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My Favorite Work: The Story Behind Dishwalla’s No. 1 Single, ‘Counting Blue Cars’

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The Story Behind Dishwalla's Only No. 1 Single, 'Counting Blue Cars'
(left to right) Rodney Cravens (guitar), J.R. Richards (vocals), George Pendergast (drums), and Scot Alexander (bass) of Dishwalla backstage at Live 105.3’s BFD in 1996 at the Shoreline Amphitheater on June 14, 1996 in Mountain View, California. (Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

 

Following the tsunami that was Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991, a torrent of highly eclectic acts broke into the mainstream in its wake.

One of them was Santa Barbara, California’s Dishwalla.

Releasing its debut album, Pet Your Friends, in 1995, the band’s first single, “Counting Blue Cars” received early buzz when it was featured in the slacker classic, Empire Records. The album version would eventually find its way onto the radio and travel steadily up the charts, hitting No. 1 by 1996. It would prove the band’s only charting hit.

Besides the movie cameo, what gave the song the boost it needed to go chart nuclear was the lyric sung during the second run-through of the chorus: “Tell me all your thoughts on G-d/’cause I’d really like to meet her.” The song didn’t imagine G-d as the bearded man on the Sistine Chapel ceiling—but as a woman.

The Story Behind Dishwalla's Only No. 1 Song, 'Counting Blue Cars'
(left to right): Dishwalla’s new lineup is Justin Fox (vocals), George Pendergast (drums), Rodney Cravens (guitar), Jim Wood (keyboards), and Scot Alexander (bass) (Courtesy of Think Press)

 

In 2015, the band celebrated the song’s 20th anniversary by re-recording it and re-releasing it, this time, with a new lead vocalist, Justin Fox. (The leads on the original album version were sung by J.R. Richards).

The band, though, has gotten by without publicizing their lineup–and that’s by design. “By some coincidence of bad branding and a video where you couldn’t recognize us and a song that was called something other than what it should’ve been, everybody knows the song and can sing along to it, and when we can play it to 10,000 people, nobody knows it isn’t J.R. [singing],” says George Pendergast, the band’s longtime drummer and the song’s co-writer, about the change in lead vocalists.

Two years later, the band is set to release its first full-length in nearly a decade on May 5, Juniper Road, which features 12 new songs, some of which the band has been playing around with since ’98. It was produced by Sylvia Massey, who’s credits include Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The band is planning on a summer tour in support of the album.

Before his band hits the road, Pendergast joined RealClearLife to look back at his band’s signature song and how it came together.

‘The Dishwalla Machine’: Writing and Recording

“The nice thing about the band, which has always been the case, is that everyone’s always been a writer. It’s never been Lennon and McCartney. We have learned to put everything through the ‘machine’—we call it the ‘Dishwalla Machine.’ That’s how Pet Your Friends came about.

“We were in our studio, which used to be a skateboard manufacturing [warehouse]—it had this huge wooden warehouse floorspace that we skateboarded through the whole time—and ‘Counting Blue Cars’ came in as an idea and went through the process. I remember even at one point, I wasn’t sure what type of a beat to play, so [bassist] Scot [Alexander] was like, ‘Do something like this!’ He’s amazing at beat-boxing, so he was able to hammer it out and help me with the groove for it. A lot of that first record was written at that studio.

“The only thing that I know to be close to fact about [the lyrics], is that [the song’s ‘child’] was a kid that lived next door to J.R., and it was through his perspective. I believe this little boy had two moms, so it was not in his automatic response to say that I’d really like to meet him, as far as G-d goes.”

What Happens When You Score a Hit Record

“The first thing I did is I went and bought a really expensive pair of sunglasses. Then, I immediately threw them away. I didn’t realize it until I got up the next morning. I had cleaned out my car and grabbed a big handful and chucked it in the trash, and I think I even threw my keys in, if I remember correctly. So I was like, I’m going to pretend this never happened. I went down to the same store, Occhiali in Montecito, and I said, ‘Hi, I’d like to get some of these,’ and I pointed to them and said, ‘Don’t even talk to me about [the other ones], please. I just want another pair.’ So I ended up buying the same pair of $350 glasses two days in a row.”

Behind the Music … Video

“[The video takes place in] downtown L.A. For the homeless people, they built this thing called the Dome Village, which I don’t think is there anymore. It was in a blacktop parking lot, and they were fiberglass domes that were big enough for one person to live in. They allowed us to come in there and use a different color paint on the domes that would wash off. [The video was] heavy on the concept, [but I’m] not sure I ever really understood it. It was one of those where [director] Chris Applebaum was a really good friends of everybody’s from Santa Barbara.

“Earlier, I was saying how it doesn’t matter the identifiability with our band, because you couldn’t see us in the video and we had blown-out features? I had blonde hair [in the video]. The next time you saw me, I had long black hair and a goatee. J.R. had Elvis hair the next time you saw him—he had long hair. So our marketing people were like, ‘What the hell are you doing? Stick with an image for the campaign of the album!’ We were like, ‘We’re not cartoon characters. We’re artists.’ In hindsight I’m like, ‘S—, I should’ve been a cartoon character.'”

—Will Levith for RealClearLife