A cinematic quality surrounds several songs on The Last Few Beautiful Days, The Motels’ first new studio release in a decade. Its cover art displays a shuttered Troy, N.Y. movie theater built in 1914.
Martha Davis says her compositions serve as time machines or travelling agents and are “supposed to transport you…When I was a five-year-old kid listening to [Stravinsky’s] ‘The Rite of Spring,’ my mind was blown. I remember floating in space; free falling.”
The veteran singer, calling from a large farmhouse property she shares with six dogs, nine cats, four alpacas and three goats outside Portland, Ore., was effusive about her current surroundings.
“Blossoms are blooming on the pear and plum trees. It’s gorgeous and I love it here.”
Davis relocated from California in 2005 after realizing Portland reminded her of Berkeley, where she was born, raised and formed the rock group that would later become The Motels.
Thirty years earlier, the singer “moved my dogs, my kids and my life from Berkeley – which I never wanted to leave – to go to L.A., where I hated it. But it was [necessary] if you wanted to do this” as a career.
Upon arrival, The Motels struggled to book gigs.
“The only places you could play were the Whisky and Starwood if you had an album deal,” Davis recalled. “Everything was sown up by the ‘California Sound’ of Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles and Poco. There was no way to get in.”
Instead, The Motels did their own show in 1976 called Radio Free Hollywood with two other local groups.
“We put all our money together, we rented a hall, got kegs of beer and it was packed. Shortly thereafter, we started playing” those clubs. In many ways, “it was the catalyst for people starting to notice original bands that were not of the Laurel Canyon ilk.” (A new documentary on the scene is supposedly in the works.)
Soon after, The Motels drew the attention of Rodney Bingenheimer at KROQ/106.7 FM. Following a year-long split, some lineup changes and label deals falling through the cracks, the band landed a residency at hip venue Madame Wong’s in 1979. Later that year, they signed with Capitol Records and released the self-titled debut LP. Second album Careful came out the next year and The Motels found success Down Under.
Here, they finally hit pay dirt with third and fourth efforts All Four One and Little Robbers, which spawned such pop and AOR radio hits as “Only the Lonely,” “Take the L,” “Mission of Mercy,” “Suddenly Last Summer” and “Remember the Nights.”
While those two gold-selling studio albums are typically the best-known titles by The Motels, Davis doesn’t necessarily consider them to be the best. That designation would go to earlier, more rough-around-the edges works with darker, memorable gems like “Celia” and “Kix.”
“When you’re first doing it, you’re not following any rules and making it up. As you get more schooled, you can’t help but capitulate to what’s going on around you. A lot of times, your most interesting stuff is in the very beginning. Once you’ve learned all the stuff, you can start letting go again and be more freed up about it. I think there’s a point in the middle where you start caring too much – or the record company tells you to care too much.”
Nowadays, if Davis has compiled enough material to take the listener on a journey, she knows it’s time for another album. That was the case on The Last Few Beautiful Days, co-produced by Davis and bandmate Nick Johns with mixing by Gavin Mackillop (The Church, Human League, Simple Minds).
“I don’t want to make a collection of different pop songs or put out singles,” she said. “There’s no reason to do that. If it’s going to be an album, it has to be a story or a cohesive thing. This one started out as my look at the absurd world we’re living in right now, which is really stranger than I’ve ever seen it before.”
Davis didn’t want the tunes to be overtly political though. “I made sure every song was first person and they were all stories: ‘This is me dealing with a crazy, insane criminal person’… if you do it on an emotional basis, people actually start comparing it to their own emotional situation.”
Marty Jourard, a mainstay of the classic Motels lineup from 1978 until its second dissolution in 1987, returned four years ago. Davis said, “it’s hilarious, as it always was,” having Jourard back in the fold. “He’s like the ‘new old guy,’ because the rest of the musicians have been in The Motels for 15 years.
“There is something really magical when we get going and, on this album, they’re all much more involved in terms of writing. It really is more of a band than ever. That’s why we keep trying to stay away from ‘Martha Davis and The Motels’ and just go for ‘The Motels’ because this is the best Motels there’s ever been.”
Jourard delivers a memorable sax solo on the majestic piano-based title track, creatively triggered by T.C. Boyle’s 2000 eco-fiction work “A Friend of the Earth.”
“As soon as I put down that book, I remember sitting at the piano and all the sudden this beautiful song came out. I don’t write on the piano very often, so it was interesting,” noted Davis.
The slow-building, jazzy “Light Me Up,” also written years ago, was a later addition to the absorbing new album. “That song started haunting me. It wanted out of the closet bad. It needed to be free.”
Here, Davis sings about “going downtown where all my cares will drift away.” It was partially inspired by The Motels’ first landing in L.A. and uncertainty about whether everything was going to work out.
“Walking towards the lights and the fame and wanting to be a rock star – that whole crazy thing. As you do, you realize it’s pulling everything else apart. But there’s nothing else you can do. It’s a very sad song for me.”
The intense maelstrom of “Machine” and an alluring “Look at Me” are elevated by Jourard’s excellent horn work, which nearly delves into John Zorn territory. People have even told Davis that a few songs sound like her idol David Bowie’s work [think: Blackstar], something she considers the “highest compliment ever.”
Elsewhere, there are excellent, distinctly new wave-ish tracks like the synth and arpeggiator-driven “Tipping Point,” the driving “Punchline,” “Imposters” and panoramic first single “Lucky Stars” – definitely the best thing they’ve done in quite awhile.
Davis said the reason those songs evoke the familiar Motels sound is because her younger bandmates “love the ‘80s and probably have more of an appreciation for it than I do. I was there and did it. That was when they were first getting into music. That’s always going to be your favorite. They bring a lot of that and really embrace a shiny pop song like Tears for Fears, whereas I think I probably would go darker. That side of the Motels, [plus] having Marty back with his own sensibilities, it just works out.”
Why does Davis think the Eighties as a musical decade remains so popular?
“Great art happens when there is a confluence of wonderful technology or a change in the terrain. I think the greatest music era ever was the ‘60s. You had Hendrix, The Beatles, The Who, The Stones, Joplin, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, on and on.”
After radio formats and song lengths expanded at the end of the Sixties, “everybody got stimulated because it was a bold new vista; a brand-new terrain. It was exciting and thrilling. I think some of that happened in the ‘80s with music videos. That created a situation where everybody wanted to be completely unique. There were no two bands that sounded alike.
“I laugh sometimes when I hear a modern band that sounds like Blondie,” David continued. “None of us wanted to sound like anybody else. Right after the ‘80s, we went into a period where melody took a little holiday. It was all about lyrics and rhythm. I think the longing for melody, which people love, keeps that era alive. I don’t think there’s been a real return to melody full-on. There’s a lot of acrobatic singing, a lot of riffing, but not a lot of beautiful melody lines. I think that’s what keeps the ‘80s safe in their place.”
Back then, The Motels had the opportunity to work with two esteemed young directors who’d later find acclaim in film and television work: David Fincher (“House of Cards,” “The Social Network,” “Fight Club”) and Russell Mulcahy (“Teen Wolf,” “Queer as Folk,” “Tales from the Crypt”).
“The Russell Mulcahy stuff was amazing because those were some of our first videos,” said Davis. “It was so new and such a Wild Wild West situation. David Fincher, I will always love. I just spoke with him the other day. We hadn’t talked in a long time. Just a great guy and so talented. I was really lucky in that department.”
While some heritage acts complained that making music videos were a grind, The Motels leader loved the process.
“The whole performing aspect of what I do is a fabulous escapism. It’s like when you’re a little kid playing dress up and becoming somebody else. That’s always intriguing and fun for me. I think of doing these songs and acting them out onstage because that’s basically what’s happening.”
The Motels – U.S. Tour Dates
May 12 Like Totally ‘80s Festival – Huntington Beach, CA
June 15 Rock of the ‘80s – Winston-Salem, NC
June 22 Boardwalk Bands on the Beach – Santa Cruz, CA
June 29 Rock of the ‘80s – Roanoke, VA
July 26 Dakota Jazz Club – Minneapolis, MN
July 27 Wildey Theatre – Edwardsville, IL
July 28 Taste of Lincoln – Chicago, IL
Sept. 2 Feather Falls Brewing – Oroville, CA
Sept. 6 Lost ‘80s Live – Pomona, CA
Sept. 8 Lost ‘80s Live – Las Vegas, NV