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Primitive Radio Gods Biography

Last updated: 05/20/2011 12:00:00 PM

Chris O'Connor, driving force behind the Primitive Radio Gods, took an unlikely path to a major label recording contract. When his first band, the I-Rails, broke up in frustration at the vagaries of the music industry in 1991 after four indie releases, O'Connor opted to finish their partially completed fifth record on his own. A few years later he shopped the end product -- a curious, catchy combination of old-fashioned rock 'n roll, samples and hip-hop production values he called Rocket -- around to various labels to no response. Frustrated himself, O'Connor gave up on music and became an air traffic controller.

The turning point came a year later when he came across an unopened box of the Rocket CD in a closet while preparing to move. O'Connor decided to make a last ditch attempt to sell the record, and blindly sent out a number of copies. This time, it came to the attention of an executive at Columbia Records UK, who signed the band without even meeting O'Connor -- not bad considering the meager investment ($1000) that went into the production of the record. Faced with a recording contract and no band, he quickly hired bassist Jeff Sparks and drummer Tim Lauterio, his old cronies from the I-Rails, along with newcomer guitarist Luke McAuliffe, and the Primitive Radio Gods were born.

Sony released Rocket in 1996 and the album went on to great success, with the single "Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand" (which features the unlikely sample of B.B. King doing the Leonard Feather chestnut, "How Blue Can You Get") scoring high on the charts.David Kunoneer - Rolling Stone

Primitive Radio Gods is essentially the creative vehicle of Chris O'Connor (b. USA), following his departure from the I-Rails in 1991. At that time, inspired by Public Enemy's incendiary hip-hop work, he purchased a sampler and elected to "go it alone" as an artist working outside conventional rock music. However, he was temporarily frustrated in his ambitions, and instead took a job at Los Angeles International Airport as an air traffic controller, a profession for which he had trained while in the US Navy. Eventually he resolved to make one more attempt on the music industry. His debut album, Rocket, was finally released in 1996 by Sony Records UK, after he had mailed copies to almost all the major labels in the USA. It was promoted by the release of a single, "Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand", which achieved regular plays on MTV. The single featured a sample of B.B. King "s 'How Blue Can You Get" and was also included on the soundtrack to the movie Cable Guy. For touring purposes O'Connor recalled his former I-Rails bandmates - Jeff Sparks, Tim Lauterio and Luke McAuliffe - to produce a live version of the Primitive Radio Gods. Contractual problems delayed the release of a second album for over five years...VH-1

The Primitive Radio Gods' smashing chart debut Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand was an unforgettable radio mainstay and MTV favorite during the summer of 1996. It quickly defined the band as another alterna-rock innovator integrating catchy hooks and a hip-hop/new wave mix. The debut album Rocket went gold, and earned the band top spots across the album and singles charts as well. Not too bad for frontman Chris O'Connor. This was a rock & roll fantasy come true for this air traffic controller, whose side gig, the I-Rails, had been struggling for ten years prior. However, the hype surrounding the PRG quickly faded. Music industry politics played into the scheme and before the new millennium dawned, and the band's sophomore effort was scrapped and the band was dropped from Columbia. Another quickie deal from Hi-Fi/Sire Records came to the rescue, but that too failed when contractual differences and a shift in bandmates created more chaos for the PRG. A whirlwind time, more than three years since their debut, and the band played on. In early 2000, PRG resurfaced with a complete roster including Chris O'Connor, Tim Lauterio, and Luke McAuliffe. A deal with What Are Records? marked the second coming of this stereotyped one-hit wonder, and the long awaited follow-up, White Hot Peach, was issued in early 2001. MacKenzie Wilson

One minute he's getting a gold record for sales of more than 500,000 copies for his first album, and the next he's reduced to delivering flowers for a living. Nothing, it seems, ever comes easy for Primitive Radio Gods singer-songwriter Chris O'Connor. Four years ago, O'Connor was one of rock 'n' roll's once-in-a-blue-moon success stories, a former member of the 1980s indie rock group I-Rails who became an air traffic controller in Los Angeles and got so burned out in that high-pressure profession that he dug out an old demo from his closet and shipped copies to every major label under the sun. Much to O'Connor's surprise, an executive at Columbia U.K. signed his one-man show known as Primitive Radio Gods. O'Connor's "Rocket" album, five years in the making, was launched in June 1996, just as the single, "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand," was climbing to the top of Billboard's modern rock tracks chart. The song, cleverly incorporating a sample of B.B. King's "How Blue Can You Get," also appeared on "The Cable Guy" film soundtrack.

Though "Standing" was never released as a commercial single, there was enough radio airplay to fuel "Rocket" to gold status. O'Connor even added former I-Rails band mates, Tim Lauterio (drums) and Jeff Sparks (bass), and guitarist Luke McAuliffe to the group and toured North America.
Then, as quick as you can say "one-hit wonder," O'Connor's rags-to-riches story turned into a same-as-it-ever-was struggle.

"It was bad from the very, very beginning, coming over to Columbia U.S., because we were originally signed to Columbia London," O'Connor said recently. "There was a lot of pressure to get songs into movies, and I kept saying no. Finally, we did do that one movie ('The Cable Guy'). I also wanted to be able to do my own stuff. That's what causes a lot of tension with any major label; you're wanting to do it yourself. But they have a plan for you; whatever's happening on the chart at the time, they try to push you in that direction and they want you to look a certain way and write a certain song to fit into a format.

"Then there was the whole thing about when we went to renegotiate, they offered us like nothing after they had already made millions of dollars and got the record for nothing. It was bad blood from the beginning."
By early 1997, just as Primitive Radio Gods began work on a follow-up album, Columbia dropped them. "That's why it was such a shock," O'Connor said. "It was like, 'It's fine if we fail, if we make a second record and there's no hits and nobody likes it,' but don't we even get a chance to fail?" Jonathan Daniel signed the band to Hi-Fi/Sire and everything, it seemed, was back on course.

"Finally, it was going to come out, we had a release date and everything," O'Connor said, "but then at the last minute Sire - our new parent label - got bought by London, and Sire was gutted. We got stuck in this limbo, where London didn't release it, yet they didn't want to let us go, so we were back in this kind of purgatory for a year. It seems to be part of our destiny to have to go through a bunch of shit before we have to get something out." As they waited for another opportunity, the four took on day jobs. O'Connor, who had lived off the money he made from "Rocket" as long as he could, delivered flowers for a year.

Again, Daniel came to their rescue. He built his fledgling Kramden Enterprises around the group and enlisted Boulder, Colo.-based What Are Records? to distribute and market the group's long-overdue album, "White Hot Peach."

The album, an unexpected blast of brilliant, experimental power-pop, was made available last month on the Web sites Napster, Scour Exchange, stationMP3, Angrycoffee and Emusic and released in retail stores via W.A.R.? "It took five years for the first record to come out, and now four years later here we are again," a relieved O'Connor said. "Whether it's the greatest record in the world, who knows, but it's as good as most stuff out there. It's a good record, and it definitely deserves to get out. This second one is a much better album, if for no other reason because we've had so long to work on it. 'Rocket' was just kind of tossed out, something I would throw out on the weekends when I got time off from work. Never before in our little musical journey making records had we worked harder and longer on songs. We had a lot of material to choose from; we had like 20 or 30 mixes of just one song. So obviously that's going to make a better record, the more songs you have and the more you get to work on them.

"The making of this other one was done for the first couple of years where we were full-time musicians; we had the money and we were doing nothing but writing and recording. I bought some recording equipment and started getting into the recording aspect of it."

"Rocket" was hard-edged, drawing upon O'Connor's rock and rap influences. "White Hot Peach" takes a page out of the Beach Boys-meets-XTC textbook, from the lilting "Ghost of a Chance" to the spacious and crystalline "Motor of Joy" and "Whatever Makes McCool."

"On 'Rocket,' there's a heavier, more of a rock and rap influence, since I had been listening to Public Enemy," O'Connor said. "Then I got burned out on that and really got into the Red House Painters and 'Loveless' by My Bloody Valentine and Guided By Voices. I got onto a different track, and of course, being in Southern California, there was a vibe there of the sunsets and the coast, playing slower and laid-back.

"The first album was made in '91 and it didn't come out till '96. By 'White Hot Peach,' I was already listening to all kinds of different stuff and having different influences. We were changing and getting older. This new one is a little more current, because the last recordings were done in '98. They're all pop records, more or less, because they do have an ear to the ground." "White Hot Peach" also debunks the notion that O'Connor is another Prince, doing it all himself. He co-wrote most of the songs with Sparks, and Lauterio and McAuliffe also contributed lyrically.

"The perception was that it was just me, and it was at the time that the first record came out," O'Connor said, "but we formed a partnership. It's a band in the fullest extent; the money gets split. If you look at the credits, Jeff sang as many or more songs than me. It's definitely a band effort."

By making "White Hot Peach" available for fans to freely download, O'Connor hopes more people will be exposed to the music and want to buy the album. It's a gamble they're willing to take, he says.

"We obviously don't have the big machine this time, but we're pumping it into radio," he said. "It's a lot smaller, more of a grass-roots type of thing, but we're getting some airplay and we're working on a video for the second single. It's a lot of stuff done by Luke, 8mm footage made back when he was a teenager. We're having a friend of ours piece that together. Just the fact that we're on radio at all is pretty cool at this point, but we've basically had to start over.

"After this much time, you can't really rely on people remembering your name or what happened back in '96. Ultimately, this record could be just as successful, if not more, than the other one just because it's better. It's stronger in terms of songwriting, but it'll take more time to work it."

The four are already working on their third album. O'Connor crosses his fingers, hoping it doesn't take another four years (and more anguish) to release it.

Success can come with the toss of dice, the luck of the lottery draw or a sudden Wall Street windfall. For some, good fortune comes knocking at the door, with Ed McMahon and Dick Clark standing at the doorstep.

Chris O'Connor found his while cleaning out a bedroom closet. Five years ago, O'Connor was just another struggling working-class hero. The singer-songwriter had just quit the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based band I-Rails, which had four indie albums in the late '80s. In his spare time away from a day job, he experimented with a sampler and worked on his dream album, "Rocket."

With each big-label rejection, O'Connor realized his time may have come and gone. The one-time Navy recruit then took a job as an air traffic controller in Los Angeles, one of the most stressful spots in the aviation world. Burnout quickly set in. He started hatching schemes of saving money and starting his own business. Eventually, he went with what he knew best: Music. He pressed up some promo CDs of "Rocket" and launched his own label. It failed miserably, and the CDs went into a closet. Stumbling across the CDs again while spring cleaning, O'Connor gave it one more try. He mailed out copies of "Rocket." One label executive heard it, passed it on to another guy who passed it on to someone else. Lo and behold, O'Connor received a phone call from the head of Columbia's U.K. office. They were interested.

O'Connor, with his one-man show known as Primitive Radio Gods, was finally in business.

"It's your basic American fairy-tale success story," O'Connor said recently from his Carlsbad, Calif., home, "even though I'm out of the success part until people go out and buy the record." He may not have long to wait: "Rocket" was released this week and the first single, "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand," with its clever sampling of B.B. King's "How Blue Can You Get," is becoming a bonafide hit. Its inclusion in the soundtrack to Jim Carrey's "The Cable Guy" didn't hurt matters. O'Connor says chapters one through 20 of his success story would be about luck. "That's basically all it is," he said. "That's just the way art is. It's not like sports, where if you can run the 100-yard dash in 5 seconds, you're going to go to the Olympics and win. With art, hey, Van Gogh didn't sell any paintings till he was dead. Kafka didn't get published until after he died. "It's so subjective. There's a lot of great music being made in bedrooms by guys like me that the industry doesn't think is good for whatever reason. I've always felt that the best music and the best art has never been published, never seen or heard by the general masses, because it takes a lot of luck."

O'Connor certainly had his doubts five years ago when "Rocket" was promptly ignored. Its poppy, homemade mixture of hip-hop, rock and funk just didn't meet the industry's needs at the time.

"I was getting into Public Enemy," O'Connor said. "It was a revelation from a production standpoint, what they were doing with samples. It seemed like an obvious next step for rock 'n' roll. When I was making 'Rocket,' I figured everybody would be doing that, tons of pop bands going out there and doing samples. That happened a little bit, but it was more of a novelty thing and nobody really took it seriously as an instrument to really add depth to a song.

"That was the period when Nirvana started to happen and alternative was taking over. So, if you didn't wear flannel and weren't from Seattle, in general, there wasn't a place for you. I basically got the 'thanks but no thanks' from the labels, so that's when I said to hell with it and quit."
Turns out O'Connor was one of his own worst enemies. The labels weren't interested in a one-man, do-it-yourself band.

"That was definitely the first question they would ask, like 'Where's the band?' and I would say, 'I don't have a band.' I wasn't going to get a band to play for those people," O'Connor said.

Faced with two options - putting a band together or accepting that music wasn't his destiny - O'Connor chose the latter.

"I quit music and did other things for the first time in a long time," he said. "It was kind of a nice break for me. I got back into reading again and took martial arts, played pool and drank beer. I listened to sports radio like crazy. "Then I got the job at LAX (air traffic control center) and moved down there and decided, 'Okay, here I am, I'm going to do this till I'm 55.' After a while, I couldn't take it. The pressure was too much.
"Another year went by and I came across the CDs. It was like, 'Well, I could throw them away, clean out the closet space or do a blind mailing.' It's like buying a lottery ticket. There's that long-shot hope but you kind of know you're not going to win. That was my attitude when I mailed it out again. And the rest is history.

" O'Connor still gets goosebumps thinking about the call he received from the Columbia U.K. executive. "I told him, 'Hey, I'm a working guy, I have this job, I don't have a band, I did this record like five years ago,' " he said. "He called me up three weeks later and said he wanted to put the record out, and he hadn't even met me yet. Very strange." From here on out, anything that can keep O'Connor from falling back on his air traffic control skills is just icing on the cake. He calls the job "a living nightmare." "We're the premier first-world nation on the planet and we're working with 40-year-old technology," he said. "Some of these telephone lines controllers have to use to talk to each other every day, they're so old that when they break down, they have to call guys in who have retired, 70-year-old men who were working in the '40s and '50s, to fix them. There are no parts. Nobody's making this stuff anymore. We're in the micro-optic age now and we're using '50s tube technology." Legislators hide behind the smoke screen of flag burning and same-sex marriages, issues that don't matter, O'Connor said. They only react to aviation safety issues until after lives have been lost.

But all that's behind O'Connor now. He has added three members to Primitive Radio Gods - guitarist Luke McAuliffe and former I-Rails bandmates Tim Lauterio (drums) and Jeff Sparks (bass). After three months of rehearsing, "we're ready to go," O'Connor said. "Now let's hope 'Rocket' takes off."

BWF (before we forget): "Rocket," indeed, did take take off. Even though "Standing Outside" was never officially released as a single, the album cracked Billboard's Top 40 and sold more than 500,000 copies.