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Clash of the titans - Soccer star Lalas, Boston's biggest ego at Budapest

The Princeton Packet

Friday, December 11, 1998

by By Keith Ingersoll, Staff Writer

Take a quick listen to Don't Get Smart, the band's third release, and you'll understand why the award is richly deserved. It mixes the best elements of pop bands like Beck and Soul Coughing with the twisted humor of They Might Be Giants to craft a release loaded with songs both inventive and infectious.
Stop if you've heard this one: What do you get when a big ego and an even bigger sports star   agree to perform at one of the most popular live music venues in New Brunswick - namely, the   Budapest Music Lounge?
That's easy ? one of the venue's most exciting weekend schedules in recent memory. The   schedule kicks off with Boston-based Jim's Big Ego on Friday, Dec. 11, followed by a live   performance by New York/New Jersey Metrostars soccer player and former Rutgers   University star Alexi Lalas on Saturday, Dec. 12.
Formed about five years ago, Jim's Big Ego is the quirky brainchild of Jim Infantino, a   Boston-area poet, singer and guitarist voted "New Artist of the Year" in 1995 by the National   Academy of Songwriters.
Take a quick listen to Don't Get Smart (Eastern Front Records), the band's third release,   and you'll understand why the award is richly deserved. It mixes the best elements of pop   bands like Beck and Soul Coughing with the twisted humor of They Might Be Giants to craft a   release loaded with songs both inventive and infectious.
Mr. Infantino says the secret to the band's success has been to simply follow their own   unique vision.
"I'm not trying to do this to be popular," he says. "I'm doing all the wrong things. I like the   music I'm making. I don't know whether it will survive, if there are enough people coming to   see us or any of that stuff.
"We like to experiment, we like to have fun ? we like to do it all on stage. We're just not   worried about being cool. Our stuff is just kind of what you would call 'geek rock.' For us, it's   good enough to just be up there messing around with the music that we're working on."
"Geek rock" isn't a synonym for "inaccessible," however. Don't Get Smart follows in the   traditions of more cerebral rock - blazed by performers like Tom Waits and Elvis Costello,   both favorites of Mr. Infantino's - where it's equally as important to stimulate one's mind as well   as one's body.
"I like the smart variety of music," Mr. Infantino says. "I was always really into Laurie   Anderson and I really like what William Burroughs did with his background noise. It really all   kind of gets your brain working, but musically it's also pretty great."
More than anything perhaps, Jim's Big Ego succeeds in putting a smile on the most cynical   face; songs like "Ugly People" can't help but bring out the best in listeners.
"Humor really turns me on," Mr. Infantino says. "I guess I really love comedy. I like stuff that   seems like it should be serious but then turns funny. I really dig that. I always like working that   into the music because it's not done enough - it's not done in enough interesting ways."
Making smart music means taking chances, with techniques like manipulation of sounds and   lyrical content. For example, most prominent on Don't Get Smart is the use of an upright,   rather than, electric bass.
Use of the upright bass isn't a nod to the current swing revival taking place in popular music;   Mr. Infantino says he just appreciates the instrument's sound.
"I'm addicted to the sound of the upright," he says. "I love the way the notes kind of swoop,   plus the feel is different. When the notes hit, there's a little bit of an attack in front of it. It kind   of goes over you. You just feel it so much differently than the electric."
The quest for new sounds are most definitely part of Mr. Infantino's vision. Use of more than   one musician - Jim's Big Ego originally started as a solo project - is one way to sweeten the   musical pot; still, Mr. Infantino says bigger isn't always better.
"I always like it to sound like a big machine with some parts that are messed up and I like   doing that with as few people as possible," he says. "When I played solo, I loved pushing the   limit of how much sound you can get out of one person, one guitar.
"So when everyone is working really hard to get that big, whirring cranking machine sound,   then it's like there's something exciting. Everyone is kind of doing as much as they can."
With the exception of several guest vocalists, Mr. Infantino provides the bulk of the vocals on   Don't Get Smart. Much of his vocal delivery tends toward rap, with more of a laid-back,   street-smart Beck style.
"I don't think I'm into certain rap," he says. "I like some artists and I don't like others, but it   changes all the time because rap is rapidly evolving."
Unlike some purists, Mr. Infantino doesn't aim to keep rap and rock separate; he says stirring   up the musical cauldron is what innovation is all about.
"I really don't buy into that whole 'white/black' myth that comes with rap," he says. "I don't   buy into that separation. I don't believe that rap is an entirely black thing. And I don't think I'm   doing anything wrong by doing anything that sounds like rap. All of that stuff is kind of too bad;   I'm just doing my own thing."
If you really want to see the band do their own thing, then seeing them hold court live is   where it's at. Mr. Infantino places a high premium on audience interaction, and to that end has   introduced what he calls "napkin poetry."
"A friend of mine actually had the idea for this," he says. "I had written a song a long time ago   and one of the lines was, 'I like to write on napkins,' a reference to the kind of geeky guy that I   am. He was like, 'Why don't you make that a performance thing? Why don't you get everyone   doing that at your show?'" Mr. Infantino took up the challenge and made "napkin poetry" a permanent   part of the band's show.  Audience members write one- to two-line thoughts on a piece of napkin   during the first half of the band's set. Toward the end of the second half of their set, Mr.   Infantino reads from the napkins.
He says there's some twisted folks out there.
"We had one thing on a napkin one time that was really disturbing and the drummer stopped   playing and was like, 'What?!' Then we had to get started again and finish it," he says, laughing.   "But I'll read everything. The thing that turns me on is how much I can interact with the audience   from the stage."
Think "soccer" and you probably think of Alexi Lalas . The three-time All-American at Rutgers   and Olympic soccer star is arguably the most widely-recognized American figure in the game;   images of him kicking and scoring color our perception of him.
But kicking out killer tunes on a six-string? That's a side of Mr. Lalas few are familiar with.   It's one that the New York/New Jersey Metrostar player - who recently released his third   album, Ginger (CMC International) - hopes to change.
"It's a huge part of my life, but having said that, I've always kept music in my life," Mr. Lalas   says. "It's something that I have an equal passion for. I never considered it as a hobby or   something that I just dabbled in.
"I've been involved in music for one way or the other for years, and even well before I was   involved with soccer. Even though my soccer career has done very well and much of my life   has been taken up with soccer, I've made an effort to keep the music in my life."
Thanks to his skills on the field, Mr. Lalas already is an international star, gaining   post-Rutgers attention playing soccer in Italy. He has since joined this country's Major Soccer   League, playing for the New England Revolution and now with the Metrostars.
Trying to start a musical career hasn't been easy for athletes and other non-musical stars;   public skepticism and somewhat mediocre releases - anyone willing to admit they own a copy   of Shaq Diesel? - have conspired to keep such newfound success difficult to achieve.
Mr. Lalas says knowing the odds were stacked against him forced him to do things a bit   differently.
"It's an incredible challenge and, to be fair, I suffer from a history of athletes or actors who   want to capitalize on their notoriety, so they put out music - most of which has been crap," he   says. "With that comes an incredible amount of skepticism from the public.
"That's the challenge - proving to people that you know what you're doing in creating a   respectability and credibility within music. You have to have patience and prove that you know   what you're doing. I knew going into this album that there was going to be skepticism and I   knew that in order for it to be good it had to be really good; there wasn't any room for   mediocrity."
Ginger follows Mr. Lalas' two previous recordings: 1994's Woodland and Far From   Close, an album available only in Europe. He's also featured on a Bruce Springsteen tribute   album and his song, "Kickin' Balls," is featured in the Disney film, The Big Green.
The new album is entirely Mr. Lalas' - he wrote, arranged and produced the entire release.   Greg Archilla, whose production credits include records with Matchbox 20, Collective Soul   and Edwin McCain, also worked on the record.
With Mr. Lalas spending much of his time on the field, finding time to write his third release   was a challenge. He says much of it was written in his free time - in hotel rooms, as well as in   airplanes and buses.
"What's interesting to me is going down the line of songs on the album, and because soccer   takes me all over the world, all these songs were written all over the place," he says. "I can   look at a song and say, 'Oh yeah, I was in that country,' when that part of the song was written.
No doubt you're wondering whether Mr. Lalas brings the same intensity to his music as he   does his soccer; the answer is yes. Ginger places him squarely between the outposts of   alternative and classic rock, delivering just the right amount of healthy guitar rock and angst.
"I set about to make a good rock album, especially in today's anti-melody, harsh music   world," Mr. Lalas says. "That's not something I'm real interested in. I wanted to make a good   album that you could just crank up and the kind of stuff that I grew up with - you know, with   the guitars, right up front."
He's talking about the lifeblood of the American teen male - bands like The Who, Led   Zeppelin, Kiss, and Van Halen. Mr. Lalas didn't start rocking at such an early age, however.
His first exposure to music was through his mother, a guitarist who knew folk music and   introduced him to the piano. Mr. Lalas says neither folk nor piano were for him, however - he   just wanted to rock.
"I took piano like millions of other kids and I hated it," he says, laughing. "I mean, I didn't   hate it, but I did hate being forced to go off to lessons kicking and screaming. I'll say that the   piano did introduce me to an instrument that is the staple for other types of music; it made it so   much easier to learn other instruments having the basis of the piano behind me."
By the time he entered his teens, Mr. Lalas had already played in several bands. He   continued playing after arriving at Rutgers, most notably in a band with his friends called The   Gypsies.
These days, Mr. Lalas' audiences are a bit larger than the Friday night college crowd. He and   his band - which includes his brother Greg, Lex Lianos and Chris Cicchino - recently returned   from a 10-day musical tour of Europe, opening for Hootie and The Blowfish.
"That was great," he says. "Honest to God, we went over there and it was a new band   together and we learned so much. It can be terrifying to be an opening band; no one knows the   music and our music was a little harder than Hootie and the Blowfish, but it was totally cool."
Mr. Lalas hasn't had much experience as a rock star, instead doing his best to translate what   he's learned on the field onto the stage.
"There's similarities and differences between the two," he says. "First, I consider myself an   entertainer and a performer. You get that feeling and that connection and it's a cool thing to   have happen.
"The major difference is that although soccer will always be an important part of my life, it's   also going to be a small part as well. I can get up tomorrow and either I don't want to play or   my legs say I can't continue playing. Music is something you can have in your life in one form or   another for the rest of your life."
You can expect a great deal more music from Mr. Lalas - he recently signed a multi-album   contract with CMC International.
He says he's set musical success in his sights.
"As with anything, I want to get better," he says. "I'm already working on the new songs in   terms of getting better songs, writing, lyrics, production. Hopefully, with each album we can get   better and more exposure. I want to get to the point where people look at me and say, 'Yeah,   he's a good soccer player but he's a good musician, too.'"
Jim's Big Ego will perform at the Budapest Cocktail Lounge, 234 Somerset St., New   Brunswick, on Friday, Dec. 11, at 8 p.m. Alexi Lalas will perform at the Budapest on   Saturday, Dec. 12, at 8 p.m. Tickets for both shows are $5. For more information, call   (732) 246-9055.