Come Out and Play
It wasn't easy getting Ian Metzger off his ass to play some rock 'n' roll again.
He'd burned out on the band life early, when his high school Christian rock group, Justified, turned out to be the kind of shitty life experience that leaves a person thinking, "No real good can come of this."
But a kid from his church, Joel Marquard, just wouldn't let up. Three, four days a week, he'd be at Metzger's door, guitar in hand, looking to play.
The members of local rock band Dear and the Headlights are seated around a table outside Filiberto's in Mesa, when Metzger recalls with a laugh how some days when he really didn't want to play, he'd just pretend he wasn't home.
Seated to Metzger's immediate right, his former stalker, Marquard, appears to be taken aback by this. "You did that?! Really?! What an ass," he says, shaking his head.
"I just didn't want to play music," Metzger says. "And I felt bad answering the door and saying, 'Sorry, dude, I just don't want to play with you today.'"
"I'm not that persistent," Marquard says. "You make me out to be, like, an annoying creep."
But Metzger reassures him that "It wasn't like a creep thing," adding, "Hey, we have a band now, right? So that's good."
And the thing is, if it hadn't been for what Marquard refers to as "the process of me tugging Ian's shirt sleeves saying, 'Let's start a band. Stop playing video games,'" it's doubtful they'd be signed to Equal Vision Records roughly a year and a half after making their first live appearance as Dear and the Headlights.
Metzger may have everything a label rep could hope for in a front man, bringing a soaring, emotional vocal style, a star-next-door charisma and the kind of looks that take a band from "damn, they're good" to "put 'em on the cover." And he did write almost all the songs himself on Small Steps, Heavy Hooves, the band's first release on Equal Vision (due out early next year). But if he hadn't stumbled into bandmates as persistent as Marquard and bassist Chuckie Duff, you have to wonder if he'd have a record coming out at all.
Metzger had given up and moved to California by the time Dear and the Headlights booked their first show, feeling certain that nothing would come of the band Marquard had talked him into starting with a 16-year-old P.J. Waxman.
There's no real consensus on how many bassists and drummers they'd tried out before Metzger decided to move, but Waxman is pretty insistent, saying, "I remember counting 13."
As Marquard says, "We were kind of cursed at that point."
The curse hadn't stopped them from cutting a demo, though. And it hadn't prevented the guy who recorded it, future bassist Chuck Duff, from offering to put out a record on his own label, Common Wall, or volunteering six months later to be their bassist if that would keep the band together.
But by that point, Metzger was unenthusiastic. "I was just like, 'Fuck this. Fuck this band. We've tried out people for two years and nothing's come of it. I've gotta get out of here.'"
With Metzger off in California, drummer Mark Kulvinskas saw a post from Dear and the Headlights on Craigslist, where the band was advertising for a drummer.
As Kulvinskas tells the story, "So I get there, and this guy, Joel, tells me, 'By the way, our singer lives in California and our bassist couldn't make it.' I'm like, 'This is weird.' So anyhow, I play the three songs they had posted on their Web site, and they ask me back to play with Chuckie. But before I leave, they're like, 'Oh, by the way, we have a show in two weeks.'"
By the time he met the singer of the band he'd just agreed to join, it was a day before the show, when Metzger flew in for rehearsal. And that's pretty much the way it worked for six or seven months, with Metzger flying in for as many as three shows a month. "I don't know why that seemed like it made sense," he says. "But it seems really stupid now."
Metzger moved back to Phoenix last November, just in time to whip the songs on Small Steps, Heavy Hooves into shape before hitting the studio with producer Bob Hoag, who came away impressed enough to pass their songs along to Equal Vision. "Dear and the Headlights' sound is hard to describe," Hoag says. "And I think that's a good thing. I think it's because Ian's songwriting is so sincere, unique and distinct, and then you have four other guys whose sensibilities and tastes are really very, very different. In a lot of bands, that's a negative thing five guys pulling in different directions, none of whom is really doing the right thing for the song. But in this band, it works.
"They have their own sound and I don't exactly know what that is but Ian's songs really tie it together," Hoag continues. "A lot of bands have a 'sound' but don't have a 'voice.' And Ian and his personality really shine through in the songs. When you take a song as Beatles-esque and poppy as 'It's Getting Easy' and put Ian's unique voice, character, and unconventional lyrics with it, it turns into something totally different. And it has a ton of character, something that's largely missing in today's music and recordings."
He thought of Equal Vision, Hoag explains, because he'd found the people there to be very sincere and artist-friendly while making a record with Versus the Mirror, a hardcore band from Tucson. "To a lot of record labels, the finished album is a 'product,' a 'marketing tool,' not a creative piece of art," Hoag says. "But Equal Vision never seemed that way."
But given the label's hardcore-heavy roster, Metzger found it kind of odd that Equal Vision would have any interest in his melodic pop band. "My first thought," he admits, "was, 'Why does this label even care about our band?' And when I talked to Glenn [Dooley], our A&R guy, I told him, 'I really don't know what you guys are trying to do with our band 'cause I don't see it.' There's hardcore bands on that label. There's screamo bands on that label."
But the fact that they were doing something different is why Dooley liked them in the first place. "I don't think we ever really want a band to 'fit in,'" Dooley says. "I'd become so frustrated with the recent flood of screamo, post-hardcore or whatever the hell you want to call it that when I came across Dear and the Headlights, it felt like a breath of fresh air. As soon as I got ahold of their full-length, I knew I wanted to be involved with spreading the word about the band. I haven't felt this excited about any band in a long time."
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