Modest goals: To have some kid start a rock band and put ad in the local weekly looking for musicians - citing your band as an influence.
That's all Scott Walker really wants out of this rock 'n' roll life. The vocalist modestly boasts that his band the Salteens - described variously as "sugar-pop" or "power-pop" or any similar silly hyphenation of the word "pop" - can fill any 400-seat club from hometown Vancouver to Japan to Australia, where they tour regularly. The Salteens play the U of A's Powerplant tonight.
Most importantly, "People have fun and they remember it," Walker says over breakfast the other day at Albert's. "We're not going to be a big band, ever. I don't care ... I think it's hilarious that you take a giddy pop band like us and if we could influence people? Hah! It's like the antidote."
The Salteens played a half-full Urban Lounge opening for 54-40 on Tuesday (rule of thumb: For a "surprise" club gig to work, the band in question must be popular enough to fill venues at least 10 times as large as the club). Walker recalls the DJ's reaction, "(He said), 'Wow, you guys are happy. We don't get that much.' I was like, I don't know, it's not very in vogue right now. Happy is not cool. That's sort of the irony of the band: we are the alternative right now and the alternative is happy. Isn't it ridiculous that something so obvious is so different?"
Besides, the Salteens are not that happy, Walker says. The deceptively positive title track to the band's latest CD, Let Go of Your Bad Days, is "about phoning back a girl and telling her what's wrong with how she treats me. That's not a happy song! The chorus is about how she keeps a list of all the things she hates about me. There's no relationship here. It's not nice. Sometimes things go wrong in relationships and it just happens. It seems to be a thing I take to a lot."
Mindful of P.J. O'Rourke's line, "Life is full of ironies for the stupid," here's another one: Happy as they sound, the Salteens formed because they were angry - angry at so many Vancouver bands for sucking so hard. These college-educated musicians were also inspired by the city's moribund club scene a few years back. (After club after club closed or went DJ, Vancouver ended up with a single venue where local independent rock bands could play, Walker claims; how pathetic).
"We'd see bands play and it was boring," the singer says. "We were mad at them for wasting our time. If they're going to go up on stage and they don't have any respect for being in a band, then why do it? Not to say we figured it out, but that's what we were trying. It's always been important for us to do something that other people weren't doing. I'm sure we've frustrated some people, too. We don't really care about what we want in a song, but what we think the people will enjoy."
This is probably why the Salteens are channelling the best of AM radio pop from the '60s, an era when entertainment was more important than self-indulgence. This is the opposite of the theory of "detachment from results" that can yield truly great music. If an artist makes music strictly for himself without a care for what the people think, audiences pick up on this sincerity.
Walker figures the Salteens are going for a combination of the two approaches: "The thing we really want to achieve is that we want the audience to enjoy it so much that that becomes our sincere expression. At the same time, there is something subversive to what we're doing. I am trying ideas you might not catch right away, or I'm making people like something they're not used to hearing."
OK, I'm a convert. I cringed when I first heard the Salteens at the Urban Lounge. The band's sparkly melodies and peppy sound topped by a real farfisa organ and trumpet generally cause a side-to-side head bobbing among listeners - far different than the usual up-and-down motion otherwise known as "headbanging." Their music is as light as the crackers they're named for. However, the Salteens soon began to grow on me.
In the end, I was forced to admit: This is really quite good.
The phrase "this is really quite good," incidentally, is what Walker said of his Albert's breakfast, as if he was surprised. It's true: Ironies and metaphors are lurking around every corner - even at a pancake house in a cheap hotel on an early morning after a so-so gig from a decent band that claims they'll never get big.
Let's hope the Powerplant is packed for the Salteens.