Q&A: Candlebox Frontman Kevin Martin Is Still Miffed Over His Band's "Grunge Lite" Tag

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Rarely has a band's hometown been held against it, but that's definitely the case with Candlebox.

Forming in 1990 and hailing out of Seattle, Candlebox was compared, for better and worse, with bands that were a part of the then burgeoning grunge scene. With more in common with classic rock acts such as Led Zepplin and Aerosmith, Candlebox was labeled "grunge lite" even though not one member ever claimed any connection to bands like Nirvana or Mudhoney.

But lead singer Kevin Martin and the rest of the Candlebox had the last laugh--at least commercially--as the band's self-titled debut sold more than 4 million copies. Songs such as "Change" and "You" are still in regular rotation at numerous men's clubs across the country.

The band's fortune has declined steadily, however, as the band's third unenthusiastically received effort, 1999's Happy Pills, was thought by many to be the band's swansong. After a few years apart, though, Martin and guitarist Peter Klett were producing a Candlebox compilation when they decided to resuscitate the band. 2008's Into the Sun was the first new studio product from Candlebox in nearly a decade.

Martin took some time between tour stops to talk about the band's history and its unlikely second coming.

How much has the music scene changed since Candlebox formed in the early 90's?
It's gotten a lot more cookie cutter. There are a lot of bands that sound the same and you can't really tell who's singing or whose the song's written by. They're all kind of saying the same thing. The Internet has made things a lot crazier. Any band can put basically anything out there. I don't know what Candlebox would have done if the Internet would have been around. I think things have gone backwards, unfortunately, especially in the past 10 years. I don't know how to work with it, really. You put a record out and hit the road. Bands have to rely on their touring because you can't rely on the radio. Labels don't work records the way they used to. There is no artist development anymore. You've seen that with the collapse of most of the major labels. All in all, it's a way to make a living for us.

You think things will become completely digital and downloaded and CD stores will become like the Dinosaurs?
That's never going to happen. It's not going to go entirely digital. We're even pressing vinyl for this new record. There are people who still buy vinyl. You will probably see a decline and maybe 20% of all music will sold via record stores, maybe less than that.

Major artists from the 70's, 80's and 90's, folks like Springsteen and Tom Petty, can't get played on the radio, at least not their new releases. Does it worry you that the new Candlebox CD might see the same fate?
Mainstream radio is kind of a joke. Radio is in the position its in because, like I said before, the music scene has gone backwards and record labels have signed all these cookie cutter bands. The labels give the stations the records to play. Springsteen and Petty still sell tons of records even without radio support. Luckily, I think Candlebox is still in that marketplace with Pearl Jam and Sound Garden, where we still get played. When we get into our mid 40's, I doubt we will have that avenue. I don't think the lack of radio play is detrimental to those guys. Hell, you have to pay $195 for a ticket.

Candlebox was one of the most successful bands on Madonna's Maverick label. Now that label is having financial difficulties. Were there signs of this instability when you were working with them?
At first, they were fantastic. But that's why we broke up. We had to get out o our contract. The label was in total disarray. When we released Happy Pills in 1998, the week before we went to radio with our first single, Maverick fired the whole radio promotions staff and the whole marketing team. 35 people lost their jobs and there was a record coming out and nobody to work it. We had it with them. When the record was done, we broke up the band. It ended up backfiring on us because the label kept me under contract. It was a great label when they started, but egos got in the way. Here's a label that sold 35 million copies of Allison Morrisette and they couldn't keep the fucking doors open.

Whose idea was it to get the band back together?
I got a phone call about a best of record coming out in 2006, about selecting songs for it. I called up Pete and he asked when are they releasing it. When I told him the spring or the summer, he asked me what I thought about going out on the road to support the record, to see if people were still interested in the band. We just said, "Fuck it, let's go." Things went so well that we knew we had to make a new record.

Coming from Seattle, the band initially took a lot of abuse for being "grunge-lite". Does selling millions of records validate the band's approach and defuse some of the criticism?
You can always say, "Fuck you, I've sold a million records." At the end of the day, it's always nice to feel like you have some kind of value in the marketplace. It's nicer to know that your peers respect what you do. For us, "grunge-lite" is such a funny term. I think the only band that could ever really be called Grunge was Tad. Nirvana is a punk band. Sound Garden was a fucking rock band, an acid rock band. Alice in Chains was a fucking metal band. Pearl Jam, I dare say those first two records were pop rock albums, almost arena rock. "Grunge-lite" was such an odd term to be thrown at us. We were five years younger than any of the guys in those bands. When you're an 18-year-old kid in Seattle in 1987 and everything's blowing up and you're in the mosh with your buddies, you realize that you have to wait until your legal to play the bars. By the time we came about in 1991, things had cooled down considerably.

Candlebox seems to have such a love/hate relationship with Seattle. There was a recent poll done by a Seattle radio station asking who was the worst band from the area and Candlebox won with Alice in Chains coming in a distant second. Why do you think that animosity continues?
It's a weird city, a very, very alternative city, alternative living, and alternative lifestyles. I don't know why people in Seattle hate us. Music is music. I think that asking who is the worst band is just a stupid fucking question. That was probably one of the alternative stations, one that is really just a waste of time, a waste of airspace. I agree with Peter who said grunge was just a trend and we were not part of that trend. So many facets of music were happening in Seattle, not just grunge. Bands from San Diego and Dallas pulled from the grunge scene and we were just a group of young kids who got together accidentally and who were lucky to have people pay attention to us.

Candlebox performs Sunday, July 5, at House of Blues

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