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Don't get me wrong; the clever artwork isn't the only thing the Heartless is doing right. On a recent Saturday night at the all-ages venue PHiX on Grand Avenue, there are only about 30 or 40 kids in the garage-like space, but the Heartless vocalist/bassist Chris Wagner, guitarist/vocalist Ryan Mott, guitarist Daniel De La Torre, and drummer Johnny Lincoln is pounding out its punky pop-rock songs like it was an arena show. Some people in the crowd are holdover fans of a metal band that played earlier, but even they're impressed by the Heartless' energy and enthusiasm. De La Torre swings his guitar around his neck occasionally, and one of the metal kids elbows his friend, impressed by the bad-ass-edness.
Watching a band play in front of a small audience is one of the most accurate barometers I use to critique its chances for success. You'd better be willing and able to rock the fuck out for a crowd of 10 people like it was a crowd of 10,000, and the members of the Heartless have this figured out.
"We've all played in other local bands, and even in this band, we've been playing in front of five or 10 people forever," Wagner tells me the day after the PHiX show. "That's where you get your wings, so to speak."
Lest you get the wrong impression, the Heartless has now moved beyond playing too many small-audience gigs. The band's CD release party, in mid-January at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe, drew around 700 fans. That's not just because these four dudes in their mid-20s know how to rock; it's also because they put mad energy into getting their music out there for kids to hear.
Every week, the band members pick up New Times and schedule the shows that they'll be promoting at, handing out fliers and a two-song sampler CD that they estimate they've burned thousands of. "It's a very rewarding feeling to give kids your CDs," Wagner tells me. "We've had girls start driving away listening to our CD, then do a U-turn and come back and say, 'That's amazing, you guys are awesome.' They took pictures with us, and wanted us to autograph the demo CD."
If more bands spent the time busting ass like the Heartless does, giving away demos, interacting with fans, making the music available on iTunes and smartpunk.com, and understanding that if you're taking a career in music seriously you have to be as good a promoter as you are a songwriter, then more bands would see the kind of success that the Heartless is beginning to receive as payback. Just a month and a half ago, the band got to play in Los Angeles at the legendary Whisky a Go Go.
"We pester the crap out of people we're trying to play shows with, or promoters, or managers of clubs," Mott tells me. "If we want to play a show, we'll literally call them or e-mail them every single day until they tell us to fuck off. We make them tell us no. And they do tell us no, but they also tell us we do an amazing job promoting. 'You guys are working your asses off, so I'm gonna put you on this next show. You're gonna have 30 minutes to get out there and do it.'"
"We want to be the biggest band in the world," Lincoln says, with no hint of irony. "We really want to be successful. I think everything we do sells itself. We're set up for success, and we're ready to roll with it." I'd usually greet a self-possessed statement like that with contempt, but these guys have impressed me both with their music and with their drive.
The songs themselves are loud and layered, but with a pervasive melodic sensibility that local producing luminary Bob Hoag really highlights on the This Could Take Some Getting Used To EP. Wagner has an endearingly earnest vocal style, which Mott complements harmonically throughout the record. Pop-punk is a tired term to use, with negative connotations, but the Heartless falls into that category in the best possible manner.
"We pride ourselves on the way we practice, work on stuff, and the way we commingle with each other," Mott says. "We're ready tomorrow to go play in front of one label rep, one person in a studio somewhere, or we're ready to go play in front of 15,000 people that's really cool with this band. We do feed off the crowd, but at the same time, we really feed off our music and playing live together. We all have a blast; we're the perfect combination of enjoying each other's company and our music onstage and interacting with the crowd. The cool thing is, we could get a phone call and fly tomorrow and play in front of someone we've never played for before in a studio by ourselves and play just as hard and great as we could in front of 500 people."
That hard work and confident attitude is far too rare among local bands here. Aspiring musicians ought to go see the Heartless and take notes.