Interview/Concert Review: Controlling the Famous

Some bands are made; others were perhaps meant to be, and if so, you can count Controlling the Famous among the latter. Even their name seemed fated: just when the band was deciding what to call itself, the cryptic phrase “Controlling the Famous” appeared high on a downtown L.A. building. They adopted the graffiti tag as their own. It hasn’t been seen since.

In matters more substantial, too, CTF is an organic creation. Although lead singer Max Hellman often takes the lead during an interview, there’s no single mastermind or distinct leader of the group. The four musicians write and arrange together (generally music first, then lyrics), and for the past couple of months have lived together on the road, touring across the Midwest and now hitting the East Coast.

A beautiful New York City sunset was painting the sky orange and aqua over the shimmering East River as I caught up with the band outside Northsix on the waterfront of Brooklyn’s arty Williamsburg neighborhood. Locals and trendoids lined N. 6th St. enjoying the cooler air that the previous night’s storms had brought, but although the stifling heat wave was over, the smell of garbage reminded one that it was still summer in the city. Nonetheless the band expressed great happiness to be in New York, quite sincerely declaring that it was one of their favorite places to play.

The previous night, over 50 fans had greeted CTF in the grungy basement space of CBGB, a pretty impressive turnout considering it was only the band’s second gig ever in New York. Tonight’s crowd, too, is big enough to sweat up Northsix’s small downstairs performance space. Last year, prior to signing with The Militia Group, the band played at the less prestigious Continental, but now, with the support of an energetic indie label, things are different.

For one thing, their new CD, Automatic City, is in the stores, which is very important for bringing out crowds and sustaining interest even in the age of downloads. For another, ads for the disc (and other Militia releases) are all over popular websites like Blogcritics (where this article is cross-posted).

The one thing that hasn’t changed, half-jokes soft-spoken bassist Brendan Hughes, is the lack of money in their pockets, and it’s certainly true that the age of big advances for bands is over. But the men of CTF are pleased as punch to be signed with a good indie label, whose logistical and promotional support makes a big difference. Good turnouts, availability of CDs in local stores, and name recognition outside its home base are tough things for even a talented and hardworking band to achieve. And, for touring bands as well as local acts, New York is one of the toughest towns (even if it does have, according to CTF – three of whose members are SoCal natives – the most beautiful women in the country, hands down).

“If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” is no idle cliché. NYC audiences appreciate good music but tend to act blasé, having seen and heard (or wishing you to think they’ve seen and heard) everything. With so many touring bands coming through and local ones itching to play, many clubs can and do get away with providing the bare minimum of amenities for both performers and audiences.

CTF has jumped up a level, from clubs where nearly anyone can get a gig to those that feature a more elite slice of the rock universe, but they still have to prove themselves to the trendy crowd, some of whom are still wandering down from the upstairs bar as the band churns through its second song (the punchy, ska-tinged “Detox”), filling the tiny basement space with a huge and rock-hard but unfailingly musical sound. The set is quick and to the point, featuring most of the songs from the tautly constructed CD. The stage has, evidently, a little less integrity than the music: when Hellman and the other guitarist-frontman, Johnny Collins, jump up and down, the amps and drums rock crazily like a skyline swaying in an earthquake so that everything seems to be threatening to collapse in a heap. Music equipment needs to be of the best quality for concerts and shows, the sound needs to travel clearly from the front to the back, sites like Https:// provide this for bands, singers, etc.

A few superfans pump fists and shout along with the lyrics, but there are some new fans in the making and some not-yet-convinced. One could reasonably describe the music as combining the energy and vocal fire of emo-punk with the more moderate tempos of indie rock, but that would capture only part of the creativity in evidence. The band explicitly makes music in reaction to, not imitation of, the dominant styles around them, drawing creative energy from their desire to be different. Their songs are accessible and crowd-friendly but their style is their own, with simple melodies and complex guitar interplay.

Native talent and months on the road have made the band as tight as any out there. Hughes holds down the bottom end with solidly locked-in bass parts. With varied and busy beats the extremely impressive drummer Mike Schneider speaks with his instrument as musically as a guitarist does. Hellmann and Collins combine to brighten up the songs with unisons, harmonies, and trade-off vocal duets. These, layered over intertwined guitar hooks and the abovementioned rhythm section, make for a solid, satisfying set of loud and powerful rock that’s catchy enough for pop cred and interesting enough to capture the attention of a jaded New York City crowd.

At least, it did tonight. Tonight Controlling the Famous turned a bunch of Brooklynite twenty-somethings sick of emo pretention into cheering kids; tonight rock lived. Next year, who knows? A bigger venue, some real cash coming in, a career steadily flowering? The label is betting on it.

CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for July 13 2006 – Umbrellas, Alec Gross, The Mains

Umbrellas, Illuminaire

Scott Windsor and his band make bright, dreamy pop that’s one part Coldplay, one part Oasis and one part Boy George. The lyrics are well crafted but the songs in general are only serviceable; the sound is what this music is all about. Enlisting programmer James McAlister (Sufjan Stevens) has resulted in a more electronic, keyboard- and synth-heavy album than Windsor’s previous work, but his angelic, reverb-drenched singing remains an important focus of the production. With the exception of the beautiful, acoustic “Tests On My Heart,” the songs play out mostly as sonic dreamscapes, even the most uptempo ones. The danceable “Again and Again,” the rocked-up “Crooked,” the contemplative Radiohead-inspired “Idle and Waiting” and the U2-like drone of “Thinking of You” contrast nicely and the CD hangs together well. Catchy hooks are the main missing puzzle piece. With some more of those, Umbrellas have as much potential as anyone to reach the level of some of the above-mentioned bands.

Alec Gross & the Districts, Win?orLose?

Alec Gross combines Americana and heartland rock with a strain of folksy gentleness and a knack for melody. Raw honesty is the first and deepest impression that these songs make. Gross sings them in an emotional, slightly quavery voice reminiscent of Michael Stipe’s. Themes of lost love and disappointment predominate. “Broken In Two” declares: “Break me in two/One for me and one for you/One man to lie and say he’s true/The other will leave but he’ll still love you.” And the simple, deadly refrain of “Cold Apples” cuts right to the heart: “I will wait/But not for you.” But the songs take every possible viewpoint on the matter. “Joni Mitchell Was Right (1-2-3)” is a funny depiction of glimpsing a former lover looking oh-so-fine, while “Blue-Ribbon Baby” finds the beauty in sad resignation. “Piscataway” and “Just a Boy” are effective, Springsteen-esque depictions of moving away and growing up.

My only criticism is that in the harder-rocking songs the arrangements and guitar sounds are rather old-fashioned – I don’t dislike them, but a more modern sensibility in that area might widen the appeal, especially since the songs and vocals are so winning. (The synth in “Fix My Dreams,” however, which is right out of “Lucky Man,” is the cool kind of retro.)

Available at CD Baby.

The Mains, The Higher You Get, The Higher You Get

This Los Angeles outfit, led by songwriters Foster Calhoun (Vegas DeMilo) and Rich McCulley, makes straightforward, crunchy, catchy pop-rock. Guitars jangle and growl, while Calhoun’s grungy lead vocals alternately soar and snarl. Although it’s not original, and the lyrics are often cliched, the duo makes an inspired songwriting team, working elements of the best rock from the 60s through the 90s into one infectious tune or riff after another. From ballads (“By The Way”) and rumbling retro-rockers (“Rock and Roll”) to delicious power-pop (“Tonight”) and songs inspired by 70s classic rock (“Jaded”), The Mains give good old rock an exciting and muscular workout.

Some time around 1970, the term “rock” began to be used for guitar-heavy, rebellious-sounding pop. Listening to The Mains reminds us that terms like rock and pop, like lines of longitude, are just artificial constructs, while music – if it’s solid and honest like this – is all-natural.

Extended samples available at CD Baby.

Concert Review: Mofro

Mofro, the creation of Florida swamp-soul singer JJ Grey and guitarist Daryl Hance, played an exhilirating, nearly two-hour set of what they like to call “front porch soul” at Southpaw in Brooklyn on Saturday night. The slow and midtempo speeds of most of the songs give Grey ample space to pull the audience in, much like Beck does at his concerts, or Jim Morrison did. Indeed, although Grey’s powerful voice by turns evokes Marvin Gaye and Marty Balin, and though the rich, chugging music owes far more to New Orleans, Memphis and The Band than to L.A., a Mofro show is something like a second coming of the Doors.

Like shamans, the charismatic Grey and his sinuous band build their modestly structured, unprepossessing songs into small volcanoes of emotion, with the audience supplying half the energy. It’s enough to begin to restore one’s faith in the vitality of live rock. With organist Adam Scone covering the bass parts (another Doors-like trait), Hance laying down simple but deep guitar parts, and drummer George Sluppick creating a wide, drawling pocket, Grey moves between guitar, electric piano and harmonica, playing simple lines and solos – nothng fancy, but like his singing, bluesy and elemental.

A Bo-Diddley-beat rave-up with a guest sax player, and a few other quick mini-jams, helped to get the blood flowing, but the slower songs carried the most weight, whether celebratory or sad. Highlights included “Fireflies” and a gospel-intense cover of “Do Right Woman,” as well as Mofro’s signature ballad “Lochloosa.” The music contains a fair amount of lamentation for a rapidly disappearing world of easygoing Southern Americana, northern Florida style. But if a jaded New York City audience can respond so brightly to Mofro, then at least we know the human spirit – as exemplified by music, naturally – can’t be developed out of existence as easily as can the land.