From the time they formed The Tripwires in 2006, the term "supergroup" has followed Mark Pickerel, John Ramberg and brothers Jim and Johnny Sangster across nearly every column inch of space devoted to them. Among fans of powerpop--especially those in Washington, Oregon and Idaho--the names Pickerel, Ramberg and Sangster evoke a sense of both familiarity and awe.
"People think, 'I know all four of these names,'" Ramberg said. "So it's sort of a math that happens with people writing about us."
That recognition is definitely part of the attraction of the band to Spark & Shine. The label's strategic coordinator, Barbara Mitchell said, "It's hard to start a label from scratch, so having a band with the recognition and integrity of The Tripwires helps immensely."
But that's not all they have to offer. "They're respected and admired and, most of all, really well liked," Mitchell said. "They're a great part of the fabric that is the Seattle music scene."
And with supergroup being used to describe bands like Them Crooked Vultures, which includes Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme, Nirvana/Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, The Tripwires might best be served by the term "junior supergroup."
"I'd like to encourage that," Ramberg said. "I don't know if the other guys will like it so much, but can we launch that?" Ramberg asked.
So, along with being a junior supergroup, they are also a part of Seattle's "powerpop" scene. Ramberg, who serves both vocal and guitar duties, doesn't mind that designation. He likes and listens to that kind of music and he's an especially big fan of jangly electric 12-string guitar. And that label puts The Tripwires in very good company.
"I don't mind it because I usually like the things that fall under that umbrella," he said. "It varies from The Beatles to the Fountains of Wayne ... The Knack was a classic powerpop band."
That's quite a stretch across the musical timeline, but considering that powerpop is often categorized as such because of high-energy harmonies, catchy hooks and major keys--"There aren't any minor-key dirges in power-pop," Ramberg said--it's a broad enough classification to incorporate a myriad of music, a bounty of bands.
The Tripwires may not look like a classic power-pop group--no skinny ties, mod suits or Rickenbacker guitars slung across their frames--but they do gravitate to a guitar-driven, harmonic sound. In House to House, the power in The Tripwires' pop emanates not only from their sound, but from the production value as well.
Having well-known producer Johnny Sangster at the helm of any album all but guarantees an imminently listenable and ultimately sing-alongable product--a single listen of House to House is nowhere near enough. Johnny has served as musician, engineer and/or producer for the likes of The Posies, The Supersuckers, Mudhoney and more, and Ramberg worried about Johnny playing, engineering and producing House to House--not because the vision for the final product would become myopic but because he had so much on his plate.
"There were moments when we were recording that I realized he was working really hard," Ramberg said. "I like bands that have as equal a distribution of labor as possible ... When he was mixing, I kept checking on him, asking if he was OK," Ramberg said.
Watching Johnny work on the album gave Ramberg first-hand knowledge of the producer's detail-oriented nature. And Johnny seemed to be having as much fun fine-tuning the album as he did playing the songs. And that's what matters most to Ramberg. Making good music is important, but it's second nature to musicians of the quartet's caliber and history. They're all getting older and have been around long enough that if it stops being fun, they don't want to do it any more. That attitude combined with the four members' innate musical talents reads loud and clear on House to House and that fun factor will play a large part in the album becoming a standout among other similar releases. House to House is as entertaining to listen to as powerpop has ever been, even from its earliest incarnations.
While Pickerel, Ramberg and the Sangsters may not dress like their early counterparts, sonically, House to House hearkens back to a time when British new wave was taking over the airwaves. From the first festive notes of "Drawing a Blank," to "Ned Beatty's in Love," to "S. Charleston Blow-By," House to House is a callback to vintage late '70s/early '80s Squeeze. "We've heard that a lot. It's nice to hear because we all love Squeeze," he said.
And while a fan of either--or both--would certainly be able to tell which song belonged to which band, a mix tape comprised of alternating Squeeze and Tripwires songs would not only be a fantastic listen, the transitions between the songs would also be smooth. Ramberg wasn't surprised to hear the Squeeze comparison.
"I'd always had their Greatest Hits," he said. "But about two years ago a friend gave me a bootleg of a live [Squeeze] performance from like 1978. It was then that I realized what an amazing band they were, and I went out and bought everything they did. I spent a lot of time absorbing their music."
With House to House as their sophomore effort, that's exactly the kind of thing someone may be saying about The Tripwires 10 or 20 years from now.
Saturday, Jan. 16, 4 p.m., FREE, Record Exchange; 8 p.m., with The Universal, $5, Neurolux. For more information, visit thetripwires.com.