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By Amanda Savage
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"What's the name of your band?" the owner of a local club asks Porter on a recent afternoon, as she empties three ashtrays piled with about 10 bucks' worth of Camel butts. "Are you from Cleveland?"
"See, that's what we're talking about," Porter chuckles. For years, few publications or clubs even spelled Brandtson's name correctly.
"The only thing that's ever helped is telling people that Brandtson rhymes with 'Hanson,' because people remember Hanson," quips bassist John Sayre.
But if Brandtson has been slow to get the love in Cleveland, the same can't be said in Goshen, Indiana, or Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In the past seven years, the band has toured the States 14 times and Europe twice, and even played Singapore and Hong Kong. It released four full-lengths on the emo label Deep Elm Records before signing with the Militia Group, the rising indie that's already had two bands on its roster jump to the majors. Brandtson's recently released first album for Militia, Send Us a Signal, scored the highest first-week sales tally in the label's history. On the well-traveled music Web site Purevolume.com, the band has garnered 30,000 downloads in recent months.
Since forming in the spring of 1997, the foursome has played only a handful of local gigs before hitting the road, touring six to seven months a year for the first half of the band's career.
"We had this outlook about us like, 'We're a band, we want to tour and get out there.' It was like, we can try to do a lot in Cleveland, but it wasn't our focus," Porter explains. "We were gone so much that we started building up a fan base in different, weird parts of the country -- just random places -- and for the longest time, Cleveland wasn't one of them."
Being on Deep Elm didn't help much, either. Though the label is known as an emo stronghold and certainly helped build the band's name for its first couple of albums (beginning with 1998's Letterbox), as Brandtson's standing and sales began to rise around the country, the recording and promotional budgets didn't grow accordingly. Though one of Deep Elm's signature acts, the band got no more advertising money or tour support than the label's newest signees.
"While we were on Deep Elm, there was really a kind of pressure that we needed to put out a release every year to keep things going, because it didn't seem like the label was doing a lot to remind people that we were still there," Porter says. "We felt like we needed to keep turning out records and stay on the road, or else what we had built up to that point would just kind of go by the wayside."
"It was just sucking the life out of us," guitarist Matt Traxler adds with a sigh as he hangs up his cell phone. It's Wednesday, the day SoundScan sales numbers are announced, and he's been on the horn checking out how Send Us a Signal is doing. "It's hard enough to keep going as a band, and to have your label just kind of draining you, it makes it that much more difficult."
Freed from its obligations to Deep Elm after 2002's Dial in Sounds, Brandtson quickly signed with the Militia Group, which is run by longtime friend of the band Chad Pearson. The label invested $30,000 in Brandtson before Send Us a Signal's first note was recorded; it allowed the band to book a month in the studio with esteemed indie producer Ed Rose (Get Up Kids, Coalesce).
"Just going to the studio, and having enough time to actually write songs for the records in the studio, kind of blew us away," says drummer Jared Jolley. "We only had like a week [for each album] with Deep Elm, so we pretty much went into the studio, recorded the songs as they were, and you'd get what you get at the end of the week."
The increased budget is palpable on Signal, easily the band's finest, most sonically diverse album. Ranging from bristling melodic punk to pleading pop, its moods are as varied as its time signatures. Porter sings in a plaintive coo that rockets into a bittersweet bark, as slobbering guitars provide the band's bite. When he yelps, "You are a tidal wave with sympathy/A tsunami ripping through me with sweet sentimentality," on "Margot," he could be describing his own band. Brandtson sounds like it's having the time of its life.
"It's honestly night and day, 100 percent. It feels like a new lease on life," Sayre says. "That sounds like hyperbole, but it's not. The last couple of years, we just felt like we were kind of on a treadmill, working, working, working, and never getting any further."