On a scale of one to 10, how rock'n'roll is Pluto? "Eleven," says frontman Milan Borich from behind his aviators. "You can be rock without trashing a hotel room or acting like an absolute [expletive]. That's not rock. That bloated, excessiveness of 80s rock is kind of dead.

"Having said that, we definitely, at some point, will trash a hotel."

We're at the Odeon Lounge in Mt Eden, just around the corner from the band's recording studio.

A former funeral parlour, the Odeon is now a trendy, if slightly dilapidated, cafe where Shortland Street actors make the coffee, advertising execs read the paper and scruffy, arty types occupy the pinball machine.

It's also an eerily appropriate meeting place for a band who have endured their own near-death experiences. And if Borich's comments are anything to go by, it's not surprising there was no accommodation booked for the band when they went on summer tour with goodshirt and Goldenhorse.

"Two years ago we played in Whakatane in front of 16 people," says bass player Mike Hall. "Another time we played in front of six. To go on tour with Goldenhorse, who have sold 50,000 copies of their album, and goodshirt, who've sold 40,000, you're going to get people. Pluto sold less than 3000 because it just wasn't a commercial record."

Aside from the lack of essentials provided - food, shelter, beer - the national jaunt was an opportunity to announce Pluto's rise from the rock'n'roll wilderness.

The night before our interview Pluto hosted a swanky industry party at Match Bar to launch their second album, Pipeline Under the Ocean. Between beers, a representative from their record label admitted he was relieved they had made it this far.

It's been a rough ride since their critically acclaimed, self-funded debut, RedLightSyndrome, was released 2001.

Despite spawning two sorta-hit singles - Hey Little and She's Jive - it sold a mere 2700 copies, and Pluto spent the next 18 months trying to break free of a contract with their label, Antenna Recordings, forcing a hiatus that sent them spiralling below the rock radar, their morale following suit.

Antenna are refusing to comment publicly on the case.

Pluto admit they had a lot to learn as a band, despite their combined experience. Michael Franklin-Browne was drummer in Head Like A Hole, Hall was bass player for the Brunettes and now also plays with Dimmer, Matthias Jordan was a jazz pianist who made the move to Auckland from Wellington at 18 and took a job at a piano bar six nights a week "doing that old Tom Waits thing". Borich and guitarist Tim Arnold, under the name Johnny Custard, wrote music together in London in the 90s.

Despite their musical pedigree, when they formed as Pluto they were better at the rock'n'roll lifestyle than getting their act together as a career-driven band.

"The first time I met Milan and Tim they were recording," recalls Jordan. "And the thing that impressed me as well as the music was that there had to have been about 20 to 30 bottles of wine all lined up in the studio. These guys know how to have a good time."

Back at the Odeon, Hall orders two mugs of hot chocolate. He's on dad duty today, looking after his partner's twin daughters.

Talk has turned to the period when Pluto seemed to have all but dried up.

"The odds were that the record might never come out," he says. "With our profile going down and momentum totally lost, having to rebuild was hard work."

If there was one thing Pluto discovered in that period, it was that they could still put on a good show.

"And if you can do that," says Franklin-Browne, "you know that you're going to get through to the other side."

In May 2003 Pluto signed a licensing contract with their distributors EMI, toured Australia and found themselves a manager - Grant Hislop who is also programme director at new all-New Zealand station Kiwi, where Pluto were the guests on the station's first breakfast show this week.

They also set to work on their second album, reworking the material or "polishing the turds" that they couldn't release because of their legal issues.

"We seemed to think we were really funny," says Arnold of the songs.

Borich throws his arms up in mock laughter: "When you're dealing with a stressful situation like the Antenna deal you just start trying to joke around, like it's all great. When you're in a scary situation, you laugh."

Jordan: "There were a few songs that were like five or six minutes with a massive long epic outro. We'd listen back to them and just feel kind of tired. Even though it was frustrating it was really a blessing because we wanted to write a better record."

That they did. Pipeline Under the Ocean, which refers both to the band name (Pluto is an acronym of the title) and the covert World War II operation to lay undersea oil pipelines between England and France, is a tougher, more diverse album than RedLightSyndrome, that draws on country music, 80s dance and a more expansive version of their quirky, artful pop.

As for the name, Pluto have always been about fighting fascism, says Borich. He wrote the album's opening track, Radio Crimes, to make a point about radio formats compromising his art.

To hammer it home, he pushes his vocal cords like never before, croaking like a lovesick cowboy on The River, going straight for the Jagger-ular on On Your Way and sounding perfectly evil on Perfectly Evil.

"I'm not as uptight," he says. "I used to be a little unsure of myself as a singer but it's just practice that makes you more relaxed.

"On the first album you can tell I'm a little shy on the mic. It makes me cringe to listen to the first album sometimes.

"But my vocal is stronger. I think it just comes with age. If you listen to Tom Waits, his early stuff was nowhere near as harsh. The more whisky you drink ... "

Whereas most of RedLightSyndrome was written by Borich and Arnold during that stint in London, Pipeline ... sounds like musicians who have grown as a live band.

Gone is the innocence of low-fi ditties Hey Little and She's Jive - in their place are songs such as first single Dance Stamina, a chugging slice of 80s stadium pop complete with handclaps, and the Americana-tinged Rock'n'Roll, a real hootenanny of a song.

The tough times "showed us we actually have something worthwhile," says Hall. "We were positively into making a great rock'n'roll record."

Arnold: "We've been through a bit as a band. The legal stuff, going through a period where there was not a lot of productivity. If anything is going to kill our band it would be that, rather than being too busy. We're a tougher band than we were."

Tougher perhaps, but no tamer. 

LOWDOWN

WHO: Pluto

FORMED: Auckland, 1994

RELEASES: A1A2 EP (2000), RedLightSyndrome, (2001), Pipeline Under the Ocean (2005)

TRIVIA: Pluto are one of seven Kiwi artists invited to travel to Austin, Texas for the annual South By Southwest Music Showcase in March, where they will join 1100 artists from around the world playing in more than 50 venues for the five days; frontman Milan Borich is engaged to Kiwi actress Kate Elliott (Toy Love, The Locals).