The smoke clears 


Michael Cudahy, singer and gutarist for Combustible Edison, is best known to his bandmates and fans as, simply, The Millionaire. So why, as a recorded message so dispassionately relates to me, has his phone been temporarily disconnected?

A "cash-flow bottleneck" was the culprit, the erudite and always stylishly dressed Cudahy says, after a scheduled interview was postponed by two days.

"I didn't get this name for my financial acumen," Cudahy, laughing, says. "I'm a notorious spend-thrift. If I have any money in my pocket, I'll spend it on my friends. I was at a bar with eight friends, feeling flush, and I bought three rounds of drinks. There have been plenty of times when I wish I was a little wiser with my finances. I'm of the opinion that life's for living, not for putting on hold."

That infectious carpe-diem philosophy has always informed the sense and sensibility of Combustible Edison, the Providence, R.I., quintet whose musical and physical elegance provided relief from the grunge rock and styles of the early '90s. The group countered the scruffy guitars, pounding drums, flannel shirts and heroin chic of Seattle's finest with xylophones, spacy keyboards, string bass, dinner jackets and martinis. Stirred, not shaken.

The Millionaire, singer Lilith Banquette (Liz Cox), bassist Nicholas Cudahy and their bandmates gained regional enthusiasm courtesy of a deep and swanky bachelor-pad sound that celebrated the likes of Kurt Weill, Ennio Morricone, Martin Denny, Henry Mancini and Mexicl's Juan Garcia Esquivel.

They signed to the Sub Pop label in 1993, taking self-described "suave and sybaritic" music national with their 1994 debut album, "I Swinger." Combustible Edison, the first band to put a signature drink mix on a CD cover, did the music for the 1995 Quentin Tarantino-produced film "Four Rooms" and released their debut album, "Schizophonic," in 1996.

Those last two projects sealed the band's reputation as the flesh-and-blood embodiment of cocktail culture. Cudahy, for one, who once fronted indie-rock outfit Christmas with Cox, wasn't happy to be given the credit or blame for sparking any genre or movement. Particularly when so many followers of the new fashion seemed to miss the point.

"The things people were latching on to were the real sort of obvious visual aspects, and not the basic values behind those qualities," he says. "It took us a while to realize that we were maybe contributing to that, too. The main point, the extramusical point, anyway, was a sort of joie de vivre, a life-for-living attitude, quality over quantity. I'd rather have one well-made cocktail with good ingredients than a 12-pack of Miller Lite or a pitcherful of margaritas."

One thing led to another, and the so-called lounge nation turned into the neo-swing revolution, with dozens of bad Benny Goodman played by dozens of bands with "Daddies" in their name. Imitation may be the most sincere form of flattery. But not to Cudahy.

"The swing thing -- I don't feel like we have anything in common with it," he says. "What we did, certainly, was laid the groundwork for it to be successful. It prepared people for that. But a lot of the swing stuff basically trades on the things that we were least interested in, in our little world. It's so completely a retro thing. We've been moving farther and farther away from that since we began."

Last year's "The Impossible World," the third Combustible Edison album, takes the group quite a distance from their sonic origins. Bossa nova, exotica, jazz and lounge music are still present. But the mix is dashed with touches of electronica, thanks to producer Scanner, whose credits include DJ Spooky and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and producer/engineer John Holbrook. Holbrook has worked with Todd Rundgren, Natalie Merchant, Jewel, Brian Setzer and Don Byron, and he began his career mastering such gems as The Who's "Tommy" and Jimi Hendrix's "Electric Ladyland."

"For us, the whole concept of easy-listening and cocktail music is the sound itself," Cudahy says. "A lot of it was based around trying to push the sonic envelope. Technology has advanced so much, that the worlds of sounds available to anybody who's interested in exploiting it are infinite."

The title, he explains, alludes to the difficulty of re-creating a universe that may have been mythical in the first place.

"It's about the feeling that there's always been a sort of quixotic element to what we're doing. It's an acknowledgment of the impossibility of what we were trying to call into existence. The process of recording and performing music is like practical magic. It's like a spell. It's attempting to invoke something or create a result.

"The fall-out from this record was really weird. It was like a spell that had repercussions that we didn't realize. One of the main emotional themes is loss and sorrow. There's been a lot more of that happening (within the band), like fucking with a Ouija board and liberating something."


More by Philip Booth

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