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."
At CD Warehouse, that difference didn't matter.
"In Abilene, when you find somebody cool, who likes good music, you latch," Carr says. "You're instant friends. There's no courtship, there's no nothin'. You're best buds right off the bat."
Says Lapham: "It wasn't immediately obvious what was going to happen. We hung out, and then I checked out his band. He had a really unique voice--I was quite amazed by it. He gave me a compilation CD-R of different things he'd done. The one thing that caught my interest was this little instrumental piece that he'd made on his own. It was made of loops and all this weird noise. I was really quite amazed by that, that someone in Abilene was doing stuff like that."
Lapham realized he had the final piece needed to complete his new musical project. Carr could contribute vocals, lyrics and more traditional songwriting ideas to the British trio's sampling and composing, and in an Internet age, they didn't even need to be in the same country to work together. The idea appealed to Carr: "I'd never been in any other band or done anything creatively with people other than the Danes. And it didn't require a whole lot of commitment from me. Whatever I couldn't do in my other creative areas that were defined in boxes, I could get it out with John Mark."
While separated, the two Texans e-mailed song ideas and MP3s to each other, and during one lengthy visit to Abilene at the beginning of 2000, Lapham rented a space on City Center with Carr to use as a recording studio for a few months--"it cost less than renting a house [in Abilene], or even a room," Lapham says--to develop lyrics and harmonies for songs that would eventually make up the bulk of These Were The Earlies.
But Carr, who was still in the Danes and considered these recordings nothing more than "a total bedroom project," had no idea how serious his friend was about the Earlies until Lapham returned to Manchester and pushed ahead. With copies of Carr's vocal and instrumental e-mails in hand, engineers Lapham and Hatton arranged and recorded songs with Madden's help. Not only did he play over a dozen instruments, Madden also rounded up a group of session players that included his brother and six other hometown friends.
"Christian's from a small town north of Manchester called Burnley, and in Burnley, R&B cover bands are a big, big deal," Carr says. "Most of the people on the record have been in R&B cover bands since they were 13."
Doesn't that mean the Earlies should sound more like, say, The Commitments?
"It's not traditional songwriting--nobody shows up and is like, 'Hey guys, I've got this tune, verse chorus verse bridge chorus,'" Carr says. "A lot of the songs are one note--no key changes, just layering and bringing in different melodies over the top. [The players] enjoyed comin' and doin' it and just kinda freestyling over the top of it."
Lapham and Burnley reconstructed hours of these improvisational recordings with the help of loops and samples to create totally different songs, which were then e-mailed to and from Carr for more vocal and instrumental touches. This process often stretched for months--even years--for each song. In June 2002, Lapham finally assembled two instrumentals and printed up a run of 200 seven-inch records. Though admittedly naïve about promoting and selling albums, he lucked out by finding fans at prestigious shops such as Piccadilly Records and Rough Trade who not only promoted and sold the entire run but also convinced the group to release more material.
The next August, the group released "Morning Wonder," which was originally an instrumental before Carr insisted on adding vocals to the song's second half. This proved to be the half-organic, half-electronic breakthrough that saw Lapham's and Carr's styles meet halfway--the elaborate, Massive Attack-style studio trickery was now swelling with folksy, songwriter elements, and the result was soon compared by the British press to the Flaming Lips, the very band Lapham and Carr bonded over at CD Warehouse in 1998.
"People ask, 'How could that come from Texas?'" Carr says. "I guess people view Texas as a not very psychedelic place, but my musical experience in Texas...was seeing bands like Hi-Fi Drowning, Buck Jones, Tomorrowpeople, Tripping Daisy. To me, at least the scene I chose to associate myself with was a very psychedelic, pop-driven scene."
The seven-inch release reached Number 60 on the British charts and quickly attracted major-label interest. As it turned out, one of the band's supporters at Rough Trade's Notting Hill shop, Billy Campbell, was an A&R rep for Warner Brothers UK imprint 679 but had never told the band. He was creating a 679 offshoot label, Names Recordings, and wanted the Earlies to be his first signing.
They agreed, and within months, Carr flew to Manchester to meet for the first time with Hatton and Madden, the bandmates he'd collaborated with for three years via e-mailed song ideas.
"We had a little bit of a session before the signing took place," Lapham says. "It was a little bit surreal; they'd talked on the phone, so they all kinda knew they were going to get along. It was funny to watch [their meeting], but it worked out."
But what of the Earlies' logistics? The problem with having only two musicians in the band was quickly solved, since Madden convinced the seven studio players to join the quartet for touring, as the symphonic songs--full of horns and synthesizers and the kitchen sink--would be impossible to recreate on stage otherwise. In fact, Madden and Carr, as the main instrumentalists of the Earlies, got their chance to take Lapham's and Giles' ringleading status away by having control of the band's live show, which has brought more balance to the band and contributed organic, structured sounds to the engineers' unorthodox approach. But Carr's distance proved to be a bigger hurdle. After signing with Names, he and his wife moved to Manchester for six months, only to have their work visa--and money--run out.
Strangely, their prompt return to Dallas worked out in the Earlies' favor.
"It's not a sacrifice or burden at all," Lapham says. "We all kind of like the fact that we make music the way we do. It lends itself to uniqueness to the music. It's never been an option of 'should we find someone else,' because everything's worked out really well. We're all pretty happy that we have an unorthodox technique of recording a song."
Carr agrees, and he also likes the infrequent touring because of the distance between them: "We're gonna be one of those bands that tours smart, where each show is an event." But when pressed with questions about the distance, Carr, between jokes about racking up frequent flyer miles, admits to more than a little frustration, particularly because of festival schedules in England this summer that left Carr twiddling his thumbs for weeks between gigs.
"Even though it was kind of a beating, it's something we needed to do," Carr says. "We don't have to worry about the U.K. for a while. Now we can focus on America, which I'm excited about."
Really, the American tour that begins in less than a month is Carr's chance to catch up to the rest of the band. Only when he talks about driving across the country with his bandmates does he become focused and stop treating the band as a laid-back experiment, a perspective Lapham clearly counters when he says, "We always set out from the beginning to go as far as we possibly could."
In comparison, Carr's detachment makes sense for the only member of the Earlies with a Texas drawl, and his repeated statements about the band's sound being a personal departure are his subliminal way of saying what he really means: that the label contract, the album sales and the festivals still seem surreal, still seem thousands of miles away. But when he lights up near the end of the conversation, it's obvious that the reality is finally somewhere he can relate to--his hometown.
"I keep telling my family--no, look, really, I'm in this band, really, really," Carr says. "The Guardian, a national newspaper over there, gives us a four-out-of-four rating, two-page spread, and the English are like, 'Oh God, I can't believe this, amazing.' And I'm like, 'Yeah, that's cool.' But man, I haven't seen anything in the Dallas Observer! That's what I've read since I was 10."
The distance between Carr and the Earlies will shorten even more next year when Lapham moves back to Texas for six months--it's already time to begin work on the next album, and this time, Lapham wants to complete it in the States.
"I'll hopefully be able to work with Brandon more. Whether he wants it or not, I dunno," Lapham jokes, but he and Carr know it means one more chance to stare out of a Texas studio window together.