Band on the Run

With an army of fans behind them and a new album in front, the members of Chomsky are ready to take the next step. They're just not sure where it will take them.

A week or so ago, Chomsky was in Austin to play a gig at the Flamingo Cantina with its friends from Kissinger. Instead of making the drive back to Dallas in the middle of the night, guitarist Glen Reynolds found a place where the band could get some sleep. Reynolds planned to meet the guy who had graciously offered to put up the group for the night. Which he did, except their host was, well, drunk. Hammered, you might say.

When the five members of the band--Reynolds, singer-guitarist Sean Halleck, bassist James Driscoll, drummer Matt Kellum and keyboard player Don Cento--turned up at his place later, their temporary landlord was nowhere to be found. So they waited. And waited. After several minutes of polite knocking and several more minutes of doorbell abuse, the drunk man's confused and sleepy roommate finally came to the door with one thing on his mind: Who are you guys?

More people will be asking the same question in the next few months as Chomsky strays from Dallas on a regular basis. On this night, May 1, Chomsky will be back in Austin within a few hours, this time at Emo's, trying to win over an unfamiliar audience in an unfamiliar city. If they're nervous about tonight's gig, it's not showing. As the band members stand across the street from Halleck's Lower Greenville house waiting for him to get home from his day job, they laugh at the memory of Chomsky's last adventure in Austin. It's funny now, but you can tell it won't be as funny the next time it happens.

Chomsky, not Chompsky, is, from left: Don Cento, Matt Kellum, Glen Reynolds, Sean Halleck and James Driscoll.
Nancy Newberry
Chomsky, not Chompsky, is, from left: Don Cento, Matt Kellum, Glen Reynolds, Sean Halleck and James Driscoll.

Once Halleck shows up, Driscoll points the van in the direction of Interstate 30, and the trip is under way. The band members poke fun at each other at every opportunity during the three-hour drive. Everything is fair game, from the number of bags Halleck brings with him for a one-day "tour"--three this trip, including, as Reynolds points out, "one to leave behind at the club"--to Driscoll's attempts to steer a van, drink bottled water and eat a bag of chips at the same time.

The joking is so continuous and infectious, it's easy to forget what Chomsky has been through during the past three years and what it's getting into now. Since Reynolds joined the band in 1998, Chomsky has built nothing out of something and, in the process, learned it gets even harder to figure out the next step the closer you get to the top. There is pressure now, and you could feel it when the band was in Arkansas recording Onward Quirky Soldiers in February, following up 1999's surprisingly successful A Few Possible Selections for the Soundtrack of Your Life. Even through the laughter, it's here, as the band ventures outside of its familiar city limits. The further it goes, the more that pressure will increase, as Chomsky has to convince talent scouts from record labels to sign the group, radio program directors to play its songs and people in other cities to take a chance on a band they've never heard before.

"We've had a good amount of success in Dallas, but our sights are bigger," Halleck says later. "Last time, we made a record, and things happened to us. It was really out of our control, and we didn't know what to do. Glen had played in Liquid 3 before, but the rest of us had never been in an established band. So, you know, a lot just kind of happened. This time, we're trying to think things out a little more." Halleck pauses. "But I don't want to turn into the band that just drives around and plays a bunch of places for nobody for no reason."

The band's jokes stop as soon as it arrives at Emo's. Two minutes after the van is parallel parked on Red River, and three hours before their show is scheduled to start, the five members of Chomsky have a good idea how their night will pan out. There it is, just inside the door, in black and white: Chompsky. It's hard to make a name for yourself when no one seems to be able to spell it.

No one picks up a guitar or a bass or drums anticipating this. No one joins a band expecting to wind up in Little Rock, Arkansas, sitting in a room some people wouldn't even call a closet, trying to figure out how to synchronize a keyboard riff with an uncooperative click track. Or something like that. So much jargon is being tossed around, it's hard to tell exactly what's going on. Whatever it is, Cento, Halleck and Driscoll, along with producer Barry Poynter and assistant engineer Jason Magnusson, are having trouble fixing it.

It's late February, and for the past week and a half, Chomsky has been coming to Poynter's Palace in Little Rock--the tiny studio Poynter has set up in a converted garage behind his house near downtown--to record its new album, Onward Quirky Soldiers. This is not the first obstacle the band has run into during its stay in Little Rock, and it won't be the last. A few days ago, recording the guitar parts for "15 Minutes to Rock" took so long that some members of the group now refer to the song as "15 Hours to Rock." Everything is taking longer than they thought before they made the trip.

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