Smokescreens frontman Chris Rosi has heard that people often wind up disappointed upon meeting their idols. But last year, the Los Angeles-based guitarist tracked down his hero, David Kilgour, anchor of his favorite New Zealand cult combo The Clean through Facebook with a longshot proposition: Would he produce the next Smokescreens outing?
His band practically prayed at the altar of legendary Kiwi-pop label Flying Nun, home to similar-sounding, oblique-chorded chimers like The Bats, The Chills, The Verlaines and The Clean.
After sending Kilgour a download, Rosi, 35, says he thought, “Maybe he’ll write me back, say that he listened to our music, but apologize that he just couldn’t do it, which would still be cool with me.”
Rosi, 35, was floored by the response.
“I sent him our last album ‘Used to Yesterday’ and within an hour he wrote me back, saying, ‘Oh, it’s a pure pop album. This is really great!’” Rosi says of first contact. “He seemed really enthusiastic about the idea, so we kept talking over a few more months, and the band was really psyched. So finally, I was just like, ‘All right, I’m going to buy his plane ticket now.’ And once I bought the plane ticket, that sealed the deal.”
Along with engineer Kyle Mullarkey, Kilgour worked closely with the Smokescreens for a week, perfecting the group’s sublime new hookfest, “A Strange Dream.”
The studio where they recorded came with living quarters, an adjoining cottage with a Jacuzzi and a fully-equipped kitchen for Kilgour, plus two trailers where Rosi and his bandmates slept.
It was a totally-immersive Flying Nun experience. They recorded by day, and cooked meals, hung out together and swapped music-industry stories by night.
Rosi was eager to glean songwriting tips and in-studio wisdom from his tutor, including learning to take a softer singing approach. ”I was doing a lot of takes of this one song, but not quite getting it right, but he said, ‘No, just try backing it off and doing it a little quieter.’ And I did it, and it sounded really cool,” says Rosi.
Kilgour had a hard and fast-tracking approach that put the Smokescreen members through their paces.
It started the first day, when they hammered out frameworks to disarming chiming charmers “On and On,” “Fork in the Road” and the conversely-sunny sounding “Streets of Despair” (penned by Rosi about Hollywood’s homeless, sleeping next door to luxurious condos).
When they finished six days later, the producer listened to the playback, saying it reminded him of “Vehicle,” The Clean’s Flying Nun debut from 1990.
Kilgour, whose parting gift was one of his surreal watercolor paintings for the “Dream” album cover, dropped by Rosi and his wife’s house for dinner on his last night in town.
“He was going through my record collection, and I have all the New Zealand bands and Australian bands on one shelf,” says Rosi, who adds that Kilgour asked him, “You do know that New Zealand and Australian music is not the same thing, right?”
Rosi did. Born in Connecticut, he was living in San Diego when he started playing in garage-rock combos with his roommates and friends who worked at the same pizza parlor. Some of the older rockers told him about the idiosyncratic Flying Nun sound, and he was hooked. He began tracking down obscure groups from around the world that captured the same ephemeral sound, such as The Go-Betweens, Wasp Factory and Scotland’s Scrotum Poles, whose sole hit “Pick the Cat’s Eyes Out” warranted a cover version on “Dream.”
Lately, though, the singer hasn’t time to compose a lot. His pregnant wife, with the baby due in December, has been working 45-hour work weeks, interning as part of her doctorate program.
He says, “My job, since I’m not working, has been being totally devoted to everything else, all the domestic stuff — all the meals, all the cleaning, all the yard work and stuff, so my wife can come home after work, just relax, and then study a bit. I’m a total house dad right now.”
Though he recently has finished four new songs, and he’s not sure if they’ve been darkened by COVID-19.
There is one possible light at the end of the tunnel. He’d like to go to New Zealand for the first time to cut the next Smokescreens disc, and visit Kilgour’s historic hometown of Dunedin, which birthed the Flying Nun sound. “That’s the ultimate dream for me — to go there and record,” he says, sighing. “But as a fan of an artist, just to get to work with your heroes is unreal. And only that could top it off.”