Band on the Run

A week or so ago, Chomsky was in Austin to play a gig at the Flamingo Cantina with its friends from Kissinger. Instead of making the drive back to Dallas in the middle of the night, guitarist Glen Reynolds found a place where the band could get some sleep. Reynolds planned to meet the guy who had graciously offered to put up the group for the night. Which he did, except their host was, well, drunk. Hammered, you might say.

When the five members of the band--Reynolds, singer-guitarist Sean Halleck, bassist James Driscoll, drummer Matt Kellum and keyboard player Don Cento--turned up at his place later, their temporary landlord was nowhere to be found. So they waited. And waited. After several minutes of polite knocking and several more minutes of doorbell abuse, the drunk man's confused and sleepy roommate finally came to the door with one thing on his mind: Who are you guys?

More people will be asking the same question in the next few months as Chomsky strays from Dallas on a regular basis. On this night, May 1, Chomsky will be back in Austin within a few hours, this time at Emo's, trying to win over an unfamiliar audience in an unfamiliar city. If they're nervous about tonight's gig, it's not showing. As the band members stand across the street from Halleck's Lower Greenville house waiting for him to get home from his day job, they laugh at the memory of Chomsky's last adventure in Austin. It's funny now, but you can tell it won't be as funny the next time it happens.

Once Halleck shows up, Driscoll points the van in the direction of Interstate 30, and the trip is under way. The band members poke fun at each other at every opportunity during the three-hour drive. Everything is fair game, from the number of bags Halleck brings with him for a one-day "tour"--three this trip, including, as Reynolds points out, "one to leave behind at the club"--to Driscoll's attempts to steer a van, drink bottled water and eat a bag of chips at the same time.

The joking is so continuous and infectious, it's easy to forget what Chomsky has been through during the past three years and what it's getting into now. Since Reynolds joined the band in 1998, Chomsky has built nothing out of something and, in the process, learned it gets even harder to figure out the next step the closer you get to the top. There is pressure now, and you could feel it when the band was in Arkansas recording Onward Quirky Soldiers in February, following up 1999's surprisingly successful A Few Possible Selections for the Soundtrack of Your Life. Even through the laughter, it's here, as the band ventures outside of its familiar city limits. The further it goes, the more that pressure will increase, as Chomsky has to convince talent scouts from record labels to sign the group, radio program directors to play its songs and people in other cities to take a chance on a band they've never heard before.

"We've had a good amount of success in Dallas, but our sights are bigger," Halleck says later. "Last time, we made a record, and things happened to us. It was really out of our control, and we didn't know what to do. Glen had played in Liquid 3 before, but the rest of us had never been in an established band. So, you know, a lot just kind of happened. This time, we're trying to think things out a little more." Halleck pauses. "But I don't want to turn into the band that just drives around and plays a bunch of places for nobody for no reason."

The band's jokes stop as soon as it arrives at Emo's. Two minutes after the van is parallel parked on Red River, and three hours before their show is scheduled to start, the five members of Chomsky have a good idea how their night will pan out. There it is, just inside the door, in black and white: Chompsky. It's hard to make a name for yourself when no one seems to be able to spell it.

No one picks up a guitar or a bass or drums anticipating this. No one joins a band expecting to wind up in Little Rock, Arkansas, sitting in a room some people wouldn't even call a closet, trying to figure out how to synchronize a keyboard riff with an uncooperative click track. Or something like that. So much jargon is being tossed around, it's hard to tell exactly what's going on. Whatever it is, Cento, Halleck and Driscoll, along with producer Barry Poynter and assistant engineer Jason Magnusson, are having trouble fixing it.  

It's late February, and for the past week and a half, Chomsky has been coming to Poynter's Palace in Little Rock--the tiny studio Poynter has set up in a converted garage behind his house near downtown--to record its new album, Onward Quirky Soldiers. This is not the first obstacle the band has run into during its stay in Little Rock, and it won't be the last. A few days ago, recording the guitar parts for "15 Minutes to Rock" took so long that some members of the group now refer to the song as "15 Hours to Rock." Everything is taking longer than they thought before they made the trip.

"We walked away from the last recording session knowing that we had to come a little more prepared," Halleck says later, referring to the sessions at Poynter's Palace in 1998 and 1999 that resulted in A Few Possible Selections for the Soundtrack of Your Life. "This time around, we spent a few weeks beforehand, a month before we recorded, really trying to work everything out as much as possible, trying to be prepared as much as possible. And then when we got there, even though we were much more prepared than last time, we still had to cut five songs, because these new tunes are just more complex."

Not only are the songs more intricate, the band isn't as simple as it was when it was recording Soundtrack. Back then, Reynolds had only been in Chomsky for a couple of months; Cento wasn't in the band at all; and the group had yet to crack the code that finds some bands in Deep Ellum headlining on weekend nights and others left scrambling for anonymous, three-band bills on Wednesdays. No one really knew who Chomsky was, and no one cared enough to find out. It was just another band trying to figure it all out. Chomsky was still trying to figure itself out, incorporating Reynolds' presence as it moved from the solid-but-simple guitar pop of Soundtrack to the more sprawling, adventurous sounds that would later show up on Onward Quirky Soldiers.

By the time Soundtrack was released in July 1999, the band was finding its way. Clubs were booking the band on a regular basis, and it was even starting to get those coveted headlining slots. A loyal group of fans--Kellum jokingly dubbed them the "Chomsky Army," and the name stuck--turned up at every gig, heads bobbing, lips singing along, no matter how small or remote the show. The elaborately packaged Soundtrack hit stores at the perfect time, and hit is the only word for it; the disc has been re-pressed several times already, selling several thousand copies since its release.

The success of the album--recorded during short bursts whenever the band could find the time to make the five-hour trip to Little Rock--surprised Chomsky, especially when it earned the group a Dallas Observer Music Award last year for Album of the Year. (Soundtrack also netted the group awards in the Rock/Pop category for the past two years.) Suddenly, making a new record wasn't so easy. Now, there were expectations, fans to satisfy, a standard to live up to.

"The first time, we had no idea what we were doing," Driscoll says. "There's definitely more pressure this time around to actually put something nice out, so it doesn't look like a fluke, the first one. We're still proud of it, and we still like the songs and stuff, but as far as popularity, it definitely puts the pressure on."

"It's not pressure in a negative way," Halleck adds. "Like if we don't succeed, it's going to be a bummer. It's artistic pressure. We want everything to sound as good as it can."

For everything to sound as good as it can, it means one person plays the same part over and over and over, sometimes just a few notes or one chord, while the rest of the band members flip through a stack of magazines they've read several times through. It means trying to decide which fast-food joint to go to today and killing time at the Barnes & Noble around the corner, apparently the cultural heart of Little Rock. It means bunking with three other guys in a place called Extended Stay America and staying connected to the homes and significant others they left behind by cell phones. More than anything else, it means trying to feel normal in a place that doesn't give you much help. If you don't kill each other, you're lucky, and if the songs sound the way you want them to, you're even luckier.

Point is, doing nothing for a week is harder than it looks.

"In the long run, six months from now--even though I'm ready for it to be done and all that--it'll be worth it," Kellum says.  

Yet as tedious and torturous as the recording process can be, the band was able to keep its frustration in check. For the most part.

"There was a tense moment on the last Saturday that we were there," Reynolds says. "Sean will sit there, and I'll vibe him a little bit, and he'll take it and take it, and finally it gets to a point where it just drives him over the edge."

If anyone had a reason to be frustrated, it was Halleck. He spent more time in the room than anyone else, writing down lyrics, making suggestions, staying involved every day. Instead of staying with the others, he moved into Poynter's house for a few weeks so he could get up earlier, work later. His plan to spend a couple of extra days in Little Rock after everyone else had to go back to their homes and jobs, finishing his vocals and mixing some of the songs, ended up costing him 10 more days. And he still wasn't able to finish everything; he'd need a few more trips to Little Rock over the next couple of months before his work on Onward Quirky Soldiers was complete.

Through it all, however, Halleck stayed positive. After all, he was making an album, not working in a coal mine.

"What always made it fun is that it is fun," he says. "If you start thinking about the negatives, of course it'll drag you down. I just got caught up in, you know, 'Wow, I sang that in a way I've never sung before.' Or, 'There's a part that Glen played that he's never played before.' Or, 'Those drums sound amazing.' There were things that could bring us down, but ultimately, just the process and what we've created made it cool.

"But I'm just as unsure about it as I was the last one, as I am every day I walk out the door or every day I put my pants on," he continues. "I have no idea. We made something I'm happy with. But I don't know."

Commerce Street is deserted--save for the five members of Chomsky, their van and a pair of passing police cruisers, whose occupants seem to be wondering why the street isn't completely deserted at this hour and why the white van they're passing is rocking back and forth.

It's Tuesday night, or it was a few hours ago. Sleepily and without much discussion, the group members spent the past few minutes returning their gear to the rehearsal room they rent at Last Beat, and now they're trying to figure out how to get the two seats they removed earlier that afternoon back into the van. Without much success. Too tired to complain, everyone is laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.

Before the band even left Dallas for Austin, there were enough reasons to be apprehensive about the trip. Halleck and Reynolds, who do all of the singing, were battling matching respiratory infections. And it was a Tuesday night. Austin may be the live music capital of the world, or so its chamber of commerce says, but nowhere is a good place to play on a Tuesday night.

Twenty, maybe 30, people paid their way into the Austin club, and most of them were there to see and hear the headlining act, Of Montreal, which was, technically, of Athens, Georgia. A couple of fans drove up from San Antonio for the gig, and a pair of girls made the trip down from Dallas, but for the most part, Chomsky was preaching to the unconverted tonight.

Judging from the fresh names and e-mail addresses added to the band's mailing list after the show, Chomsky won a few new fans with its set and earned enough gas money to get home. The show wasn't exactly a victory, but it wasn't a defeat either, even though the usually manic Reynolds looked as though he was lucky to be standing by the time the last song ended, and the clean-living Halleck's voice sounded, at times, as if it belonged to a pack-a-day smoker. Although most of the people came to Emo's tonight expecting something else, if nothing else, it's a start.

"Welcome to Sucking in Austin: Part One," Reynolds says after the show, laughing, as the van turns onto Interstate 35, heading north, heading home.

There will be a sequel tonight, if not in Austin, then in Houston or some other city Chomsky has not yet conquered. In the past three years, the band has come a long way in Dallas. It's poised to go even further, with Onward Quirky Soldiers almost ready and waiting to come out. But to go any further, it has to start all over. Showing up at clubs where the show hasn't been advertised, and if it has, Chomsky is spelled Chompsky or Chompski or something even worse. Playing to new faces. Figuring it out as they go. Proving themselves. One thing is certain: They have to get out of Dallas.  

"If they went on the road, I think they would really take off, but everyone is kind of tied down with their jobs right now," Idol Records' Erv Karwelis says. Karwelis and Idol picked up the distribution rights to Soundtrack last year, an agreement that has allowed Chomsky to focus more of its attention and finances on Onward Quirky Soldiers. "Their records are a bit slick for college radio, but I think they would win some fans over if they saw them live."

"We need to do this," Kellum says. "Now that we've established ourselves here a little better, I think we're more confident as a band and as a live act. We all know that getting out of Dallas is part of the process, and I think that's an important step for us. I think we're way more worried about that and building our audience that way than we are about getting signed or this or that. You know, we all want to do this for a living, but I don't expect the great Record Deal Fairy from the sky to fall down to earth and throw a ton of money our way."

Chomsky, as an idea, has been around since 1994, when Halleck and John Norris started writing songs together, neither of them taking it too seriously. Driscoll and Kellum would join the fold over the next few years, but it wasn't until Reynolds replaced Norris in 1998 that Chomsky, as it exists today, first began to take shape. The car was already in the garage; Reynolds just put some gas in it and took it out for a spin.

"One of the biggest drawbacks for Chomsky in the beginning was insecurity," Halleck explains. "We always used to think too much: I wonder how everything sounds; I wonder how these songs are. John Norris would play entire shows just looking at his amps.

"So when Glen walked in, it was like, who cares? Glen is a great musician, but beyond that, he's obviously just a fun guy," he continues, referring to Reynolds' over-the-top stage presence, which can include everything from scissors kicks to playing guitar with his tie to leaping offstage so he can jump around with the fans up front. "And that just washed over Chomsky, made us let go of the stuff that wasn't important."

"Sean used to stare at me a lot," Reynolds says, recalling his first few shows with the band. "It wasn't that he was mad at me; it was just that he didn't know what I was doing." He laughs. "He didn't understand. He thought I was maybe forgetting what I was playing. Sean loved it, but he didn't know how to deal with it."

Reynolds also brought to the band another element that had been missing. As soon as he joined the group, Chomsky began playing in Deep Ellum on a regular basis, thanks to the booking contacts Reynolds made while he was playing with his previous group, Liquid 3. Chomsky started with shows sandwiched between going-nowhere bands like TOO Much TV and Screwtape Letters and gradually worked its way up, playing better shows with better bands. "Trees completely carried us the first year we were playing," Reynolds admits.

Now, however, the band doesn't need anyone to carry it, at least locally; whenever Chomsky plays in Dallas-Denton-Fort Worth, it can count on a good turnout, at least enough fans to make the night worthwhile. Its drawing power has grown exponentially since those early days, to the point where even the band's most dedicated fans are confused by Chomsky's ever-growing popularity. Like Peggy Bell, who started regularly appearing at Chomsky gigs a few years ago, back when "nobody else seemed to pay attention, so I felt like I was helping to keep something good from going down the toilet."

"It's kinda creepy how many frat boys and high school girls are suddenly rabid about a 7-year-old band," Bell says. "I'm glad for them that they're finally getting some attention, but I am at a loss to explain it." She jokingly adds, "I just pray they don't do Bands on the Run."

"For a long time, they were mine. Literally," Andrew Hime, another longtime fan, says. Even though no one in the band asked, Hime made the trip down to Austin to sell merchandise for the band at the Emo's gig. "I knew that something had to happen for Chomsky eventually, and I wanted to help it happen sooner rather than later. I would go see them at any venue whenever I could, just to let them know that somebody believed in what they were doing and liked it."  

More people believe in Chomsky than just Hime and Bell now. But there are bigger questions facing Chomsky these days than how many bodies will turn up for a Thursday-night gig at Curtain Club. How can they lure people to clubs in Austin or Houston, or New York or Chicago, or anywhere else? How can they get a record they know is good in front of the right ears? Who will help them do it all? Where do they go from here?

"I had meetings with several labels last week and played the new song, 'Gravitate,' for them," Karwelis says. "The response was pretty good. I think that everyone wants to see the band get on the road and expand their audience a bit. So far they only seem to be selling records in Texas, but they do sell lots of records around here. We have pressed 3,000 copies of the first CD and are about to re-press again in the near future. Which is pretty good considering that the band has never really toured. I think they are the kind of band that is hard to 'get' until you see them live."

"They definitely have what an A&R guy looks for," Josh Venable, host of The Adventure Club and assistant music director at KDGE-FM (102.1), says. "I think they have a chance. It's just that they'll need to be picked up by a major label, and that major label will need to work them all the time. Their songs would sound great on the radio, and that's the thing, making a program director believe that it'll sound good on the radio and that the kids are really going to like it." But that doesn't always work. "Look at the Old 97's, who I think sound wonderful on the radio but aren't getting that much play on that many national radio stations, which is killing their sales, which is going to kill their deal."

"Guess you're not supposed to like your own record, huh?" Kellum asks, sitting in his bedroom as an almost-there version of Onward Quirky Soldiers spins on the stereo. Other than a few minor changes, this is the album Chomsky will release later this year. "I don't care. I love this record. I think it's great."

Kellum doesn't have to say a word for you to know he's proud of what the band accomplished in Little Rock. As the songs pass by in their unmixed and unmastered form, Kellum shifts from subtle head nods and foot taps to replicating his licks on an imaginary drum kit. He can barely contain himself, and you can't blame him for not trying too hard.

Onward Quirky Soldiers is Chomsky at its finest, capturing on tape what it has been developing over the past few years onstage. The energy that Reynolds brought to the band, and Cento amplified when he became the group's permanent keyboard player last year, spills out of the digital grooves. Each song is better than the next, reminiscent, perhaps, of old XTC and Police albums, but finding their own way, without the help of distant echoes. If Soundtrack contained a few possible selections for someone else's life, Onward Quirky Soldiers is all Chomsky.

"That's what's so cool about this one," Reynolds says. "Soundtrack was Sean and James and Matt kind of coming to terms with me entering the band. And it was a good thing, but it was us compromising with each other. I'd been in this big, rock, Funland-wannabe band. I was trying to rock everything out. They'd been in this really earth tones, mellow, bizarre keyboard outfit or whatever. So we were trying to meet in the middle. Whereas, when we started writing the songs for this one, Sean understood where I was coming from, and I understood where Sean was coming from."

Cento adds, "I think some of the tunes are a little bit more accessible, not in any sort of negative way. It's just a more mature record, I think. I think the material is a lot stronger."

Everyone in Chomsky knows that Onward Quirky Soldiers demands to be heard, that they've done the best they can do, and the best they can do is better than most.

The question is, will the right people agree with them?

"Chomsky has a really, really good shot at being played on the radio because they do make very good radio music," Venable says. "The great thing about them is there is no worry about it being too hard for morning drive or too soft for nights. They could be played 24 hours a day. They have everything going for them, so hopefully, it will happen."  

As much as Chomsky wants that to happen, it's not ready to jump at the first opportunity. The band members spent too much time building this to have it fall apart if they sign the wrong contract, trust the wrong people, follow the wrong advice. They want people to hear Onward Quirky Soldiers, and they want to play it for them on every stage that will have them, but they want to do it all the right way. If that means putting the album out themselves and getting in the van without the benefit of any record company's expense account, then so be it. And when it comes down to it, they're not after money or fame or anything like that.

All they want is someone to believe.

"We want it to be an incredible opportunity," Halleck says. "Which doesn't mean we want a million-dollar publishing deal--I mean, we do--but that's not what it takes to get us. Really, what it would take to convince me is an A&R guy that really believed in us, a label that I felt really believed in us. Because if they're not there to support us, there's no point. But once we have an A&R guy that really gets us and wants to make it happen, not only am I going to work the music, but I'm going to visit the label as much as I can and talk to those people. Let them know that we're in this for the long haul."

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