How Dear and the Headlights Became the Most Important Band in Arizona

It's mid-afternoon at The Tiniest Bar in Texas, and Dear and the Headlights have just finished playing the fourth and final show they're cramming into four days at South by Southwest, a music industry circle jerk that's a make-or-break week for up-and-coming bands.

Onstage, bearded singer Ian Metzger draws the attention of people sipping canned beer, trying to stay cool on the dusty front patio of the shack-like bar on a humid March day that hints at Austin's stewy summers. The demure Metzger is no showman — in fact, he spends much of the performance singing with his eyes closed or staring at the Texas dirt — but he projects an intriguing blend of emotion and confidence that's slowly gathering the crowd's attention, one person at a time, in the workmanlike way a waitress cleans up pieces of a shattered plate.

Tons of people from Phoenix's tight-knit indie scene are here. Most of the bands that made the pilgrimage to Austin have sent at least one representative, and there are a few scenester types in town for the copious free booze and ass-kissery. They've made their way to this bar on the edge of downtown, 16 long blocks from the heart of the party, partly because Dear and the Headlights put on an impressive live show. But, for these people, who've seen them dozens of times and are missing other hip acts at the massive festival, it's also because they want to support the vanguard of the city's scene. And Dear and the Headlights are, indisputably, that vanguard. In fact, they're the most important band in Arizona.

Dear and the Headlights (from left): Mark Kulvinskas, Robert Cissell, Chuckie Duff, 
P.J. Waxman, and Ian Metzger.
Jamie Peachey
Dear and the Headlights (from left): Mark Kulvinskas, Robert Cissell, Chuckie Duff, P.J. Waxman, and Ian Metzger.
Jamie Peachey

First, they're good. Their music is a layered blend of moody and poppy indie rock, built around Metzger's assured yet warbling vocals and topped with wonderfully scratchy riffs. It'd be hard for anyone in Phoenix to leave the band off his or her list of the best bands in town. Second, and more important, they're as savvy an act as you'll find at this level. In the super-weird music climate that's developed in the decade since Napster started siphoning profits from the Big Four major labels' money-printing operation, this band has a better handle on how to succeed than anyone in the state.

They're playing by the game's new rules — and winning.

In fact, they often seem to be the only local band that's figured out how to maneuver the levers and pulleys needed to elevate a band above the noise of fly-by-night blog bands and the classic rockers whom today's kids still fawn over. They're self-sufficient, signed, and playing shows most local bands can only dream about. Other Phoenix bands have noticed, too, proclaiming their intention to follow the Dear and the Headlights model.

The formula seems simple enough: Tour all the time, be nice to everyone, and operate in a business-minded manner. Simple but effective. It is how they got signed to a legit indie label, Equal Vision Records. It is how they became the first Arizona band to ever play America's marquee music festival, Coachella, in April. This is how they got booked to play this month at Bonnaroo, the East Coast's version of Coachella, in Tennessee. It is why they're about to embark on the lucrative Warped Tour, despite their sounding nothing like the punk bands who make up most of the teen-friendly lineup.

You get a glimpse of their process as the band wraps up the SxSW show with a performance of their best song to date, a smoldering indie ballad titled "I'm Not Crying. You're Not Crying, Are You?" that leads off Dear and the Headlights' latest album, Drunk Like Bible Times. The song's lyrics — bouncy in an understated way, like the best of the band's offerings — are poignant, even if they're clearly about being in a band, typically an uninspiring topic for top songwriters:

And now some local loser with a tape and a badge

Wants you to answer from the list of pointless questions to ask

And, no, he's not sincere. You're not sincere, are you?

Then the howls and moans pour from the black and it's a sea of blank faces straight to the back

Aggressively mediocre in every single way

Yet you're the only reason that they came

Dear and the Headlights play a pretty standard form of indie rock, with acoustic guitars bringing the music low for triumphant choruses and a few cutting riffs to add some edge to the verses. They're simple pop songs, the band says.

Then there's what happens after they're done playing.

Rather than becoming absorbed in the amp- and instrument-related tasks of the load-out process or yukking it up with their buddies, the band stands dutifully talking, smiling, shaking hands. They're making one fan at a time, like Springsteen did. It is, they say, the only way to break through the white noise of home-studio bands releasing full-length records before they've even had a gig, and the only way to get the attention of industry insiders in an era when major labels' talent-development departments have been slashed by as much as three-quarters in the past three years.

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15 comments
Ashford & Simpson
Ashford & Simpson

Jack Swift is boob...no sour grapes...DATH is amazing but Martin Cizmar is a hack. hack, hack....I don't care what anyone says..he is the worst editor in the history of the New Times....I don't care who he writes about, as long as it is compelling....and Martin Cizmar NEVER is....please just leave town and on to another job very soon....an atrocious journalist....

DavidJensen
DavidJensen

Regardless of Martin's percieved writing ability or any perceived importance of Dear And The Headlights, this band deserved the cover and finally got it. These guys have been hard at work gaining all kinds of notoriety for a couple years now... and why is it so common that our best local talent remains the best kept secrets in the Southwest...and are discovered lastly by our own hometown rags. I mean, outside of a couple of people and/or organizations the radio and press here seem to be the last ones to know or at least speak about the best locals, and rarely even catch on until after they're already 'national' I remember calling The Edge to have them play Jimmy Eat World after Bleed American came out and they didn't know who they were. I called back later and they said they knew of them but didn't have any of their music. Anyway, I digress...Point is, Dear And The Headlights are great, and if you can't agree with that you should accept that they are at least deserving. Let's be happy for them.

Jack Swift
Jack Swift

Isn't it telling how all these apparently young-and-dumb local music fans complain about an article of a few pages being too "long," and how stupid it is to write "long" articles? Who's stupid here? Have this 'tards ever heard of a BOOK!

Brent West
Brent West

After the first page (of this novel) i knew i was going to comment about it.. Because if you want proof to back this article then i would be the cinderella.. Kinda of the story.. Page 2 when talking to Brian from Kinch (who is amazing and listening to right now) was talking about "a kid" that waits around before and hangs out with DATH.. That would be me.. Basically years ago after Merchnow missed up on my order for a couple months they sent we a bunch of free stuff.. In it was a DATH sticker.. I checked them out on myspace.. Enjoyed it.. I ended up sending a message to them via myspace asking when they would tour, more so through Portland.. I actually got a message back saying that its happening soon.. Not only that but they say theyll put me on the guest list for it.. Little shocked that some band just throwing me free tickets and its the first time ive talked to them.. The show comes, i have a great time.. I get to meet all of them and chat a while.. They already had me hooked with their music, then i saw them live, whatever is more than hooked is what i was after that.. Plus being chill guys.. So basically i kept in touch with them.. Started getting all my friends into them and it spread quickly.. I loved it.. Everytime they came through town the crowds started to get bigger.. I would come with a group of people.. Then the JEW/PARAMORE tour came and they didnt have room for me on their guest list so they hooked me up with theyre record labels street team.. Which works out great for me because EVR just happens to be my favorite label (The Fall of Troy/Circa/Fear Before).. Now thanks to DATH.. Were friends.. Now after leave Rise Promo i get to promo for them and the label and bands i LOVE.. They showed me Kinch.. Love them.. Met countless number of people because of the words Dear and the headlights.. So i guess after my novel too.. DATH went out of their way to be friend one fan.. So i return the favor by turning anyone i meet into fans too.. So far its paid off.. So for all the AZ kids out there that are bashing down on DATH for being your best.. i would gladdly take them up here.. And i know you dont want to start something with the Portland indie/music scene..

That one kid that lives in phenoix and just listened to DATH online and has never gone to a show.. Needs a solid foot in the ass.. id kill to see them at a home town show.. ive seen them in Portland Seattle and Chicago.. But i hear, mostly from the one guy at ticketmaster that started talking to me about DATH bc i was wearing their shirt and said he lived down there, that shows are just amazing there.. So basically i semi hate you

Laters!

Katrina
Katrina

Dude, you guys need to all chill out. No one forced you to read the whole thing. I love Dear And The Headlights and found the article very interesting and not too long.

Ella
Ella

DATH is probably my all time favorite band but I couldn't read past the first page, I'm sorry. But it was great to read some more praise for the band that takes up most of the space in my heart! (:

Lenny Leonardson
Lenny Leonardson

I live an Phoenix, and contrary to this article, it is NOT hard for me to leave them off my list of the best bands in town. Listened to them on myspace, they sounded a bit boring and didn't make me feel that I'd really want to listen again or check them out live.It doesn't bother me that you like them, that's your thing, but when you say "the most important band in Arizona" you just look dumb.

Phoenix Love
Phoenix Love

"there are so many great bands in Phoenix, why this band? Duh, no there aren't, dumbasses!"

Dude, get out of my city. Please.

myname
myname

I really like this band, I've seen them about 4 times and they're always really solid. i dont think its out of line to call out writers when they play favorites. I dont understand the grunge/being 30 comment either. Im 21 and think the article was too long so I guess Im a grunger? Also there ARE a lot more people making great music in this town. If you're too lazy and disconnected to find them without The New Times that's your problem.

Pete
Pete

Not a bad article but its really stupid how you spend paragraphs going on how recent cover stories were worthless. Guess your editorial decisions suck. Maybe it includes this story as well.

Ted Obrien
Ted Obrien

The problem is that Martin's idea of an important band is a band that, as you say Jack, has taken the steps to make it.What does it even mean to make it? Take Brittany Spears, NKOTB, Miley Cyrus - they all took the necessary steps that were needed to make it. The thing is, that doesn't make them important or good or the best or anything besides popular. The music industry circle jerk that's a make-or-break for up and coming bands is only a make-or-break for the bands that want to be part of the music industry. Most of the good bands, the ones who do something innovative or exciting, aren't trying to be part of that industry, they're doing what they want because they want to, not because they'll be popular.

Jack Swift
Jack Swift

Anytime anybody does a music cover story about a great band, you can count on goobers like the above two to chime in that the story is too long, poorly written, yada, yada. See, they gripe, there are so many great bands in Phoenix, why this band? Duh, no there aren't, dumbasses! And its funny how grunges who are pushing 30 and still living in their parents' houses think they know anything about writing. This was a great story about a band that's taken the necessary steps to make it. Stop with the playa-hating sour grapes.

douchetastic
douchetastic

OMG.. why did this story have to be THAT long?

Dath is a good band. They're also doing pretty well in respect to their career thus far. Great for them.

What I want to know is, why do we always have to play king of the hill in this town? There are so many artists and bands in Phoenix who are really friendly, hard working and business savvy.

I'm not trying to hate, I'm just saying "The most important band in Phoenix"? C'mon dude... That's just asking for widespread resentment which these guys don't deserve.

Does anybody at The New Times write objectively? About anything???

Ike Turner
Ike Turner

Ughhh...Martin your writing is abyssmal...I love DATH so much but I almost fell asleep reading your drivel.....it's literary ambien....please, please, please go away as quick as possible...thank you.

 
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