"Have you seen the Web site Realdolls.com?" asks Starla, the singer and guitarist in local power duo the Sick Bees, over coffee at the Caffé Vita on Capitol Hill. "They [have] dolls you can buy, [called] Real Dolls. They're life-sized. They weigh as much as a human being weighs. You can position them."
"They're made out of silicone," says Julio, the Sick Bees' drummer. (Both prefer to be addressed by their nicknames.) "They have a metal skeleton. They're kind of like action figures, but they're way more sophisticated."
"They start at five grand, but that's just the base price," adds Starla. "You can order their fingernail color, hair color, eye color, boob size, ass size."
Are there any male dolls?
Both Sick Bees answer at once: "One man—Charlie."
"He is not attractive," says Starla.
"And he has three different dick sizes," says Julio.
We are on this topic because Starla had mentioned that the follow-up to the Sick Bees' careening, brilliant new EP, cheekily titled The Marina Album (Up), is to be titled Holy (it's due out in the fall), and that it is, as Starla puts it, "our take on religion." She then shoots Julio a priceless "who, me?" look right after saying this, cracking the both of them up. Starla mentions that one of the songs on the album is a rendition of an old hymn she sang growing up: "I really miss singing in church, so I wrote my grandmother and had her send me a hymnal, picked out one of my favorite songs, and we decided to make it a rock song. It was fun. I liked singing that song again. It made me feel really good."
But, Starla wants to make clear, Holy won't be entirely about religion—in fact, it will contain a couple songs that have nothing to do with it. For example, the song about Real Dolls. Which is . . . what, exactly? A mock advertisement?
Starla looks at Julio with a small grin. "It's a love song," she says.
Unusual songs about unusual things are not foreign to the Sick Bees. The highlight of The Marina Album is a 35-second thrash-popper titled "God Will Stop Yer Party" that feels neither silly nor incomplete. Unusual sounds are the pair's forte, too—seven years after their first album, On the One, Julio still utilizes metal trash can lids as part of his percussion arsenal, and the duo recently went through a period of incorporating guest musicians onstage to help handle the various other instruments that decorate the songs on The Marina Album. It's not like they need much help: Live, both (along with pedal-triggered samples) are plenty loud and plenty nuanced. But far more than either On the One or 2000's terrific My Pleasure, Marina is frisky, restless, and diffuse. These are all marks in its favor. Marina is one of the oddest, and best, local releases of the year, a 13-song, 17-minute EP ("The title is a little ha-ha funny," says Starla) that feels like one long, multipartite song—a more lived-in, less arty Fiery Furnaces, maybe, except that it still sounds like the Sick Bees, only brighter and poppier.
This is a switch from My Pleasure, which buried the duo's power in a muddy mix-down. That album was released in mid-2000 and was beginning to attract notice when Chris Takino, who founded the band's label, Up, died of leukemia in October of that year. The Sick Bees had already dealt with the death from cancer of Julie Knolin, an engineer and friend who'd recorded the debut and parts of My Pleasure ("Tool Room" opens with Knolin's final recording, a field tape of a house being torn down next to her residence), and whom Starla and Julio had helped take care of during her final months. The band's promotional plans ground to a halt. "No one was in the mood to push that album—not us, not anyone," says Starla now. "It just sat there."
Fans wondered whether the duo would release anything again—or, indeed, if Up itself would. But the label, since taken over by Takino's boyfriend, Pete Richey, moved forward (the caveat is that Up only issues music by artists it had already signed prior to Takino's death). A few years of medical problems among the group didn't help matters. When I interviewed the Sick Bees in 2000, Julio, who had recently undergone back surgery, cracked, "Part of the reason I look like such a dork when I play is that I'm always in pain," and Starla was showing off a neck scar from a recent throat operation.
These days, Julio's back is fine—he reports that playing onstage is painless for the first time since the band began— but why the five-year delay between My Pleasure and The Marina Album? "When our last record came out, we were pretty happy with it, but not entirely," says Starla. "So we decided, 'What would it sound like if we tried to record what it sounds like in our practice space to us?' We went about learning a little bit about gear—not too much, hopefully, you don't want to [become] a gearhead, but enough to feel out and do the recordings ourselves." Starla recorded the songs for Marina and Holy (both albums were written simultaneously during the band's hibernation) three times, on increasingly better equipment.
The Marina Album is deceptively light, though. "They're silly songs," says Starla, who then reveals that the duo wrote them "to get through the drama that was happening with this [one] person. Everybody deals with situations differently, and we just wrote songs about it. We're not into revenge or anything like that."
"They're like short stories," cautions Julio. "None of it's slanderous."
"We wanted them to be really, really fun," says Starla. "We wanted the energy and the fun to be there for people, not just [have it be] an inside joke."