It's a warm night in March, and the city of Scottsdale is under siege. Under cover of darkness, a fanatical force more than a dozen strong moves through the suburb, with the intent of converting others to their cause.
Terrorists? Hardly. More like sticker-wielding supporters of local hard rockers Digital Summer, who plan on affixing hundreds of black-and-white rectangular decals emblazoned with the band's name to street signs, drive-thru menus, phone booths, bus shelters, and numerous other public objects.
It's all part of the madness of "Sticker Night," when, almost every month, band members and their devoted fan base cover Valley landmarks with 700 to 1,000 of the nine-inch-long adhesive advertisements in order to increase Digital Summer's visibility. But it's not just during the one-night promotional paste-ups, as vocalist Kyle Winterstein says — their followers are on a seemingly nonstop, 24/7 quest of "stickering the entire city."
Winterstein's constantly amazed at the creative locales that have been hit.
"We were in the middle of Lake Pleasant wakeboarding one weekend, and there was a buoy that had a sticker on it," he says. "We always hear there's some on Hoover Dam."
Digital Summer stickers can also be found in some not-so-public places.
"We've got pictures of our decals covering genitalia, yeah," says Kyle, laughing. "The girls are nice with stuff like that."
Besides getting its cult-like fan base to plant stickers on their naughty bits, the band's been successful at gathering and mobilizing a large audience, utilizing resources from their day jobs for their videos, packing shows, and getting local radio airplay. Digital Summer's radio-ready, melodic hard rock in the vein of bands like Staind and Linkin Park has really caught the ear of fans across Phoenix, and they're helping to lead a guerrilla marketing blitz for the band. It's just one of many things that set Digital Summer apart from other local acts.
From the beginning, Kyle Winterstein never wanted Digital Summer to be just another rock band, endlessly toiling away at local clubs before self-destructing.
He'd already been through that experience with Shaded Grey, the five-member rock outfit he'd formed with Digital Summer guitarist Johnmark "Fish" Cenfield in the mid-'90s. They'd landed some killer gigs opening for groups like Bionic Jive, Disturbed, and Grey Daze, but eventually folded in 2004 because of band drama.
"A lot of stuff happened with Shaded Grey," Kyle says. "Somebody in the band had a kid, somebody got into some drugs, and we all just kinda split ways."
So from Digital Summer's inception in the spring of 2005, Kyle wanted the band to have a different fate. He sat down with his brother, guitarist Ian Winterstein, and plotted out a business plan to take the local music scene by storm: They'd record a tight, three-song demo with local über-producer Larry Elyea, get tattoo parlors and other alt-businesses to help fund it, and relentlessly promote their debut gig months beforehand by giving away 35,000 burned copies of the disc.
"It sounds really exaggerated, but it's no joke," Kyle says. "We literally pushed the demo down everyone's throats for months at every major concert, event, party, you name it. Cars next to us at stoplights got copies."
It must've worked, as more than 300 rock fans jammed into Alice Cooper'stown in January 2006 for Digital Summer's first gig, which venue promoter Leslie Criger says was "a good showing" for a band nobody had heard of before.
It was an impressive debut for a band that's made a habit of doing things in a big way over the course of its three-year existence. Case in point: the blockbuster production behind Digital Summer's first music video, "Rescue Me." The 3½-minute affair, set to a tortured nü-metal-style ballad off their new EP Hollow, is filled with fire trucks, ambulances, and even a HALO-151 rescue chopper responding to a gory (but staged) car accident.
It's the stuff of some million-dollar MTV-style spectacle, but it came at a bare-minimum cost, thanks to the Wintersteins' co-workers at the Avondale Fire Department and Southwest Ambulance, who've also supported the band in other ways.
"All the guys I work with are big fans and a ton of them come out to the shows with their friends," Kyle says. "Firefighting's like this big brotherhood and they've all got decals on their cars."
The brothers aren't the only members of the family who've possessed dual passions of saving lives and rocking out, however. Christopher Winterstein, their 50-year-old father, worked a guitar for several local rock bands in his high school days but hung up his six-string after graduating and eventually became a firefighter. (He's currently a captain in the Glendale Fire Department.)
Interestingly enough, his sons almost turned their backs on rock and followed a similar path. Kyle had been in the rock 'n' roll lifestyle since age 15 (when a female friend taught him Nirvana's "Come As You Are" on guitar), but following Shaded Grey's breakup, he felt somewhat jaded and joined a fire academy in 2004. Ian enrolled in an EMT program after his band A.D.L. (which also included Digital Summer bassist Anthony "Guido" Hernandez and drummer Chris "Cooter" Carlson) bit the dust around the same time. It wasn't surprising, as he's been trying to be like his big brother for years.
"As a kid, if he skateboarded, a week later, I'm gonna be skateboarding. When I was 14, I bought a guitar, and was, like, 'Hey, show me some stuff,'" Ian says. "I think it was second nature, having an older brother to test the waters first for anything."
The pair couldn't stop "jonesing for something more" than saving lives and stopping fires, and got together for jam sessions, from which Digital Summer was born. They'd never collaborated musically before, but Larry Elyea says he was impressed with the results when he first saw the brothers perform in his Scottsdale studio.
"They definitely have a good dynamic and work very well together," he says. "Kyle's definitely the ringleader, and I'm sure it's challenging to have your older brother in your band and watching over your shoulder, but they definitely handle it well."
Elyea, who's worked with such marquee-level talent as Jimmy Eat World and Tech N9ne, was also blown away by the band's music during their first recording session.
"Even on their first demo, they weren't really like some rough band that needed a lot of work," Elyea says. "They already understood the fundamentals of songwriting and they made up their minds that they wanted to sound [like] commercial hard rock and approach it from that aspect. They already know how to write good songs that people want to hear."
Larry McFeely, program director for local radio station 98 KUPD, agrees, which is why Digital Summer's been featured on the hard-rock station more than any other local metal group.
"I think they have a sound that is unique. They have an appeal to them that other bands lack," McFeely says. "Not to sound like Simon Cowell or anything, but you either got it or you don't, and a lot of these bands that are sending out music and trying to get stuff played on our station, they're not able to pull it off."
MySpace is like the unofficial gathering point for Digital Summer's fervent followers, as the social-networking powerhouse is awash with loving shrines by their ever-growing fan base. (Current friend tally: 48,614 — more than the tallies for such Valley supergroups as Meat Puppets, JFA, and Phunk Junkeez combined).
These doting love letters include paeans to Digital Summer's CDs, requests to get drunk with the drummer, and the more insane devotions (the latest trend is getting tattoos of Digital Summer's logos). One 16-year-old Texan named Kimmi extols the virtues of the band's music and lyrics on her MySpace page devoted to the band.
"They DONT sing about sex or drugs or killing, most of all they DONT SUCK, thier [sic] music actually makes sense and have meaning and i love it!" she writes. "The best part is that mostly everyone can relate to it, i know i can."
Kyle considers the accessibility of Digital Summer's music as the band gets in a Saturday-morning nosh on the patio of Einstein Bros. in central Phoenix.
"Most of our songs are about the relationship bullshit that everybody goes through. I think that's a reason why our CDs do as well as they do and why people dig our music: because it's easy to relate to," he says.
Nodding his head while finishing a bite of his bagel sandwich, Ian comments further on the matter.
"What else are we gonna write about? We didn't have a rough childhood. We weren't born in the 'hood. We could be like Vanilla Ice and sing about life in the ghetto, even though we lived in Dallas."
"Although Fish [guitarist Johnmark Cenfield] grew up in Compton," Kyle quips.
"Crenshaw," replies Cenfield. "Get it right."
Another major subject couched between power chords and furious vamps in Digital Summer's dramatic discography is an angstful longing for getting to the next level in life.
"It's never too late and don't ever look back/'Cause there's no future in the past/If you want to change your life, I think you should know/The door is open but it's closing fast," Kyle sings between growling guitar riffs on "Now or Never."
He makes no secret that such yearnings are about getting Digital Summer to the next level, citing English poet Nan Fairbrother to drive the point home. "There's a quote that sticks with me: 'We are perverse creatures and never satisfied,'" Kyle says. "That's us to a T. We're constantly pushing for that next step with the band, whether it's getting signed or bigger crowds."
It's a push that goes on nearly 24/7, according to Cenfield. When band members aren't practicing endlessly, they're busy renting out local venues for gigs, mailing out merch, contacting media, designing flyers, or a hundred other tasks. Getting financial backing from such alt-friendly sponsors as Club Tattoo and Lithium Clothing is also a major focus, since it helps fund their massive live shows.
"There's so much going on that it wouldn't be possible if we didn't formulate it like a business and run it structured," Cenfield says. "There's never a day off, never a time we're sitting idle. If I don't get at least a text message or call from somebody in the band during a day, I feel like they're mad at me or something."
They also find time to tirelessly pimp the band and its upcoming gigs to anyone they meet. Kyle seems to carry a stack of fliers, stickers, and demos on him at all times. Not content with just the flier racks at Zia Record Exchanges, Digital Summer shamelessly shills almost daily at clubs, colleges, street corners, even high school campuses — trespassing laws be damned.
"Cooter's our youngest member, so we'll have him throw on a backpack and go into a quad at lunch and hand stuff out until finally someone's like, 'Uh, you go here?' and kick him out," Ian says.
Aiding them in this nonstop promotion extravaganza are the 20-odd members of the Digital Summer street team, whose guerrilla tactics in plugging the band would make Che Guevara proud. A half-dozen, three-foot A-frame signs were stolen . . . er, "borrowed" from local businesses and pasted over with posters. They've been placed by off-ramps, mall exits, and concert parking. The team also just created a 20-foot-long banner, soon to be hung from a Valley freeway overpass.
Digital Summer's attitude, all-business demeanor, and unrepentant promotional drive has surely ruffled a few feathers in the local music scene. (Kyle and Ian are tightlipped about any dissing they may have gotten over the years.)
But whatever hate scenesters may have for Digital Summer, those naysayers would have to admit it's definitely gotten them notoriety, even if it's a little weird sometimes.
"I've actually signed an autograph for some chick while I was out at a scene," Kyle says. "It was a medical call, we were there for her mother, but as I was walking some of the gear out to the truck, this chick was all, 'I like your voice.' My cap's, like, 'Oh, you've got a fan.' And she brought her CD out and I signed it for her."
But besides bizarre fan interaction, the band's seen an increase in the bottom line, with gigs consistently bringing in 500 to 750 fans per show. Larry Elyea thinks it's a phenomenal feat in a time when turnout at local nightclubs has dropped significantly because of the statewide smoking ban and harsher DUI laws.
"They're definitely one of the largest-drawing acts in Arizona," Elyea says. "My band Giantkiller went with them to Flagstaff for a show, and they had a completely packed club in a city they're not from. I watched all the kids in the front sing the lyrics to their songs and it was amazing."
Also worth watching during Digital Summer show are the band's high-energy stage antics, which include leaping into the air, tossing guitars, and climbing amplifiers.
"Dude, if you're not bleeding onstage in front of people who've paid to see you, then you don't deserve to be there," Kyle says.
According to KUPD's Larry McFeely, Digital Summer's solid music, overzealous stage antics, and relentless promotion aren't the only reasons fans come out. The band has a professional demeanor and aura to them, and not just because they got a slick-looking, 12-foot trailer to lug their gear to shows (the kind of thing you don't see outside a major label band).
"They just look like a national-level act with what they do," McFeely says. "And these guys deliver when they put on a concert. You're always getting thousands of people showing up, you're always gonna get a really good show. They just have a metal-yet-mainstream sound about them. It's crossover music that appeals to everyone"
And a lot of people seem to like it. Digital Summer's fan base is broad and varied, evidenced by the diverse turnout for their performance last November at the Venue of Scottsdale. The band was helping celebrate the 15th anniversary of Elyea's Mind's Eye Digital Recording Studio, and the large crowd enjoying their 45-minute set included ghetto-fab hip-hoppers, grungy indie kids, tanned and toned beautiful types, older rock burnouts, and fresh-faced teens.
"The last time we played, this lady comes up to me, a friend of a friend who'd heard about us. She's 67, and I guarantee she's in the audience every time from now on," Kyle says. "At that same show, we were taking pictures with 7-year-olds. It's weird. At our shows, we get hit up by everybody."
And then they usually take the audience with them. After Digital Summer finished its gig last November, two-thirds of the estimated crowd of 900 ditched out almost immediately.
"That's why nobody wants to play after us," Kyle says.
At the same time, they're cautious of playing too many gigs, which is why they perform only every two to three months.
"I don't care if you're Metallica — you play every weekend, your crowds are gonna thin out. People are gonna get bored," Ian says. "We space it out so that when do play — killer turnout. And we pride ourselves on having a huge draw. There's nothing better than walking out on stage and having a venue packed front to back and those people are singing your songs."
Earplugs are a necessity when listening to Digital Summer practice.
It's 8 p.m. on a weeknight in late April, and the band's moving through a tight set in the garage of Kyle's northwest Phoenix home. The massive amount of noise-deadening foam rubber might make the neighbors simpatico with the place, but it also concentrates the band's hard melodic beats into a slick-sounding sonic boom. It has also turned the jam-space into an oven after only two songs.
Carlson seems extra-sweaty, probably because he's been an absolute madman on the drums tonight. As Kyle hollers out the lyrics to "Now or Never," the shirtless drummer beats the skins mercilessly. His passion for working the sticks came somewhat from growing up around the heavy metal ways of father Ed Carlson, guitarist for Valley thrash legends Flotsam and Jetsam. (There's a video of a young "Cooter" playing the drums at age 7.)
Ian says Carlson's kind of a Beavis-like spazz, which makes him a natural at banging out the band's backbeat.
"I have a theory with Cooter, why he's such a good drummer. He's got the worst case of ADD I've ever seen," Ian says. "But I think that's why he's so good at drums, because he's got so many things to concentrate on and hit at one time that his mind can't wander."
It's not just Carlson, though — the entire band seems like they're putting something extra into rehearsal tonight, probably because Kyle says their EP/DVD release show this weekend at the Venue of Scottsdale will likely have A&R scouts in attendance.
They've had many successes over the past two years: They won a KUPD contest in 2007 that nabbed them a slot opening for Godsmack at Dodge Theatre. They've also gotten regular airplay on the station, as well as a few spins on The Edge 103.9. Kyle estimates they've sold 6,000 copies of their 2007 album Cause and Effect through local stores like Zia Record Exchange and over the Internet (iTunes, CDBaby, Rhapsody). Then there's the fact they're hoping to start distributing their music through Best Buy stores around the Southwest later this year.
"We're trying to be our own record label. There's certain things we don't have that we could gain from working with a label," Kyle says. "We don't have the capital. We don't have 100 grand to put into marketing and promotion. That's, like, the only thing the labels have to offer right now, outside of distribution — which there's ways to get on your own now."
But is there a chance they could get signed by a major label? McFeely thinks so.
"I do think they have what it takes to make it," he says. "Unfortunately, sometimes labels will take over bands and 'shelve' them. And I would hope that would never happen to these guys. It would probably kill them.
"Fortunately for them, they're still at the point where they can play a show, rock the crowd, sell a bunch of CDs and merchandise, make a lot of money, and walk away with it all and they don't have to pay the label back because they're not signed."
Elyea thinks it's not so much a question of Digital Summer's talent, but rather the state of the music business.
"If it was six years ago, they'd already have a huge deal and be touring. It's just a good reflection of how depressed the music industry is right now, to see a band like that and them not having any kind of a deal," Elyea says.
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Either way, Kyle says they're fine for the moment.
"Right now, most of us in this band make okay money. We've got careers. We're not starving. We gotta do what's smart for us, business-wise. We move — not an exorbitant amount of product — but we move a decent amount of CDs and we make decent money at shows.
"Doing it on our own takes a lot of time and is stressful," Kyle continues, "but if we can keep pushing the machine the way we are and if it keeps growing at the rate it does, ultimately it could almost be more profitable to do it on your own, if you do it correctly."
See Digital Summer's PR machine in action for yourself in our pair of Digital Summer slide shows.