By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
These are the Earlies: A band that began with four men tinkering with samples and strange compositions in bedrooms, studios and e-mail songwriting swaps has become a British sensation. More than 20,000 copies of These Were The Earlies, their 679 Records debut, have sold overseas. The group has nabbed rave reviews from prestigious publications such as NME (nine out of ten) and The Guardian (four out of four) and performed in front of tens of thousands at festivals like Glastonbury.
Well, really, these are the Earlies: Brandon Carr, who lives in Dallas, and three men living in Manchester, U.K. Two of the four members can't sing and don't play musical instruments. In October 2003, the group was signed to a record deal before Brandon had ever set foot in Manchester, before he'd actually met two of the members, before the band had ever played a single concert. When they finally got together to sign their 679 contract, over half of These Were had already been recorded via Internet file-swapping.
To Carr, the fact that the Earlies are anything, that they exist at all, is unbelievable, but not so much for those reasons. What had started as an occasional musical diversion, something to toy with when he had a break from his Dallas band the Danes, was now the reason that his face was splashed in British magazines and BBC reporters were following his band on tour.
Weirdest of all, though, is that the Earlies began in Abilene--as stereotypical a West Texas town as they come. A strong Christian community, anchored by private colleges Abilene Christian University (a Church of Christ school) and Hardin-Simmons University (a Baptist school). A huge Air Force base. An economy based largely on oil and ranching. Conservative values.
Through the windows of One City Center, Abilene must have looked a lot different. It was at this downtown address that Lapham and Carr opened a studio, if only for a few months, to record the swirling, spacey sound experiments that would shape their musical futures. In this space, folk met tape manipulation, guitars met horn arrangements and John Mark Lapham's studio expertise met Brandon Carr's distinctive, high-register singing voice.
Carr arrived in Abilene in 1997 to attend classes at Abilene Christian, and while he'd left his hometown of Dallas behind, he didn't abandon his musical past. In high school, Carr had formed a space-rock band called The Danes, and rather than break up the band for college, he and the other members signed up at ACU together.
The choice of college doesn't seem ideal compared to burgeoning college music towns in Texas like Austin and Denton, and Carr agrees--"It wasn't the smartest move we did," he says. "We were young, we didn't know. Our second show ever was opening for Tripping Daisy, so we thought we were hot shit."
Still, the Danes made the best of the atypical city, attracting like-minded Dallas bands such as Tomorrowpeople and Bobgoblin for concerts at their new hometown and playing gigs in Dallas whenever possible. While in school, Carr took a job at the only CD Warehouse in town (which has since closed). That's where he met Lapham in the summer of 1998.
"Every time [John Mark] would come in, he would buy or ask about the coolest stuff that we had, music that I really liked," Carr says. "You know, stuff that most people in Abilene would brush right past to go straight to the Mariah Carey or Toby Keith records."
Lapham wasn't "most people in Abilene," though: He'd left years earlier. While he'd grown up in the city, he was only visiting family for a few months before returning to Manchester, where he'd lived since 1993. Carr had assumed that Lapham's music taste was a result of his move, but it was the other way around--Lapham had moved overseas because of music.
"Growing up, most of the bands I was inspired by all came from England," Lapham says from his Manchester home. "Part of it was just that I had wanderlust, and part of it, I really hated living in Texas at the time. It all seems quite fated looking back on it now. I was very confident that it was the right thing to do. I didn't know why."
Lapham moved once he'd registered with a recording school in Manchester--more affordable than schools in London--for a year-long program at Spirit Studios, and after graduating, he continued working at the studio on and off for five years. During that tenure, he met an up-and-coming recording student named Giles Hatton and a local multi-instrumentalist named Christian Madden who frequently recorded at SS.
Over time, they began recording songs together on occasion, even though Lapham and Hatton couldn't sing or play any instrument. Rather, the music that Lapham created both by himself and with his friends was thanks primarily to the arrangement of myriad samples. Carr describes Lapham's earliest output as "cold, kinda Kraftwerk-y," not to mention the complete opposite of how he'd made music all his life.
"I'm used to four guys--guitar, bass and drums in the garage," Carr says. "You pound out, and boom--you've got a tune."