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Tonight, Dave Jensen, lead singer of Before Braille, is feeling less like an indie and more like a pendant, an ornament just hanging with all the other looming fixtures. His band is about to hawk its wares for the good folks at Martini Ranch in Scottsdale. On a normal Wednesday night, you'd be here chugging Miller Genuine Draft to cover bands whose modern rock repertoire dates to the time when A Flock of Seagulls stopped needing hair gel and goes no further. This Wednesday, though, the Ranch is hosting a radio-sponsored, local-music event that Before Braille has agreed to show up for.
"Twenty Four Minus Eighteen," the first single from Before Braille's first full-length CD, The Rumor, has been getting heavy airplay on KZON-FM 101.5. As part of the mutual back scrubbing, the band did an acoustic appearance on jock Tracy Lea's drive-time show this afternoon and is serving as tonight's main course. The place is packed, with nary a minor in sight. In fact, the lip of the stage seems almost too populated with people on the other side of 25; grown adults pound their fists in the air and wait for free tee shirts, bumper stickers and giveaway CDs to be tossed their way.
"I'm personally not very comfortable playing places like this because it alienates the under-21 crowd who normally go to our shows," Jensen admits. "The only reason we're doing it is the Zone is really getting behind the record and having us on the radio."
Such appearances are all par for the course when it comes to promoting the band's first album. Since signing with a local label based in Cave Creek called Aezra Records, a band that once embraced a wholly DIY ethic has been doing several things somebody else's way.
All this would be off-putting if the album wasn't fantastic. But it is, a brilliant weave of emo harmonies over crunching, almost progressive rock soundscapes. CMJ New Music Report, an early champion of the group, has already given The Rumor raves, placing the band in the company of Jimmy Eat World and Fugazi. The promotional push is kind of hard for Jensen to swallow; as the head of his own local record label, Sunset Alliance, he's accustomed to doing things his way.
"I'm probably the wrong person to talk to because I'm the most outspoken one in the group," he says, laughing. "Well, actually that probably makes me the right person to talk to." Aezra Records is wary of any negative publicity, Jensen says, so he minds his P's and Q's at the outset, all the while assuring me that we're getting the most positive side of the story he can tell.
Before joining forces with Aezra earlier this year, the Mesa-based group had been playing in the local scene for the better part of three years, hovering somewhere between "Mesa Rock" and "480 area-core," depending on whose hyperbole you prefer. Jensen began writing songs with guitarist Hans Ringger, and the group eventually fleshed out to include drummer Kelly Reed and bassist Brandon Smith. (Guitarist Reggie Patel signed on after recording of the new album was completed.) Almost immediately, Before Braille began releasing material on various-artist compilations. The first one, Not One Red Light: A Modified Document, was released in February 2001 as a joint project between Scott Tennett's Argonaut label and Jensen's Sunset Alliance. Unlike the train-wreck sensibility of most local Phoenix comps, this one was held together not only by the high quality of the bands present, but by the fact that most of them sprang from the downtown scene at Modified, perhaps one of the few all-ages-friendly venues in Phoenix.
Then came a triple split CD with Fivespeed and Andherson, plus an appearance on the prestigious Deep Elm's Emo Diaries series in March of this year. Around the same time, a write-up in the East Valley Tribune named Before Braille one of the 10 best bands in the Valley. This caught the attention of Eric Cheroske, whose label was on the lookout for a band that could be its answer to Jimmy Eat World.
"They contacted us and wanted to hear a demo, and we sent them the triple split," recalls Jensen. "They saw a couple of shows. Then we recorded seven songs that were going to go into the new full-length we were about to do. And they really liked those songs, and said, If you can give us 10 more songs' (and they gave us 10 days to do so), then we'll front you some money to pay for studio time.' We recorded 10 songs in 10 days, all live except for vocals."
In its haste to get the label the new material, Before Braille didn't even add the embellishments they'd envisioned for the songs, such as piano parts or harmonies. Jensen even sang scratch vocals with dummy lyrics in some places. "They fell in love with those songs, and, about a month later, we had a contract in front of us which we worked on for three or four weeks," says Jensen. "We set up some studio time with Bob Hoag at Flying Blanket Studios, but it wound up taking longer than we thought, about a month and a half, rerecording those songs and adding two new ones that weren't part of the demo.
"What happened was Aezra gave us a deadline," he continues. "The recording process took longer than we thought, so we actually mixed the whole record, all 15 songs, in one day. So, obviously, there were gonna be problems and mixes that wouldn't make the cut. Bob had already agreed to remix for free any song they weren't happy with."
As it turned out, Aezra wasn't happy with any of the songs. The label balked at releasing the Hoag mixes.
"They really didn't give us a reason," Jensen says. "The only thing they told us was this is nothing that's close to what we think is worth releasing. They didn't give us the opportunity to remix it and didn't want us to work with Bob any longer. So for two months they searched around to find someone else to mix the record. They found somebody in Florida and mixed the record with him, and those mixes were horrible."
That somebody was Karl Richardson, famed one-third of the production team that brought you the Saturday Night Fever-era Bee Gees. They flew Jensen out to Miami to mix the record for a couple of days. "But we still had problems," he says, laughing. "Then they flew Bob Hoag out there, the same guy they thought couldn't give them a reasonable mix, for another two days, and finally three months after we finished tracking the record, we were able to come up with a record everybody was happy with. Aezra wanted a big, booming-sounding record, which I think they got with the mastering, which Bob also did."
Hoag also managed to get a heavy piano sound, usually banging away at the lower keys to underline a particularly dramatic moment. Plenty such moments turn up in The Rumor's opening track "Prelude: Secret Number 7" and the album's big stunner "Miracle Mile." In the rhythm section, Reed and Smith are unstoppable throughout, providing a substantial cushion for Jensen and Ringger to float above.
"In the early days, everybody would come in with a completed song and everybody would write their own parts," Jensen explains. "Now the songs are springing out more from jam sessions; when everyone's playing together, somebody has an idea and we sorta play off on that. Everyone in the band takes an equal part in the songwriting, so each member affects the sound. Having Reggie Patel on lead guitar, it's actually going a lot better now. He's changed our sound, for the better, I think."
When the talk swings back to Jensen's experience as a label honcho, he's reminded of how much he now goes out of his way to listen to the musicians he works with in his capacity as a label boss. "Now that we're working with a label ourselves and just really having to struggle to make things go our way, it's made me want to be even more generous and open to ideas from the bands I work with," he says. "At the same time, I know that any label exists to, ultimately, make money. I won't continue having my label if I don't start making more decisions that have to do with, How can I sell records?'"
Recently, the success of former Sunset Alliance band Fivespeed has put him in the profit column. "When they signed to Virgin, I saw money there," he says. "Virgin bought the record I put out, Trade In Your Halo. They paid for the licensing and, in order to do that, they had to pay a sum of money to cover my expenses and pay off my credit cards. It was a lot of money to me but I'm sure to most labels it was nothing."
According to Jensen, Aezra has sunk a quarter of a million dollars into Beyond Braille and is determined to protect that investment by any means necessary. Which means no guest appearances on other people's records. No more split CDs. No more comp appearances -- all things that help keep indie bands' names out there between releases.
"With Aezra, when we originally signed with them, we thought we were signing with an independent label; they were going to sign a bunch of respectable indie bands, who shall remain nameless," Jensen says. "One from here, one from California. They want to be a major and sign a bunch of different acts. We're not related to them in any way, shape or form except for the big stamp on the back of our record. Since then they've signed two pop artists, but they did put out a Toadies live album. That's rock. So we'll have some rock compadres on our label, and now they're talking to a pretty good rock band in Dallas, too."
Still, it's clear that Jensen -- who knows what label-conscious punk/emo kids are like -- bristles at the fact that he is on the same label as Robin Trower, dance-pop hopeful Sera, and Deep Blue Something, best known for the annoying-as-anthrax hit "Breakfast at Tiffany's."
"In the indie scene, people are just as loyal to record labels as they are to bands," Jensen says. "And when they go to the Web site and see a bunch of pop artists on the same label as what they consider a cool indie rock band, right away they dismiss that band. Who is this band on the same label as Deep Blue Something?' But at the same time, screw people who're gonna think that way. Those people need to grow up and like music for what it is. I don't make my decisions that way, and I think it's wrong for them to do."
Before Braille's Aezra affiliation has come with its share of luxuries, as well. The band is receiving tour support and distribution by BMG. And despite the hassles in mixing the album, The Rumor is the album Beyond Braille wanted to make, right down to the inclusion of five extra songs the band is not getting paid for.
"[That's] pretty standard," Jensen says. "The label only wanted 10 songs, and we're appreciative of the fact that they allowed a compromise for us to put about five songs on there."
Come show time, the Martini Ranch is filled to capacity. Any doubts that the crowd is here for radio-station freebies -- or following the mistaken belief that regular Ranch outfit Rock Lobster is playing tonight -- go out the window once Before Braille takes the stage. Jensen flails about like a man trying to shake demons off his back. Paired with Ringger on vocals, his voice is generally calm and melodic, a contrast to the pile driving the band provides. And once the set is done, more than half the crowd empties out.
That's always a good sign, unless you're in the band that has to follow. Whether these radio listeners or Scottsdale recreational drinkers will ever venture out to Nita's Hideaway or the Nile or Modified to see the band is another story. But they've taken their tentative first steps toward embracing Mesa-core. Rock Lobster might never sound the same.