By the Numbers
"Hi, I'm Wes and I'm a musician," says Wes Durham, the twentysomething bass player from local punk band Sixth Year Senior.
He is seated among peers in the back room at Buzz the Original Funbar in Scottsdale. It is dark but quiet, aside from the occasional "test, test" reverberations from sound check in the next room. Some sit on plush couches normally reserved for making out with groupies. Others pull up barstools.
A circle fills with musicians. They're from Durham's band along with fellow locals Fourbanger and Fivespeed. They look like a car full of college dudes on their way to a kegger. They may not know each other very well or have any friggin' idea, really, what they're doing here but they're all out to have a good time.
To would-be Freuds, this may look like rock group therapy.
"So, what's the prognosis?" a voice asks out of the obscurity of the circle.
"We're the most fucked-up bands in the Valley," says Fivespeed drummer Chad Martin.
"Well, I think you all need record deals," the reporter says as she double-checks her notebook with mock professionalism.
"They don't," says Anthony DiToma, Sixth Year's drummer, as he points toward the members of Fivespeed, who joined the ranks of fellow locals Jimmy Eat World, the Format and Authority Zero when they inked their contract with Virgin last May after months of deliberation. They got everything finalized just as they were gearing to leave for the Vans Warped Tour.
While Phoenix is one of the nation's fastest-growing cities, the members of its tight-knit music scene are still small-scale, Kevin Bacon-ly related. These guys have all played together at one point or another, whether it was at a Red Cross fund raiser at Arizona State University (Fourbanger and Fivespeed), at one of the Buzz's Ska Punk nights (Fourbanger and Sixth Year Senior), or at a battle of the bands (Fivespeed and Sixth Year Senior). They all obviously have a mutual respect for numerical band names 4, 5, 6 . . . it's so cute. Fourbanger and Fivespeed have names that imply automobile enthusiasm, yet both admit the car references are arbitrary.
More relevantly, each band has garnered individual respect around the Valley for having tight and original music.
Fourbanger is a pop-punk foursome from Mesa led by brothers Eric and Kyle Huffaker. They have released three albums over the past three years. Their latest effort, Audio Accident, has been hailed as the band's most comprehensive to date. While some may classify their sound in the same genre as Sum-41 and Blink-182, Fourbanger's members are set apart from manufactured punk by their ability to harmonize on vocals and create a lively atmosphere with their onstage performances. The band played as part of the Warped Tour in Phoenix last summer after winning the spot in a national Ernie Ball Battle of the Bands contest.
Sixth Year Senior drummer Anthony DiToma took a hiatus from ASU after a six-year stint as a "not so diligent" communications major. Get it? has a startlingly loyal fan base. Last March, a bus full of their fans paid $60 each to accompany them to Los Angeles for a gig at the Whisky-A-Go-Go. "Porcelain" and "Remember Sleep," from the 2001 album Elevator Soundtrack, are catchy and arouse spirited sing-alongs ("She's porcelain/She's diamonds/She's insane when she wants to be!"). They have five years as a new-school (read: driven by sweet melodies, not the standard angst) punk band under their studded belts.
Although Fivespeed has played with both bands before, they are the odd men out. With his dreadlocks and sleeves of tattoos, lead singer Jared Woosley looks like a hippie who happened upon Metallica's garage sale. Their sound is equally hybridized. While its roots run deep in punk rock, it has a pronounced metal edge, as documented on the band's independently released album Trade In Your Halo. "Field Guide to the Night Sky" is an example of an instance where Woosley's raw, powerful vocal style mixes with unwavering guitar licks and frantically rhythmic drums. Fivespeed has remained consistently professional over the years, and their sense of musicianship is what attracts audiences all over the Valley. And oh yeah there's that little thing with Virgin Records.
"When we first started five years ago, the biggest complaint was that no record label was going to pick up a band from Phoenix, ever. Then jump forward five years and you've got six acts at major labels," says DiToma, who, for a drummer, sure seems to enjoy the spotlight. "And it's not just, you know, Joe Bob's House of Records."
With Jimmy Eat World on DreamWorks, Authority Zero on Lava, the Format on Elektra, and now Fivespeed on Virgin, it's getting harder to hit a rock show in this town without stepping on a foamy-mouthed record executive.
As the presence of these Hollywood types in town intensifies, word gets around as to what these coveted contracts actually entail.
"We've gotten to live a year without working, and just practicing, and writing songs, and touring, and it's all any of us have really wanted to do, ever," says Fivespeed's Martin. "It doesn't feel as huge as it should sometimes 'cause the album's not out and it's not really a daily thing where you're a rock star all of a sudden, because we still deal with, you know, relationships within the band, our personal relationships, our families and everything is still the same. It's just a little less of a headache not having to work."
"I don't want to work!" cries Brendan McFarlan, Sixth Year Senior's guitarist, who teaches tennis during the day to support his musical habits. "No, it's cool to hear bands get signed that have actually worked for a while when you hear stuff about bands who were just kind of thrown together . . . on Thursday night and they're on TRL on Friday."
Well, now there's a thinly veiled shot. The Format is in a situation much like the one McFarlan complains about. Although the duo had been members of a band called Nevergonnascore when they decided to branch off and play their own music, they had yet to play a live show together when their preliminary recordings began to receive attention from record companies and radio executives. In the Format's case, local rock station KEDJ-FM has been a faithful supporter.
"[The station] just basically took this band out of a rehearsal space and put them right on the radio," Martin explains. "Whereas there's a lot of bands that play together forever and ever will fight to get played once a week. There's no kind of regular rotation for bands like us." And this comes from the guy with the deal.
"When you guys got signed to Virgin, there wasn't a race between the two of us. It wasn't like, Okay, it's going to be between the two of them,'" offers McFarlan, addressing Fivespeed. "It just seems like when they make the battle of the bands stuff or when shit like that gets involved, it [competitiveness] does get involved because it's like, Oh. How'd they win?' And winning something like that doesn't put you any closer to signing a record deal."
"We try to always keep good vibes with every band that we play with," DiToma says. "But in the same breath, everybody out there in our genre is absolutely competitive, and it's absolutely another band that's going to take the attention or turn the eye of another label that I want to go to."
Yet for as competitive as the scene may be as the national spotlight grows, the bands find themselves in a precarious time for the local club scene. The mathematics of the situation is simple: More bands + less clubs = sad musicians sitting at home on a Saturday night. But, as Woosley points out, for every Nile Theater or Electric Ballroom or Beeloe's that closes down, there's always hope for new ground.
"Have you guys seen the new Nita's? That place rules," Woosley says. "Plus, you know the new Coyotes stadium is going to be opening up in Glendale, and if you don't think there's going to be a bunch of clubs that pop up down there, you're crazy."
There's also the option of getting creative, which brings to mind another equation: Supply + demand among the kids = odd venues.
"Once we showed up to a laser tag arena," recalls Sixth Year Senior's McFarlan. "We had never played there before, and we walk up stairs and there is a built-in crowd of 300 kids there."
"We played there one night and you could see the vans pull up and you see the kids pop out. At laser tag, dude, they're all 12," adds Fourbanger's Eric Huffaker, whose boyish mug might lend to the misconception that he was chauffeured in by a soccer mom. "And they've all got $40 to burn in their pocket."
All this talk about younger listeners leaves Fivespeed feeling left out. "We get bill collectors coming to our show," jokes Martin.
"I think my grandfather had Fivespeed's record on his CD player," says McFarlan. " I think he referred to them as fine young crooners."
Although they are poking fun at each other, any psychologist would tell you that this is none other than a sure-fire sign of male bonding.
"I give mad props to any group of individuals who get together and spend enough time by themselves with their musical instruments to create music and enough music to the point where they can go on a stage in front of a bunch of people they've never met and be like, This is what we're about,'" says DiToma. "Because I straight up threw up the first time we ever played a show."
Woosley tells DiToma to "just let it all out," and, had this been a real therapy session, a group hug might ensue. But this ain't no exercise in Gestalt, and the night ends with the words of wisdom from the guy who got the night's whole brotherly love thing rolling.
"The basic rule of thumb is that every time you piss someone off, you make about 10 enemies," says Durham. "And every time you make a friend, you make three more."
Or four, or five, or perhaps six . . .
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.