Evan Sult doesn’t believe that old line about how there are no second acts in American lives. Back in 1998 he was at South by Southwest drumming for the Seattle alt-pop outfit Harvey Danger, which had just signed to a major and was riding high on the overnight hit “Flagpole Sitta.” He and his bandmates were romanced by music publishers in swank hotel lobbies and capped their weekend playing to a capacity crowd at the Electric Lounge–but two years later their second album tanked, and after they lost their contract they broke up in 2001.
Last weekend Sult made it back to SXSW, this time with his new band, the Bound Stems. They played on the patio of a half-filled club on a Wednesday, with the smell of a backed-up sewage system in the air and a flustered soundman fumbling to get the mix right for half the set. But Sult’s been around the block once before–at 32, he’s six or seven years older than his bandmates–and he knows that despite their rocky showcase appearance the Bound Stems are on the fast track.
In November they released a seven-song disc called The Logic of Building the Body Plan on the local Flameshovel label, and major mainstream outlets like the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and Spin all raved about it–a remarkable level of attention for an EP from a new band on a small indie. In fact the buzz on the Bound Stems was going strong at least eight months before the record came out–I first heard about them last July, when the head of the Domino label’s U.S. division came from New York to see them play the Beat Kitchen. Sult has only been in two bands, and he knows how lucky he is. “It really does feel like lightning striking twice,” he says.
In September 2002, Sult had just moved from Seattle to Chicago with his girlfriend and answered a “musicians wanted” ad in the Reader. Among the influences it mentioned was Death Cab for Cutie. “Who were friends of mine,” he says. “So I figured that would at least get me an audition.” The ad had been placed by vocalist Bobby Gallivan, bassist Dan Radzicki, and guitarist Dan Fleury, who’d been playing music together since their days on the Benet Academy basketball team in Lisle–though none of their bands had done anything but land a gig or two at the Fireside Bowl.
The Bound Stems debuted in May 2003 but played out only sporadically for the next two years. Instead of focusing on building an audience, they worked on refining a style–arty, literate indie pop with a touch of post-rock’s complexity but none of its sterility. “From the outside, it may not have looked like we were busy, but all we’ve done is play every day,” says Sult, “trying to develop our songs, production style, and sound.”
In late 2004 the band started working with Tim Sandusky at Chicago’s Studio Ballistico, and by last spring they’d finished a full-length called Appreciation Night. But because heavy touring to support an album wasn’t practical at the time–Sult is an art director for the up-and-coming comic-book company Devil’s Due, Gallivan is a history teacher at Glenbrook North High School, Radzicki is a biology researcher at Northwestern, and Fleury does database work downtown–they opted not to release it, instead signing a one-off deal with Flameshovel and recording The Logic of Building the Body Plan. The EP shipped only around 800 copies, but the stir it caused was immediate. “To release something and see how seriously people took it certainly helped us,” says Sult. “Anything that can happen to make a band feel less imaginary and more like it exists in the world is crucial, especially at such an early stage.”
Late last year the group arrived at its current lineup, adding vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Janie Porche, a coworker of Gallivan’s who plays violin, recorder, bass, keyboards, and guitar. She took the spot that singer Kate Gross–never a full-fledged member–had occupied during the EP sessions and at a couple gigs. “Janie’s been instantly indispensable,” says Sult. “I feel like Bound Stems took its final form when she joined the band.”
For better or worse, no one has been quick to put a name to that form. “We still have a completely blank answer for what we sound like,” says Sult. “But it seems to be a really great time for our music to be out among the stuff that’s happening right now. Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Tapes ‘n Tapes, Wolf Parade, those are all bands that–while we don’t necessarily sound like one another, and we don’t know those people so it’s not a scene–it’s interesting and fortuitous that there is a sound that’s simpatico with the music we’re making.”
In December the Bound Stems signed on with the Noise Problem booking agency and hired manager Jake Hurn, who’d just ended a six-year stint as A and R man for Palm Pictures to start his own management firm, Chief Dark Cloud, whose other clients include LA pop act Earlimart. Hurn is trying to negotiate a deal for the band among a handful of labels, ranging from small indies to majors. Among them is Flameshovel, which recently strengthened its bidding position by switching from Southern to a larger distribution company, North Carolina-based Redeye. “We have a pretty good idea what we want,” says Sult. “We’re a goal-oriented band. Not in terms of wanting to take over the world, but if there’s something we want, instead of sitting there wanting it and expecting it or wishing for it we’re busy trying to do it.”
This week the Bound Stems leave for their longest tour so far–ten days through the midwest and northeast, coinciding with Gallivan and Porche’s spring break. “We’re doing every single thing we can as far as touring, given the reality of our jobs,” says Sult. Hurn expects the group will be able to finalize a label deal shortly after the tour, and Appreciation Night is tentatively scheduled to come out this summer. Until then they’ll play weekend shows and finish adding Porche’s overdubs to the album.
Sult is especially happy about the Bound Stems’ success, because it’ll give him the chance to apply the lessons he learned on his first go-round. “I’m certainly not a person who’s ever said I wouldn’t change a thing,” he says. “There are a million things I would’ve changed with Harvey Danger. After the band ended, I did a lot of self-examination and for my own part I feel like I truly got past whatever interest I may have had in fame itself. . . . Right now, what’s fascinating to all of us is the idea of having some self-sufficiency in making music. Making music our day jobs, that’s the goal. On one hand it seems impossible, but at the same time you can look around and know that there are other bands that are doing it. We’d just like to be one of them.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Barry Brecheisen.