I remember hearing about this new local band in the early 90s called Smile. Turns out they weren’t from San Diego but rather a little over an hour north of us in Costa Mesa. Geographically there is a huge gap between Orange County/LA and San Diego due Camp Pendleton’s vast marine base along the coastline. In general this dividing line really keeps San Diego isolated from the cities to the north and vice versa. Smile trekked down to play the Casbah so many times that they were often mistaken for a “local band”. Good news for us, as we got to see them play again and again.
Smile’s first album was a noisy and heavy grunge feast. The band was tight and they played skillfully and with boundless energy. Seeing them play was mind-blowing, partly due to the slight demeanor of singer/guitarist Michael Rosas. They all were really young but had the musicianship from clearing both talent and hundreds of hours in the practice room. After a stint on Atlantic Records they started making a name outside of Southern California. Then they recorded their masterpiece: Girl Crushes Boy. Using producer Mark Trombino (Drive Like Jehu, Jimmy Eat World, Blink 182) they recorded an amazing collection of creative and well-written songs. The band’s material had really developed and they were playing better than ever. It was a little more 60’s garage influenced, using campy keyboard sounds and clever lyrics. scott Reeder’s drums continued to pound out a free-wheeling style a la Keith Moon / John Bonham. There was a clever sense of humor coupled with powerful, creative bombastic songwriting. Then nothing happened. And then they kept touring and working and… nothing happened. I’m not sure why that is. So Smile remained mostly unknown yet they had put out an amazing sophomore album. Eventually some members changed and the band broke up. Michael formed the great band Satisfaction and Scott found success playing with stoner rockers Fu Manchu. I had the pleasure to catch them recently on a reunion performance and it was great to hear these songs again. The reason for wiring about Smile is simply, they are great and maybe you missed them when you had the chance. If you haven’t heard Smile, check them out.
I felt it would be good to get the band’s perspective so I contacted Mr. Michael Rosas and caught up with him a bit.
MF: I was curious about the amount that Smile played down in San Diego. I can think back to so many shows at the Casbah in the 90s. I think some people didn’t even know that you weren’t a “local” band. Since you guys were located in Costa Mesa, was there something about San Diego that drew you more than driving the same distance up to LA? It seems like LA would have had more opportunities to play and promote the band.
MR: When Smile started, we were based out of the Tustin/Orange area in Orange County and we were doing a residency at the Doll Hut in Anaheim. From our perspective, there wasn’t a lot happening in Los Angeles. Orange County and San Diego seemed to have exciting indie music scenes at the time and we were hoping to get plugged into that. We became acquainted with Chris Fahey who was putting on most of the cool indie rock shows in Orange County. He was bringing all of the great San Diego bands to a Costa Mesa venue called Our House and he introduced us to fluf, Uncle Joe’s Big Ol Driver, Heavy Vegetable, etc. O from fluf was a huge supporter of Smile, early on. We had just released our first 7” and O took it to Headhunter Records and basically told them to sign us for an album deal and they did. From there, it was just natural that we would play San Diego often since our label was based there and most of the bands we were friends with were there. We were very well received by the San Diego music scene so we focused a lot of attention on playing there. San Diego seemed to have the best indie music scene anywhere at that time and Tim Mays was kind enough to book us at the Casbah regularly.
MF: Were you all friends growing up or did you find each other through the music scene in your area?
MR: Aaron Sonnenberg and I met in high school. We played in a hardcore band called Headfirst for a few years and became great friends. He was the only bass player that I really knew and it was natural that I’d want to play with him when it was time to start a new band after high school. Our musical interests were totally aligned at that time. Smile started with Headfirst drummer Kevin Murphy who was also playing guitar with Farside and 411. Shortly after Kevin moved on, Aaron and I met Scott Reeder by placing a ‘Drummer Wanted” ad in the Recycler. I wish I had a copy of that ad.
MF: Although I really loved the debut LP Maquee, Girl Crushes Boy is my favorite. The song writing seemed to develop far beyond the first record. There were more complexities and the songs had a wider variety though out the album. Was there something that inspired the shift in the band’s sound?
MR: The songs and sound of Maquee came together very quickly without a whole lot of thought. Our individual influences were very different but we connected with a basic formula – we wanted to rock hard and weird like the Melvins, have cool songs with as much personality as a band like Descendents and we hoped to have the depth and prowess of classic bands like Pink Floyd.
We wrote, rehearsed and played shows like crazy. When it was time to make an album, we just picked the best material we had at the time. That was Maquee. The next wave of music that led to Girl Crushes Boy came from a much broader set of influences and experiences. We had been on a few national tours by then, been exposed to all sorts of great artists that we admired, and were probably a little eager to leave Maquee in the dust and prove to ourselves that we could do more. Between Maquee and Girl Crushes Boy, my songwriting had evolved quite a bit. I was writing less and less to riffs and more to melodies and chord progressions. I’m not sure what the other guys were thinking at that time but I know that I was really trying to push the band into a more progressive, indie, pop direction. I was listening to a lot of Sebadoh, PJ Harvey, Sonic Youth, Nirvana “In Utero”, Unwound as well as a lot of 60s British and French pop music. On Maquee, I was trying to sing like John Reis and Kurt Cobain. For Girl Crushes Boy, it was Lou Barlow and Brian Wilson. I’ll add that Aaron became a big fan of Ween during the Girl Crushes Boy era. Scott has always been a huge Depeche Mode and U2 fan and his drumming was always heavily influenced by Alex Van Halen and John Bonham.
Songs like “Too Many Reasons” and “You Cast a Crazy Spell on Me” were heavily influenced by early B-52s, The Sonics and current garage bands like Thee Headcoats and The Mummies. The sound of songs like “Peach and Brown” and “Sputnik” were a result of loving San Diego bands like Heavy Vegetable and Drive Like Jehu – “Sputnik” was my attempt at writing a Heavy Vegetable song. Same with the second half of “The Scientologist’s Love Affair”. Our EP called Masterlocks was a collection of outtakes from the Girl Crushes Boy sessions… those songs are very un-Maquee like. We were just running with whatever good ideas we had and we weren’t curating the sound to fit into a particular style.
MF: When listening to Maquee there are some serious blistering guitar licks happening. Did you grow up learning tons of guitar technique? In lessons perhaps?
MR: I took guitar lessons as a kid but it was only to learn the basics. I got my start in bands by playing heavy metal guitar style which has a heavy focus on technique. By the time I was playing with Smile and working on Maquee, I was less into the metal style and more focused on songwriting and singing. Licks and solos weren’t my thing then but I still wanted to make the guitar interesting. I put a good amount of effort into building a really blistering, fuzzed out guitar sound so that even the simplest playing sounded interesting. For Maquee, I wanted my guitar to sound like the amp was on fire and about to explode. I think it does sound like that.
I don’t think that having a solid foundation in technique is essential in making great music but it can definitely make it easier to realize whatever musical you have going on in your head – getting to the end result might take less time or be less frustrating. Great musical ideas are often a complete accident or happen as a result of complete musical naiveté. Having some amount of formal musical training or technique can make it so that you don’t always have to rely on those happy accidents, I guess. For some artists, technique can just get in the way of good art. Most of my favorite artists seem to strike good balance between both approaches. I can tell that they have a certain amount of musical prowess but, as a listener, I am not directly confronted by it. It’s transparent.
MF: Choosing Mark Trombino to produce your music was another link to the San Diego music scene. How did you know about him and what made you seek him out to work on your record?
MR: Mark was the drummer in one of our favorite bands, Drive Like Jehu, and he had produced great sounding records for Heavy Vegetable and Jehu. Scott loved the drum sounds that Mark was getting out of that room at Big Fish in San Diego and we liked his overall approach – a very real and dynamic sound. We were originally scheduled to record Girl Crushes Boy with Steve Albini in Chicago but we had to cancel shortly before starting the album when Scott broke is foot on a snowboarding trip. Steve wasn’t going to be available again for a while so we had to make other plans. It’s not that Mark was our “second choice” – we hadn’t even considered the possibility of working with him until we were looking for a new producer/engineer. After chatting with him and talking it over as a band, we realized that he was the perfect fit. I always wanted to work with Steve but I am really glad things worked out the way they did. Mark Trombino was a huge part of why that album is what it is. I think it was meant to be.
MF: After Scott Reeder left the band you guys continued on with a replacement. Can you describe that period and how it led to Satisfaction.
MR: By the time Scott left the band, Aaron had already left and was replaced by Bob Thomson who played in Big Drill Car. Matt Fletcher had also joined the band on keys to cover the organ and synth parts from Girl Crushes Boy. Scott left Smile on good terms and he suggested that we ask Matt’s brother, James Fletcher, to step in. James was a natural choice since we were already good friends and he was the best drummer around town. He had a completely different style of drumming compared to Scott but he was a perfect fit for the direction that Smile was headed and his joining the band opened the door to tons of new musical possibilities. Supporting Girl Crushes Boy with the new line up, we started to build a lot of momentum and a bigger fan base than we ever had in the past. However, after a while, our musical direction started to evolve so much that it started to feel like a completely different band. It all seemed natural at the time but, looking back, I realize how different we were compared to what Aaron, Scott and I had started and I think we probably should have started a new band when the lineup changed. I was so attached to Smile’s songs, though, that I didn’t want to let it go. After a few years of playing shows and writing new material with that line up, it was obvious that It was time to leave the Smile material behind and give this new sound an identity of its own. We started Satisfaction about a year after Smile played our last show.
MF: I was reading that you produced the Satisfaction records. Is that correct? They sound amazing!
MR: Thanks man. I was making a living as a producer/engineer then so it seemed natural to take on the recording duties for Satisfaction. Plus, I was able to get us into studios on the cheap. It kept costs down.
MF: What led you to recording? Was it out of necessity or purely interest?
MR: Recording was my second passion next to being a songwriting musician. I’ve always been one of those musicians who is also drawn to the technical aspects of recording. My dad bought me a Fostex 4-track recorder when they came out and I was always making little songs on that thing as a kid. Later, I was the guy in the band with the 4-track who could record little demos to see what we sounded like. At some point, I ditched the 4-track for a cassette 8-track. The first Smile 7” was recorded on that. Then, I got a reel-to-reel 8 track and a mixer. At some point, I decided to stop buying my own recording gear and, instead, start working in real studios. I didn’t do that many projects before eventually hanging it up but in a few years I recorded tons of demos for bands and records for Fu Manchu, Sherwood, We Shot The Moon and mixed a David Cross album for Sub Pop.
MF: It seemed that your performances in San Diego are few and far between these days, although the recent Smile reunions were a blast! Do you tour at all currently?
MR: Satisfaction quietly called it quits a while back after a few years and Matt, James and I took some time off to figure out what we wanted to do. We started a new band called Flying Sparks which was sort of a continuation of Satisfaction. We did that for about a year until I decided to just be Michael Rosas. That’s where I am now. It’s a very recent thing. I am just releasing my first EP and working on my plan for playing live and touring in the coming year. I am really excited about it because I have a shit ton of songs in my backlog that I am excited to get out there.
MF: How has your your focus changed over the years regarding performing and putting out music?
MR: It hasn’t changed much at all, really. If anything, I am much more confident as a performer and musician now. Other than that, I’m still just a huge music nerd who aspires to be like the artists that inspire me. I still get as excited and giddy over a cool new song idea as I did when Smile was hashing out our first set of songs. If anything, I am just more focused on getting more music finished and released on a regular basis.
MF: I know, for me personally, dealing with grown-up life stuff poses some incredible hurdles in finding time to make music. Have you encountered situations where you have to sacrifice in order to continue making music?
MR: Not really. When Smile was signed to Atlantic Records, we were on salary with ourselves as full time musicians so we were able to treat our musical career as a day job. We went into the rehearsal studio 4-5 days a week to write and practice. That kind of situation is rare for most musicians, I think. Since then, it’s been easy to work music into the rest of my life. Music, for me, isn’t a choice. I have to do it. I can’t stop. I have no idea what life would be like without it. I suppose it’s possible that I have made big sacrifices in life for music that I am unaware of. I don’t dwell on that possibility though.
MF: What things are you up to now? and are you planning on doing more shows with Smile?
MR: As of this year, I am working on music as Michael Rosas. I’ve been playing a lot of shows in the OC and LA area and I just released an EP. Right now, I’m getting a band together for live shows and touring and I’m very excited about it. As far as Smile goes, Aaron and I have been meeting regularly to get things organized and to figure out the best ways to make sure that all things Smile are out there and available to anyone who is interested. We’ve chatted about more shows but we don’t have any definite plans right now.
Check out Mike’s latest music here: www.michaelrosas.com