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Compassion fish

In RainMaker Records' lofty Deep Ellum offices, company co-founder Paul Nugent flashes a Jerry Maguire smile and announces, "Guys, you won a Clio."

The members of the Austin-based rock band Soak don't quite know what to make of this. "What the hell is a Clio?" asks singer-guitarist Jason Demetri. "Do we have to go to some awards ceremony?"

Bassist J.R. (John) Moyer jerks his head up. His long black dreadlocks flog the air like a matted cat-o'-nine-tails. "Do we get a trophy?"

Without looking up from the stack of CDs he's shuffling through, Heath Macintosh, Soak's drummer, murmurs, "And what exactly did we do for this?" Moyer holds up a finger and wags it Nugent's way. "No, the question really is, does each of us get our own trophy?"

Macintosh holds a cigarette up in the air. "No, the question is, can I smoke in here?" Meanwhile, guitarist Chal Boudreaux simply dismisses the hoopla with a shrug and wanders to the far corner of the room.

As Nugent tells it, the video for "Me Compassionate," the industrially charged, angst-heavy first single off Soak's self-titled debut album, released June 3 on Interscope Records, has picked up the award for editing. Although it seems odd that a music video--especially a relatively low-budget rock video filled with claustrophobic scenes of the band trapped in a human-sized ant farm--would win such an honor in a competition traditionally reserved for the Madison Avenue advertising elite, no one is affected enough to figure out exactly what it all means. There are more important contest results to get to the bottom of. Like how "Me Compassionate"--the song--did in a "Like It or Spike It" contest the previous night on an Atlanta radio station.

"C'mon, c'mon, it had to have done OK," Moyer says. "Didn't it win big last night?"

Soak's story is brimming with deus ex machina-type success. Wonderful things, both large and small, just seem to happen to the band. In fact, it all started as one of those "overnight success" fairy tales that--in the words of RainMaker's other chief, Mike Swinford--"makes all the other musicians who are out there busting their ass say, 'How could those bastards be so lucky?'"

The lucky streak started a little over a year ago when Soak finally decided to get its act together and mail out copies of its two-month-old, self-produced six-song EP Omniphonic Global Nova. The first "real" place they tried was RainMaker. "We knew about RainMaker's successes with The Nixons and Deep Blue [Something]," Moyer says, "but that wasn't the thing. C'mon, our style of music isn't anything like either of those bands. No, we had heard that they keep bands really busy with work, and that appealed to us. We didn't want to just sit around. We wanted a chance to get out there and show people what we could do."

One night, Nugent plucked Soak's CD out of RainMaker's slush pile--a box filled with hundreds of unsolicited demos that show up in the company's mail week after week. That same night, after playing it for Swinford, Nugent called the band to hear more. Not quite two weeks later, Soak drove up from Austin to play an early Tuesday night slot at Trees so Nugent and Swinford could see them live. Although only five or six people were in the venue, Soak blew Nugent and Swinford away. "I know you hear that all the time in this business," Nugent assures, "but that's what happened."

Immediately following the show, RainMaker agreed to represent Soak and to release a refurbished Omniphonic once some additional songs were recorded. And that should have been that. "We were ready to start the long process of working the band and developing an audience base around this region," Swinford says. "This band had a zero following. Nobody had heard of them, except, for some reason, a few people in Victoria [Texas]."

As chance would have it, however, the next day Nugent flew to Los Angeles for a day of meetings involving RainMaker's two big bands and their respective labels, MCA and Interscope Records. While at Interscope, talk eventually turned to RainMaker's other projects. Nugent, "for fun," popped Soak's disc into the CD player. After a few minutes, a guy stuck his head in the room and asked about the music. Nugent identified it, and the guy disappeared back down the hall. A couple of songs later, the same guy returned. As it turned out, the guy was an assistant to Interscope Records honchos Jimmy Iovine and Ted Field, and Nugent was wanted in their office immediately.

Relating the anecdote, Nugent shakes his head in disbelief as his winning smile telegraphs the punch line. "I walk in, and they basically ask, 'What do you want for Soak?' They had heard it through the wall."  

Swinford groans at the retelling of the "overnight success story," but smiles nonetheless. "This really is an exception to how things happen," he says. "Usually, you have to work hard for every little break. Even when you hear a story about some band suddenly getting signed, you should assume that really there was a lot of work done on some level before it happened." He laughs. "But here's Soak. Still, they are a baby band. Sooner or later, dues have to be paid."

Although Macintosh, Soak's founder, doesn't dismiss the two years of rehearsing, weekly gigging, and general band evolution out of hand, he dryly admits, "We didn't really pay any dues, especially in Austin. We just did our own thing."

"It's just Soak's fate," Nugent says without sounding like an agent spinning PR. "Soak was going to get a deal regardless. They are that good. If things hadn't gone the way they did with us, somehow, they would have still broken through."

Considering that Interscope Records' heads said the same thing--and through a wall, no less--you have to believe him. "More than just good individual songs," Nugent says, trying to define the intangible, "you can tell the band has a definite vision for the music. Everything they do adds up to...oh, I don't know, it just adds up."

The Soak sound may be difficult to quantify, but it's easy to identify. Whether in the compact production of Ben Gosse (Filter, Republica) on the Interscope debut, the more loosely wound Omniphonic, or the unfettered roar of the live show, Soak syncopates: Abrupt beats. Taut rhythms. Staccato riffs. Percussion tattoos every song, although not always through Macintosh's drums. The other instruments--bass, guitars, snippets of electronica provided by Turdl, Soak's keyboardist and sample guru, and even occasionally the vocals--alternately stack sharp anchoring grooves and hurried hooks. Far from Rusted Root tribalism, Soak is nonetheless primal and intoxicatingly kinetic.

At its most intense, such as on "Me Compassion," the style swells into the familiar, but still catchy, din of industrial. But most of the time, Soak keeps the accents succinct. On "Braille," for instance, a nimble guitar scampers in and out over a coarse rap before skipping the chorus into a startlingly unabashed pop melody. Even when Soak backs off the throttle and lets a song breathe, such as with the funky sample and bass opening of "Stutter Gut," you can feel the pent-up energy building. When the song finally releases into a classic rock 'n' roll anthem of the girl-who-done-you-wrong's name ("Caroline, Caroline"), it's not only expected, but welcome. Put through Soak's paces, even some of the most tried and true musical conventions come out refreshed.

Possessing a strong, well-rounded voice that--coupled with his almost-bald head--would make him at home fronting a grainy version of the band Live, Demetri applies vocals as an enhancing instrument rather than as a song's centerpiece. He bounds between loose raps, mantra-like repetitions, and soaring choruses, adding yet another layer of rhythm to Soak's percussive laminar flow.

"I'd feel weird about having the vocals be the dominant thing all the time. Besides, basically, I'm a simpleton," Demetri says with a laugh. "My thing is to capture the emotion. Soak's all about emotion anyway--hitting a groove and getting a vibe. That's the only way we can expect to get that unusual chemistry that gives us our sound."

Phrases like "unique creativity" and "unusual chemistry" pop up often when the band talks about its music, but the word choice takes on a significant meaning when Demetri discusses his Tourette's Syndrome. The involuntary muscle spasms, or "misfires," as Demetri calls them, routinely center on his face. Mild grimaces and a catch in his throat disrupt his conversations. But since it's not apparent while he sings ("Although sometimes my toes are going crazy"), Demetri doesn't advertise his condition. He says, "People usually just assume I'm cranked out. 'Cause when you first mention Tourette's, people say, 'Oh, he goes around cussing all the time.' Now, I do cuss a lot, but I don't think it has anything to do with the Tourette's. I just really enjoy those words."

Demetri says he could take medication to help with the painful spasms, but doesn't because of his own "unique creativity." "You never know what's going on with the brain's chemistry," he says. "It's just a bunch of chemicals dripping out of all of these faucets. I've got some faulty plumbing, but it is unique, my own weird quirk. If I try to fix it, I might turn off the wrong faucet by accident. I'm not willing to risk it. Sometimes creativity is something you have to sacrifice for. In my case, it's my motor skills."  

With Deep Blue Something's platinum record hanging overhead, Demetri tries to put Soak's early success in perspective. "I respect the underground scene, but I'm a sucker for pop music, and that means things on the radio. Soak is about creating new music. Soak also wants to be big. And you can do both. That's how you have the most impact. That's how you dictate where music is going. Rage (Against the Machine), Chemical Brothers, Nirvana in their time, Trent Reznor, and Billy Corgan--even though I'm not into it--all brought something fresh to radio, and they sell records. Once you get into this business and understand it, you know you can't knock an accomplishment like selling a million fucking records. At the same time--I'm sorry--but Seven Mary Three is not shaping modern music. They aren't big, really; they're just a band with songs on the radio."

Despite Soak's billowing success--a video (which later investigation determines really won a Telly, an award recognizing "outstanding non-broadcast film, video, and TV programs," instead of a Clio) on MTV's sister station, M2, some dates on the ROAR tour, rotation on more and more radio stations--Demetri stresses that Soak knows that right now, it, too, is just a band with a song on the radio.

"You don't know what bustin' your ass is until you're signed," Macintosh says. "Once you get in, you realize just how much of a business it is, and you have to work hard just to stay at the level you're at. It gets overwhelming. It's drive when you can, eat when you can, sleep when you can, crap when you can. Sure, we're doing what we want, but now is where it gets real. We have no excuses. We succeed or we fail."

"I'll say it," Demetri adds. "We made some great connections. We got some doors thrown open. We got signed. We're getting to radio. But plenty of bands have made it this far. Now it's up to the music--"

"And don't get us wrong," Moyer injects. "It's exciting to see the music that padded the band's inception--music we've believed in--continue on to this level of attention."

"--and it's up to society," Demetri finishes. "Will the public like our music? If they like our music, will they respond by buying records, which will show the labels how much they like it? Will we get one single, or two, three, four, five, six? Will we be one of the biggest rock bands ever, or will we be just another band who had a song on the radio? Despite everything good that's happened up until now, it's up to the public to see if this was all for nothing."

Soak plays Thursday, July 10, at Club Clearview, and at Starplex Friday, July 11, as part of the ROAR tour.


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