There are precious few pursuits where hard work can actually impede success. Jackie McKeown found out the hard way that rock 'n' roll is one of them. After toiling for years on the Glasgow circuit with his band the Yummy Fur, McKeown had finally resigned himself to a day job. But during his period of adjustment to the 40-hour workweek, he stumbled upon 1990s, and what began as three guys looking for a way to stave off evening boredom soon became a full-fledged band courted by, and subsequently signed to, Rough Trade Records.
"[1990s] were never supposed to be put on a stage, and we were certainly never meant to be signed by a record company," says McKeown, still sounding a bit stunned by the band's success. He's phoning from somewhere just outside New York City, having completed a weeklong stint at CMJ. "At the time [we started], music was just something we were playing to entertain ourselves. We had, you know, lives to lead."
Any dreams of international superstardom had evaporated for McKeown as he watched his former bandmates achieve it themselves as members of Franz Ferdinand. He figured they had stolen his ticket. Both Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos and drummer Paul Thomson had played with McKeown in the Yummy Fur, which put out three albums before its demise in 1999. McKeown remained friends with the two, but he admits that it was a bit odd to be "living in a hole while watching your friends on TV."
Fortunately, any envy or despair McKeown may have felt at the time didn't find its way into his songs. The debut of 1990s, Cookies, is a delirious romp through the British Invasion era, leaning heavily on the Stones and Small Faces, and including enough desperate come-ons to make Marc Bolan blush. Unlike fellow Glaswegians the Fratellis, whose slavish Costello Music culls from similar sources (yet sounds disconcertingly studied), 1990s strike a nice balance between loving tribute and clever reinterpretation. You'd have to go back as far as Supergrass's I Should Coco to find a debut album from the U.K. that manages to be as reverent without sounding either dated or stiff. Lithe singles like "You Made Me Like It" and "See You at the Lights" waste no time finding their grooves, and possess a sticky sweetness that helps them linger long past their three-minute running times.
Not that it should come as much of a surprise, but McKeown hints that as fun as it is to listen to, Cookies may have been even more fun to make. The album was completed in five very leisurely weeks with producer Bernard Butler (ex-Suede) providing an occasional and gentle prod as needed. Discipline was hardly necessary.
"We knew we weren't making OK Computer," says McKeown. "All of us had [already] been in bands that tried to do something ambitious and hadn't quite fully achieved it, so we tried to take the simplest thing we could think of and do it well. The goal," he says quite matter-of-factly, "was to make something you'd want to listen to again and again."
With only one album's worth of material to draw upon for their live shows, 1990s don't have the luxury of burnout. Good news, then, that McKeown's hard-partying tunes have yet to let the band down. The back cover of the album captures the band in typical mid-song euphoria, McKeown's face obscured by a giant shock of hair and drummer Michael McGaughrin ready to punctuate, both sticks raised high overhead. "Someone sent us that photo and we absolutely loved it," says McKeown. "We thought it really caught us in the moment."
So it's pure coincidence, then, that the photo just happens to have been snapped by Scarlett Page, daughter of one rock guitar god named Jimmy Page?
He laughs. "We had no idea until we sought her out to credit her."
Something that perfect, as McKeown well knows, you just can't plan.
1990s perform WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 7, at the 400 BAR; 612.332.2903