It's Saturday afternoon in downtown Tempe. The Coffee Plantation's patio off Sixth Street and Mill is warmed by a late winter sun that slow roasts the usual blend of slackers, hackers and idle overachievers. A four-piece band is tucked off in a corner of the courtyard. The music, a bouncy, semiacoustic take on melodic pop, attracts the attention of passers-by. Some flash high signs to the band as they walk past the stage; others stop to listen, eventually grabbing a chair when a table opens up.
The atmosphere is undeniably ingratiating, a mood so friendly and open that the only visible sign of skepticism is a little preschool girl in a summer dress who stands to the side of the stage with her hand on her hip and her head cocked to one side, studiously assessing the music.
Smart money says she liked what she heard. The band, after all, is the Scones, one of the better acts on Mill Avenue and one of the few serious local rock bands with an eye for fun. The Scones' appreciation for fooling around ranges from more obvious antics like onstage Letterman-type shtick (they like to play "What's in the bag" to unsuspecting shoppers strolling by) to the more subtle but telling ability to smile and embrace gigs at venues that fall outside rock-show norms. Very few bands, for example, are willing--or even able--to play coffee houses by day and sports bars the same night. Fewer still agree to play cover songs at the expense of original material.
That's something else that separates the Scones from the rock-band masses. Scones shows are about 50-50 between covers by the likes of The Beatles, Split Enz and Crowded House, among others, and original songs that sound, oddly enough, like The Beatles, Split Enz and Crowded House.
"We try to push the original stuff," says lead singer Martin Shears. "But when you do three-, four-hour gigs, you wind up doing quite a few covers."
Lead guitarist Ron Winters is even more pragmatic. "We can go do a one-hour original show at an alternative club with everyone else and get paid 20 bucks. Or we can do four hours, play our originals, play some covers and get 20 times as much."
Shears and Winters, along with bassist and back-up singer Jeff Owens, speak about the Scones during a break at their Coffee Plantation gig. Shears cuts the most distinctive presence with his bald head and English accent. A native of London, he moved to Phoenix in the mid-'80s after his parents relocated here. By the time they moved back, Shears was in a band called Curious Walk and decided to stick around.
Curious Walk "imploded" four years ago, which prompted Shears to start playing solo gigs of mostly cover material at area coffee houses. He then decided to get something going with Winters and Owens, who played in genepool, also now extinct. Drummer Dave Schreck, who ducks the interview for some iced tea, rounds out the Scones' lineup.
"Martin used to show up at genepool shows and dug it," Owens says. "We used to sit around and bitch about the music scene, about how cliquey it was, and of course we were mostly whining because we weren't in the clique. It was like, 'Dammit, why can't we ever get a Friday at Long Wong's?'"
Owens says he was "nervous" at first about playing in what could be thought of as a cover band--understandable, considering the general perception that cover bands reside at the bottom of the rock 'n' roll food chain. Owens admits that his music friends still like to needle him about it. Shears, on the other hand, says he rarely gets the business about singing someone else's songs.
"I probably give myself the business about it," he says. "I don't want the Scones to be known as a cover band. The originals are infinitely more important, and we want to go on and do bigger things with those, and we plan to. But we've got to make a living in the meantime. There are very few bands that can make a living doing original music in this town."
Shears' vision for his original material is no daydream. Scones songs are, for the most part, as tuneful as the band's covers, with "Every Day's a Saturday" and the melodic and nicely constructed "A Lot Like You" standing out. Both songs are bright and bouncy, with Shears and Owens teaming for smart, familiar harmonies.
If the vocals especially bring to mind the croon of Crowded House, the comparison is nothing new to the Scones, especially Shears, who's heard more than once how his British-accented vocals make him sound like a Finn from New Zealand.
"It's the highest form of flattery because I like those guys a lot," Shears says of Crowded House's Neil and Tim Finn. "But if you were to stick my voice and theirs on an oscilloscope, you'd see how they really are drastically different. It's just the accent--and my timing is similar."
A singer's timing on vocals is one thing; a band's timing in terms of its surroundings is another. And the Scones aren't exactly in synch as far as making an impression on Tempe's music scene. Melodic Gin Blossom bands are long gone, their catchy choruses replaced by more rhythmic, angst-addled concerns.
Numbers are crunching the Scones, too. It's getting crowded on Mill Avenue. Baby bands now debut on an almost weekly basis, all in search of an increasingly elusive formula that took the Refreshments, Dead Hot Workshop and the aforementioned Blossoms to major-label status. It's not your big brother's music scene anymore.
"Tempe's all different now," says Owens, who grew up in the Valley and has witnessed its changes at close range. "I mean, Brad [Singer] is dead, Elvis [Del Monte] is dead, Rundles is gone, no more Sun Club. The Tempe music scene that existed nine years ago, five years ago--it's dead. I'm not sure what the Tempe music scene even is anymore."
Shears shakes his head. "I've got three words to say about the Tempe music scene: What music scene? I'm from London, you know? There's no music scene here that would compare to the major places, where there are loads of fantastic musicians. I think a lot of musicians that are the big fish in this little pond could stand to go to Austin or L.A. or New York and just look at the bands. They may be great here, but somewhere else they wouldn't cut it."
Shears figures the bright lights of big-city scenes help keep bands focused, especially talented acts susceptible to rock-star tendencies.
"I think it's better to be in a situation like it is here if you want to walk around town going, 'Wow, I'm really cool.' But who wants to do that? If you do music for the right reasons, then you want to be as good as you can. Competition is a good thing to have to achieve that."
Such reservations notwithstanding, Shears insists he's not leaving the Valley anytime soon. "I'm gonna try like hell to go as far as I can take it," he says. He then flashes a quick grin toward Owens and Winters. "But if at some point I don't like hanging out with these guys, I could be on the next plane home. You never know."
The Scones plan to put out a self-released CD of 10 originals. The disc, titled Do You Hear the Scones?, should hit the bins sometime in April. Shears and his bandmates hope the CD makes enough of an impact to merit a recording deal. But the Scones see more to music than contracts and handshakes.
"All these bands around town are so obsessed with making it," says Winters. "It seems like they don't even have fun playing anymore. Their main thing is, 'I wanna get signed, I wanna get signed.' It's like, why don't you work on your songs and have fun and look like you're having fun and actually practice a little bit? If we get signed, great. But I'm not gonna break my neck to do it."
"I feel the same way," says Shears. "I wanna do this for the right reasons. All the bands that go, 'Yeah, we're gonna be big, we're gonna be platinum, we're gonna be this or that.' Think about where you are and what you're doing and how you're going to get there. Think about the next step, not 50 steps down the road. Write good songs. The reason I do this is because I want to be the best musician I can be."
Owens isn't quite as patient. "I think it's a young man's game. I'd feel silly if I was trying to get Wednesdays at Wong's 20 years from now." What about weekend afternoons at a coffee house? "If I was doing it because I felt I had material I had to get out, or if I still really liked hanging out with these guys, then, yeah, I'd do it for the fun. I'd probably need the dough, too."
After the interview, the Scones start their second set with a blistering rendition of "The Cutter," by Echo and the Bunnymen. Other covers to come will include The Beatles ("Norwegian Wood"), the Church ("Under the Milky Way") and, of course, a Neil Finn tune from Split Enz ("One Step Ahead").
Original songs will pepper the playlist, too, as the non-goofy, good-time vibe picks up where the first set left off. As the music starts, a toddler clutching a dollar bill waddles up to the band and almost puts the money in a trash container. When he finally finds the tip jar on a chair in front of the stage, he turns in triumph as the audience applauds.
A charming scene, to be sure, but is it rock 'n' roll?
"You know, it's not always this wholesome," Shears says, scanning the courtyard. "It's different when we play nightclubs."
Says Owens, "This is relaxed and joking. It's like we're all friends and we see people that we know. Then we go play a club like Gordon Biersch, and we're dressed cool and we're standing up, and Dave has his whole drum set, the testosterone is flowing and it's like, 'On your knees, Mill Avenue.'"
"That's something that Dave our drummer taught me," adds Winters. "He says, 'Man, if you act like a rock star, people love it.' So one night I just started jumping on tables and playing guitar solos, and people went nuts. It felt kinda silly at first, but it's fun now."
"It's fun to be a little arrogant," says Owens. "And anyway, if you don't, you're gonna get stomped on."
Shears then decides to add a shocking revelation: "We actually got kicked out of the Coffee Plantation at the Biltmore."
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"Yeah," says Owens, "kids that aren't old enough to go to clubs go to coffee houses, and they dig the music we play, so they'd go to the Coffee Plantation when we were there and sneak in booze and barf all over the patio. Somehow, we got blamed for it."
Say it ain't so. The Scones? Bad boys of rock 'n' roll?
"Yeah," Winters says with a smile. "We got banned from the Coffee Plantation. How many bands can say that