Cocky Rockers Tsar Look To Save Rock On Debut LP

Los Angeles foursome injects self-confidence into its music.

LOS ANGELES — Pop-rock newcomers Tsar have a theory: If you want to conquer the world, act like you already have.

The Los Angeles foursome punctuates its live shows with frequent declarations that it's here to save rock 'n' roll. And in interviews, the band acts more like notoriously cocky British rockers Oasis than four guys praying that their debut single will get a chance on radio.

But Tsar's snotty self-belief goes deeper than that — it also comes through in their music, thanks to anthemic choruses, salient, melodic guitars and singer/guitarist Jeff Whalen's cocksure vocals.

"I think there's a sense of anything's possible-ism to our songs," Whalen said. "They're good to get ready to go out — to have on real loud and dance around with your roommates and try on clothes and get ready to kick ass."

Though he did most of the talking, Whalen rarely gave anything resembling a straight answer as he sat with his bandmates on a recent Friday night at the Hollywood Hills Coffee Shop. Clad in a tight, white shirt with letters spelling out "F-A-G" taped onto it, the platinum-haired, doll-faced singer capped his nonanswers with mischievous smiles, as if to imply that being difficult was at least to his own amusement. Guitarist Daniel Kern and drummer Steve Coulter piped in frequently as they sipped their beers, while bassist Jeff Solomon silently observed.

Tsar, who formed in 1998, released their self-titled debut album on Tuesday. The LP, produced by Rob Cavallo (Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls), features such standouts as "Silver Shifter" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Calling All Destroyers," as well as the single "I Don't Wanna Break-Up" (RealAudio excerpt).

A Positive Force

Tsar's songs are "about a kind of positive force," Kern said. "There's an innate fun-ness and spirituality to them, kind of good-times-and-party music." But Whalen contested that that's just the surface, insisting that his lyrics are steeped in "unspeakable sadness." Pressed to be more specific, he pointed to the ballad, "The Girl Who Wouldn't Die" (RealAudio excerpt), one of several songs on the album the singer said was inspired by a 16-year-old girl he dated in Prague. "It's legal over there," he said, referring to her age. "In my heart, I guess there's something that feels if we get really popular then maybe she'll go out with me."

The members of Tsar — who refuse to reveal their ages — all grew up in Los Angeles but didn't meet until attending the University of California at Santa Barbara. There they played together in concept-oriented party bands, including the Wonderfuls, which, according to Kern, performed "covers of covers." "The actual phrase, 'Let's start a band today,' came across my lips about once a week," Coulter said. After college they each went their separate ways for a few years before Whalen and Kern united back in Los Angeles and formed Tsar.

After Solomon and Coulter joined, the band built a following through a weekly residency at the Silver Lake, Calif., club Spaceland, garnering attention for their glamesque stage show.

"We used to do a lot of 23 Skidoo kind of stuff," Whalen said, referring to the early '80s British industrial band. "I'd wear the American flag as a cape and a lot of makeup, and we'd make these pronouncements about ruling the world and have this really cocky stance, just to get people's attention. And that seemed to work."

But it also had a backlash, Whalen said, as people started describing Tsar as "glam" and "retro." Feeling that such labels could prevent them from establishing their own identity, the bandmates cut down on the makeup and costumes.

Making A Name

"I think if we make it to the point where people call us Tsar and not 'that glam band,' then you'll see some bizarre costumery and a lot of weirdness again," Whalen said. "It is real for us — we like that glitter rock stuff. That just seems like rock 'n' roll to me. Unless it's like Gary Glitter."

Buzz from the Spaceland shows resulted in the interest of several major labels. Tsar eventually signed with Hollywood, feeling that Cavallo (who is senior VP of A&R at the label) "really stood out from all the weasels," according to Whalen.

Coulter said working with Cavallo on the album was "an eye-opening experience. I think we all learned a lot about how we play. It was a really interesting process — really painful but completely wonderful at the same time."

Ultimately, Tsar — who occasionally close their shows with a revved-up cover of Backstreet Boys' "Larger Than Life" — hope their music will reach out to music fans looking for a midpoint between the sugary teen pop acts and the angry, testosterone-fueled rock-rap acts polarizing much of popular music.

"We're bringing something entirely new," Whalen said. "What we do is a combination of those things with none of them. We hope our music says to people that you can rock out and not be too stupid or destructive or ugly. You don't have to pierce yourself and disfigure yourself to be hard rock, and you don't have to be lame to be pop. You can do whatever you want."