Hunky dory? You bet.
Are Slow Lorries the coolest pop band in Northern California?
Some things are obvious.
Sacramento summers are hellishly hot. Peja Stojakovic is a future NBA superstar. Slow Lorries are a great pop band.
You notice it from the start of “JMan,” the first song on Slow Lorries’self-released CD. Over a measured guitar thrum, singer Stewart Batchelor comes on like Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus doing a Leonard Cohen imitation. He moves slightly up the vocal register on the second verse, then slips into his Bowie voice for an ascending run up the bridge to the chorus. “Science is amazing,” he warbles, while the band falls in behind him with all the dynamic punch of Cheap Trick kicking out the jams on “Surrender.” Then he and the band fall down the hill into Malkmus-does-Cohen mode for another ride up the hill.
It’s amazing stuff, and the rest of the six-song disc doesn’t disappoint, either. “Fuel” gives Batchelor a chance to exercise his Ziggy Stardust pipes; “Diamond Eyes” has a winning chorus ("I’ve been adding starlight to my playlist"), onto which Batchelor throws an abraded Cobainesque spin; the quieter “Elevator Number Six” shimmers with acoustic and electric guitars under a lyrical melody that’s more Hunky Dory than Ziggy; “Words With the Sun” builds to its “God I’ve got so much to tell you” chorus in a fashion similar to “JMan"; the unlisted track “Harlow"—about watching the dead actress on late-night TV, not the J Street club—maintains a throbbing intensity that any ‘80s English marquee band would envy, from start to finish. All this in 22 minutes, flat.
It’s mature, sophisticated, thoroughly professional rock-candy pop. And if you’re assuming a disc this good didn’t originate in a vacuum, you’re correct.
Batchelor formerly fronted the Biggs, an early ‘90s power-pop combo from Lodi that owed as much to ‘70s radio bands like Journey as it did to, say, the Kinks or the Cure. Guitarist Scott Cermak and bassist Dan McNay played teenage air guitar together in Roseville garages, then graduated to real instruments; McNay later played in the Porchupines and Attica with Ric Ivanisevich, now lead guitarist in Oleander; McNay also played in Wynch. Drummer Steve Brown was in Jet Red, and his older brother drummed for ‘80s MTV hair-metal band Dokken. “He’s gonna hate me for bringing that up,” Cermak says.
With the kind of pedigree that more likely would lead toward paying dues at the Boardwalk in Orangevale, then cutting demos for CMC or John Kalodner’s Portrait label, how did the Lorries hang such a sharp left turn?
By the mid ‘90s, Cermak, McNay and Brown were three-quarters of Fat Bulldog 50, with a singer named Willy Seltzer. “It wasn’t heavy metal,” Cermak says, “but it was like a way-heavy, rockin’ thing. And then we switched over to Stewart, and the result is much more pop, more ear-friendly stuff.
“I didn’t really know Stewart before the Biggs,” Cermak adds, “and when I was trying to put together Slow Lorries with the vision that I had, I wanted Stewart really bad. We were going out to every Biggs show. And when things went sour for them, we hooked up.”
The chemistry worked. The Lorries started writing songs and began rehearsing three times a week. Batchelor commutes from San Francisco; the other three live in lower Placer County. And aside from a period where Cermak, a kindergarten teacher, left the band—replaced by Mike Farrell, among others—Slow Lorries have continued an undercapitalized climb toward recognition, slowly, with Batchelor’s oblique, non-Dokkenesque lyrics and all.
“Some people write about their steel horse flying into the city night," Cermak says. "They’re talkin’ about chicks and all this." He laughs. "Um, that’s really not what we do. Which is funny," he adds, "because that’s where we came from."