From left: Andrew Bernhardt, Robert Netcoh Jr., Mike Kamoo and Timothy Hines. Photo by Deb Caponera.
Timothy Hines sits at a table outside Claire de Lune Coffee Lounge in North Park, sipping a giant café au lait and surveying the shiny new University Avenue scene. It doesn't take him long to reach a conclusion about the neighborhood's recent renovations.
“This place used to be a fucking ghetto,” he says matter-of-factly. “Now look at it.”
With his throwback Ray-Ban Wayfarers and short, shaggy fashion cut, it wouldn't be a stretch to expect Hines to launch into a “Stuff White People Like” anti-gentrification rant—the kind that's popular among the creative classes of the day. Considering Hines is the lead singer and guitar player for the San Diego neo-new-wave band Lights On, whose New Order-inspired sound and retro-'80s style aren't exactly clarion calls of the proletariat—spotting an indie-rock cliché on the horizon wouldn't take a telescope.
But Hines isn't an archetypal 21st-century hipster—he grew up just blocks away from this coffeehouse, and his observations about his old neighborhood aren't nostalgic for bygone grit: “I couldn't wait to get the fuck out of here when I was a kid,” he says. “It's definitely a lot better now.”
Like this neighborhood, Hines' style and polish don't erase all markers of his roots. His jaw is too square and his demeanor too no-nonsense to cover up his workaday origins. Not that he'd want to.
“I'd definitely say Lights On is a working-class band,” Hines says. “I have a day job as a landscape architect. If I sat at home all day writing songs, I think I'd be a fucking dull person, and my music would reflect that.”
Hines formed Lights On in 2006 with Earthling Studios owner Mike Kamoo as a side project to their psych-pop / punk band The Stereotypes.
“We aren't the primary songwriters in The Stereotypes. Mike and I were listening to a lot of new-wave stuff at the time, and we really wanted to go out on our own and experiment with it. As it happened, that style of music got really popular in New York around the time we started playing.”
Despite some positive buzz around the country—especially in New York, where they were deemed “Buzzworthy” by MTV after a series of shows in Brooklyn—the band has largely flown under the radar in San Diego. That was until recently, when their song “Wild at Heart” caught the attention of HBO and was used on the show Hung.
“It's funny. People heard that we were on Hung, and suddenly it was like they got permission to start listening to our music or something.”
That's not entirely fair. Though the band has been together since 2006, they've only cut one release, a five-song EP titled Waiting for the Heart to Beat. And though the shows they've played have been successful—they recently opened up for Peter Bjorn and John in San Diego and L.A.—all members of the band have day jobs and don't have the time for intense touring.
“We aren't the type of band that plays out four times a month,” Hines concedes.
That's not to say the band isn't productive; with all the free time they need at Kamoo's Earthling Studios, Lights On are studio rats.
“We've recorded over 20 songs,” Hines says. “I put everything up on MySpace the second we finish with it. But as far as albums go, we don't have a record label. I love vinyl, but it's fucking expensive to put out. It's not like I have some kind of trust fund.”
At 31, Hines says his days of couch surfing are over. Music is his passion, but promoting a band is a business, too—a business that can only pay off if you're smart about it.
“Licensing is actually a great way for relatively unknown bands to make money,” Hines explains. “If you're a music supervisor working for a TV show, are you going to pay 100,000 bucks to use a U2 song in the background for 30 seconds, or are you going to find some up-and-coming band that's much cheaper? We've taken advantage and are putting that money back in the band.”
Hines says licensing has gone well enough that a Lights On LP is a definite go for release this spring. Fans of the band should expect to hear a departure from the synth-heavy sound of their debut. And, keyboard player Brooke Rowland isn't in the band anymore after missing L.O.'s summer New York swing. In her stead, the band picked up drummer Brian Murray, and Kamoo switched over to guitar, complementing Hines and guitarist Andrew Bernhardt. The result is more Velvet Underground and less Joy Division than songs past.
Hines is happy with the way things have worked out: “I think we're able to create layers and texture that we weren't able to before.”
Plus, having three guitars is fucking awesome.
“We're like Lynryd Skynyrd,” he says. “I love it.”
Lights On plays with The Death Eaters and The Franks on Friday, April 2, at The Casbah. www.myspace.com/lightsonband.