With the sly Lothario swagger informing their debut, Some Midnight Kissin', one might expect to make interview acquaintance with Lakeland's Dark Romantics on a stained mattress in the middle of some condemned L.A. studio in the mid-'80s: cigarette butts and spilled wine included.
"We were in the middle of practicing," says vocalist Eric Collins over the phone, slightly out of breath and out of character. "We just clear out our den and living room area and go at it while the neighbors are at work."
Such is the sonic deception — the jagged glossy-black wall concealing a more subdued suburban stability — of the Dark Romantics. Collins and guitarist Dean Paul convened in the summer of 2005 to script their '80s-alternative musical drama (reportedly while "sipping tea") in an effort, according to Collins, to find a happy place.
As a member of indie-circuit favorites Denison Marrs for nearly a decade (and later, with Paul, the underrecognized Party People), Collins had become seasoned to the point of bitterness with band life and had bowed out for a deserved break. It took the advice of his wife to snap him back into place.
"I just had a few months `off` and I started getting really depressed because I wasn't doing what I love," he says. "And my wife was like, ‘Look, you have to do music. I can tell that this is killing you inside to not do this right now. You just need to figure it out.'"
Collins did some figuring and, with Paul, set about crafting some home-studio recordings reflecting their current musical inclinations. After passing the resulting demos on to one of their musical heroes, Jason Martin of Starflyer 59, said hero agreed to host them at his Huntington Beach, Calif., studio in return for the chance to produce and record their debut. Those recordings resulted in strong interest from Louisiana-based indie Lujo Records (who signed the band), and would result in the mood-altered pathos of Some Midnight Kissin'.
"Praying your legs to stop the shakes/no heartbreaks/'cuz you don't want them no more," bridges the blues-stomp opener, "So Confused (and We Like It)," its just-below-the-note swoons resting uncomfortably against the shimmering guitar drive. "A Million Bucks" squeezes its moan all the way up to a falsetto, while tambourines slap hips in a sweaty mess of sexual liberation. "Another Song for Another Night" (for which the band boasts a clever, teen-angst video on its MySpace page) sways light bulbs over an incandescent drone of missed opportunity. And "Of Loving Me" sounds a bit like the Romantics (the other ones) in a thin-walled recording studio wedged up against U2's Unforgettable Fire sessions … or perhaps the Killers without a Vegas strip to embellish.
The totality of the disc hearkens back to a period when every four-track bedsit production was a lighter-waving stadium exercise in the making.
"I've never been able to get the '80s alternative influence out," says Collins. "When I started writing stuff after the Party People and into the Dark Romantics, I was really trying to find what I wanted to do, and it just comes out of me, because that's me, that's in there."
What wasn't in there, though, was an actual band. Up to the point of the album's completion, Collins and Paul (with the assistance of Martin) had managed to cover all of the instrumentation for the Dark Romantics. That wouldn't be possible live.
This is where the story gets Love, American Style—interesting. Paul's wife, Amanda Jones, and Collins' wife, Carla Jones, are sisters, both with some interest in music themselves.
"We were like, ‘All right, what are we going to do?' Are we gonna get a bunch of dudes like we always do, and we all end up fighting and getting on each other's nerves, or just completely being stupid or whatever?" Collins says. "We were like, you know what, let's just force our wives to be in a band with us."
The wives agreed, cramming lessons in to get up to speed, and something like a dark ABBA was born. A grade-school friend, Stephanie Salomon, joined in on drums, and the unique dynamic swiftly coalesced.
"It's cool, because of course in a band everyone's gonna fight," says Collins, "but we're all family so we can't really go anywhere."
Collins insists that while perceptions of Lakeland may be podunk, the reality is that the small city serves as a vibrant connecting hub between the Orlando and Tampa music scenes. As a result, the Dark Romantics coexist in a relatively tight-knit musical community that includes locals New Roman Times and Summerbirds in the Cellar (who themselves hail, in part, from Lakeland). But, given their family way, they have a little something extra that few of their peers can cling to: a clean van for their ensuing national tour.
"My wife went and got new sheets and a blanket and pillows for the van," Collins says, laughing. "We have air fresheners and Febreze for the van, and I'm like, ‘This is awesome.' When it was just dudes, it smelled like feet and there was always food wrappers everywhere."