Sugar high 

Secret Powers shows a surprisingly poppy side

In a soundproof room at Club Shmed Studios, Troy Warling croons into the microphone, his honeyed vocals so clear and glossy you’d think they were electronically enhanced.

“The sun goes down on everyone, maybe in a daydream all in the making,” he sings. “Take that ball and try to run, maybe it’s a long way down.”

This isn’t the Warling some of us once knew, the guy who used to crank out beastly bass lines and vocals that sounded like sped up Rolling Stones placed in a blender with screams and sassy woohoos! That was when he played with the Fireballs of Freedom, a dirty rock, sonic hurricane-of-a-band once based in Missoula, now in Portland, famous for wild partying, loud stage shows and a chaotic lifestyle. The vocals Warling delivers now—he left Fireballs seven years ago—is decidedly un-dirty, maybe even sparkly, with the sugar-pop style of Beatles meets Beach Boys meets Gene Pitney.

This is the sound of Secret Powers, one of Missoula’s newest local bands. Comprising Warling, guitarist/vocalist Ryan Farley (formerly of Boycott the Circus), keyboardist/vocalist Ryan “Shmed” Maynes (formerly of Arlo and The Seeds) and three members of the disbanded Oblio Joes—bassist John Fleming, guitarist Stu Simonson and drummer Dan Strachan–the band is also among the more seasoned.

Though they’ve been together for less than a year, Secret Powers has released their debut album, Explorers of the Polar Eclipse, and are already well on their way to a second. And while age and family life—the average age of the band is 35 and they’re all fathers—put some restrictions on the rock band lifestyle, they all say they’re putting out the best music of their careers in a more efficient, satisfying way than ever before.

“It’s different in the fact that there’s concrete goals that we want to accomplish,” says Fleming. “With the Obes it was like, ‘Well, I suppose we’ll record the next record someday…eventually…I don’t know when. We’ll work on new material…I don’t know when.’ I could never envision the Obes writing two records in a year.”

“It’s a lot more controlled,” adds Simonson, “which is a good thing. I feel like we’ve all become better musicians.”

Maynes, owner of Club Shmed (see “Anti-fame,” July 3, 2008), acts in many ways as Secret Powers’ compass—or “taskmaster,” as the band half-jokingly refers to him—having written the songs and orchestrated the production on Polar Eclipse. And since he’s both a studio producer and band member, Maynes can spend the time he needs on recording details, being as picky as he wants without added costs. For instance, during Warling’s recent vocal session, Maynes sits at the studio computer with his head cocked, listening closely, then yells, “Perfect. One more time!” And Warling tries it again with equally sweet precision.

This sort of attention to details has helped the members of Secret Powers see their musicianship evolve in ways they might never have expected.

“The Obes used to just play as loud as we wanted,” says Simonson, “and in this band we turn down as much as possible when we play live so we can hear all the vocal harmonies.”

“John actually got asked to turn up for the first time ever,” Strachan adds.

It’s also made them more vigilant about doing live show soundchecks, something the band never used to think twice about.

“When you’re a harmony band you rely so much on…your monitors or what the room sounds like,” Maynes says. “And I’ve heard on YouTube moments where the Beatles and the Beach Boys both sound like shit and their harmonies are out of tune, but I know it’s because they couldn’t hear themselves… We’ve kind of become little bitches about things like, ‘We need a soundcheck’ and, you know, ‘When’s the soundcheck?’”

For Maynes, Secret Powers indulges in a pop-heavy sound and playfulness he’s always wanted to pursue, but often had to abandon with his previous projects.

“Other bands I’ve been in, there’s a little opposition when it really starts to sound like the Monkees and the Partridge Family,” he says. “But these guys don’t have any opposition to that. Also, I suggested that we get these Evel Knievel leisure suits with stars and capes and big collars and everyone’s like, ‘Yeah! We should do that!’”

So it’s little surprise that Polar Eclipse delivers happy triumphant music that washes over you in waves of psychedelia, catchy lines and poppy hooks. It isn’t what you’d expect from an independent rock band these days—not shoegazer enough, nothing close to dark, weird or experimental. For instance, in “We are Alone,” the song crescendos until it reaches the chorus of “We are alone in the universe, don’t let it steal your heart away! Though we may never see it, I can’t help but believe it, it may be only us today!” 

In “Awfully Nice” you can hear Maynes’ raspy vocal finish steeped in minor key piano chords thumping a “Sesame Street” bounce.

And “Animal Shelter Show” sounds almost like a tribute to “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” when Maynes sings, “Roll baby roll! To the animal shelter show! Well I hope that you enjoy your stay…”

Secret Powers may be older than some of the youthful outfits regularly playing the Badlander, but since Maynes records local artists at his studio—young and old—and Fleming owns Ear Candy Music, they’re still in the thick of Missoula’s music scene. And at this point in their musical pursuits, they’re ready to cash in on their experience.

“Being 35 versus 25—when I was 25 I spent a lot more time partying,” says Maynes, “and now I’m spending a lot more time recording…”

“And wishing you were partying,” Strachan says.

Though they may look back fondly on carefree, van-touring memories, the band agrees this is exactly where they want to be in their lives.

“This is the band that I always wanted to be in,” says Warling. “I’ve loved music like this my whole life but I don’t know if I could have done it like this before.”

Secret Powers play a CD release party for Explorers of the Polar Eclipse at the Palace Saturday, Aug. 9, at 8 PM. Volumen open. $5.
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