The Mojo Wire prematurely stumbles into sophomore slump on our sprawling, schizophrenic second album, Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor.

Stop me if  you’ve heard this one before: a confident, well-oiled machine of a rock band has a banner year. They’re full of new wild ideas and dying to show the world what they learned. They record anything and everything, using words like “progress” or “growth” in earnest, lovable, and hopelessly deluded ways. And then they cough up a formless gob of tunes that makes everyone wonder what the big deal was about them in the first place. That’s not exactly what happened to The Mojo Wire in 1998, but it comes closest to describing how we made our second album, which we inexplicably named Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor.

Released hard on the heels of its predecessor, Rocket Fuel gave off a distinct whiff of undercooked tunes dipped in myriad gooey sonic effects. When I listen to it now, the thing can’t seem to decide what it wants to be—rock or prog? Blues or psychedelia? Stripped-down, disciplined writing, or free-form freakout? Any real explanation feels like over-analysis, but since a few of these songs were actually good, and many of the rest have gone on to bigger and better things, it’s worth another look and listen to see how things really ended up this way.

That’s Not How Any Of This Works

The disc’s weird split personality is more like two mini-albums mashed together than one coherent whole. Some of that’s from overenthusiastic experimentation, but the disc’s overall feel is much closer to our collective contemporary mindset in late 1997, when we’d charged into the deep end of Isla Vista’s nubile cesspool. Our old 12-bar tunes sprouted weird sounds via new and bizarre effects pedals, multiple (and often backwards) tape loops, and extensive overdubs. Indulgent experimentation came easy, but the music we loved back then made a huge impact too—especially Radiohead’s recently released OK Computer. That album wasn’t a direct influence, but its galaxy of sonics inspired us to find out what we could do with what we had.

Rocket Fuel‘s first side started off conventionally enough; the uptempo, surfy blues swung along to the same groove that electrified Battery Acid Blues, but every song on that album had more than a year to develop before recording and release. Most of the first seven Rocket Fuel songs—the title track, “Margarita,” “Jackson Hammer’s Theme,” “Trash and Trouble,” and “Evil Train”—were written either at the same time or shortly after the Battery Acid songs. The tunes for “Run From Me” and “Blackout Baby” dated from even before that, enduring more tinkering over time, but finished at the Bedrock in demo form by the end of the year.

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It got weirder (and arguably worse) from there as Bryn, Adam and I explored the full range of our new toys. Sometimes the effects worked well almost in spite of themselves, like Adam’s cello swaying its way through “Kid Icarus” and my echo-bass guitar powering “Under The Sun.” In most cases, though, things just got messier. Almost every song has some sort of treatment on the vocals, guitars, bass, or keyboard. Adam’s voice didn’t need thick layers of reverbed chorus on “Run From Me” or “Margarita”, and didn’t need Wolfman-Jack-gain on “Trash And Trouble.” To this day I have no idea why we didn’t realize all those effects were overkill.

Finishing the album in a presentable form was tough. Our sometime-drummer Brandon Klopp was less and less able to help out (most of his electric kit tracks came from two long Bedrock jam sessions), so we had to wrap it up in fits and starts.”Blackout Baby” got dubbed over the drum tracks for the Battery Acid song “Stay With Me,” and “Drown the Heart” has no percussion at all. The more scattered things got, the more I wanted to organize it into something presentable, and while Adam and Bryn were agreeable, my impulse to complete it fast probably doomed the whole thing, especially when it came to what I thought was my strength: words.

What Does That Even Mean, Man?

Lyrics weren’t a problem on Side One; except for “Run From Me,’ those songs pretended at nothing more than they were. However, Side Two got bogged down in clunky metaphors posturing as Major Statements of Profound Importance. Strong tunes that could have (and, years later, did) become meaningful merely posed as Significant without truly saying anything; “Kid Icarus,” “Under The Sun,” “Blackout Baby,” and “Wound Down” buckled under my sub-par, self-absorbed, and sloppily incomplete lyrics. Even the album’s central theme was juvenile: it traced the arc of a hangover, starting out strong and crazy only to end up pathetically crashing and burning in a haze of foggy excess. That wasn’t an original observation in a town full of partying, spoiled rich kids, but it was the only glue connecting all twelve songs.

A few tunes slouched toward completion in concert. “Run From Me” got grittier and louder live in 2001, and “Margarita” was a live Mojo hit to the end. “The Worst Way” became a nondescript workhorse, and “Kid Icarus” or “Wound Down” were good breaks between the heavier numbers during our 1999 shows. The two worst lyrics took the longest to mature, doing so for another band: “Under the Sun” endured a glacial, four-year rebirth as “The Lightning Rod” for Honey White, and “Blackout Baby” experienced something similar before resurfacing as “Blacking Out” two years after that. Neither showed much trace of their original gene pool.

Rocket Fuel seemed stale and embarrassing almost immediately. We couldn’t use it to get gigs, and with no drummer, we had no idea if the Mojo Wire was done for good. Personally, I thought the only reason to keep going after that was to simply supersede this thing with better songs. That happened in theory if not practice—no Mojo Wire disc is listenable all the way through—but even among Mojo albums, Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor was definitely the problem child, and before long we all knew it.

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