The Legend of Diners and Their Power Pop Masterpiece

Blue Broderick talks about embracing the vibrancy of guitar-playing, moving to Los Angeles for love, synergizing with Mo Troper and DOMINO—her boldest, loudest rock 'n' roll statement yet

Music Features Diners
The Legend of Diners and Their Power Pop Masterpiece

If this isn’t your first foray into the Paste world, then it’s probably no surprise that we elected to give the new Diners album, DOMINO, a full profile report. All four singles made their way onto one of our Best New Songs list at various points this summer (and “The Power” was included on our best songs of the year so far list), and I can’t remember a time when something like that even happened on this website. It certainly hasn’t occurred during my tenure as editor, at least. When I heard DOMINO‘s title track for the back in April and that guitar solo came wailing in for the first time, my life changed immediately. I mean it.

Because the truth is, the hype for DOMINO is as real as any excitement around a record could ever be. Across 10 songs, Diners—the project spearheaded by songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Blue Broderick—have turned 25 minutes into an entire universe. DOMINO is bubblegum mastery glossed with retro incantations that fit nicely in a modern, un-retro world; a wondrous excursion into the limitlessness of epic hooks and saccharine storytelling, produced by patchwork pop provocateur and distortion spin doctor Mo Troper.

The first Diners album, Throw Me a Ten, came out 11 years ago—and you can trace Blue’s longtime devotion to constructionism back to that project. A song like “Simple Words” is magical and employs some pre-1964 Beach Boys stylings, especially that signature junior high dance-style guitar architecture—the kind that is patient and sprawling with melody, rather than rushing through arpeggios for the sake of shredding. Even then, it’s impossible to peg the Diners-verse into a box that narrow. The sounds have always felt like 60-year-old extraterrestrials, while the attitude and lyrical efforts Blue sent into the stratosphere were fully grounded in contemporary framework.

The first Diners track I ever heard was “Fifteen on a Skateboard,” like six or seven years ago, around the same time I first began obsessing over similar-sounding outfits, like Russel the Leaf and Hala and early-era Summer Salt—lo-fi practitioners who amplified the eccentricities of mid-1970s soft-rock singer/songwriters through DIY tapes and basement gigs in high-potential towns just outside of bustling cities. DOMINO is an immense step beyond all of that, as Blue works through a wide spectrum of emotions—from the sweet, romantic lullaby of “Your Eyes Look Like Christmas” to the confidence-building, angst anthem “The Power.” Never before has a Diners record felt so dense at every junction. Contemplative, blissful, infinitely likable, vintage and full of grace, DOMINO is the record that just might save rock ‘n’ roll (seriously).

Much of Blue’s rock music sensibilities began to form at a young age. At 10 years old, she got her start by secretly playing her dad’s guitar when he went out of town—learning the chords to “Iron Man” and “Seven Nation Army” during the intervals of his absence. I think many of us—who grew up products of School of Rock and its beautiful, entrancing portrayal of how music can pair souls—likely have similar origin stories, where we caught glimpses of various axes and could sense their weights in gold. Bands like AC/DC were especially revolutionary for folks like us, given how they portrayed the stakes of rock ‘n’ roll so highly (and Blue even wanted “Working On My Dreams” to become an AC/DC song, though it adopted a much greater Guided By Voices-meets-? and the Mysterians vibe by the end). A track like “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” props the genre up as this otherworldly, mythical higher-power—as if rock ‘n’ roll can save, change or destroy the world. And perhaps that’s true even in 2023, as there’s still a particularly gravitational wonder behind a guitar and how such complex worlds can be fashioned out of the directions in which those six strings of nickel and steel can bend.

“I remember thinking that people who played guitars just looked cool. There’s just something so vibrant to me about seeing a photo of somebody playing a guitar on stage,” Blue says. “Then, when I found my dad’s guitar—and I didn’t even know he had a guitar, he doesn’t play—it was like I’d uncovered the sword in the stone, or something. It felt so intuitive, it felt so destined for me to be holding a guitar. Even then, I remember being like, ‘Wow, this thing I’m playing vibrates and it’s making art out of air.’”

In the past, Blue would normally work on Diners records in her friend and engineer jalipaz’s studio, audioconfusion, in Mesa, Arizona. Despite the DIY, bedroom ethos that albums like Throw Me a Ten, three, A Soft Day and Leisure World exude, they were all recorded in semi-professional spaces. Coming of age in the Mesa and Phoenix scenes was crucial to Blue, though, as her entry point into the vast musical world around her came from being in such a close proximity to it all. “I had an older cousin who played in local bands. Most of my first DIY shows were just going to see his band play,” she says. “It quickly became a thing for me, where my favorite bands were just the local bands that were playing. I was so obsessed. It’s very funny, because I thought everybody was so legendary. Now I’m just like, ‘Oh, yeah, they were such regular people that I interacted with every single day.’ But, when you’re a 14 or 15-year-old kid, anybody who’s doing music that you think is cool is such a rock star.”

Though Blue’s grasp on the scenes of her past is less prominent now, due to COVID coupled with her no longer living there, she still cites Phoenix legends AJJ as one of the most crucial groups in the longevity of Diners. The folk-punk originators and Great American Rock Band took Blue on multiple tours and hooked her up with Asian Man Records, who would release three in 2016—a dream come true for her. “They vouched for me in a lot of situations where they maybe shouldn’t have, but did,” she says. “There are some people in your life where you don’t really know where you stand with them, because it’s been so long. I realized the last time that I saw Sean [Bonnette] that I don’t have to worry. If it’s been a while, there’s still a lot of love.”

After leaving Arizona, Blue migrated one state over to California, where she would settle down in Oakland for three-and-a-half years before finding her current home in Los Angeles. Now, there’s not a singular music scene for her to tap into—and it’s a refreshing change of pace. “As much as I want a music community, I think I have people that I’m friends with and that feels enough like a community,” she says. “I love that L.A. is so big that you can just go anywhere and you can be a little bit more independent. You aren’t tied down to playing one or two venues, even though Diners has almost exclusively played one or two venues since being here.”

There isn’t a clear-cut music scene for Blue to fit into in Los Angeles—especially since the “Laurel Canyon” label that gets attributed to sunshine-folk and power pop revivalists these days is not a community so much as it’s an adjective in the deep pocket of press release buzzwords. While many artists move to Hollywood to hit the big time, Blue actually headed south for love—as her partner Emmy Kelly (who also shot the music video for “Someday I’ll Go Surfing”) had already been a longtime resident of the City of Angels. “Someday I’ll Go Surfing” feels like a perfect rendering of a desert transplant making sense of the new, coastal world around them. “I’ve never caught a wave, but I’d like to have my day,” Blue sings on the track. “It could stay a fantasy, or I could finally put it all in play, aye, aye.” That song, which was initially intended to be a slow, much more sprawling cut, became the summer guitar-pop anthem it will now forever endure as after Troper sped-up the tempo in the studio.

While Troper was the music encyclopedia in the studio, Blue understands the importance that genre history can hold in a contemporary setting—likening it to a “Jurassic Park” where “everyone is building upon the work of other’s while disrespecting the people who gave it to us.” While “Domino” was much inspired by Emitt Rhodes, her main reference point for attitude, sonic contour and invention can be chalked up to Thin Lizzy, the “great pop band disguised as a rock band” who, under the leadership of Phil Lynott, mainlined a sharp approach to focused, concise rock ‘n’ roll—something that DOMINO cranks up to an 11.

Recorded at the Trash Treasury in Troper’s home base of Portland, Oregon and mastered by Jeff Rosenstock’s longtime creative partner Jack Shirley at Atomic Garden in Oakland, California, DOMINO is the product of two of the best song architects of the present-day teaming up to make a masterpiece—a feat or link-up that is rarely even attempted these days. Throw Bory guitarist Brendan Ramirez into the fold and you’ve got an unshakable trifecta. Troper and Blue had originally connected in 2016, when Diners was touring in support of their then-new record three. Troper was in his journalist era then, and had been planning on interviewing Blue for an article he was working on. But their eventual meet-up at a coffee shop would transform into a longtime friendship over time. Blue went on to send a mix of her 2022 album Four Wheels and the Turn to Troper and then, a week later, he sent a text back that said: “I want to make a loud Diners record.”

Troper’s own catalog suggests that his proclamations are often gospel or law. His 2023 single, “For You To Sing,” was dazzling at the height of an oncoming summer, as he employed a warm, stentorian and mesmeric guitar solo paired with the jangles of Byrds-style vocal harmonies. It was a converging, titanic exhibition of rock ‘n’ roll that landed somewhere between the worlds of Chopin and pre-school lullabies. If anyone was going to crank Blue’s beloved project up a few octaves, it was Troper. “That idea was very exciting and I took him up on his offer,” Blue says. “The plan was to go up and record in Mo’s basement and, maybe, in this other studio that he knew somebody at. But, three weeks before I was going up [to Portland], he was given the keys to the Trash Treasury to work out of. A friend of Mo’s thought it would be a cool thing for him to have in his back pocket. Diners was the guinea pig of that chapter. I can’t even imagine what [DOMINO] would have been like, had we not had such a nice studio to work out of.”

DOMINO is the perfect example of the many ways that a three-minute song can truly sing. The album is all killer, no filler for real. There’s something about precise and sharp hooks that are epic in their own right, but Blue’s work here is especially hypnotic and cathartic in that regard. She doesn’t have to stretch herself thin to make a lasting impression, a talent that resides in both assembly and spatial awareness in story-building. “The limitations of pop music allow you to tap into something that is really emotionally specific,” Troper tells me. It’s hard to capture that in anything ‘epic,’ because there’s already so much clutter. With a pop song, you can devote an entire piece of art to some mundane, fleeting feeling and sort of ‘conquer’ it. It reminds me of what some people say about comedy, where specificity ends up being more effective than something that casts a wide net and tries to be as relatable as possible.”

In Troper’s eyes, Blue is a student of the pop ideal put forth by the Pet Sounds/Rubber Soul dichotomy and the Elephant 6, where there’s a balance struck in making a variety record packed with hit-song potential. “That’s such delicate territory, somewhere between a thematically disconnected ‘collection of songs’ and a three-hour concept album by The Decemberists about Alger Hiss, or whatever,” he adds. “DOMINO is one of those rare pop records that actually achieves this, where every song is its own self-contained thing that is also in service to the album.”

DOMINO is the rock record that Blue has always wanted to make. Though she asserts that, in the past, she didn’t have the skills to write and arrange songs like “The Power” or “So What,” that doesn’t erase the fact that she’s a brilliant guitar wizard who had all of those parts baked and ready to go by the time Troper got involved. In the process of making the record, she embraced the beauties of sonic imperfections and her own relentless curiosity for melodies and catchiness—which wound up making the record sound massive and rewarding from start to finish, even when songs like “Your Eyes Look Like Christmas” and “Wisdom” tap back into those dreamy soundscapes from Throw Me a Ten and Four Wheels and the Turn.

“I think I was too afraid to be more paired down with my parts. I used to just double-track and double-track and double-track every single instrument to the point where it didn’t really sound like anything,” Blue says. “I think I understood that the less I do, the more it sounds like a band in a room playing together. Not trying to hide mistakes makes it feel lively. I’ve gotten to a point where I’m interested in writing rock riffs and I’m not feeling like I need to put a bunch of reverb on it to cover it up. I want to stay here for a little bit.”

Troper fashioned a private SoundCloud into a rough presentation of the album, sequencing and all. But when conversations about the tracklist came up, he started considering what DOMINO might look like if everything was switched around—quoting the Beatles and going full producer-mode. But the way that DOMINO is presented to its listeners is a real cherry conclusion. There might not be a better-ordered album this year, as the flow is impeccable and fine-tuned. With lead single “The Power,” you’d expect a track that magnetic to be an early taster on the record but, instead, it closes side one by, quite literally, busting the door off of its hinges. “I thought the song ‘Working On My Dreams’ was a really cool opener. It’s a very immediate start,” she says. “And I feel like ‘Painted Pictures’ was a really neat way to start the next side, because it’s such a shift in feeling. Then the song ‘Wisdom’ was more of an oddball song to close out the album.”

It’s been almost eight full years since Diners last had a solid, consistent lineup, back when the band consisted of musicians who all lived in the same city as each other and could play together regularly. Though it’s not a full-blown, bonafide solo project, the one constant is—and will always be—Blue. In fact, while she was recording DOMINO, she’d had thoughts about ditching the Diners name completely. “I was like, ‘This is a new band,’ so that gave it some fun energy, I thought,” Blue shares. “But, everyone I talked to was like, ‘That is a bad idea, don’t change the name.’ And I just kept thinking it was a good idea. I was like, ‘No, it’s such a different feel, it has such a different sound and it’d be such a cool statement to start with.’” Trever Ducote, the drummer of, as Blue calls it, “the LA band Diners,” is who ultimately convinced her to keep the name—assuring his collaborator that it would be an even greater statement to release DOMINO under Diners.

At the same time, Blue had started her gender transitioning and considered what it would mean to completely start over from scratch. “I think that’s really appealing for a lot of people who transition, to start over on everything—from social media to everything that your old name is attached to,” she says. “But I thought there also needed to be examples of people publicly transitioning and publicly changing. There needs to be more of that, because I think people get really hung up on the idea of ‘I have to change everything and I’ve got to start over.’” The decision to retain the Diners name then turned into a two-part conclusion: One, from a career standpoint, Blue was going to have an easier time convincing her fanbase to listen to DOMINO because they’d already formed an attachment with the band’s name. Two, she had a personal desire to “set an example of, embarrassingly, publicly transitioning.”

DOMINO is not an explicit document of living a trans life, which can largely be attributed to Blue’s self-proclaimed habit of making a record about “a 100 different things” all at once. But I resonated with the record because of my own relationship to the idea of what it means to—or to not—make forward-facing art that provides deep examinations of my own agency and history. I remember when, after I’d hit the milestone of being on hormone therapy for about five or six years, I’d found myself exhausted by my own routines—constantly feeling like writing about being intersex or on HRT was a requirement embedded into a clause in the contract of my existence. But, while on a phone call with the poet Kaveh Akbar one morning, he assured something in me that has never left my rolodex of life-saving truths. He said that, because I am intersex or because I am queer or because I am on HRT, all work I ever do will be of that identity, regardless of if it’s mentioned or articulated in the text itself.

So, coupled with Blue’s public transitioning, DOMINO is this urgent, beautiful and accessible record—especially for folks who might also be searching for an answer as to how they might begin to move forward with conversations around identity and art. Blue didn’t have to sing about being trans in order to make a trans record; DOMINO arrives as such because she penned it. And I’m thankful for how it will remain an ever-present part of my life, and hopefully it’ll become a part of yours, too, reader. A line like “Gonna live to see another day, my eyes and arms wide open” is a pretty great, talismanic mantra of hope as I—and others, especially Blue—continue to survive. The record exists through the joy of coming out and, sometimes, a truth like that is more than enough to set a project free.

In some circles, for as long as Billboard’s had a chart, pop music has been widely dismissed for being too simplistic or easily replicable. It’s the same argument that gets used against Ringo Starr’s drumming in the Beatles—this idea that anyone could have done those parts where, in reality, only Ringo could have played those fills and rolls. Something that Troper said to me really has come to quickly define what I think makes DOMINO such a masterpiece:

“Pop music like [DOMINO] requires all of these different things to work. Vocal harmonies are a great example, because you need to understand how that works, musically, and you need to know how to sing—but you also need to know when to exercise restraint, which comes from having taste, I think,” he explained. “Sometimes three-part vocal harmony elevates the song! And sometimes it immediately makes it sound like musical theatre. Pop music is absolutely merciless, one slip up and you can make some of the goofiest-sounding music ever. I think people without taste fail to recognize how important [that is]. It’s the biggest thing separating those early Beatles records from Freddie and the Dreamers.”

DOMINO is, by far, the best rock album of 2023 so far, and I’ll even wager that no rock album that comes out between now and December 31st will surpass it, either. There’s no gimmick on this thing; it’s stone-cold pop to the barest bone, a career-defining benchmark for a musician who’s been slowly chipping away at this achievement for over a decade. If anyone else had made this record, it likely would have sounded like some droll, cliché or inferior mimicry of a largely bygone musical fad. Instead, Blue’s work here takes the gemstones of the past and brightens them into hit sensibilities of the present. I’m not saying that power pop is going to flood the Hot 100 again anytime soon. But, with a record like DOMINO, that prophecy doesn’t feel as far out of reach as it did maybe 10 years ago. “I wonder when I’m gonna get it right,” Blue questions at the end of “Wisdom.” Lucky for all of us, she has most certainly answered her own call.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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