Music News

Endurance Test

Two First Fridays ago, xrayok played in the parking lot outside Fate restaurant, glowing in a blue spotlight and framed by inky black tree branches shaking in the wind. A storm was about an hour away, threatening the party vibe, but the band plugged in anyway, and the irresistible opening chords of "Happy Ever After" sucked in onlookers. Front man TJ Hill sang defiantly, backed by a pummeling drum rhythm that felt like a call to arms. By the time the band got to the song's bridge, a huge crowd was rocking out. It was an electric moment.

This kind of charisma doesn't usually come out of nowhere -- it has to be cultivated. A sense of struggle helps. Confidence means more when it's earned. So if there's one thing that'll make Hill and his band xrayok successful, it's that understated virtue called patience.

Well, that and some kick-ass songwriting, of course.

Because it's been years of struggle -- four moves before settling in Tempe, a few lineup changes, a postponed CD release -- that could've done him in, but somehow made him stronger, perhaps putting the bite of reality into his moody lyrics and urgent guitar riffs. Relaxing with his bandmates on the shady patio at Casey Moore's, Hill launches into xrayok's history of ups and downs. He's even got "a pretty fucked-up anti-corporate story" under his belt -- a chance to do a national tour that went awry for ridiculous reasons -- but he's staying positive and isn't dishing, at least, not on the record.

xrayok began as an idea Hill conjured alone in his bedroom in Long Island: a defiant mix of angular indie rock, big Brit-rock choruses, and mysterious New Wave synth. The hurdles he's cleared since then make up a story of delayed gratification. But along the way, plenty of good things have happened.

First off, he met Ally Smith.

It was New Year's Eve, 2000, and Hill was visiting Montreal. Instant chemistry between Hill and Smith turned into a long-distance relationship (with a six-hour drive between them), until Hill finally moved to Canada four months later. The two redheads are an item to this day.

Back then, Montreal hadn't yet become a hipster music mecca; the Arcade Fire wasn't even a spark. With Smith on keyboards and handling guitar and vocals himself, Hill had the core of xrayok, but not the thriving band scene he was used to in New York. So the couple decided to move to San Francisco.

That was when the city was in its dot-com heyday, though, and apartment vacancies were at zero percent. So much for San Francisco. Hill and Smith wound up living in West Oakland with some other musicians, trying to get the band off the ground. Things didn't fall into place. Even their $800 Audi Fox with no power steering broke down, and they took it as a sign to move back East.

They returned to New York, even though they wanted to live somewhere cheaper. Then something else went wrong. "I had finally gotten a good job as a graphic designer, and then we saw the Twin Towers go down," says Smith, admitting that they actually witnessed the catastrophe.

Hill had to think seriously about move number four. "We were putting out feelers in different cities," he says. It took almost a year to figure out where to go next.

"That's when we met on the Internet," says drummer Jack Duff, a Phoenix native. Smith and Hill came to Arizona in December 2002, and finally had a full band with Duff, his brother Chuckie, and another guitarist who didn't work out in the long run. Later, Chuckie left the group, and they found bassist Michael Hartman, formerly of Kimota.

The xrayok sound -- heavy bass, dynamic keyboard melodies, and booming toms on the faster-paced songs, with dreamy layers of echo and Thom Yorke-ish vocals on the more atmospheric ones -- finally came into its own in Arizona.

"We were mellower and spacier before we got here," says Hill.

"They were more Sigur Rós-y back then," adds Hartman, noting the ethereal Icelandic group.

Duff grins at Hill and Smith. "My brother and I corrupted you with our rock 'n' roll!" he says.

Smith elaborates. "Well, live, a lot of people don't want to hear slow songs. It's hard to bring slow songs into your set."

Now xrayok emphasizes its guitar-heavy, more up-tempo songs -- the ones that sound like potential radio hits.

Hartman says, "We're adapting to the bar crowd."

"Yeah," adds Duff, "it's depressing when you look out and see people talking instead of dancing."

The outdoor show at Fate happened right after the band's self-released debut, reflex, finally hit the streets, making the CMJ charts for three weeks. Co-produced by Michael Beck, it was in the works for a long time. Hill had sent New Times an impressive demo almost a year earlier, in anticipation of a fall album release, but the band had decided to wait to release it -- "way too long," according to Smith.

Hill says, "We've gotten comments that we put it out a year too late. So now bands like the Killers are big, and it looks like we're piggybacking. But a lot of those songs are two years old."

He's calling it a learning experience. Kind of like the fiasco, er, learning experience that happened right before xrayok was supposed to go to South by Southwest this year. A Web site called Buzzplay.com had contacted the band to headline its Austin showcase (xrayok had been the site's top band since September) but didn't send the "standard contract" until a couple of weeks before the show.

"That contract was obscene -- they wanted 15 percent gross of everything we ever do," says Hartman, describing how Buzzplay took back its offer when xrayok had a lawyer contact the site. "Anyone who isn't willing to deal with a lawyer is definitely shady."

Hopefully that's the last of the drama for xrayok. After all, the band deserves a chance to actually enjoy the cool things coming its way, like its single on the upcoming Western Tread compilation, appearances at June's CMJ Rockfest in Cleveland and New York's CMJ Festival in the fall, a possible show at Toronto's North by Northwest and a West Coast tour, airplay on the Edge 103.9, and record sales at Zia and Stinkweeds.

Not surprisingly, xrayok has written plenty of new songs since the last album, and is itching to record another. Hill says they'll probably record an EP this summer, then look ahead to another full-length next year.

With this band's track record, no doubt, it'll be worth the wait.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig