Rembrandts Pop Band Strives for More Elaborate Works of Art

<i> Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for The Times</i>

Those solo careers just weren’t coming together for singer-songwriters Phil Solem and Danny Wilde. But they had remained in touch, often visiting each other in the years since their band Great Buildings dissolved in 1982, in the midst of recording only their second album.

Over the next few years, they even wrote songs together, but never expected things to develop into the Rembrandts, their current collaboration, which performs tonight at the sold-out “KROQ Acoustic Christmas” at the Universal Amphitheater.

Creative tensions over songwriting among various members of the band had led to the collapse of Great Buildings. And “mutual frustration” brought Solem and Wilde back together in 1989, Solem said, after both had tried solo careers. His own musical efforts in Minneapolis had gone nowhere. And Wilde’s three solo records had left him equally dissatisfied.

“It had been made to sound like this grandiose thing was happening,” Solem says now of the Minneapolis music scene, where Prince and such newer acts as the Replacements were emerging. “What it really was were these little camps.”


Wilde stayed in Los Angeles, but found his solo career was “like climbing a mountain,” he said.

And, he says, “every time I tried to do something different it was like ‘No, that won’t work.’ ”

So when Solem and he got together again, Wilde says, “it was like let’s write anything we want, a flamenco song, jazz, funk, folk, whatever.”

That sort of mix is all across the Rembrandts’ new “Untitled” album, a lush Beatles-influenced collection, finished in July, that marks the duo’s second release. If anything, the band’s new material is a more elaborate pop mix, with cello and accordion, mandolin and synthesizer, banjo and electric guitar, than their largely acoustic 1990 debut, simply named “The Rembrandts.”


“The first album was really like a demo that everyone ended up loving, and said don’t change a thing,” Wilde says. “We may have gotten to the stage where we would have wanted to add a cello or something else. But we started to realize the beauty of the simplicity of it.”

That first album soon earned the band an audience here and in Europe, where the record sold more than 350,000 copies. But it was a result of interactions with that sudden new audience on the Rembrandts’ first tour, where the band performed in an amplified live environment, that led to the fuller sound of the new album. “Untitled” was recorded after working mostly in Solem and Wilde’s home studios.

“The melodies and everything come from the same place,” says Solem. “It’s still us guys writing the songs. We just dressed them up a little.”

Wilde and Solem first met in the late 1970s, on the Los Angeles club scene, where Wilde was playing with a band of young musicians called the Quick. Solem had arrived from Minnesota, after a short stay in Phoenix, looking to establish a music career. And Wilde had grown up in Van Nuys with his older brothers and sisters, who took him along to see concerts by the Doors and other rock acts.

“I saw the Beatles twice, in ’65 and ’66,” Wilde remembers. “So there was never any doubt in my head about what I wanted to do.”

Ultimately, Wilde and the Quick’s bassist left that band to form Great Buildings with Solem. By 1979, the new group was signed to Columbia Records and performing in skinny ties. They shared an emerging power-pop scene with the Plimsouls, the Motels and other acts.

As the Rembrandts, the lack of connection to any kind of movement has only helped Wilde and Solem focus on their own creativity, Wilde says.

“Phil and I have a lot in common in the sense that we’re both married and have children,” says Wilde, who now lives near Ventura. “That’s really where we draw a lot of our inspiration from. We don’t really feel like we’re competing in a scene.”


The new album’s song “Rollin’ Down the Hill,” for one, is largely autobiographical. Solem explains that the upbeat track follows the duo’s own experiences, “from having to grovel in the music business to try to be heard, and then having fun doing it and suddenly being heard. But we try to be as ambiguous as we can get away with in our lyrics, so people can hear what we do and see their lives in it.”