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Stem Winding Up for Fame

Sunnyvale's Michael Parker unleashes Stem's demo effort

By Nicky Baxter

Wicked wah-wah guitar, propulsive rhythms and vocals swaddled in the Union Jack--the sound is London, circa 1967. But the members of the Bay Area's Stem aren't merely Anglophiles with a crush on the Beatles. Thanks to leader Michael Parker's knack for catchy melodies and topical lyrics, the quartet looks to be on the verge of making a serious dent in the local music scene.

Speaking with Parker from his Sunnyvale home, I could hear the excitement in his voice. "We're getting a lot of support every place we play," he said. "The last time we played the Cactus Club, about a third of the audience came up and wanted to know more about us. A couple of labels have shown interest, coming out to our shows and returning to see us again."

Parker's previous group, an " '80s-rock" project called Torn, didn't fare as well. Although it garnered positive press, things fell apart after one CD. Torn was a collaborative effort, but Stem is pretty much Parker's baby.

"After Torn broke up, I decided to go in another direction," he explains. "I wasn't interested in collaborating so much as I was in challenging myself to write things on my own." If the demo Stem is any indication, the change did Parker good.

Composed over a two-year period, the tape reveals Parker's precocious vision. With the music written, Parker needed musicians to realize that vision onstage. To that end, guitarist Haroun, bassist Bob Flake and drummer Stephen Nutting were recruited.

"Haroun is a really excellent guitarist," says Parker. "And Bob and Steve are a killer rhythm section. They really bring the music out when we play live."

The eight-song demo begins with a bang and ends in similar fashion. "It's Not Free" has already made some noise on KOME's "Catch of the Day" and other feature shows. Bristling with the poppy kineticism of Brit-alt bands like Radiohead, the tune boasts swirly-bird guitars, a churning beat and lyrics that quote pop culture with guileless delight.

"Happy" is trippier, sporting fluent bass and dream-world vocals. "Next Big Thing" finds Parker's tongue planted firmly in his cheek. Here as elsewhere, the singer's helium-light tenor teases the song along until it entangles us in its charms.

Perhaps the most obviously Beatles-influenced tune, "Light of the World," could be mistaken for a first cousin of "I Am the Walrus." It features sawing violins (synths, really) and other Euro-art music instrumentation, as well as the famed John Lennon intonation ("Coo-coo cashew").

With performances at Slim's in San Francisco, the Shoreline and L.A.'s notorious Viper Room, 1997 looks to be Stem's for the taking. Says Parker: "We're playing as much as we can, writing songs. We just want to keep on building the buzz. The more people we play for, the more people want to hear us."

Stem plays June 15 at 9pm at the B-Hive, 372 S. First St., San Jose. (408/298-2529)

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Web exclusive to the June 12-18, 1997 issue of Metro.

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