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Newly Anointed Anything Box Is Primed for Success

Times Staff Writer

Operating out of an Orange County recording studio, producer Jon St. James has done his part to keep alive the myth of the star-making show-biz Svengali.

First there was Stacey Swain, who was hanging out at a party at St. James’ studio when he decided that her unusual combination of exotic sultriness and little-girl fragility would make her the ideal focal point for a techno-pop vehicle he was tuning up in his head. Renamed Stacey Q, she has scored a series of hits on the pop and dance charts and is seeking further success with the recent release of her third album.

Then came Bardeux, a female vocal duo that started as an idea in search of a comely embodiment. This time, a waitress at St. James’ regular breakfast spot turned out to be the face that matched his vision. The result was another dance-pop single that hit the Top 40.

But it was St. James’ ear, rather than his eye, that guided him to his newest find, a synth-rock band called Anything Box. When the band’s unsolicited tape arrived at his studio early this year, he tossed it on and immediately was knocked out by a plaintive voice and an instantly insinuating melody called “Living In Oblivion.” Within minutes, St. James was on the phone to Paterson, N.J., telling a singer-songwriter who calls himself “Claude S.” how much he liked the music.

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Claude and the two other members of his band had sent the tape to St. James at the suggestion of members of Stacey Q’s band, who had come across Anything Box in a New Jersey club during their 1988 tour.

The struggling East Coast rockers didn’t hesitate when St. James offered them free studio time if they would fly to Orange County to rerecord “Oblivion” with him. The session in March confirmed for St. James that Claude’s talent was real.

“The vocal was done in just one take,” St. James recalled Thursday, sitting at the control board of his La Habra studio while Claude stood in a glassed-in compartment, running through a song in his sweetly melancholy tenor. “He said, ‘Let me do it again, I was just warming up.’ I said, ‘Claude, it’s fine.’ ”

Confident that he could land Anything Box a major label recording contract, St. James signed Claude and the band to a management deal with his company, Formula One. The idea was for Anything Box to return to New Jersey and await further developments while St. James shopped the demo tape.

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Claude, however, found it difficult to sit patiently after getting his first real break after five years of trying.

“Jon was going to get everything organized, but I wanted to be close to the situation, to be where things are happening,” said the 24-year-old singer, a small man with a trendy new-wave haircut that sweeps across one side of his face. “Even though he was willing to help us do everything, it doesn’t mean you can sit back, that it’s the end of the line.

“I had faith that he was going to work hard for us, but I thought it would be easier for him if I was here. A telephone can’t communicate (creative) ideas. You have to be together. I thought, ‘I’ve got to see what we’ve got (as a band), and I’ve got to see it through.’ ”

Claude had a wife, a 6-year-old son, a 4-year-old daughter, no car, not much money, and no guarantee that a record deal would pan out--all of which made it a risky proposition to pack up and move across the country. But without consulting St. James, he rented a truck and arrived in La Habra on Memorial Day weekend.

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“I felt he was taking too big a gamble,” St. James said. “I wanted time to shop his tape first. It would be one thing if he was wealthy, but he’s struggling to feed a family. But I have to give him credit. You know the saying, ‘Do you really want it?’ Well, obviously, this guy really wants it.”

Claude and his family moved into an apartment a few blocks from St. James’ studio. Claude’s wife, a hairdresser, was able to find a job within walking distance. Claude, meanwhile, went to work answering phones and sorting the mail at Formula One. “I get a salary, and if I have any ideas or anything I want to try, the studio is right there,” he said. “I’ve written about six songs since I’ve been in California.”

Claude, who plays synthesizers, drums and guitar, said that the darkly textured dance-rock of the British band Joy Division was his key inspiration. Anything Box lies “somewhere between the moodiness of Joy Division and the wackiness of the Thompson Twins and Kraftwerk,” he said. “Lyrically and musically, we’re very moody. I don’t do it consciously, but the songs tend to be that way.

“But we don’t want to just be melancholy.” On stage, Claude said, the band tries to bring more liveliness to his plaintive musings. Anything Box won’t be able to make an impression on local stages at least until September, when Claude expects to be joined here by the other two band members, singer-synthesist Dania Morales and synth player Mike Zacek.

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St. James has a strong, but not perfect, record of getting his discoveries signed to recording deals. Stacey Q, Bardeux and the San Diego techno-rock duo Red Flag all have been successes, but St. James was unable to land a deal for singer Glen Street. St. James said he saw Street as a promising singer in the George Michael mold, but that he couldn’t get the record companies to agree. He is confident, though, that Anything Box will be easy to sell. One of his connections, a former Atlantic Records executive who oversaw Stacey Q’s new album, shares an enthusiasm for Claude’s singing, St. James said, and is interested in signing Anything Box to his new employer, Epic Records.

In the meantime, St. James has been bringing his dance-pop production savvy to bear on Claude’s songs, lending them emphatic beats designed to make them more danceable and, St. James feels, more commercially viable.

“To be honest, we never thought of a song as a vehicle to sell records,” Claude said. “We always thought that having a record out would be a way to have people hear what we had to say.” Claude said he always felt that Anything Box’s music would appeal mainly to college radio audiences. “I never, in my wildest dreams, imagined that it could be played on pop stations, but if it can be played there, we’ve told that many more people what we want them to know. That would be fantastic, but we’re not going to push it. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens. So far, so good.”


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