Dumb Ambition

Scarves, hairspray, and power chords: The Wannabe Hasbeens reveal their formula for rock success

Scarves, hairspray, and power chords: The Wannabe Hasbeens reveal their formula for rock success

The Wannabe Hasbeens
Former Trans Future, Vol. 1

"I thought we were gonna have to slug it out forever," admits frontman Chris Heille as he considers the unexpected successes enjoyed by the Wannabe Hasbeens over the past year and a half. As I sit at a table in the Uptown Bar watching bassist Derek Ritchison, drummer Gary Spencer, and guitarist no-last-name-offered Mo throw back energy drinks and soda pop, they catalog their misadventures: their recording studio—a laptop computer—was run over by a car, a band member quit the group, and another became unemployed after permanently leaving work on a coffee break. But packing their calendar with local performances has resulted in some satisfying recognitions—the Wannabes booked a slot at the Basilica Block Party, and took first place in the Drive 105 Battle of the Bands.

They market their brand of slick, professional power pop with the tag line "dumb rock for smart people." Their new record, Former Trans Future, Vol. 1, is glossy and bombastic—rich with distortion, double-tracked vocals, and angst-rock lyrical pathos.

Spencer says finding a consistent sound was initially a challenge. "We thought, 'None of these songs go together.' We were practicing three or four times a week, three hours at a time...and it started to come together," he says. Their relentless tour schedule helped too.

"For the most part, we played these songs live first, and the sound live determined the record," says Heille.

"I don't know how it happened," offers Ritchison, "but we do everything backwards."

Heille recalls working a song to death: "We were trying to be hip, and have a European kind of deal. It wasn't working," he says. "You wonder if you should zig when everybody else's tastes are zagging, but this is true to our tastes right now."

Yet studio sheen doesn't do the band many favors. "Gimme Substance" starts with grit and a subtle, churning electric guitar, but quickly bursts into vague, unmemorable rock. "Clean," the record's obligatory ballad, lacks the melodic punch of the other songs, an absence made conspicuous by the track's sparse production. The EP's highlight is "Hey George Bailey," which succeeds because of its catchy melody, driving tempo, and Weezer-like arrangement.

If nothing else, Former Trans Future proves that Heille, the band's producer and a soundboard veteran, knows his way around a studio. He also hopes the record showcases his writing. "Hopefully, lyrically, there's more to chew on," he explained. "The lyrics come from experience, when something strikes me. They're cathartic or therapeutic, in some minor way." Heille cops to a love of records produced by studio veteran Mutt Lange, who's helmed projects by AC/DC, Def Leppard, and Bryan Adams.

"I like choruses with a big payoff," he shrugged. "It's a guilty pleasure. I think it's in my genes."

Aside from the new record's release show, the band is on a temporary gig break. "We've overplayed the city," concludes Ritchison. Adds Spencer, "For the first time ever, we're practicing restraint." Let's hope that restraint is short-lived, if only for the band's smart fans. That dumb rock won't play itself.