It's not every day that a mega-star like Liza Minnelli comes out to a show featuring an experimental pop band from Atlanta that's signed to a willfully obscure label rooted in punk and hardcore. But that happened when One Hand Loves the Other performed at the Annex in Manhattan on June 4. Minnelli didn't just make an appearance, she dominated the scene -- laying claim to a front-row table, cheering wildly and demanding to meet the band. When asked about the experience of such a surreal and enthusiastic cheerleader in the crowd, all four members of the group eyeball each other. They're hesitant to say anything that might scare away their newest No. 1 fan. After a few awkward moments, vocalist Lou Rodriguez leans over his noontime beer at the Righteous Room on Ponce to save face. "She was very kind," he offers as he straightens the dingy and worn red bill of his trucker cap. "She was supportive and said that she sees us going far." But his assessment doesn't even come close to cutting the tension that lingers over the table as the rest of the group smirks.
A review of the show posted at CMJ.com/relay captures the sense of excitement best: "I'm not shitting you, Liza Minnelli was there, complimenting and kissing the lead singer of the band after the show ... ."
So what the hell was she doing there? As it turns out, OHLTO's publicist, Shane Marshall Brown, works for Springer Associates PR, who also handles publicity for Minnelli.
An encounter such as this sends tremors throughout the DIY community on the home front. But even though a brush with a celebrity has raised the group's profile somewhat, OHLTO is still moving at the pace of a local band.
The group's self-titled debut was released in April on Stickfigure Records, and when OHLTO booked its first East Coast tour earlier this summer, it didn't even have a CD to push. Rodriguez, along with Nancy Shim (flute, keyboards), Tracy Tzen (cello) and Mikey Johnson (electronics), booked most of the tour by sending MP3s to people in towns where Stickfigure already had friends.
It looked to be a standard-issue tour of sparsely attended clubs, low pay and life on the road as temporary gypsies.
Rodriguez spent the money they made from the CD release show at the Drunken Unicorn a few weeks prior on a big pillow, in case he had to sleep in the van.
It's a common concern for the average indie-rock band on the road. But OHLTO isn't the average indie-rock band, and it's certainly not of the gruff, outsider, post-hardcore stock for which much of Stickfigure's catalog is based. The music is jarringly clean-cut by comparison to the more aggressive Stickfigure titles – perhaps too precious for fans of releases by Blame Game, Electrosleep Int'l and Deerhunter.
The group's sound is an amalgamation of classical music, glitch-laden electronica and dramatic pop tones. Shim and cellist Mary Knight, who recently replaced Tzen, craft a pensive backdrop of subtle string and woodwind melodies. Johnson, who also performs as the knob-twiddling unit Music for People, adds crackle and distortion to the music while Rodriguez puts a sharp point on songs like "Interpret a Poem," "Tortoise" and "Burden of Barnacles." His voice embodies a distressed quality that spans a vast range of shattered and theatrical emotions as he plows through soaring high notes and darker tones in one flowing motion.
On stage the group is a sharp-dressed lot, adorned in flowing, colorful dresses and GQ duds that are fashionably out of place amid the smoke-filled ambiance of a rock club.
Rodriguez laughs wholeheartedly when he recalls that prior to starting OHLTO, he was working on a development deal with Sony Records. But once he heard the marketing geniuses refer to him as "the ethnic Justin Timberlake," he jumped ship.
Even though the specter of mainstream appeal hulks over OHLTO, self-sufficiency serves the group well. The CD was recorded in Johnson's bedroom, aka Hot Stub Studios, where the sound booth was a bay window curtained off by a blanket. "We didn't have a microphone stand so we hung one from the ceiling, and there was just enough space for Tracy to play her cello, but she kept hitting the blanket with her bow," Shim explains. "Mikey was convinced that the cat had peed on the blanket, but we just kept recording."
Ingenuity like this bodes well for a group left to its own devices. And, when OHLTO arrived in New York without a place to stay, it looked like Rodriguez was going to need that big pillow. But publicist Brown also had ties with sales execs at Expedia.com who hooked the group up with a suite for five days.
As happy coincidences like these added up, OHLTO didn't return from touring with the same horror stories of sleeping in vans and playing to little-to-no crowds. "We played one of the best shows ever that night in New York," says Rodriguez. Celebrity gossip only goes so far, and any notoriety the group gained from rocking Liza Minnelli into hysterics is based on its own merits, which people will be talking about long after the encounter with the superstar is forgotten.
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