O Brothers, Who Art Thou?
This is a story of the little band that could. There are a few versions of this story, similar and by now familiar. Little band's four-track demos magically materialize in the hands of so many taste-making buddies, who pass bad copies around like samizdat until at last some savvy label exec gets a whiff of what the kids are digging, signs the little band and makes them big. Or, if not big, at least cult legends.
Or: Little band plays rip-roaring gigs to a hometown crowd, making the girls cry and guys start rip-off bands; all of a sudden it's a scene, everyone has the same haircut and then, at last, some savvy label exec gets a whiff of what the kids are digging, etc. Or: Little band records EP or full-length album as a one-off on some underfunded indie; it goes nowhere until the little band is "discovered" by some established, simpatico act with hipster cred to spare, who promptly gives the band an opening slot on its next tour and then, at last, some savvy record label etc. Or: Band is feted in the English music press as leaders of some new trend revolution, then shipped back to America, where, at last...
Yes, the indie-band bildungsroman has been blurbed and PR bio'd to death by now. It's like the music-industry equivalent of movie meet-cutes, a cliché that still satisfies for some reason, probably because we all want our beloved bands to have the scent of miracle about them, as though heaven itself had pricked up its celestial ears and plucked, say, Pavement, the Strokes, Grandaddy or, most recently, Kings of Leon from obscurity. The Soledad Brothers' story combines elements of all these narratives; what makes their version interesting, however, is the fact that it's still a work in progress.
To wit: You may not have heard of the Soledad Brothers. But England loves 'em. So does Detroit, where the Soledad Brothers have made themselves linchpins of the current garage-rock scene; indeed, at the moment, love of the Soledads is the only common ground between the currently feuding Von Bondies and White Stripes. And speaking of the White Stripes, Jack White loves the Soledad Brothers, too. A whole lot. Sure, the Von Bondies may have a song in their set named after Soledad Brothers drummer Ben Swank, but White's been backing them to the tune of B-side covers of Soledad songs, production assistance and opening slots on recent White Stripes tours.
So, under the circumstances, you'd expect the media crush on the Soledad Brothers to be hotter than the sun-scorched love of a 12-year-old girl for Justin Timberlake. But no. And there's been no publicity binge pushing the major-label debut, either, because there's been no major-label debut. Fact is, it's kind of hard to get your hands on a Soledad Brothers CD. The easiest way is--incongruously--to pick one up at the merch booth this week when you catch them opening for Spiritualized.
"We're the hardest-working unsigned band in America," notes Soledad Brothers guitarist and front man Johnny Walker. He and bandmates Swank and bassist-saxophonist Oliver Henry are in a van en route to their next Spiritualized stop in Indianapolis, and Walker is genially trying to explain how on earth they landed this tour. Basically, he says, it comes down to the fact that Jason Pierce likes his band. That's a good reason. What's harder to explain is why almost no one else has heard of them.
"I don't know if that's true," he objects. "I mean, we have a following. I think we were on tour for something like 300 days out of the last year, either opening or headlining, and there are always people there to see us. If you're asking why we haven't turned into one of those hype bands, well, I don't know. I don't think a lot about it. All we can do is focus on the music."
Focusing on the music is the keynote of the Soledad Brothers' still-developing history. There's no meet-cute anecdote about how the band's members came together: They met the way musicians usually meet--because of a shared interest in music. Walker and Swank, for example, met almost nine years ago in their hometown of Toledo; they were both playing in other bands, and then eventually in the same band, and then they started their own band because, as Walker explains, "there aren't that many musicians in Toledo." Likewise, Henry just happened to be bumming around Cincinnati and playing music around the time Walker was in medical school in the city.
"Sure, we all had a shared interest in, you know, blues and old-time rock and jazz," Walker notes, "but so do a lot of people. I mean, we're from the Midwest--these days, it probably seems like every band from Ohio has a blues influence. We just liked each other," he continues, "and, mainly, we were all very committed to playing live and working on this band."
Walker's commitment to the Soledad Brothers is best exemplified by noting that he kept working at it while attending medical school and doing his residency.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm a doctor," he acknowledges with a laugh. "I'm not going to say that it wasn't crazy and stressful, but when you really need to do something, the way I need to do music, you find time for it. Most people when they have free time or vacation or whatever, they go home and watch TV. We went on tour."
The Soledad Brothers continue to embrace an almost-Puritan work ethic. The fraction of their time that they haven't been on tour this past year has been devoted, primarily, to recording a new album, with music that they largely develop while on the road.
"We aren't happy when we're resting," Walker notes. "I mean, even now, you know, we're driving around, I've got my guitar out and we're brainstorming while we drive. That's why it's OK that I live in Cleveland and Ben and Oliver live in Detroit--we spend, like, 99 percent of our time doing shows and sound-checking and driving around like this, so it makes rehearsing the way other bands do kind of redundant."
It was about four years ago, at one of their many gigs in Detroit, that the Soledad Brothers met up with Jack White. As yet un-famous, the future impresario and "coolest person in rock," according to Spin, produced the band's first LP, and continues to promote their music wherever and however he can.
"That's the way it works," Walker explains. "You play gigs at these little clubs, you meet other bands and find out that you're on the same wavelength or whatever. So you collaborate or you go on tour together--and suddenly you look around and it's a scene. So now we're part of this Detroit scene. But it's all just a matter of shared affinities," he continues, "and the fact that because everyone spends all this time together, you wind up bouncing off each other creatively. It's like a bigger version of what happens every night when we play a show. We're all having this ongoing, unspoken conversation, and it happens through the music.
"And honestly," Walker goes on, "I think that's enough for us. We don't need to be the next big thing. Because as long as we get to do what we love, whether it's in the context of opening for Spiritualized or playing little clubs in Detroit, that's enough. I know the music scene provides a lot of people with the opportunity to get into trouble, but in our case, I think it's what keeps us out of it. Idle hands, you know? So," he concludes, "we keep our hands busy."
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