By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
It isn't quite dark yet outside Deep Ellum's Club Clearview when a Chevrolet Suburban pulls into the parking lot. The doors open to reveal a vehicle crammed with musical equipment and Eisley, a family band comprising members of the DuPree family and their neighborhood friend, bassist Jonathan Wilson. They've just made the drive from Tyler, and the band, their parents, and several friends hop out one by one to stretch their legs.
The two boys in the band, drummer Weston DuPree and Wilson, grab the heaviest piece of equipment—the Fender Rhodes electric piano—and walk it into Clearview, where the band will play one of their first Dallas shows to date. And it's a big one: The Dallas music elite has arrived. Most of the Polyphonic Spree's members are in attendance, and despite a few false starts in what turned out to be a one of Eisley's sloppiest sets, Tim DeLaughter and company seem charmed.
And, hell, everyone is. These kids just ooze sweetness and innocence. And their music does too: Dreamy guitar tones set the foundation for impressive vocal harmonies that weave in and out of joyful-yet-melancholy pop songs. Named originally Mos Eisley as an homage to the Star Wars planet, it's not surprising that the band's songbook thematically focuses on fairy-tale subject matter. But this isn't kid stuff: It's a mature sound that this band is producing, and one that seems destined for success.
Better yet, the band's career is just beginning.
That scene took place nearly 10 years ago, but even today everyone still seems to think of Eisley's members as kids. Reluctantly, though, they've all grown up over the years. And they have the battle scars to prove it.
"When I think about those days, I think about them with a lot of sentiment," says the now 22-year-old Stacy DuPree-King, the recently wed piano-playing youngest member of Eisley, who was at the front end of her adolescence back then. "I really grew up in Deep Ellum. In clubs."
It was the time spent in those clubs that helped the members of Eisley quickly carve out a name for themselves in Dallas. Thanks to friends in bands like Midlake and Seven Channels (who later became The Vanished), the shows got bigger, and the buzz surrounding the band grew legs of its own. It wasn't long until the bands that once brought Eisley under their wing were pining for opening slots on their shows.
During that time, the Cornerstone Festival, a Christian music festival in Illinois, put Eisley on its new band showcase. Among the several hundred people who showed up in front of the stage for that performance was Michael Barber, a lawyer who orchestrated a bidding war among several of the major labels for the band's services. Eventually, Barber landed the band a management deal with Nettwerk Management (home to Coldplay) and a record deal with Warner Bros. and Reprise Records. The record deal was huge—complete with a signing bonus around $1 million.
It was hard not to get caught up in the whirlwind surrounding the band. With a seemingly endless supply of money and a crack team of business-jargon-spewing industry hotshots on their side, it felt like Eisley had already made it. But reality set in quickly, and the band began to feel the weight of the label's demands on their shoulders—a burden that would only get heavier for years to come.
The people at Warner Bros. were quick to throw their weight around, and the DuPrees, being an agreeable and naive family, soon felt that their career in music was out of their own control. The label and the band's management spent the band's money recklessly, shopping them around from producer to producer to try to find the right fit. Eventually, the band settled on producer Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith, Beck), who recorded the band's first LP, 2005's Room Noises.
But when the sales for Room Noises disappointed—despite prime opening touring slots for the likes of Coldplay, New Found Glory and Taking Back Sunday—the band's interaction with its business handlers started becoming especially tense. Suddenly, there was even more pressure to write hit singles. There was more pressure to tour, too. And, given the family dynamic of the outfit, there was pressure, too, for the band to make enough money to support its family.
Everyone in the band felt it, but none more than DuPree-King, who spent much of her adolescence on the road.
"I went through a lot of insecurity as a teenager being in a band and being in the music industry," she says. "After a while, it started to take its toll on me. I started to close up more and more and more and more—until I was like a zombie, like a hermit."
The pressure was also too much to bear for Wilson, who left the band in 2005, and was replaced by Garrin DuPree, another Tyler-dwelling cousin of the family's. And it wasn't long before the band realized that the record deal with Warner Brothers wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
"We felt trapped," DuPree-King says. "That situation was ill-fitted to our band, and there were a lot of expectations put on us because we were so young."
Business wasn't the only thing going wrong for the members of Eisley: Their personal lives were also spiraling out of control. Dark times for the band were made darker when singer Sherri DuPree-Bemis split from her new husband, Chad Gilbert. She had met Gilbert, guitarist for New Found Glory, on an extended tour Eisley had done with New Found Glory, and the two hit it off despite DuPree-Bemis' initial trepidation. Life on the road apart from each other, however, proved to be too much of a strain on their relationship, and the two divorced in 2007, less than a year after they were married.
"I think we just jumped into something too soon, because we wanted to get married and we fell into that relationship on tour because we had a really long tour together," says DuPree-Bemis of her relationship with Gilbert. "It was like a whirlwind and then, boom, we were married and neither of us realized the gravity of what happened. Then we went on tours and he fell in love with someone else, and I couldn't do anything about it."
Only months after that, DuPree-Bemis' older sister and bandmate, Chauntelle DuPree-D'Agostino, broke off her engagement with lead Taking Back Sunday vocalist Adam Lazzara.
The DuPrees had reached the bottom, and the failed relationships of the two sisters hit the entire family hard.
"It was rough because we're all so close," says Dupree-Bemis. "It was hard."
The band needed a break. And after they finished touring in support of their second LP, 2007's Combinations, they had fulfilled their end of the record contract and were ready to cut ties with Warner Bros. and Reprise.
But the people at Warner, who had all but disappeared when sales for Combinations were disappointing, were, surprisingly, not ready to let go. The band's A&R representative, Craig Aaronson, had just become the president of Sire Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros., and he begged the band to stay, promising that they would receive the attention that they deserved. The DuPrees reluctantly went against their judgment, extended their contract, and, without taking a break, thrust themselves into the studio to begin work on their third record. The band worked on that record for about a year, during which they negotiated the terms of their new deal.
"We showed [the record] to them, and [Aaronson] loved it and said he'd show it to his label," says Dupree-Bemis. "He felt like they didn't really get it, and he told us, 'I don't think this label's going to work for you like you need. If you guys want to get off the label, I think you should.'"
It was an absolute blow to the band's morale—and the final nail in the coffin for their relationship with the major-label system. So, after losing a year in contract negotiations, the band began the process of doing what they originally set out to do—leaving Warner Bros. and Reprise. The process would take them another year, right up until the fall of 2009, when the band started publicly questioning their major-label ties, as they did in a 2009 interview with the Observer, and openly hoping for a new, independent label deal.
A few months later, the chops began to fall. In February 2010, Eisley formally announced that they had split with Warner Bros. and Reprise Records. Then, just this month, the band revealed the details of the independent record label deal they had pined for, officially signing to the New York-based Equal Vision Records—an independent, sure, but still somewhat of an awkward fit. The biggest names on Equal Vision's roster are teen-punk stalwarts Chiodos and Pierce the Veil.
It's cold in Colorado, where the year's first blanket of snow has just fallen. It's been five years since Jonathan Wilson left Eisley, and now he's living a simple life just outside Denver. He's between jobs right now, but he might take up work on a snow plow soon.
He's a simple, soft-spoken guy, who speaks slowly and chooses his words carefully. He remembers his time in Eisley with all the wisdom and humility of someone who's had years to replay it in his mind.
"There were several years of being on the road on our own, playing any crappy show we could, paying our dues," says Wilson. "That was the funnest part—when we were out on our own. It was very free, and there was not a lot of pressure. It was very joyful to play shows."
Wilson was always the level-headed one in the band, but even he got caught up in the whirlwind when Warner Bros. came around. Despite the excitement of having just signed a huge record deal, though, Wilson took note of the bad signs that he saw.
"There were certain business decisions that we look back and said we could have done better, but we were really ignorant of the industry," Wilson says. "There was a lot of spending in certain areas, and investments of resources in areas that didn't sit right with the band. But management was pressuring."
The worst investments of the band's resources? Touring. With the exception of the Coldplay tour, Eisley was placed on the road with bands whose music and fans were a poor match.
The worst investment of all, though? The money spent on Room Noises.
"We could've made the same record for $100,000," Wilson says. "It ended up being close to five or six. It was an indication to me that business was not being handled by competent, sensible people."
Within 20 months, the signing bonus was gone. And so was Wilson. The pressure was too much for him, but his reason for leaving had little to do with money or conflicts with the members of the band. It was the result, he says, of an "existential journey" that Wilson had taken. He had returned to his Messianic Jewish background—a Christian faith that carries on in the Jewish tradition—and he felt like the band was conflicting with the Biblical commandment to keep the Sabbath holy.
"We were obviously touring and playing shows every weekend, and that hit me deep within," Wilson says. "I think [the DuPrees] felt like I was looking down on them, but that was never the case. I always wanted to continue relationships with everyone in the band, but all of those relationships basically dwindled."
Despite not having kept in touch with the remaining members of Eisley, Wilson still has high hopes for them.
"I'm glad that they are now in a place where they're more independent," he says. "Maybe that will help them get back to that place where they once were."
The cell phone static that exists between Salt Lake City, Utah, and Boise, Idaho, is overwhelming—so much so that it's almost pointless to carry on a conversation. But even the fuzz that cuts in and out while DuPree-King speaks can't muffle her excitement about Eisley's next chapter.
Over the last two years, she says, the band has sorted out both its business and personal troubles. DuPree-D'Agostino is now happily married to LaRose Guitars luthier Todd D'Agostino, and DuPree-Bemis has married Say Anything singer Max Bemis. More important, the band is back on the road, on their last tour before the March 2011 release of their third record, tentatively titled The Valley.
And, Dupree-King says, if there's one thing that's clear from these shows, it's that Eisley need to release more material.
"We haven't toured in a long time, and we haven't put out a record in three years, so the songs that we're playing are kind of dated at this point," DuPree-King says. "I would love to not just be playing these bars every night. I would love to build back up to playing nice venues."
But in order to get there, the band knows they need a fresh start—the beginning of which, they say, is their newly inked record deal with Equal Vision Records. Despite the somewhat odd fit, the band members believe that Equal Vision Records is the right place for them—even if they admit to being nervous about again signing with a label this second time around.
"I thought whenever we got off of Warner Bros. that we wouldn't be putting ourselves into this position again," DuPree-Bemis says. "When EVR came and approached us, they came down to Tyler to hang out with us, which is amazing. And that was different."
It's different, Dupree-Bemis says, because their relationship with Warner Bros. was all business, and rarely personal. The DuPrees have always preferred it the other way around: Their Tyler home is a revolving door of friends and family, most of whom are entertained by the DuPrees until well past the early hours of the morning. To have their business managers do business in their home spoke louder than any signing bonus they could have been offered.
"Our new label, from what I've observed, will be an enormous dose of painkiller to the constant headache we've been through for the last six years," says DuPree-King.
But even with feelings of relief, Eisley members say they're well aware that there's a long road ahead. One of the first steps on that road is to return to their roots in Dallas; the band will play The Loft on Saturday night, as the final tour date before The Valley is released in March. Given their upbringing in Dallas venues, it's a fitting end to this chapter of Eisley's career.
And the band couldn't be happier about it.
"We're at the end of a tunnel," DuPree-Bemis says. "The whole next phase of our career is starting now."