For The Greater Good Of Alterna Pop.

By Brendan Doherty

JANUARY 11, 1999:  FEW BAND MEMBERS actually work together on the music they play and record. One or two people run most bands on the creative and business sides. It's rarely a collaborative event--instead the process more closely resembles either a fascist dictatorship or a rudderless boat. Musical dictators are often like the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corga, who plays all the bass and guitar parts on the band's recordings, writes the lyrics, hires everyone and sings. At the other extreme are musical anarcho-collectives unable to bring themselves to edit each other--pushing listeners through 15-minute songs that bring to mind the likes of "In A Gadda DaVida."

Number One Cup is neither. The members of the impressive four-piece alternative pop band from Chicago write their songs with the sharpness of a single vision using a collective method. As such, they're a good-sounding anomaly. Five albums and a number of tours into their career, the band members have navigated the creatively difficult waters of communal songwriting in the world of loud rock. It would seem that every creative decision would be hotly contended by the members, three of whom sing.

"If we've learned anything in the 10 years we've been a band, it's how not to piss people off," says Michael Lenzi, drummer and singer for the Chicago-based group. Lenzi, who looks like a '90s version of the Monkee's singer and drummer Mickey Dolenz, says, "Everything is subject to the committee. That's the way it works with this band. We write songs as a group. We'll have individual singers, but not songwriters."

While comparisons to contemporary groups like Pavement, Guided by Voices, and the Flaming Lips will put you in the ballpark, Number One Cup has achieved a singular identity on its latest CD, where Lenzi does most of the singing. Earlier albums sounded more like compilations of different bands rather than different facets of the same band. With a strong intellectual underpinning attached to its aggressive, two-guitar, bass-and-drums aesthetic, Number One Cup plays straightforward rock with quirky pop twists. Boasting three competent vocalists and a penchant for adding strange additional instrumentation to its basic rock sound, this group infuses a vast, cinematic scope to tuneful little songs that rarely exceed the four-minute mark. With a little luck, these guys could actually come up with a hit single or two.

"We're a little bit older than the average band, and we've been doing this a long time," says Lenzi. "We know most everyone else doesn't write songs this way. The most recent record was a stepping-off point, because we changed bass players, and we each went over all of the lyrics. Each of us made small changes, but I think the voice of the person still carries through. We don't have 30-minute songs."

The Chicago quartet infuses its music with a clear love for Wire, Gang of Four and Television.

"We're getting on to our 30s," says Lenzi of the band's disparate influences. "We've seen music trends come and go. I like to think that we remember and keep alive the good parts of each."

The fruits of their group-writing approach and wide-ranging influences are evident on their fifth and most recent release, People, People, Why Are We Fighting. Soaring melodies, backward hooks, and nonsensical lyrics twist around themes of music itself ("Vintage Male Singer"); alienation ("3 Stars"); the road ("Unison Bends"); drinking ("Ice Melts Around My Battery"). Contrasting with the rockers are non-sappy piano and heartbeat repose "Canada Disappears," the Depeche Mode-like "The Low Sparks," and the maudlin piano outro "Why Are We Fighting?" Like a shiny coin in the goulash, the ebullient pop road-song, "Remote Control," is a pop gem worthy of the Boo Radleys.

The band appears to be the four guys from down at the coffee shop by the U. T-shirts, jeans, cheap worn shoes, hair a little greasy. Except guitarist Patrick O'Connor looks a little like Steven Malkmus of Pavement. It lends a little star power to their post-college dressing-down "rock casual."

"We look like your friends," says Lenzi. "And Pat doesn't mind so much that he looks like Malkmus. We were all re-invigorated by music in 1991. We were bitten by the My Bloody Valentine "Loveless" bug, and Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted. We came along toward the end of that movement. We were the people buying the records, waiting for our chance to make the music."

And when their chance comes, these four don't hesitate to smash the delicacy they've created on record with the force of a powerful live show.

"We would do this whether or not we had the chance to break out and be accepted by the mainstream," says Lenzi. "As a result, when we play, it's loud. This may be our last one before we go back to noodling in the garage. Every single show I break something. I'm really surprised I've never hurt anybody. We're on the side of rock bands that play hard. You might plug your ears because you're bored with the kind of music that we play, but you can't be bored by the performance of it. We fucking love rock and roll, and don't have any pretensions about it at all. We're not really getting paid for this. We're a cooperative, and we're all in this together. When you get in there night after night, it had better be something that you like."

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