Dragons, crimson idols, omniscient elders, futuristic worlds run by robotic overlords ... that’s what concept albums, those thematic slabs of stoner-fodder issued by progressive rockers and metalheads whose fans possess ass-high stacks of Heavy Metal back-issues and have jeweled daggers in their waistbands, are made of. So why did a pop-rock group like The Uninvited (guitarist-vocalist brothers Steve and John “JT” Taylor, bassist Ladd Story and drummer Alex Fuller) make such a record? And what mythical entity is at the center of Malltopia?
Well, in that bastion of commerce and corndogs called the mall, there can be any number of metaphorical dragons. However, more than a dwarf-populated fantasyland, Malltopia is a pop Tommy with a food court; a story of a man reflecting on his life in an effort to divine a defining moment. It’s humorous, poignant and applicable to anyone—a concept album done the Uninvited way.
“I hate using the word ‘concept album,’” laughs JT, “because you have all these nightmare visions of Queensryche and Alan Parsons Project and shit like that. We’re sorta thinkin’ it’s more like a theme album. Yeah...”
Call it what you want, it’s simply another collection of cheeky-sweet tunes from the San Francisco-based band, their sixth since forming in Culver City, California in 1988. They kicked around the same hair-band-saturated Los Angeles as Poison and Warrant, their mongrel party-rock—in which they might blend ska or bluegrass or punk—getting attention but confusing record executives. Says JT, “Literally, we’d have A&R guys coming up to us after shows and saying, “God, I love your band! I have nooo fucking clue what you’re doing, but it sure is good!”
That diversity made a record deal elusive and, after four years, The Uninvited became one of the first L.A. pop-rock bands to go the independent route and release their own music(a method almost exclusive to punk bands at the time. The band would release three albums, Pop This (’92), Too High (’94) and Artificial Hip (’96), and tour for each. Soon Igloo, a boutique label under Atlantic Records, got wind of a single from Artificial Hip, “Too High For the Supermarket,” that was getting spins on several West Coast stations. Igloo/Atlantic signed The Uninvited and a self-titled compilation of songs from the band’s first three releases was issued in 1998. They were dropped a year later.
“It was educational,” explains JT. “Would I have liked to have gotten extremely rich and have a hit record? Yeah, that would have been much better. But we knew the odds going in, and we took them anyway. It was our best shot at having a career in music.”
He sighs, hesitates, then continues: “The ugly part of the experience was there was no real champion of the project on our side, nobody stepping up to the plate. We got lost in the shuffle. I fault the music industry for that. But that’s the reality.”
So it was back to day jobs and the DIY approach. To capitalize on the exposure the Atlantic year provided, as well as maintain momentum and morale, The Uninvited hit the studio immediately, issuing the cathartic and inspired It’s All Good (Salt Lakers might recognize Liquid Joe’s own Charlie Newman on the cover) in 1999. “It was a do-or-die kinda project,” reveals JT. “We knew if we took time off, the band could have easily disintegrated.”
That’s almost what transpired. After It’s All Good, original bassist Bill Cory split, replaced by Story. Drummer Bruce Logan soon followed suit; Cowboy Mouth’s Eddie Ecker filling in until Fuller signed on. JT and Steve almost pulled the plug. Almost. “This is a labor of love. We can’t stop. We don’t know how. It’s like breathing. It’s never been about the fame and the chicks and the blow—it’s about making a living doing what we love. So, onward we go.”
And so comes another exercise in recovery: Malltopia, where you don’t know how it feels to be “15;” where a “Food Court Rock Star” sticks it to Papa Roach while “Bethany the Hot Chick Who Works Behind the Counter at The Gap” promises fat guys they’ll get some in those jeans. Where alcoholics are good Catholics on Sunday and Mr. Brown dorks Mrs. Green in “Suburbia.” And where a 35-year-old man looks back to find where he went wrong, if at all (“The Ghost of Sigmund Freud”). It’s a concept somewhat parallel to the life of a musician and the career of a band, only the dragons are personal demons which, at the end of the day, are easier to live with—even if they haven’t been slain.
“Everything you do in the past has an effect on where you are in the present,” says JT. “In the last song, our protagonist is basically saying ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t know if I’d have changed something back then ... if it would have made any difference. But when I play it out in my mind ... yeah, it changes everything. So, it’s left with that question.”