THE THRILLS with Patrick Park at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Friday (January 9). $15.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
their tunes may make them seem like the sort of wide-eyed optimists the music industry loves to gobble up, spit out and leave in a pool of commercial drool and broken dreams. But Irish indie pop upstarts the Thrills are far more savvy than you'd think. Sure, they're five camera-friendly mid-20s lads from Dublin who've known each other since high school. On the surface, the unabashedly sweet, sunshiny tunes on their So Much For The City (Virgin) debut, packed with stories about a fantasyland California, sound like the romantic fancies of American-dream-chasing fools.
But listen closer and you'll realize that beneath the shiny la-la land façade of tunes like Hollywood Kids (think a cross between Brian Wilson, Neil Young and Dusty Springfield circa Dusty In Memphis) lurks a band of strikingly hard-headed cynics. They take the piss out of the superficial starfucking mentality their songs seem to celebrate.
That bittersweet edge, offers cofounder and guitarist Daniel Ryan, on the line from his Dublin home, is the result of seeing the real deal during two extended sojourns on the West Coast. Yes, the Thrills really did pack up to follow their American pop music dreams - and ended up working shit jobs.
"It's so funny and sad how these people in California, and especially Los Angeles, live their lives," sighs Ryan.
"They all chase after the same thing. It's like the secret track on the album, Plans, which reminded us of Bacharach's Do You Know The Way To San José: 'And all the stars who never were are parking cars and pumping gas.' We loved meeting people, but ultimately we were laughing at them."
While the British press took a while to pick up on the Thrills' ironic edge, it hasn't done much to hurt their popularity on the other side of the pond.
According to Ryan, one in every six Irish households owns a Thrills record. They don't get followed down Dublin streets, since exhaustive international tours have minimized the face-recognition factor. The boys were, however, accosted by overzealous paparazzi outside L.A.'s Sunset Marquee - but only cuz the hipster-hungry photographers mistook Ryan and his bandmates Conor Deasy, Padraic McMahon, Kevin Horan and Ben Carrigan for similarly shaggy-haired Aussie rockers the Vines.
Chances are that press hounds will start trailing the Thrills on their own merits pretty soon. Sold-out shows during their first North American tour last fall had fans comparing them to the pre-stardom Strokes, and So Much For The City landed at number two on a New York Times critic's best-of-2003 list.
But Ryan and his pals are all too aware of the fickle nature of fame. Take, for example, one of their new tunes, a northern-soul-tinged number called Whatever Happened To Corey Haim?
"The title came about quite a long time ago in the Sunday Times's Whatever Happened To... column," he chuckles. "We thought it was so funny that Haim went from being in Lost Boys to being a drug addict and sort of an all-round loser, and now he does anything he can get his hands on: ads, opening shopping centres."
That won't happen to the Thrills, since they're such charming, level-headed boys. They're so charming, in fact, that they pissed off notorious muckraking rag NME. Frustrated by the Thrills' clean-cut exterior (Ryan is faithful to his girlfriend back home and doesn't drink or smoke), the magazine took the band to Amsterdam and tried to get 'em fucked up.
"If it were three or four years ago, I might care about it, but now it's pathetic," says Ryan. "Over here there's a magazine called Smash Hits, which is kind of a teenybopper Britney Spears-type thing, and NME is like a version of that for alternative music. One of NME's writers didn't even know who Simon and Garfunkel were!
"There are a million ways to take a shot at a band. If you want to take down U2, there's Bono's preaching and his save-the-world attitude, and if you want to have a go at us you talk about the sunshine band who only sings about California.
"We're up for criticism - every band should be criticized. But you should be more intelligent about it."