When I moved back to Nashville back in 1983, WRVU had become the beacon of all that was cool. I discovered many great bands on this station and made some life-long friends in the process.
One of the bands I distinctly remember hearing on WRVU for the first time was Birmingham’s the Primitons– and they were a revelation to me: killer guitars, powerful drums matched with almost angelic vocals and intelligent lyrics. Later I saw a picture of the band for the first time and I couldn’t put it all together. For the most part, they looked like your typical early 1980’s outfit except for the one guy who looked like an angry giant biker. I was later to learn that this was the source of those beautiful vocals and monster guitar riffs: Mats Roden – a Swede somehow transplanted to Birmingham, Alabama.
I don’t remember how I got to know these guys – there was Mats, drummer extraordinaire Lief Bondarenko and a non‑performing lyricist Stephanie Truelove-Wright together with an apparently rotating cast of bass players. Seemingly, they did everything right. They were produced by Mitch Easter, recorded a Left Banke cover, had a record on Throbbing Lobster – this all seemed like success to me at the time; yet they didn’t make it.
Early in my legal career I tried to shop the band for a new deal to no avail. I still have my pitch letters – (man, was I earnest). I stayed in touch with Mats and sometime in 1990 or 1991 he sent me a tape that blew my mind. He and Lief had formed a new band called the Sugar La La’s – it seemed like some kind of Birmingham super group and featured a brilliant and charismatic singer named Carole Griffin. The music was complex, exotic, slightly decadent and celebratory; songs like “Free Love” and “Everybody Hates Me,” and “You Must Die”. The stage show was even better. Mats kept the biker boots but often dressed in drag. Carole was mesmerizing and the band was supported by a traveling entourage of cross-dressing lunatics – all from Birmingham, Alabama.
I rarely trust my commercial instincts but I knew this band could get a record deal. In short order they showcased for publishers and record companies, got a good publishing deal, turned down a major label while holding out for a better offer and then … broke up. Carole, the singer, quit the band. They tried to replace her but she was irreplaceable.
I was heart-broken. Rarely had I worked with a group this great or a songwriter/musician as talented as Mats. The band was cool enough to reunite to play my wedding in 1993 but essentially they were done. As the years passed I would go back and listen to both the Primitons and the Sugar La La’s and try to figure out why neither band succeeded. Mats would call periodically and update me on new projects but nothing ever seemed to pan out. A few years ago he suffered a stroke. I never knew the details and although he still remained in touch, I don’t think that Mats was prepared to deal with the music industry in the 21st century. I think I irritated him during our last email exchange because I hadn’t listened to something he had sent me. A couple of weeks ago I saw on Facebook that Mats had died in his sleep.
I was neither shocked nor surprised but I was immensely saddened by the fact that only a small portion of the world got to experience his immense creativity and talent. A couple of years ago a label called Arena Rock Recording Company re‑issued all of the Primitons’ recordings digitally for the first time. If you want to know what was really good in the 1980’s, check this out. I wish someone would release the Sugar La La’s recordings. Mats was one‑of‑a‑kind.