Young Fresh Fellows

Austin’s Hard Rock Cafe looks just like all the others in the chain–a garish, neon-lit mausoleum decorated with trophy cases of pop memorabilia. It’s nearly one o’clock Saturday morning at the annual South by Southwest music conference when the Redwalls take the club’s tiny stage. Dressed in corduroy suits and big-collared shirts, they blast confidently through a 30-minute set for a polite-to-mildly-enthused industry crowd. For a lot of young bands this might feel like a make-or-break show, but the group doesn’t seem too concerned, and really the stakes are quite low: the Redwalls signed a deal with Capitol last summer.

Capitol wasn’t particularly eager for them to play the festival. As the band’s first record for the label has yet to be recorded, there’s not much point to making a push now. To the group, which is still relatively unknown outside the midwest, SXSW looked like a much needed opportunity for exposure. But the main item on their Austin agenda is a meeting with their A and R rep, Julian Raymond, to pick a producer for the album. After several well-known names are tossed around, the decision is made to go with Rob Schnapf, a veteran whose studio credits include Beck, Guided by Voices, and Foo Fighters as well as Richard Thompson. Schnapf will begin work with the Redwalls this summer after he finishes mixing an LP by the late Elliott Smith.

Already the biggest act to come out of Deerfield, the Redwalls–brothers Justin (bass, vocals) and Logan Baren (guitar, vocals), Andrew Langer (guitar, vocals), and recent addition Ben Greeno (drums)–started out as a teenage cover band called the Pages. They played Beatles songs in north suburban venues like Nevin’s Live, where they met their future manager, Mitch Marlow, then booking the club. As they started performing their own material, an EMI publishing rep–tipped by former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, a friend of Marlow’s–told Raymond about the group. No bidding war erupted; the band got its deal on the strength of an eight-song demo and a private performance on an LA soundstage in front of a dozen Capitol executives. The Redwalls didn’t have much of a fan base–they’d yet to even tour at that point–but in part with the label’s help, they’ve opened club tours for the national pop act Rooney and headlined all-ages bills at Metro.

The major criticism of the Redwalls has remained constant: that they still sound like a Beatles cover band even though their set now consists entirely of originals. Recorded over a series of weekends for a few thousand dollars, the group’s 11-song debut, Universal Blues–released last fall on local indie Undertow, which had dibs before the Capitol signing–is a collection of pleasant pastiches that split the difference between Hamburg-era Beatles and rooftop-era Beatles. The disc has sold an impressive 6,000 copies so far, mostly in the midwest, and the leadoff track, “Colorful Revolution,” has been spun on radio stations including WXRT and southern California tastemaker KCRW.

Any resemblance to the Fab Four may be just fine with Capitol, though, which has sold a lot of Beatles records recently–notably the hits collection 1–to a generation of teenagers who missed Beatlemania by about 35 years. It may hope to sell the Redwalls to the same market, or at least to nostalgic boomers still awaiting a second coming. The band members themselves seem to understand their peculiar demographic perfectly. As Langer puts it: “We’re really popular with 14-year-old girls and 42-year-old guys.”

But they’ve got at least two more albums’ worth of material already written and ready to record, and some of it’s pretty far from the Lennon/McCartney mimicry of Universal Blues. For a band whose members haven’t reached drinking age yet, the rapid development of their songwriting seems to bode well for a longer career–which, according to Raymond, Capitol’s VP of A and R, is what the label is banking on. “Our job is to develop the talent and the catalog for the next 50 years,” he says. “You can only mine so much stuff from the last 50 years. Don’t get me wrong, we do it, and we’ve done a great job of that. But the career model is someone like U2–a band who was making records at age 17, 18, and is still making music today. We hope we have one of those. We feel like we do.”

Tending to the growth of young bands isn’t something major labels are known for. Under former president Gary Gersh, Capitol signed suburban Arizona emo-popsters Jimmy Eat World, then fresh out of high school, to a multialbum deal in 1995. The group languished on the label for two records–which sold in the tens of thousands–before getting dropped and resurfacing at Dreamworks, where their self-titled 2001 release promptly went multiplatinum. Capitol may be taking this as a cautionary tale, as it’s remained supportive of some slow-growing acts, like Idlewild and the Dandy Warhols, in the years since. In the case of the Warhols, the label’s patience has paid off, particularly in European sales. Capitol president Andrew Slater, a former critic, manager, and producer who came on in 2001, has a track record with young talent: he produced the 18-year-old Fiona Apple’s 1996 debut, signed Aussie garage band the Vines, and has helped oversee the long-term growth of Coldplay.

With a relatively small roster and only 24 releases scheduled for 2004 (on the low end for a major), Capitol does seem to be focusing on quality over quantity. Yet for all its talk of support and development the label apparently is reluctant to put its money where its mouth is: its contract with the Redwalls guarantees the band just one album.

The major-label debut will likely be released in the first quarter of 2005. In the meantime, the group is finalizing an agreement to issue an expanded edition of Universal Blues in the UK on Shoplifter, a label co-owned by Strokes producer Gordon Raphael. They’ll hit the British festival circuit in June and July; their next local gig is April 27 at Metro.

Got Live if You Want It

Last week a rep from eMusicLive–the company I wrote about here three weeks ago–approached the Mekons during sound check at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, proposing to record the show and sell CDs of it afterward. The band said no way: “It would’ve given us no quality control, and we can be particularly dreadful on occasion,” says Jon Langford. “Then they were gonna sell these things and give us three bucks a copy, but they got to keep the rights and wanted us to sign a contract and all that.” But it got them thinking, and when they took the stage a few hours later, they were armed with a Radio Shack tape recorder and a stack of blank cassettes. Langford would push Record at the beginning of a song, then auction off the cassette at the end. Bidding went as high as $20 for some, and the band wound up making about $80. Business was good in Austin too, when the rest of the band backed Sally Timms for her SXSW set. What they’re now calling MeTunes will be in operation at their acoustic show at FitzGerald’s this Saturday, March 27 (the technology’s too crude, they admit, for the electric show at Double Door on Friday).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Doug Coombe.