When I was a pup, fame was a big goal of mine. I don’t feel that way anymore. I think that kind of popularity would probably be more of a nuisance than anything. I dig my anonymity. In any case, throughout those years I thought being loved by strangers would make me a better person, I remember hearing several bands or songwriters who were so good, it literally scared me that they weren’t totally famous. How was that even possible? If they’re that good and didn’t become rock god billionaires then what were my chances? That was my thinking anyway.
So in this post I’d like to introduce you to the 3 bands that terrified me because they weren’t totally famous.
In the aughts I hung out a LOT at a restaurant called Raw Bar on Clark St. in between Waveland and Grace in Wrigleyville. I met many, many people during that time that I am still great friends with. In any case, there was a waiter at Raw Bar who was as witty as he was lanky. His name was Brian McSweeney. It didn’t take long for me to learn that not only was he a musician, but he was a ridiculously incredible singer, writer, and guitarist. I’m pretty sure his band Matthew was still touring at that time, and they were signed to the Rykodisc label. My naive ass couldn’t compute that somebody this talented could be waiting tables. Why wasn’t he zipping around in a limo? I was mostly raised on radio, so it was unusual for me to hear great music that wasn’t immensely popular. Brian gave me a copy of the Matther cd and I love every song on it. He’s still very active and the music is just as good if not better than before. I picked this song because at the time I heard it, I really did ask myself- why the fuck is this guy not ripping up the charts, and more importantly what does that mean for me? I have a little more perspective now. It took me awhile but I get it. There is zero correlation between quality and popularity. Learn more about and keep up to date with Brian McSweeney.
Not sure how I found out about these guys. They’re from Minneapolis and I think I had a promo copy of their album, Split Personalities. They were on the V2 label (a Virgin subsidiary) which is home to Moby and White Stripes. This confounded me even more. These guys were on Richard Branson’s label! How come they’re not all over WXRT? Q-101? How come they’re not on my TV? My friend Megan worked as a rep for Sony, who distributed the 12 Rods record. (side note: Megan’s little brother would go on to form a band called Fall Out Boy.) So, Megan was meeting with 12 Rods one night at Smart Bar and I chatted with the singer for a little while. I asked him what the band name meant. He asked me what I thought it meant. Dammit! These guys would pack Double Door and other medium sized venues all over the midwest. Maybe that is fame. Maybe that is success. But to me (again, at the time) I couldn’t figure out why these guys with their monster musical chops and ultra-clever lyrics weren’t on Letterman and SNL. Their next record was produced by Todd Rundgren. Maybe that means success. Still never became the national act they should have been. And again, this (and the majority of their catalog) blow most of my songs out of the water. I was never going to ‘make it’, a term that was becoming hazier and hazier by the minute. Last year there was a film documentary about 12 Rods that premiered at the International Film Festival in Minneapolis / St. Paul. Apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way about 12 Rods.
My friend KZ invited me to a show at Quenchers back in 2007. His friends from Sacramento turned out to be Natalie and Lauren from the band Agent Ribbons. Natalie sang and played a blue Danolectro guitar and Lauren played a stripped down drum kit. Natalie’s a natural songwriter, wonderful lyricist, and a brilliant performer. Just listen / watch the video above to see what I mean. How come Agent Ribbons never caught on? They toured tirelessly, put out several records, and would regularly open up for the band Cake in (Milwaukee?) on New Years Eve. A couple years later, on a Chicago tour stop, they stayed at my apartment. I asked them if they wanted to record while they were here, and we tracked a song called “Bird In The Mirror”, yet another one of Natalie’s gems. I added bass and some other instruments to round out the production. I asked Natalie what chords she was playing on the guitar and she charmingly had no idea. Talk about a natural! She just puts her fingers wherever she feels like on the fretboard and magic comes out. How come these women had side jobs? If these guys couldn’t ‘make it’ then there was absolutely no way I was going to. Whatever that meant. The video above has almost 35,000 views. Is that success? How many views makes for contentment? Natalie continues to make great music with the band Tele Novella.
What I know today: All three of these bands were, in reality, incredibly successful. To have written- and luckily recorded- all their incredible songs, to have played live, to have created intense, beautiful memories and long lasting associations— that’s amazing even if it were for just one person. Sometimes I think music is a tad sweeter when it’s not a heavily traded commodity. A bit more of a personal attachment is allowed.
I’ll wrap with this little story: I remember seeing a British band called Mohave 3 play for a record company party at a bar called Thurston’s. This band was playing these beautiful melancholic tunes with longing vocals and pedal steel guitar. Nobody in the audience gave a shit. (Avoid record company parties.) They were talking loudly, trampling the delicate sound coming from the stage. I talked to one of the band members after and he complained about the crowd. I was one of the few people in the room who was paying attention, and I said that for me, the cacophony only enhanced the sweetness of the music.
What bands or songwriters do you feel were totally overlooked? Chime in with a comment below.