Epic is a word that frequently punctuates Larry Elyea's conversation. Not enough times to warrant a drinking game — like with Sarah Palin and the word "maverick" — but enough to notice it's the ultimate compliment he can bestow.
Sitting in the dramatic control room of his Mind's Eye Digital Recording Studio in Scottsdale, the place where countless Valley bands come to get the same huge, radio-friendly sound he's brought to records by everyone from Authority Zero to Jimmy Eat World, The Beastie Boys and Eminem, epic is very much the operational catchphrase for tonight. It's six hours before the CD release party for his band Giantkiller's first full-length release. In typical do-it-big fashion, he's put together a package show with five handpicked bands that have recorded at Mind's Eye. And every note of tonight's set will be illuminated by an expensive lighting rig designed to make everyone in the audience a deer in an orgy of slashing headlights.
In transferring Giantkiller's stadium-ready show to the 600-capacity Clubhouse in Tempe, some less-expensive big-show ideas are floated about. After trying to extend his arm and sing, "We are Giantkiller, thank yooooo, Phoenix!!" without feeling foolish, singer Jared Woosley gives up.
"I don't think people would get it as a joke. They would just think, 'These guys think they're hot shit,'" he grins. "We don't have that comic sense about us to pull off something like that. Weezer could do that."
Giantkiller's music is serious, power-concentrated, angst-ridden and awe-inspiring, but as two of the chief architects of that sound, Elyea and Woosley couldn't be more mellow and accommodating. Equally, when the talk turns to the other Giantkiller band members — Brian Smyth (guitar), Greg Frassetti (drums/keyboards), and Eric Fiori (bass) — you hear phrases like "clean morals" and "good soul who'd give you the shirt off his back." And this is in a situation where "crazy motherfucker" and "badass" would more likely be classified to describe bandmates.
"When we were trying to put this project together, we wanted really creative, good artists and good, solid people," says Elyea. "We're not trying to write number one hits. We're just trying to make music we're all stoked on. It's about having fun and having people we like being around."
Elyea and Woosley have clocked in their share of years making music and having people sit in judgment of it, having both been signed and dropped by huge record labels. In Elyea's case, it was his rap rock group Bionic Jive that was signed to Farm Club, started as a joint venture by Universal, America Online, the USA Network, and MTV.
"Bionic Jive's problem was the TV show on USA Network went under and we got moved over to Interscope, where nobody had a vested interest. Nobody there signed us. We were basically the enemy at that point because us getting money for anything we were doing was taking away money from their bands, and we didn't have any champion there. When Farm Club went under, that was probably the moment that we were done for. We did get to do some cool stuff, do arena tours with Eminem. I don't regret it. But it's a bittersweet memory."
Woosley's band fivespeed was dropped from Virgin Records in 2006, right in the middle of a tour. "The lifespan of every major-label president is five years. The president who signed us — his five years was up. They got a new guy in who didn't think our record would succeed, and he pulled our tour support," says Woosley.
Elyea, who recorded fivespeed's Trade in Your Halo EP and helped the band find the lawyer that got them signed, had already lived the malaise Woosley was going through. "Pretty much anybody in a signed band that gets dropped in a shitty fashion, you get a bitter taste in you mouth for a while about music," says Elyea. "In the whole machine you get put through, you start to question yourself about your art and your songwriting because people are always in your head, like 'Oh, you should do more stuff like that.' 'You need to do that.' Well, why can't I do the stuff that got me here? So we began writing songs together in the fall of 2006.
"We're not all saying screw the record industry but that's where the band name came from. We don't need these big labels. We can do it ourselves, make great records have a great fan base, and we don't need the corporate giants to do it."
In forming a band, Elyea had the advantage of working with hundreds of musicians at his studio and seeing them in a work situation beforehand. "Brian Smyth was in a billion bands on the verge or being signed. The Gift. Mink Rebellion, the offshoot of Trik Turner. Signal the Noise. And Greg and Eric were in a band called Resist the Embrace."
They began assembling songs piecemeal, with Elyea supplying Woosley massive-sounding tracks to write melodies and lyrics over. "The first three songs we wrote, nobody in the band had met even met Jared yet. We were four or five months into the band. It kind of got to be a joke that Jared didn't really exist," laughs Elyea.
The plan was for the band to play a big show every two months and build a following that way. Touring and getting signed aren't the overriding concerns they once might have been. "I would never say never. We're doing it for fun and to make good music. I think when you set out to make hit records and get a record deal, you make stale music and just recycle stuff."
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It's 10 o'clock and Giantkiller's set begins with Woosley onstage alone singing "The Deep," a beautiful a cappella that was sequenced midway through the new album. It really is "super epic" and an attention getter. Once the band joins him onstage and kicks into songs like "The Rose Parade" and "Keep Me Wide Awake," the combination of heavy rock with progressive tendencies, Woosley's agile octave jumps and the seismic lighting cues has this audience staring transfixed at the stage until the stage banter breaks the spell.
"In case you're expecting witty stage banter, I've got nothing," says Woosley. "It's also Eric our bass player's last show with us, but don't feel too fucking bad for him because he's moving to Hawaii."
Unlike most bands that need to stay in some sort of malevolent character to pull off gargantuan songs of this caliber, seasoned vets like Giantkiller are confident enough to just let the music do the transporting, and image be damned. Nothing indicates this more than seeing Elyea and Woosley under the glow of these expensive ominous lights — in the identical clothes they were wearing that afternoon.
And, no, Woosley didn't sing, "We are Giantkiller. Thank yoooo, Tem-peeeee!" But after playing a stunning set to a packed house, he would've been well within his rights to.