Times Staff Writer

The members of Dexter, the Huntington Beach trio that recently won a national talent competition, were only joking when they said they hope to keep their new crown "for the next three years."

That's because in the contest sponsored by JBL loudspeakers, Musician magazine and the National Assn. of Music Merchandisers (NAMM), Dexter was selected as "the best unsigned band in America."

"Actually, we hope to get rid of that title as soon as we can," said Mark Mancina, the group's lead singer, guitarist and keyboard player.

If the band's victory over about 3,000 other performers brings the group the music industry attention it anticipates, Dexter won't be an unsigned band much longer.

"I hope in Chicago that we'll be playing for some good people," said Mancina, 29. The band will travel to Chicago this weekend for a featured performance Monday at the summer NAMM convention. Mancina, bassist Doug Smith and keyboardist Barry Hovis, along with a new drummer, will open for innovative guitarist Adrian Belew.

The competition results are even more remarkable since the band members never entered the contest.

In an interview Wednesday at a Westminster recording studio, Mancina said: "I read Musician and I saw the big ad for the contest. I thought, 'Right, we're going to get picked.' I didn't bother to enter."

Fortunately for the group, a tape of one of their songs, "Safety in Numbers," was submitted without their knowledge by Steve McClintock, a local musician and producer. "Heavy metal bands usually win things like this," McClintock said. "I think the judges wanted to see something different, more marketable." Dexter's music, a synthesizer-dominated, pulsating dance sound, is closer to the current pop mainstream than that of most heavy metal bands.

Dexter will be warming up for its Chicago concert with a performance tonight at the Warehouse in Newport Beach.

For most of the two years the band has been together it has played the local Top 40 circuit, mixing originals with cover versions of pop hits. The band members said tonight's show will be the first showcasing of their own music for an entire show.

While many bands complain about the artistic limitations of playing Top 40 clubs, Hovis, 26, said, "The Warehouse has really been supportive of us."

Before forming Dexter--the name taken from the "DX" notation on a popular synthesizer--Mancina and Smith knew each other as students in Cal State Fullerton's music department. Hovis was brought into the group as a second keyboard player "to give us a different sound than the usual guitar-keyboards-bass-drum bands," Smith, 30, said.

But the musicians were quick to take credit for all the music they play, eschewing electronic gadgets such as sequencers, which allow keyboard players to record and store in a synthesizer's memory anything from a single note to an entire song.

In their songs, the three musicians generally avoid the favorite subjects of most pop songs. "We don't write about politics or love," Hovis said.

Their winning song, however, is a sociological statement about conformity that has drawn an ironic response from many people who have heard it, Hovis said.

"It's a sarcastic song about trends and how people go along with the masses," Hovis said. "People were coming up to us and saying things like: 'That song expresses exactly what I was thinking. Right on.' "

"Without a Passion," another of Dexter's song's that, like "Safety in Numbers," was recorded on an eight-track recorder in Mancina's bedroom, found its way into a recent ABC Movie of the Week, "Tough Love."

"It was amazing hearing our song recorded in my bedroom in this movie with Lee Remick and Bruce Dern," Mancina said.

In addition to the exposure the group will get at the NAMM convention, part of their winnings include one day of recording time in a top Chicago studio. Previously, for being selected as one of five finalists, the band was presented with $7,000 worth of musical equipment from JBL.

In the three weeks since the contest results were announced, the musicians are still assessing the impact of their win, which will make them an immediate target of comparison for thousands of other unsigned bands.

"I was thinking: Is it good or bad?" Mancina said.

"On one hand, it makes it obvious to everyone that we don't have a deal," Hovis said. "So going into Chicago will be like walking into the OK Corral. But it will also open some doors for us."

LIVE ACTION: Tickets go on sale for two Pacific Amphitheatre shows with Art of Noise on July 31 and UB40 on Sept. 20. . . . San Francisco's Cherry Bombz will play the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on June 23. . . . Rick Derringer will be at Garfield's Nite Spot in Huntington Beach, June 19-20.

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