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The heavily tattooed, bald-with-ponytail Askew is familiar with these kinds of assumptions. "I hear all the time that people say, 'That guy Trevor's a freak,' and then they meet me in person and say, 'You're a really nice, laid-back guy,'" he says. "What they did was they judged a book by its cover. You don't actually go in and look at the pictures and read the paragraphs and realize, 'This guy isn't the way I thought he is.'"
Askew and his bandmates enjoy defying expectations, and that might explain the title of their still unrecorded second album, Defy Everything. Next month they'll head down to Tornillo, Texas, with producer Neil Kernon to record the album that they've patiently waited for. Since the 1996 local release of N17's debut Trust No One (it sold 2,500 copies locally right out of the chute), it's been rereleased twice--first by the Chicago-based Slipdisc, and again this year when Slipdisc was picked up by Mercury Records. Though N17 remains proud of Trust No One, Askew says it doesn't reflect the growth of the band.
"It's funny to look at a record that we initially recorded strictly as a demo, and it's gone from selling here in town, to getting picked up--which was what we intended it to do, to get us to the next level--and every time something will happen and our record label says, 'This is a great record, we think the world should hear it.' And we'll say, 'Okay, put it out.'
"A lot of the songs there are five years old," he adds. "We wrote those songs when we first started. We've had a whole new record written that's really mature. We're songwriters now. Back then, we were writing cool songs, we had good ideas, we had concepts and everything, and you could see the beginnings of a band. If a band's good and they're dedicated, they're gonna mature. This next record is very, very well-written."
Defy Everything was originally slated for a fall release, but the emergence of Mercury in the picture convinced the band to hold back for a few months, with February now the most likely time.
"If you're gonna put out a release, especially this type of release, you really need to make sure that you've got all of your ammunition ready to go to war: marketing plans and everything," Askew says. "We're a very business-oriented band, and the one thing that we're always talking about is making sure that not only the music is topnotch, but also the business attitude and the dedication to the rest of it that people forget about."
In a sense, N17 is a record company's dream, an industrious, dedicated band that oversees every aspect of its affairs, from the design of its flyers and print ads to its CD layouts and promotional campaigns. The band also obsessively reworks songs until it feels that they have the requisite impact. "An N17 song is never set until it's played out live and until it's been worked to death," Askew says. With that in mind, the band scheduled a June 28 gig at The Roxy (also known as Club HQ) as a form of preproduction, a final chance to test out new material before putting it on tape in Texas.
"We've got a bunch of brand-new songs that no one's ever heard," Askew says. "If there's any flaws, we'll find 'em that night. If we come out saying, 'That song just didn't hit,' at that point we'll know. We should never put a song on a record until we've played it live before.
"There's a point where the kids raise their hands and start beating the sky or whatever they do. Do they do it or not? If they don't do it, then we'll make the refinements on them."
After devoting a month to the recording of Defy Everything, the band will take a couple of weeks off and tour the Midwest, East Coast and, for the first time, Europe. The East Coast has been an especially fertile territory for the band, as Askew estimates that there are 12 Eastern cities where the band's popularity matches its Phoenix following. He says that in New York alone, Trust No One has sold between 800 and 900 copies.
He sees Defy Everything as being for N17 what Undertow was for Tool, an album that follows hot on the heels of a powerhouse recording, and points the way toward a new direction. Among other things, he notes that he's assumed a better understanding of vocal dynamics, and the group's new songs consciously contain hooks and bits that people can sing along to. He's not only excited about the new material, but he's convinced that the band's five-year run of good luck must signify something.