The Midas Touch

San Francisco’s Sugar & Gold can be tough to get a lock on, but that suits the band’s frontman PAM (Phillip Alberto Minnig) just fine. Armed with Get Wet, a brand new album stuffed to the breaking point with killer dance grooves, Minnig and company are preparing to bring the party to the masses – and maybe make them think a little.

The band kicked off a run of shows last week with a pair of sold-out record release parties in their hometown and Los Angeles. Other stops on Sugar & Gold’s itinerary include Knitting Factory in New York City (May 6), Philadelphia’s Marbar (May 8), The High Dive in Denver (June 1), The Rhythm Room in Phoenix, Ariz. (June 9) and Che Café in San Diego (June 11).

If your city isn’t on the group’s dance card, don’t fret. Additional dates in cities across the U.S. and Canada, as well as the U.K. and Europe, that should keep S&G on the road for the rest of the year will be announced shortly.

Photo: Wes Rowe
The rock star lifestyle can be so hard…

Get Wet, which was released last week, is well suited to the 21st century music scene, where bands are finding more and more freedom to stretch out in different genres and styles – often on the same album.

Wet reveals itself in layers, like a decadent pastry that’s golden and flaky on the outside and stuffed with all kinds of exotic ingredients. Tracks like “Feels Like Fire,” “It’s All Over You” and “Stay Soft,” the album’s first single, show off Sugar & Gold’s retro, R&B-tinged foundation.

Listen a second or third time and you begin to hear unexpected things. Hidden beneath the tweaky synths and hip shaking rhythm guitar riffs of “Fire” is a heart that beats like Hard-era Gang of Four. The Prince-meets-Gap Band funk and fun of “Sneek Freq,” gives way to the calculated cool and soaring synths of “Over You,” calling to mind vintage Human League or Tonight-era David Bowie. “Soft” – which has been aptly compared to the brainy, dance floor filling synth pop of Hot Chip – somehow manages to conjure up thoughts of Wham! and early New Order at the same time.

And that’s one of the things that makes Sugar & Gold so much fun to listen to and such a hit with live audiences ready to shake their groove things: Like Scissor Sisters, Minnig and his co-conspirator PAINLESS, aka Nicolas Dobbratz, have built the band’s sound using a vocabulary learned from their favorite bands.

Minnig and Dobbratz, who are also the group’s primary songwriters and producers, have spent the past decade working together. But their original sound was a long way from the R&B slink and electro funk of Sugar & Gold.

“We met in middle school and we started kind of a Cramps-inspired punk band,” Minnig told Pollstar. “It was a garage rock, DIY-type thing. We wanted to get more into recording and figuring out how to make the sounds that we wanted to hear. So we started building studios and recording and buying equipment and somehow the band evolved over the years.”

One thing that hasn’t changed a bit is the DIY spirit of Sugar & Gold, which was born of necessity.

“We started as a three piece, with Nicholas and I writing and recording. We worked with drum machines and synths because it was difficult to play with drummers: Nobody wanted to sit there and play the same beat for two hours so that we could get our groove going.

“So we just recruited our neighbors. Jerome Steegmans is on bass and was doing some synthesizer stuff, but on this tour he’s just focusing on bass. Our drummer, Robin MacMillan, is from Brooklyn. We met him when we did our first New York show. It was a CMJ show and we needed a drummer out there, because even though in the beginning we were drum machine only, but we kind of wanted to make the beats come alive a little bit more in a live context. Then we had a couple of girls doing backup vocals, but now were mainly a four piece or a five piece sometimes.”

The official fourth piece of the band is singer Fatima Fleming, but Minnig confessed that S&G recording sessions are often a “whoever’s handy” affair that sometimes includes backing vocals by his girlfriend Heather – who’s a former member of Gravy Train!!!!, a Bay Area electropop quartet along the lines of Le Tigre.

Photo: Wes Rowe
Has anybody seen the cabana boy?

The dual nature of the music on Get Wet, as well as the band’s other releases, is inspired by dance/pop bands that make bright, shiny music with a dark soul.

“You hear it in bands like Bronski Beat, where you’ve got this euphoric poppy dance sound but there’s also a pretty deep seated melancholy under it all.

“That’s what I love about Hot Chip too. They’ve been perceived as a quirky dance band, but on their new record, they’re trying to shed the irony and get over the whole perception that life is just fun and games. Because in the end, everyone’s an individual and life isn’t easy for anybody – no matter what you’re doing.

“It’s funny sometimes how some people look at us and go, ‘Oh, it’s disco. You guys must be snorting cocaine and drinking champagne all day.’”

Minnig said he finds it interesting most people ignore the fact that much of what’s considered classic dance music, like “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and “I Will Survive,” comes from a place of pain.

“Look at ‘S.O.S,’ by Abba,” he said. “That’s some serious hurt. It’s the same with pop though. Someone just asked me in an interview, ‘Is pop a dirty word?’ No! Of course it isn’t.

“It’s sad. They say, ‘Is dance music a dirty word?’ Sometimes we feel that way, only because people kind of act like it’s vain or it’s base and there couldn’t possibly be any depth in dance music beyond happiness or joy. It’s ridiculous.”

As for those bands who sometimes seem to be conducting an experiment in just how much they can test the patience of fans and critics, Minnig thinks they’re copping out.

“I think sometimes artists hide behind the abstraction – the psychedelica and the lots of layers, he explained. “It’s like the new Brian Jonestown Massacre record. I love Brian Jonestown and I’ve known Anton [Newcombe] for years. I really like the guy. I was hoping they were going to make a pop record – just because there’s a lot to be said right now, even by just making a pop record. But instead he made this really far-out, psychedelic record. Which to me doesn’t showcase a lot of personality and that’s the most interesting thing about the band.

“But it’s hard to defend a pop song after it’s been written, because then you have people throwing accusations at you like you’re not deep enough or smart enough to write anything else. Sometimes I think people’s attitude is ‘If I get it, it can’t be art. Because I’m not smart enough.’”

To drive home his point and put a period on our conversation, Minnig related a recent conversation with a friend about a performance by The Mars Volta at Monolith Festival in Denver last year.

“He said to me, ‘I just don’t get it, but that’s good.’ I didn’t even know what to say.”

Here’s the video for “Stay Soft,” the lead single from Sugar & Gold’s Get Wet and a bonus clip of the band’s Tom-Tom-Club-at-the-disco ode to their hometown San Franciso, 2007’s “Neighborhood.”

Sugar & Gold – Stay Soft from Sam Young on Vimeo.