It's one of those late August afternoons when it's still hot enough to barbecue, but clear and crisp in a way that guarantees autumn's inevitable arrival. A kiwi-colored Caprice Classic crawls along Belle Isle's Fountain Drive, the yellows, blues and reds of the ice cream trucks it passes reflecting in its chromed rims, and every 20 yards features a different family party. The air is tangy with smoke and secret recipes. Detroit's island park is invigorated on this Saturday, and the girls from Slumber Party are making the rounds.
They've already stood in the enormous main bowl of Scott Fountain, their boots tossed aside on the gleaming white marble. They've also shimmied up onto the island's dormant bandstand, where they imitated their regular positions on stage the keyboard rigs of Aliccia Berg and Naomi Ruth in the center, flanked by guitarist Alia Allen and bassist Raquel Salaysay. (No drummer Berg handles all the percussion with her Roland MC-303.) And now the quartet is haunting Belle Isle's outdoor racquetball complex, an eerie matrix of geometrical cement dividers that resembles a launching pad for unknown rocket ships. Slumber Party clap in girl-group unison as the photographer snaps away, their cadence reverberating off the walls and nearly matching the beat of Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street" wailing from a boom box nearby. Later they walk toward the camera slow, measured, gazing steadily ahead and the two pick-up basketball dudes who've been watching all of this shift anxiously on their bench. These girls are magnetic.
It starts with Berg, of course. She's been at the center of Slumber Party since the project's incarnation in 1998, when she was inspired by her record collection and the budding downtown rock scene to learn guitar and start a band. Berg gathered up who was available the Fondas' Julie Benjamin was the band's first drummer and a self-titled debut appeared in 2000 on the Olympia, Wash., indie Kill Rock Stars. The influence of the Velvet Underground was immediately apparent in the skeletal, dulled pulse of Berg's songs, but so was the chilly fatalism of English post-punk, as well as the Shangri-Las and the Motown girl-group sound. And now, eight years, two more albums, and too many personnel changes to track down later, Berg has her most fully realized lineup to date, as well as Slumber Party's best record yet. Musik retains the pristine murmur that's always defined the group, but bolsters that with the band's most dynamic playing and songwriting to date.
K stands for ...
"I'm really proud of this one," Berg says earlier that Saturday as we stroll down Vernor Highway near her Mexicantown home, her leather boots clacking on the chipped pavement. "The evolution is so clear to me I'm a lot older now, and I'm really just confident in what I musically get to explore. It's the first time I ever sat down and said, 'I'm writing this kind of song.'"
"I don't divorce myself from any of the other influences," she continues. "But also with this new record, we went beyond the Motown girl-group thing, or even the Shangri-Las and Shadow Morton. I kind of really got into my Raincoats records, and we started listening to ESG some."
Appropriately, most of the songs emphasize the biggest shift in the Slumber Party aesthetic, which is the dual keyboards and drum machine at the center of the reconfigured lineup. While opener "10-9-8-7-6-5-4" rides initially on a creepy two-note keyboard melody before Allen's guitar picks it up and flares it out into a frazzled psychedelic jam, "Boys/Girls" is almost completely synthetic, from the keys to the tinkling effects to the lightheartedly robotic lilt of Berg and Ruth's back-and-forth vocals. They sound like mannequins come to life in a dance hall, and it pulls you right in.
Since Slumber Party had usually built songs around the steady jangle of a VU-style guitar, the keyboard thing took a bit of working out. "Part of the evolution was that we just started doing covers," Berg says, "about a year and a half before even thinking about making a record, and we recorded them. Because we'd introduced synthesizers, we had to see how we could play rock songs with that." The synths and the sessions worked, and the new lineup gelled.
The band's set-closer lately has been Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," nodding to their post-punk forefathers the way the K in Musik acknowledges Kraftwerk and keyboards. "But have you heard our Shaggs cover?" Berg asks, referring to the legendary, loveably amateur late '60s trio. "We do 'Philosophy of the World.' It was my task to figure out what the chords were, when I realized, 'What the fuck are they doing? They're not following any repeated pattern!' They started on A, I think, but then ..." Berg had to craft her version in the spirit of the original, and employ Slumber Party's other new addition, her drum machine.
"I just stopped sweating things," she says of replacing a human with pushbutton percussion. "If I don't have a drummer, well, find a way, right? So I bought a programmable drum machine and learned how to use it."
Musik was produced by Dion Fischer and engineered by Warn Defever, the same team that worked on Slumber Party's 2003 album 3. And while the band had written and rehearsed the songs before entering Defever's home studio, they acknowledge how valuable the outside ears were.
"Keyboards and synthesizers, that's Dion's forte," Berg says, sitting with her band in the bustling bar area of Los Galanes on Bagley Street. "And I wanted for it to sound like more of a conscious effort, not just capturing what was happening," she says, referring to the occasionally haphazard, hesitant feel of Slumber Party's earlier work. "I wanted everyone to be challenged more. You can sing better, you can play better, that's not good enough. That's why you get producers it's totally critical, I think. All my favorite classic records had great producers."
"Madeupmind," the centerpiece of Musik, is the sound of great production meeting intuitive songwriting. Built on breezy, interlocking harmonies and a classic, consistent girl-group beat, it's full of skittering guitar drop-ins and even little keyboard parts that suggest the Beach Boys or the Monkees. It's the song that always lurked in the shadows of Slumber Party, the undeniable melody that their songs would acknowledge but never pursue, and here it is in the middle of the album, fully formed and gorgeous. It's a steppingstone.
Still, they're not holding onto some kind of "making it" dream. "That's just a burden I couldn't handle," Berg says with a dismissive smile. If anything, they'd like to follow the lead of the underground acts they've always adored.
"I would rather have something long-term," Ruth says. "Like something that someone looks back on in 20 years and made an impact in a little sort of way," Naomi says.
"Like a cult record," Berg adds.
"Burden," Allen muses. "Maybe that'd be just some kind of bonus. We have fun in the basement," she continues, referring to their rehearsal space at Berg's house. "I get to hang out with my girlfriends and jam."
If Berg is Slumber Party's brain trust and magnetic center, Allen is the quartet's spiritual grounding wire. She says the only minor conflict while recording at Defever's came when she discovered his studio rules prohibiting footwear.
"I took off my boots. But when it was my turn I carried them downstairs and put them back on. I like to play my guitar wearing my boots."
Berg laughs. "I was always the strongest one in the group before Alia joined."
Don't wank, listen
Slumber Party's aesthetic as a girl band is as purposeful as their penchant for cool footwear. But Berg stresses that this is not simply to channel the spirit of the Raincoats, Shangri-Las or their other musical heroes.
"A lot of times the way women play, it happens to be in a simpler style," she says. "Men," in comparison, "want to show off, or wank." She says when a musician is really in the moment, she's listening more than she's playing. And that's exactly what happens inside the latest Slumber Party.
"That's when it's best for us," agrees Allen. "When it's Thursday at 6 p.m. practice, you just got out of work, and you're down there in the basement, de-workifying. For me, I like listening to what they're doing.
The four of them nod at this point, united in listening as a central idea. But there's also the sense than Berg's found the right people this time around. It's not just she and a few collaborators Slumber Party is finally a real band, and what they're doing works for them. The lack of a drummer and the lack of dudes, but also the solidarity they feel as women who've together made something unique to them. They're measured, and gazing steadily ahead.
Slumber Party throws a CD release party for Musik Sept. 17 at Motor City Brewing Works, 470 W. Canfield St., Detroit; 313-832-2700. With DJ Mick Collins.Johnny Loftus is Metro Times music editor. Send comments to [email protected]