When Brett Tohlen and Matt Beaton say that their band Lewis has been luckier than most, they don't mean to imply that the group hasn't had to struggle. Far from it actually, since the first four years of Lewis' existence were nothing but an uphill climb. After all, three-fourths of the band -- singer-guitarists Tohlen and Beaton, and bassist Jeff Truly -- began playing together in College Station, the home of Texas A&M University and little else. Even being the best band in College Station is still worse than an endless string of three-bands-for-three-bucks shows on Tuesday nights in Dallas.
In College Station, there was only one club for Lewis to perform at, The Cow Hop, and even that didn't offer much in the way of good music, especially after it changed ownership. As for the rest of the College Station music scene, there wasn't one, unless you count the cover bands that provided soundtracks for keg stands at frat parties, and Beaton and Tohlen certainly didn't.
So, six months before Beaton, Truly, and Tohlen graduated from Texas A&M in December 1997, they decided that they were leaving as soon as possible. Starting at the bottom in another city had to beat continuing in College Station. They briefly toyed with the idea of making a fresh start in Austin, but they soon realized that Dallas was the place for them. All three had grown up in the area, and after recruiting drummer John Owen Parish, they ditched the entire set of songs they had worked up in College Station and began writing new ones, better ones.
"Just being in College Station, we didn't get to see a lot of good bands come through," Beaton says. "We were just listening to the same stuff we listened to in high school. We deejayed at the radio station, so we picked up some good music that way. There's a difference between playing in a band for fun and being serious about it."
Tohlen adds, "We wanted to try to do something that was more artistic."
While taking their music more seriously was one thing, it didn't help the band get gigs. Fortunately, The Plebians -- one of the few Dallas bands the members of Lewis had met before moving here -- helped the group get a show at the Curtain Club on a Sunday night. It turned out to be the break the group needed: One Ton Records boss and former Caulk frontman Aden Holt caught Lewis' set that night.
"Aden happened to be walking by, and he saw us," Tohlen says. "He didn't say anything to us that night, but for the next four weeks he tried to get ahold of us. Caulk was doing its last show, and a week or two before they were supposed to play, he finally got in touch with us. He said, 'I'd love for you guys to play that show.' From there, it just snowballed."
Lewis became a regular at Curtain Club after opening for Caulk, which helped the band land shows at other venues. But the most important performance in the group's brief history in Dallas happened months before. With help from a friend, Lewis had landed an opening slot at the grand opening of Russell Hobbs' club The Door last May, a few months after the band had moved to Dallas. Hobbs liked what he heard, and he not only wanted to book the band at The Door again, but also was interested in helping them do more. Hobbs wanted Lewis to be the first band on Deep Ellum Records (since renamed AltarScience), the label he was restarting after abandoning it a decade earlier. The band initially resisted, but they became friends with Hobbs as they continued to perform at The Door.
It was the beginning of a relationship that will culminate on September 27 with the release of the band's debut, Progress and Regress, on AltarScience, which Hobbs co-owns with Patrick Keel, who produced Progress and Regress.
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For Tohlen, being in the studio with Keel was an education. They hadn't figured out how to capture the live sound they had worked hard to create on tape. Keel showed them the way.
"We got in the studio, and we didn't know jack," he says, laughing. "We'd done some other stuff in college, but it was on our own. We were our own producers. Somebody was there and they turned on the tape. Patrick was somebody who could be honest with us, and say, 'No, I think that sucks.' Everybody else has been like, 'Oh, that's fine.' We wanted somebody who challenged us. We didn't want to be in the middle ground or anything like that. We wanted to be either really bad or really good, not just be another band."
It's still too soon to put Lewis into either category, but Progress and Regress shows signs that the band may eventually end up in the latter. The disc's melodramatic guitar pop owes much to bands such as Sunny Day Real Estate and Radiohead, but the songs aren't completely under the influence. The band is still trying to find its own voice, and more than likely it will. And it will do it right here.
"Dallas is where we're from, and we wanted to see Dallas have a good music scene," Tohlen says, describing the band's decision to move here. "So we were like, 'Let's try Dallas, and bring back a music scene that's flourishing and that challenges us.' The whole Deep Ellum scene doesn't seem to be an artistic community. Maybe it is, and I don't see it. I'd like to see Dallas be a place where bands can challenge each other and push it to a next level."