Detroit, with its historical Motown sound and later association with rap (Eminem) and rap-rock (Kid Rock), doesn’t exactly smack of “alt-rock hotbed.”
But in 1994, well into the Alternative Rock Era, Motor City outfit Sponge busted through with the hit record Rotting Piñata and two memorable radio hits: ‘Molly (Sixteen Candles Down the Drain)’ and ‘Plowed.’ The songs hit No. 3 and No. 5 on the Modern Rock chart, respectively. And if you listen to modern rock radio formats these days—the ones that do the all-night Metallica shows and pray at the altar of Alice in Chains—you can still hear ‘Plowed’ on almost permanent rotation.
The band itself is very much alive and well, releasing new material (most recently an album, Stop the Bleeding, last year), touring and seemingly having a great time doing it. They’re just a little older and wiser now.
Although ‘Plowed’ makes a brief appearance in this interview, it was the bigger hit, ‘Molly,’ that we really wanted to discuss with Sponge frontman Vinnie Dombroski. Everything you ever wanted to know about the song is below. Trust us.
“Truth be told, Molly Ringwald wanted to be in the video. She called my manager. Back then, we were just like, ‘It’s just a fuckin’ rock tune, man. That’s all it is.’ We didn’t care, and so we shot the idea down. Back then, maybe you’d have a song in a movie, eventually, but that’s not something a lot of bands were thinking about it. She approached us.”
For me growing up in the nineties, this song is the definition of ‘Alternative Rock.’
Well, it’s certainly not a pretty thing to think about my youth or the kids around me. We were growing up in Detroit on the East Side. There wasn’t a lot to do and there was a lot of boredom, man, so consequently, [I got] turned on to smoking weed and partying at 15 years old. [I remember] my buddy drinking a bunch of Southern Comfort [and throwing] up in his garage. It was a big deal for us. Some kids are sports people, [some] go on vacation. We did none of that, man. We partied and played music. My sister had run away with the carnival when we were 14 or so, [and] when she came back, she was bringing back marijuana leafs, or ‘tea’ as we called it back then. All these images in the song are rooted in growing up.
You know, there’s an eighties movie called Sixteen Candles starring Molly Ringwald. Just a happy coincidence with the name ‘Molly’?
Yeah. ‘16 Candles’ [the song]—it’s about the downfall of the teen, man. Back in our scene. It was a good way to drive the idea home. Truth be told, Molly Ringwald wanted to be in the video. She called my manager. Back then, we were just like, ‘It’s just a fuckin’ rock tune, man. That’s all it is.’ We didn’t care, and so we shot the idea down. There are so many different ways music cross-pollinates with movies these days—products or endorsements. That’s what it’s all about these days. Back then, maybe you’d have a song in a movie, eventually, but that’s not something we were thinking about. I don’t think a lot of bands were thinking about it. She approached us.
That staccato lead guitar riff that starts in the second verse and plays underneath the melody—and balloons into that solo—is just fantastic. Was that part of the song from the start, or written after in rehearsals?
That song was written pretty much pinned together—the verse, the choruses, the pre-choruses, with me and a guitarist at the house. So what’s going on chordally, lyrically was all hammered out prior to coming to the band with the idea. There was a skeletal idea. Now I could sit down and play the song on an acoustic guitar. But then, the fellas were really crafty about guitar arrangements. And I look back, and if there’s anything special about Sponge, those guitar arrangements were pretty cool. The boys would start fiddling. They would just write those lines against those chords. Going into the rehearsal studio, we filled in all the blanks.
Did you know it was going to be a radio hit?
No. You gotta understand what we heard on the radio. We were coming from a place where they were playing hair metal or Zeppelin—and this new radio format was beginning to emerge. In Detroit at the time, in ’90 or ’91, the first alternative stations were playing the Chili Peppers or Jane’s Addiction, [and] broadcasting eight hours a day. So it was a real new format. So to say, “Wow, this ‘Molly’ tune [will be] a contender for radio?” Not a chance, man. We knew we had a strong song. It was a memorable hook. There was nothing like that on the radio at the time. It was not like we were writing for the radio, because we really had no idea what that was for us at the time.
When you started playing it live, you were touring locally. Before it even hit, did audiences respond to it favorably?
‘Molly’ was kind of a latecomer. I’m surprised it even made the record. There were some people in the band that were like, ‘This is not the direction we want to go in.’ [But] people had just already pegged us as an Alice in Chains copy band. So I’m like, ‘This is something that is going to throw a curveball at the audience, and it’s kind of our own thing.’
There wasn’t really the Internet back then, and you couldn’t go and look up song lyrics, so we thought the first-verse lyric goes ‘See you naked in a bath/cigarette stains on your ass.’ It’s not ‘ass,’ is it.
[Laughs] Yeah. Nicotine-stained hands, man.
They soaked up Detroit like a… oh, nevermind.
You’ve probably performed the song thousands of times throughout the years. Do you ever get sick of playing it live?
[Pauses] [Sighs] I suppose if the audiences didn’t want to hear it. I’ve visualized a new show: putting together the hardest rock tunes on all our seven records and just playing those tunes. But ‘Molly’ really lightens up the set. However, I think the audiences would kind of feel cheated a bit by not hearing the tune, you know? I know Radiohead refuses to play ‘Creep.’ I don’t know if they’ve ever played it again. But our audiences are always yelling out requests, and man, that song is always on the top of the list. Typically, we play it at the top of the set; and somebody misses the beginning, and they’re yelling for it for the whole set. It’s ridiculous.
Does it annoy you that fans sort of force you to play it?
Well, not necessarily ‘force,’ but this is part of the soundscape of their growing up. They were in high school, they were in college. They want to see the fuckin’ band, get a couple of beers, and take a walk down memory lane. We’re fortunate to be around. We’re still alive, the songs are still on the radio. They’re not forcing us, but it would be kind of weird, I suppose, not to play it, now that I think about it. I’m glad I can still sing the tune! As long as I can sing it, I’m cool with playing it!
Describe to me the average Sponge fan these days.
Well, these folks dig deep. They’re extremely loyal. And when you have folks coming to see us, that are driving great distances to come see the group, I feel it’s my obligation with these folks. If they’re putting in the work, I’m not going to take them for granted. I step up anyway. I lead the charge anyway. But they’re coming to these gigs—they know the deep album cuts, they know the lyrics. They’ve got their passes, pictures from 10 and 15 years ago. They want to get them signed. They’re like, ‘Do you remember this picture?’ We sign a new one, and we’ll see them 15 years from now. [Yells] As long as we’re not big fucking assholes, everything’s cool! We haven’t turned into big assholes yet, so everything’s all right.
Be honest: Did you ever get a chick backstage who was named Molly and thought you wrote the song about her?
[Laughs] Still lookin’ for her, baby, still lookin’ for her. I’ve met some Mollys that have shown up, but not one who was like, ‘That one’s me.’ Let’s print that. Maybe she’ll show up.
Where do you think ‘Molly’ stands in terms of rock history?
‘Plowed’ certainly is part of the rock landscape now. And I think it defines our contribution to nineties music.
So you see ‘Plowed’ more as the historical contribution to the nineties than ‘Molly’?
I think ‘Plowed’ made a bigger dent than ‘Molly.’ I think ‘Molly’ made a dent, but I think if we look 50 years down the road, I think that ‘Plowed’ would probably be in some compilation someplace in the Library of Congress. This is a cross-section of nineties music. ‘Molly’ might. But I don’t know.
There’s this misconception that rockers who had hit singles in the nineties are living large and making thousands of dollars on royalties and radio airplay. Can you pay your bills based on the residuals you get from ‘Molly’?
Frankly, no. Back in the day, we were always independent, very proactive regarding recording of songs. We made that first record, which was eventually released on Chaos/Sony—we were well on our way to finishing the record before they even got involved. So that independent spirit has always stayed with us and served me well. But I do a lot of writing and recording, and if it wasn’t for all these other income streams created by new music and new endeavors and live shows, I couldn’t pay my bills from what I get from radio airplays of these tunes. And frankly, we’re still unrecouped from selling it after making our third record. We recouped on the first and second record, but when we made our third record, we went unrecouped again, so the royalties from all the records don’t put us back in the black again. So I’m not getting any money from record royalties. There’s money from performance, from radio. A little bit of publishing money. But nothing that would make me live large. We’re not the Stone Temple Pilots, selling 15 million-plus records and that kind of shit. We were always a working band; we’re out there working gig to gig, month to month.
That strikes me as a very ‘Detroit’ sort of thing.
Man, sometimes, that’s all we’ve got.