The phone rang. It was our manager Jon. “Just heard from Virgin and Atlantic. They’re both interested. You had better get better, and fast.” Panic set in. We were not ready for this. Our songs were not ready. Our relationships were not ready. Our live show was sure as heck not ready. Jon was/is not one to mince words. “You better get your ass in gear” he said. More on that while I take you a few steps backwards in time.
At age 16 I met Brennan Willis. Brennan was in college and I was taking post secondary classes, so we met there. Brennan was starting to work on his production capabilities, and somewhere around age 18 or 19 we set out to record a little EP of some songs I wrote. Brennan was in another band where he had met producer Allen Salmon in Nashville. He sent Allen my tunes, and we set up a way for me to come record, we just needed the cash. I had a man I did not know come up to me after church one morning and ask me how much I needed to record. I said $3,000. He wrote me a check, and away we went. We went to Nashville and had a spot at Blackbird studios. I wore my yellow “Nashville” tee shirt and sat down at a piano that Vince Guaraldi had played the week before. I barely knew how to play the piano, but I banged out my chords, and we finished the 3 songs.
Most bands start out playing cover tunes at bars. Then they write a little. They hone their live show, and their songwriting, and over a period of time they become prepared for some amount of success or notoriety. We did it backwards. Brennan and I had played about 3 coffee house acoustic sets together when record labels started calling. One of the songs that we had recorded, “There for You”, had major pop/radio hit potential, and labels wanted in. At first it was Word records, a subsidiary of Warner on the Christian side. One of their higher ups flew up to Ohio to see us play. We were in so far over our heads, and had no idea. We had no business playing for any record label, let alone one as big as Word. We went out to Applebee’s after the show, and talked about a developmental deal and a few other options. I got the hint. We weren’t ready. So Brennan and I set out to complete our lineup. We added my brother Kyle on drums, and a few months later Jim stepped in on bass.
We went to Nashville as a complete lineup for the first time sometime in 2006. We were scheduled to meet with Jon, the man who was kind of evolving into our manager, although we hadn’t officially met in person yet. At the time, he was just giving us some advice, but he was managing some other successful acts and we knew we were gonna need help navigating our way through the business. Jon is one of my favorite people, but your first impression of him can be intimidating, especially at the time. His strong, 6’4″ frame walked in wearing some sort of designer jeans, a dress shirt with sport coat, haircut and beard that looked like Sawyer’s from LOST, and some good old fashioned Nashville boots, specifically designed to leave their imprints on the butts of musicians. We sat down to eat and the fun began. “I usually tell bands that there is someone who is better than you at what you do within a hundred mile radius, but hell, we’re in Nashville, there’s probably several people in this restaurant who are better than you at what you do”. The fun continued: “You have to fake it till you make it. Look the part. Look like a band. Jim over here looks like he is wearing a tablecloth.” It sounds harsh, but at the time I was smart enough to know that it was exactly what we needed. This was our guy. He would make us better.
We went home and we practiced. Practiced. And then practiced some more. Virgin and Atlantic called. Our lives were consumed by the band. Our family was understanding because we had what looked like a clear path to success. So for a year or so our life was 3-4 band practices a week. We’d run our full set, watch the tape, and then run it again. 3-4 hours a night, then basketball to stay in shape, after we’d been at work all day. We started recording more songs with Allen, and our first album started to take shape. Looking back, I don’t know how we functioned through that. Brennan and I were both about to get married, and the workload was really heavy, but we were young. We played as many shows as we could afford to play. If we got paid, that was a bonus.
Then in 2007 it was time. Time to see if we had it in us. Time to do some record label showcases, and start learning some hard lessons. We drove our van to New York city to play at a little venue called Pianos. We paid for the trip out of our pocket, and did our best to cut costs wherever we could. There were some folks from Glassnote records supposed to be there. We set up our gear and were ready to roll. Sound checks are a foreign phenomenon at clubs like this. You show up. Wait your turn. Get your stuff on stage and play. That was cool and all, but apparently the sound man had never worked with backing tracks. Most bands today use backing tracks for everything. You can’t always have a 20 piece orchestra with you on a stage the size of a kitchen table. The sound man could not quite figure out how to get the click track to my in ears and out of the house. Jon had flown in for this and he was fired up. You could cut the tension with a knife. We were standing on stage and we felt naked. Just waiting. After what felt like an hour but was probably more like 20 minutes, we played our set sans in ears and tracks. We played our hearts out, and hoped for the best.
The next day we got an email from the Glassnote people. They had sent a lower level staffer, and he didn’t stay for our set.
Welcome to the music business. Get ready for more.