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Friday, October 11, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ready For Takeoff -- Seattle's Model Rockets Looking To Enter The Pop Stratosphere

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

It's early autumn, 1994. A band called the Model Rockets is playing at Moe. Like the venue, they are comparatively new: Less than a year before, John Ramberg (vocals), Grant Johnson (lead guitar), Boyd Remillard (bass) and Graham Black (drums) started life as The Glory Stompers. Tonight, their gig is packed with fans of every stripe, from grunge guitarists to the county's assistant medical examiner.

There is little mystery why. For one blissful hour, they play perfect pop, pop that already has a fervent following. The tunes are catchy and chiming, but they have lyrical twists - one concerns loving a female Evel Knievel ("Daredevil Girl"), one the pain of being stood up in an arthouse cinema ("Ditched at the Grand Illusion"), one a small-town dreamer's angst over his employment ("Johnson's Plumbing Supply").

These songs have more going for them than quirkiness. Their real themes are what make rock meaningful: how it feels to change with time, what makes love possible. No wonder this crowd at Moe is going wild. Every copy of the band's new CD, "Hilux," sells.

Then, on Thanksgiving, Johnson decides to quit. He can't leave his job to tour. It's all over.

Until January '95, that is, when the Rockets stage a comeback with a new guitarist, a hyperactive blond named Scott Sutherland. But great chemistry isn't yet apparent. And some Rockets fans find Sutherland an awkward fit. Making matters worse, few can now find "Hilux." The name of the Rockets' label - Lucky Records - seems ironic.

By summer, things have changed for the better. Local groups now cover Model Rockets songs. Europe, it seems, also loves what it hears. So the band flies off to appear in person, and the tour proves that pop bridges language barriers. "Hilux," however, is by now so elusive that it's easier to hire the group and make the members play it.

Such is the secret history of a special band - a band that's special to numerous Seattleites, and unique because of its worldwide sales potential. In 1996, the Rockets now stand at a crossroads. But it's one that says more about the biz than the band. Will the industry bigwigs see beyond hair and plaid? Or do old Seattle stereotypes still rule their budgets?

The Rockets may become a big-time label project, like The Presidents of the United States of America. Or they could become a toy-of-the-moment, like the Lemons - signed, then hyped, then dumped. Or they could fall prey to conventional wisdom, that "big" bands from Seattle must sell doom and gloom.

One thing is for sure: Something is going to happen. C/Z Records bought out the Lucky contract for one last album - and that CD is in stores this week. "Snatch It Back and Hold It" is 11 songs long, with three tracks penned by Sutherland.

Officially, the title comes from a Junior Wells song. But the subtext here is one of determination. With their lead guitarist now fully a part of the mix -and an unreleased third album in the can - the Model Rockets finally know their worth.

So, it seems, do others. Nabil Ayers helped found the label Collective Fruit, which put out the Rockets' single "World Won't Let Me." "When we finally do our great boxed set, the Model Rockets will be our Nirvana," says Ayers. "Right now, they're Seattle's secret weapon. Those who know them know that. We'll just see what happens."

Ayers' opinion is not entirely typical; there are some who would disagree. One Rockets gig last year at Sit & Spin featured loud mockery from a grunge veteran. It was noted - but ignored - by most of the crowd. At that point, skills meant less than spirit. Rockets fans were willing the band onward.

Says Sutherland, "It's not something new. We support bands who rag on the pop format. Guys who we like on a person-to-person basis. But they have a real heavy, down aesthetic, and they see that as `Seattle's sound.' "

Pure pop may not capture everyone. But this band does much to vindicate it - thanks, in large part, to John Ramberg's writing.

As managing editor of The Rocket, Veronika Kalmar gave the group a cover story. "He's a rare talent" she says of Ramberg, "and the Model Rockets are exceptional. Not just here; they'd be exceptional anywhere."

Carl Carlson, who runs Top Drawer Records, agrees. "One of our first singles featured John's old band. He has an amazing songwriting talent."

Ramberg, who works on an assembly line, calls himself "Mr. Short Attention Span." He says he can't "chill out" listening to music; he has to stand up, dance or move around. The music he likes includes Stax and jump blues, '50s pop and tuneful British classics.

Asked about his own writing, Ramberg pauses. "I'm kinda one of those people who like a limit. I'm more comfortable putting a wall around myself - and, for me, that wall is the pop format. Succinct, hooky songs can be meaningful."

He leans forward. "People sometimes feel if it's catchy, it can't say anything. But just look at the music made by Nirvana. It's all hook, and it's immensely emotional."

Lately, Ramberg's been writing differently. "Having Scott has changed the formula. He writes these longer songs which, in some ways, are more accurately personal. Now I'm writing and scrapping lots of stuff. I experiment and just keep what works."

Critic Cathy Rendell edits Fizz magazine. She calls the Rockets "pure, fast, uber-pop." Much of their strength, she says, comes from variety. Unlike bands whose members' tastes concur, this one has a different listening spectrum. Remillard started out in be-bop jazz (which, until recently, he played as a sideline). Black loves almost any sort of country music. Sutherland adores psychedelica, African and Indian music.

Driven by what Black calls "a well-earned bond," the Model Rockets have become a model band. At the party for the new CD, name cartoonists hobnobbed with hardcore scenesters. Computer programmers ran into neighbors; label owners jostled with the barfly regulars. And the best news: There's one more album. Even unheard, it's the Rockets' secret weapon.

As you read this, the band is still onstage, tearing up the club called Zeppelin Rock in Spain. But back home, questions proliferate. Will a major label see the Rockets' talent? Or will Europe once more scoop us locals? Who will get that Album No. 3? As a point of pride, Seattleites, stay tuned!

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Catching the Model Rockets

The Model Rockets play Belmont's in Portland on Oct. 18 as part of North by Northwest. On Oct. 25 they play the Crocodile Cafe before leaving on a West Coast tour. Their new CD, "Snatch It Back and Hold It," is out on C/Z Records. Vinyl copies of "World Won't Let Me" are available at $3.50 each (including postage and handling) from Collective Fruit, P.O. Box 4415, Seattle, WA 98104-0415.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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