by Kevin J. Elliott

“Finger banging and listening to Winger. I’ll make you cum with my retard finger.” And so goes the lyric that would be lost were it created by anyone other than Philadelphia’s premier “dress-up” band Sweatheart. Theirs is a universe where Flying V guitars, zubaz sportswear, press-on nails and Jazzercised choreography exist in a perfect harmony that blurs the line between ironic winks and deadly serious performance art. Though Sweatheart, which includes artist and founder Thom Lessner on guitar and vocals, Mike Sabolick on guitar, Max Dimezza on bass, Dave Pap on drums, Mike Robinson on keyboards, and recent Downtown signee Amanda Blank and Rose Luardo as back-up singers, have been a fixture among the city’s boho lofts and suburban malls since 2004, the wide release of their new album, Tell Your Sister, is cause to introduce them to the rest of the nation. Anyone familiar with Lessner’s prolific career as a painter, in which cartoonish renditions of former baseball greats stand side by side with exaggerated illustrations of rock legends, can see how his aesthetic as an artist translates perfectly into a group where the “fun foundation” is enormous. Tell Your Sister isn’t overtly comic in its execution. Sure the costumes and songs titles perpetuate the joke, but the humor is smart, subtle and manifested in the music, which revels in a love of ’80s radio pop rife with laser-guided synths and arena-sized riffs. One thing that can be learned from the antics and good times that are inherent in a live Sweatheart show is that there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure. A pleasure is a pleasure whether it’s Loverboy or Debbie Gibson.

On the eve of touring in support for Tell Your Sister, I recently got the chance to speak with Lessner about the evolution of Sweatheart, the merits of the Canadian band Triumph, and what it’s like to share a band with Diplo’s latest protegee.

I know you were born and raised in Columbus and had a number of bands before moving to Philadelphia. Can you talk about those bands and explain how those experiences transitioned to Sweatheart?

Thom Lessner: Born in Evanston, Illinois and raised a little in Charlotte, North Carolina, but I figured most things out in Columbus. I played in a lot of punk rock bands growing up in Columbus, usually with all the same crew. They all had larger fun foundations to them than most bands around. I’ve always tried to be as serious about fun as anything else, so most everything I do usually comes out that way. I say this because it’s an assumption by most people to see something comical and assume it’s not serious. Some people are wired to think like that. I’m not going to fight it or say it’s corny, but I always try and be clear that if anything I do is funny or a joke, it is a very serious one I put all my pride and heart into. I was in really good band called the Chili Dogs right before I left Columbus. We would play uninvited at parties and usually clear the room. Sweatheart was an extension of that I suppose, but with females. The more we’ve grown it’s become less of a mess. That’s the main difference.

What made you move to Philadelphia and how did you become involved with the other members of the group?

TL: I moved to Philly to make an art career happen. I met some people here I wanted to be near, and it’s been good to me. I’m a big advocate of people staying in Columbus, though. I know it’s hypocritical and greedy on my part, but I can’t help it. I’m sure I’ll live there again—it’s got everything.

Sweatheart started out me, my girlfriend Rose and Hot Tanya. Hot T embarrassingly decided to become a doctor, and so Amanda Blank filled in. I worked for a music school at the time and there was a band called the Toddlers (later, OODS), who I knew since they were 14, and I asked them to be our backing band. We would practice at the 18-year old bass player’s parents’ basement for a while, and it was pretty creepy on our part. Now they’re all grown up, and they’re the best dudes I know and it just feels like a normal, really fun band.

When you started Sweatheart, what kind of a band did you intend to create? What was the biggest influence for what you were doing then?

TL: Honestly, I think I just wanted to hang out with babes and have fun. At the beginning, it was a fun little project I did on the side, instead of making visual art all the time.

Your artwork is steeped in rock and baseball hero worship. Do those themes translate into the music you write with Sweatheart?

TL: Of course! I took a big break from music to paint, and my subject matter was almost all rock dudes. Then Sweatheart began to take shape and I created an identity for myself based on something I would like to paint.

If you had to choose one of those heroes that you paint, and immortalize them, who would it be?

TL: (David) Lee Roth is always my go-to dude. He didn’t write the book on how to rock, but his book on how to rock was my first read.

I’ve seen Sweatheart described as a “dress-up” band, and you do perform in costume, but I’m interested to know if it bothers you that sometimes the performance art overshadows the music you’re writing.

TL: Nah, it is fine. I don’t advocate it, so I usually just say we’re a pop band. People will always see that stuff first, and we know that. For awhile, we had different get-ups for every show we played, but once the band got so many members and started playing so many shows, that had to end. We recently had really nice costumes made to go with the music and sort of streamlined the whole package. The performance art rep we get is maybe just lazy people hearing I’m an artist playing music most people only care for when they’re drunk at a party and assuming there must be a bigger picture or something. I’m old and tired enough to know people are going to like it or dislike it, and all I need to worry about is being sure that I’m happy and doing what I love. With that in mind, I can feel completely at peace putting an Eddie Money medley in our set, and whether it kills or bombs, I’m being the most honest I can be musically to myself because that’s all I know.

There was a big gap between So Cherri and this new one, Tell Your Sister. What caused the delay?

TL: I think it was a “what’s the rush?” mentality. We started recording Tell Your Sister over a year ago. I’m constantly straddling the art versus music career and that always helps slow things up.

I hear a bit more of a Triumph or a Rick Springfield influence on this one. Can you pinpoint the exact feeling you’re trying to conjure for the listener?

TL: I just tried to make the record I wanted to hear. Triumph and Rick Springfield passed me the torch, and I smoked it.

Amanda’s had a big year. Is she going to be touring with the band?

TL: Yeah, she’s all grown up! Yeah, she’s going to go to some shows, but not the whole thing. Hopefully, we’ll get her in Columbus. She came years ago for one of the first shows at Surly Girl ever and smoked cigarettes in the basement with my mom.

Have you ever thought of collaborating on her solo material or working with Diplo or Spank Rock?

TL: Yeah, probably. We’ve always wanted to let her keep her solo stuff separate so she could grasp her own identity, but maybe we’ll do something down the road. We’ve done a lot with her at her shows and with Spank Rock too. He’s got a rap for us about food that will surface someday.

Can you tell me about the trailer for the album? Where did you shoot that and what was the situation?

TL: It’s a long story that I’m too tired to tell, but basically we wanted to make a “Sweatheart plays to the troops” video for a song I wrote called “Hit the Showers (Keep Trying/Inspired By Inspiration).” A friend contacted me about shooting a war re-enactment documentary and that we could play it at the end. So we had that footage and decided to make a commercial for the record and have it look like a movie trailer.

Do you have any immediate plans for the future with the band?

TL: To finish recording our next record, Get Bent, a West Coast tour in the spring and to do a song with Justin Hawkins (of the Darkness).