We planned to practice for an hour and a half, but we were done in 45 minutes," says an enthusiastic Jared McStay. McStay is the owner of Shangri-La Records and former frontman for the Simple Ones, one of the most popular bands to emerge from the sweaty, acid-drenched indie rock scene that dominated Midtown music venues throughout the 1990s. "We ran through the set, and everything just fell right back into place," he says, cheerfully sipping a beer at the P&H Café and eagerly running down a list of songs that includes "Pen," "Clearly Herbert," and other rowdy crowd-pleasers from back in the day.
The Simple Ones have temporarily re-formed to celebrate the 20th birthday of Shangri-La, the ambitious little record store, indie recording label, and Midtown institution that was originally founded as a relaxation center by Sherman Willmott. On March 22nd at the Hi-Tone Café, the Simple Ones share a bill with hometown heroes Lucero, art-pop band Antenna Shoes, art-rock band the Warble, and the New Mary Jane, an exciting but too-new-to-be-defined project with One Four Five drummer John Argroves laying down the beats for Scott Taylor and Dave Shouse of Shangri-La's signature band the Grifters.
The Simple Ones came into being after bassist Jim McDermott and drummer Mark Miller (later Roy Berry of Lucero) answered a classified ad that McStay, a musically inclined car salesman, placed in the Memphis Flyer. He was searching for like-minded players who'd been influenced by groups such as the Pixies, the Clash, and the Jam. What he got was a chugging indie-pop machine whose noisy songs, taken in a purely literary sense, defined Memphis in the 1990s better than the Grifters, the Oblivians, or any of the other more storied groups playing on the same Midtown/downtown scene.
The Simple Ones were never allowed to stand alone in the spotlight. Review after generally favorable review cast them in the shadow of their Shangri-La label mates, the Grifters. But it was McStay who most perfectly captured the landscape and mood of his hometown scene in the aching first lines of a song called "Rift City."
"There's a chalk outline by the checkout line," McStay whined balefully (and almost tunelessly) into the microphone. The cryptic lyric referred to the demolition of the Babylon Café, a utopian vegetarian restaurant hidden from prying, easily shocked eyes in a parking lot behind Seessel's (now Schnucks) on Union Avenue. The aptly named cafe, which always smelled of smoky wheat gluten and sticky sinsemilla, was a breeding ground for decadence and a multicultural nexus for bohemian Memphis.
"There's a parking lot over Babylon," McStay further lamented in the song. And really, nobody needed the backstory to connect with the Simple Ones' emotional portrait of a weird little paradise lost to cynicism and asphalt. "Rift City"'s chorus, a plaintive request to survive, adapt, and merge with powerful satanic forces, was an idea that resonated loudly in the home of the blues.
"There's not a week that goes by that some tourist doesn't come into the store and ask what the Grifters are doing," McStay says, shifting the spotlight from himself to Scott Taylor and Dave Shouse.
"We're not out to make Grifters 2.0," says Taylor, squelching any idea that the New Mary Jane represents a second coming. Although the trio performs several Grifters songs, Taylor and Shouse both insist it doesn't make them a "Grifters cover band."
Taylor's coming off a five-year breakup with his guitar. His last band was the Porch Ghouls, which fell apart in 2003 shortly after the group signed a recording contract with Roman Records, a Sony imprint run by Aerosmith guitar player Joe Perry. After the implosion, he took a side trip into electronic music and founded the now-defunct hip-hop recording service Hoodoo Labs.
"I'm playing bass in a band for the first time," says Shouse, who also ventured into electronica with his band the Bloodthirsty Lovers. Shouse, an indie-rock veteran also of Think As Incas, Those Bastard Souls, and, most recently, Neil Bartlett's Hi Electric, has done duty on guitar, keyboards, drums, theremin, and assorted electronic gizmos.
Taylor says that Argroves, one of Memphis' most prolific drummers, has had a big effect on the direction of the New Mary Jane.
Shouse agrees and says that the one thing he hopes to take from the Grifters' experience is that band's collaborative but also chaotic spirit.
Atlanta's Black Lips play an acoustic in-store set at Shangri-La Records (1916 Madison) on Friday, March 21st, at 6 p.m. The party continues on Saturday, March 22nd, at 2 p.m. with a parking-lot concert at Shangri-La featuring Vending Machine, the Warble, Noise Choir, the Ultra Cats, Jump Back Jake, and the Perfect Fits. Doors open for the Hi-Tone show at 9 p.m.