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.
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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.
Metzger, the main songwriter, who's a huge Bob Dylan fan and the only real "artist" type in this group of five surprisingly normal guys, pens personal lyrics that increasingly lead to weird conversations with people who feel a connection. Though you could be standing next to most of the band and never know it — they have a taste for snug jeans, snap-button Western shirts (favored by most Arizona indie bands and fans), and beards-by-convenience — Metzger has enough small-scale stardom to necessitate a deceptive cell phone number (we won't divulge his secret so as not to dull the effectiveness of his scheme). Yet he always makes an effort to talk.
"I feel like anytime somebody wants to come up and thank you, or say something you wrote down meant something to them, then there's no reason to be rude," he says. "If someone feels better to say something like that to you, you should listen . . . If you show people you don't have time for them, they'll show you they don't have time for you.
"My initial reaction when people come up and want to talk about band stuff is, I almost don't know who they're talking about. I feel like the person people make up in their heads. [The fans' ideas] about who you are or what you spend your time thinking about is somewhat inaccurate," he says. "It's just because they're getting some strange glimpse into my thoughts on a particular subject during the period of months I was thinking about that. To me, it's almost like they're describing someone else. But I realize it's not for me; they're talking to me for themselves."
If you want to know how special Dear and the Headlights are, compare them to the past three local acts who graced this publication's cover: Sonny Long, Hollywood Heartthrob, and The Medic Droid. They all exemplify certain pitiable elements of the local music scene, and the state of the music industry in general.
Long is an apparently delusional R&B singer who's taken the "fake it 'til you make it" credo to absurd extremes by pretending to be the son of major music-industry players, destined for massive success even though he's released only three tracks in the past five years. He shows up with an entourage that includes a "publicist" and earbud-wearing security guards. If he's had a real gig in the past five years, no amount of New Times sleuthing could confirm it.
The drummer for hard-rock act Hollywood Heartthrob, Ted Myers, won nearly a million dollars in a raffle and decided to invest the money in his band, buying them the best gear and studio time available and paying major national acts to open for them, in an effort to create the sort of buzz that'll get his group signed. They party like rock stars, have a glossy album, and a seasoned manager, but, so far, the plan has not succeeded in making them "rock gods."
Then there's defunct synth-pop duo The Medic Droid, who had a fair amount of success after their single "Fer Sure" made them Internet Famous. After they got 2 million plays on MySpace, they were signed by local label Modern Art Records and played New York's famed Bowery Ballroom before ever doing a Phoenix gig. The pressures of touring — and, you know, being an actual band — crushed them quickly. They broke up the week after our cover story on them ran.
Faking it, trying to buy it, praying for MySpace fame? Next to these acts, Dear and the Headlights look like a joint business venture between Brian Epstein and Colonel Parker. Not that the band's genesis is all that remarkable.
Formed in 2005 by bassist and recording engineer Chuckie Duff, Metzger, guitarist P.J. Waxman, and a keyboard player who's no longer in the band, DATH recorded a demo and then broke up. Duff got the band back together and added guitarist Robert Cissell and drummer Mark Kulvinskas. DATH was signed in 2006, releasing their first album, Small Steps, Heavy Hooves, in 2007 and following up with Drunk Like Bible Times last year. Along the way, they got the chance to open for Jimmy Eat World and Paramore, and made the most of it.
Touring relentlessly is the universally agreed-upon key to winning fans in other cities, and they do it. They take their songs to Duff's studio (he's the co-owner of Mesa's Flying Blanket Studio) and spend as much time there as possible. They're not much concerned with image — in fact, they didn't have a publicity photo until after they were signed. They gave away their music until there was enough demand to sell it. Oh, and they don't print cliché black T-shirts.
That's pretty much it, says Duff, the band's business brain, who is usually too busy with his studio to tour with DATH.
"Despite the fact that I run a studio and all that, Dear and the Headlights has never had a marketing plan; we've never had an image. In fact, we've fallen down on the job when it comes to those things," he says. "When you think about it, Gin Blossoms, Jimmy Eat World, The Format — none of them really had an image . . . Maybe it's that the Arizona thing is just to kinda be a grub, wear your jeans onstage, and rock 'n' roll that way. It's not very romantic, but it's just what Arizonans do."
Even without what Duff calls a "marketing plan," DATH are pretty good at marketing themselves. Impressively, they're able to blend the new methods of promotion (Medic Droid's MySpace friends) with the old one (Hollywood Heartthrob's top-notch management). They are not a blog band — rocketed to semi-stardom by fickle kids with computers, then returned to obscurity just as quickly — but they use that sphere very well, scoring a spot on The Daytrotter Sessions, an influential Chicago-based blog series. Partly, that's not their choice. Duff says he suspects they're just too direct for the blogosphere.
"My theory on why we're not on Pitchfork and some of that — and this is going to sound egotistical — is that maybe we're too straightforward, maybe we're a little too poppy for some of that? I think sometimes we're too accessible to be interesting to a certain level of blog critic. Or they don't get past our name because our name is kind of silly . . . I wonder how many people see that and think that we're goof-offs, or just think we're trying too hard to be clever and never give us a chance."
Then again, the most successful blog band thus far, the Pitchfork-beloved Vampire Weekend, doesn't have a gold record, yet has been on the cover of Spin. Wavves, dubbed the coolest band of the moment by blogger-types, very well might split up after their disastrous European tour was canceled after one date in when young singer Nathan Williams said he took the wrong drugs and couldn't perform. Wavves hasn't sold many records, despite their buzz. Who knows how much money their record company gave them in advance of their anticipated success, what they spent that money on, or how they'll pay it back if they break up or can't book dates, considering their now-spotty tour history?
No wonder Net-fueled fame isn't a primary goal for Dear and the Headlights.
"I think about that a lot: what it is to have a break or get a break, and I can't really wrap my mind around it. I feel like weird things happen to certain people, but I feel like it's one of those who-you-know type of things," says Metzger. "Take a random band like Vampire Weekend; they're like a nothing band, then Spin decides to put them on the cover and it's, like, there's 1,500 people at every show. I feel like that kind of stuff doesn't mean that much to me, because if you put any dudes on the cover of any major publication, it would get them a bunch of attention."
At the same time, Dear in the Headlights don't get negative feedback, which helps. Pretty much no one has anything bad to say about the band, locally or otherwise.
"We spend time on blogs, and we look at reviews about us, and we go on Web sites, and there aren't a lot of haters," Duff says. "I don't know, maybe it means we're just bland and mediocre and there's nothing to hate because we're not that interesting. But, hopefully, that's not it; hopefully, it means that we're not doing anything offensive."
The local love may have something to do with all the help Dear and the Headlights give to fellow Phoenicians.
Look at the three other bands with buzz in town: Miniature Tigers, What Laura Says, and Kinch. All three (along with The Love Me Nots, Back Ted N-Ted, The Maine, and Dear) were part of the seven-band slate that made up Phoenix's SxSW 2009 contingent (the biggest ever for the city). All three went on their first major tours with DATH, and all three have immense respect for the band, says Kinch's guitarist and main brain Brian Coughlin. The guys are gentlemen, Coughlin says, and that helps them make connections after every show they play.
"It's one thing to go to a show, and it's another to go to a show and make sure everyone who wants to meet you gets to," Coughlin says. "Those are the people who will come back and bring friends. In Portland, there's a kid who, every time Dear goes there, comes a few hours early and brings them Voodoo Doughnuts and just, like, hangs out with them. And he did the same thing for us when we came back, just because we were friends with Dear and the Headlights. They have things like that in every city."
Dear and the Headlights are signed, but they already had recorded an album and booked several tours on their own before the label got involved, says Coughlin, who knows a little more about the record business than most of his peers, having studied it at Los Angeles' Loyola Marymount University, which has one of the better recording-arts programs in the country.
"Record labels are signing fewer and fewer bands, so we're just trying to make it more likely for a record label, or someone in the industry, to want to work with us. Take away the risk involved," he says about his band and DATH.
The idea that major labels employ talent scouts to identify up-and-comers, then throw money at them, predates the huge hits the Web and the recession have landed on the industry, Coughlin says. Unlike, say, the last time the Valley's music scene blew up, when the Gin Blossoms' success drew a bunch of shiny-shoed L.A. A&R men here with a stack of contracts and a pocket full of pens, ready to sign every band with at least one good-looking member and a few shows booked at Mill Avenue clubs.
The last time something like that happened nationally was in New York, in 2001, when The Strokes' success got Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Walkmen, The Mooney Suzuki, and Interpol signed. And that may be the last time it ever happens, considering the state of the music industry.
"That doesn't happen anymore," Coughlin says. "Now it's, like, if you decide to work with a record label, they're going to want to know that you're already touring, that you're already operating your band like a business, that you're trying to operate it on the thinnest budget possible — so that when they actually put in a little bit of money, there's a better chance that you're going to be able to recoup it for them."
So far, this hasn't dawned on a lot of local bands: "Music tends to attract idiots, people who are, like, attracted to the glamour of it," Coughlin says. "But they don't realize that starting a band, in a lot of ways, is like starting a restaurant. It's just as much risk and takes just as long to get off the ground."
In addition to touring, the game now is about quality media exposure and making the most of every show.
"It almost feels like it's gone back to the way it was before FM radio took off, before there was really a mainstream outlet for rock music," Coughlin says. "In some ways, that's really why L.A. and New York are irrelevant. It doesn't matter what city you're in, it matters that you can . . . build up your fan base. Labels want to see that if they put a record out tomorrow, there are going to be 5,000 people who buy it. Then they break even.
"I think the thing with Dear, and why we look up to them so much — and why other bands in Phoenix should — is that they did that. They invested the time and money in themselves . . . And they're still doing it, and they're in a better position now than they ever were before. They did Coachella, they're at Bonnaroo, they're doing Warped Tour. It seems like every month there's something new and cool happening for them. They're creating their own luck just by hard work."
When he was 17 or 18, Coughlin's plan for "making it" was as follows: He'd hand his demo to Blink-182's drummer, Travis Barker, have him listen to it, then give it to an executive at Interscope. Next thing you know, a bus would pull up outside his parents' house and take him on a national tour.
"The new model is the Wilco model," the Kinch guitarist says. "It took them 10 years to become totally self-sufficient. Now they're all making really good money, and they'll have a fan base for the rest of their lives . . . And I think that's the trajectory bands today have to align themselves on if it's, indeed, what they want to do for a career.
"I think Dear and the Headlights are a career band. They've done two records, and they'll put out a record a year from now. And maybe they won't break out huge on a national level until they're four or five records deep."
Dear have their own studio, their own van with a trailer, and people who will buy whatever they put out. If their label, booking agent, and everyone else involved abandoned them, they'd still be self-sufficient.
"They're the only band in Phoenix besides Jimmy Eat World you can say that about — and, obviously, Jimmy Eat World had millions of dollars put into them by a major label that Dear and the Headlights haven't," Coughlin says. "Controlling your own fate is the smartest thing you can do nowadays. We don't know what there's going to be in three years. There might not be record labels, and if there aren't, that wouldn't slow down Dear and the Headlights — and that's why we're trying to basically rip them off."
Actually, Dear and the Headlights have done something Jimmy Eat World were once scheduled to do but didn't follow through on: play a show for the super-hip California crowd that gathers in Indio once a year to see pretty much every band that "matters" in indie rock. Sure, their set was in the middle of the day and, sure, Tucson's Calexico played the next day, in a better slot, but the fact remains: Dear did it first.
Coachella always has an electric atmosphere. It draws a crowd a little too old for Warped Tour but a little too young to smartly avoid drinking all day in the sun. Walking around the grassy polo-field festival grounds, girls get nasty burns around the straps of their sundresses and guys sweat through their vintage T-shirts. It's simultaneously a showcase of more great bands than you can possibly see, a hipster fashion show, a day at the beach, and a night at the club. Even with the hassles of ridiculously long lines and expensive sustenance, it's addictively fun for any indie-rock lover, because pretty much every band that matters is here sometime during the three days.
Backstage at Coachella, DATH have finished the biggest set of their career and are kicking back, smiling, smoking, and drinking beer waiting for the truck to haul away their gear. They've connected with the fans they know who came early to see them. Now they're basking in the glow of a great show. Where do they go from here? Well, first, there's Warped Tour, and they've got one more record on their contract with Equal Vision. Then, they're free to sign to another, perhaps bigger, label. They are not, they say, indie by principle.
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"I think the idea is we'll do our third record, continue to have success, then hope there's a bidding war between the big labels," says drummer Mark Kulvinskas.
Playing Coachella and about to start their first bus tour with the Warped crew seems like a natural by-product of the effort they've put in, Metzger says. Sure, they've got a great sound, but they've also done hard work. It's not about image (sorry, Sonny Long), it's not about MySpace friends (sorry, Medic Droid), and it's not about the monetary support that comes from a major backer (sorry, Hollywood Heartthrob). Dear and the Headlights show that.
"It doesn't seem very magical to me, the way anything has gone down. It just seems like we've paid our dues. We've just tried to tour our asses off and just tried to be the most decent human beings that we can possibly be to the people we encounter," Metzger says. "It's kind of old-fashioned, in a way."