It's a simple boy-meets-girl story. Heather Mansfield had just moved to the metropolis of Auckland, New Zealand and joined Yoko, a band in which she "sang poems and pretended to play guitar." Jonathan Bree was playing in his cousin's country-pop band, the Nudie Suits. When the two bands shared a bill, they met and discovered a mutual love of pop music, from Blondie to Fleetwood Mac. Also, they both had brown hair. The Brunettes were born.
Since then, they have released two albums and an EP on New Zealand's Lil' Chief Records, a haven for contemporary kiwi-pop practitioners. (Mansfield describes her label mates as "I'm-a-bit-geeky-but-I'm-the-life-of-the-party-once-I-get-a-few-whiskeys-in-me bands.") The Brunettes are undoubtedly the cutest, cuddliest, and catchiest band on the roster. Equally as indebted to the Modern Lovers as they are to '50s and '60s bubblegum, their songs are uniformly concerned with L-O-V-E. Gidget's fear of falling for a tall man, the love life of a record store clerk, the pitfalls of romancing an alien—it's all part of the Brunettes' lovesick lexicon.
"We'll always have a huge appreciation for bubblegum pop," explains Bree. "You'd have to be subhuman to not be tempted to chime in to a chorus of [Foreigner's] 'I Want to Know What Love Is.' In most bubblegum, though, there's underlying innuendo, darker and more risqué than that of the immediate message."
While their previous work has always buried that darkness in subtext, Structure & Cosmetics, the band's third album and first to be released stateside (via Sub Pop), injects more straightforward drama into the mix. Bree wrote "Small Town Crew" while missing his ex-girlfriend during a lonely housesitting stint in Los Angeles. And, on the title track, he croons like Lee Hazlewood about an enslaving domestic arrangement, which may or may not be the result of an argyle fetish. And yet, he insists that the album's main themes are "the joys of consumerism, having a home, domestic bliss."
"It's our white picket fence album," he says. "But Structure & Cosmetics also self-mockingly refers to the success formula for most pop groups."
Still, The Brunettes' strategy for world domination appears more focused on hard work. Bree has already begun thinking about the follow-up, which he hopes will incorporate more real strings (as opposed to the affordable Mellotron strings that grace this album). For the impending North American tour, The Brunettes have grown to six members with a backing band dubbed the Lil' Chief Orchestra. According to Mansfield, this expanded lineup carefully preserves the songs' studio treatments, but some modifications are inevitable.
"Usually, the essential elements of each song are unchanged from studio to stage, but we often rework the arrangement and instrumentation due to the limits of our mortality and being bound to this dimension," she explains. "And sometimes we play them twice as fast so people are more likely to dance."
Clearly, seducing America with their Southern Hemisphere harmonies is a labor-intensive enterprise, but the two still find ways to unwind.
"I like taking water pistols to the Domain, a huge public park and garden in Auckland, and shooting the swans and ducks," admits Bree. "They don't mind so much. They're quite familiar with water."
And Mansfield? "I just sit at home and check for MySpace messages."