Music News

Eyes on the Prize

In a time when the opportunity for unsigned musicians to jump-start careers via MySpace seems already to have come and gone, the steadily building success of Tempe's Eyes Set To Kill is both encouraging and confounding.

Since posting a profile on the ubiquitous Web site in March 2005, the band's had more than a million visitors, acquired almost 72,000 friends, and had its songs played close to 31/2 million times. According to the band managers, that equals an average of about 10,000 plays a day. In April, Eyes Set To Kill embarked on its first out-of-state road trip: three weeks' worth of shows, booked by the band members themselves, with tourmates and fellow locals Vitruvian. Clearly, MySpace provided the exposure to make the tour feasible.

Now, thanks to the same word of mouth, the band recently received enough votes to win a contest that will land them on the SmartPunk stage at five consecutive Warped Tour dates, starting on Wednesday, July 11, at Cricket Wireless Pavillion. ESTK's story becomes even more of a head-scratcher when you consider that, until recently, the band had been handling its own business affairs (with zero experience) and that only one band member is old enough to drink. But the ambition doesn't stop there. Although the band's next full-length (due late this year) will be released in partnership with Suburban Noize Records, the label gave ESTK and its management its own imprint to serve as a home base where they can have more hands-on involvement in everything that comes with putting out a record.

After catching up with guitarist and cofounder Alexia Rodriguez the day after guitarist Greg Kerwin suffered a mild concussion, ESTK's drive becomes even more apparent when Rodriguez assures us with steely, unfazed cool that — with less than three weeks to go before the first Warped date — Kerwin's injury isn't expected to cost the band any rehearsal time. Oh, there's one more thing: Rodriguez is in the process of taking over lead vocals after the abrupt departure of lead vocalist and fellow founding member Lindsey Vogt.

"I had to trade some of the parts with Greg because I can't sing and play a bunch of the lead parts," she says, before adding matter-of-factly: "But it's easier now."

It's a big adjustment, to say the least, especially for someone who is accustomed to playing just guitar. And even though Rodriguez has always been the primary contributor of vocal melodies, surely she must be nervous about the task of assuming lead vocal duties in such a short time frame.

"I'm trying not to be nervous," she deadpans. "I think we'll do really well because we've been practicing a lot. The only thing I'm worried about is people maybe not liking us anymore just because we don't have a frontgirl singing. It might change our image a lot, but, hopefully, people will still like us because of the music we write."

For any band, losing a frontperson poses serious, career-threatening challenges. In this case, the challenge is compounded by the fact that ESTK possessed a unique appeal with its three-girl, three-guy lineup. On the other hand, Rodriguez's burden is lightened somewhat by the presence of screamer/keyboardist Brandon Anderson. And there's no reason to think that the music itself — melodic deathcore-tinged screamo with hints of classic, faintly European metal — won't continue to resonate with its current audience, thanks to Rodriguez and Anderson's earnest lyrics.

In a genre where there's no premium on catharsis and despair, it arguably takes more than simple passion and angst for an artist's material to reach people on a gut level and stick in their heads. Though listening to the band's work on its most recent release, When Silence Is Broken, the Night Is Torn, it's tempting to attribute ESTK's appeal to its youthfulness (the vocals sound almost precocious) and also to dismiss the emotion of the record as adolescent boo-hooing, that's a bit too easy. In a poem she wrote that eventually gave the band its name, Rodriguez, at the ripe old age of 16, already showed more substance and focus than high-schoolers typically do in the things they like to scrawl in their notebooks.

In the final verses of the poem, Rodriguez writes: A clean cut crime / with no evidence to find / No prints at the scene/no blood left behind / Oh so sweet-scented glory / a new day is born / when silence is broken / and the night is torn / It is the sound of perfection / that rings and fulfills / the holes in my heart / when eyes set to kill.

The poem, she explains, was written from the perspective of a criminal about to commit an unspecified crime. The band derives its name from the protagonist's sense of determination, which Rodriguez sees reflected in the band, but her verses also hint at subtle shades of morality, abuse, and day-to-day human tragedy.

"When I wrote the poem," she says, "I was going through a lot of depression. I always wrote a lot of darker things about suffering and stuff like that. I want to write stuff like that because those are things that people can easily relate to. We have this one song called 'Youngblood.' I wrote it [about how I felt] when my parents were going through a divorce, but I put my mom's feelings in it, too. A lot of people seem to like that song and interpret it differently. They might not even know it's about divorce.

"Like the poem, we are very motivated to write music and relate to people through it. We're looking to make a difference and inspire people like the bands that influenced us when we were younger," Rodriguez says.

Her assessment of the band's sense of mission may seem almost painfully obvious or even childlike, but think again. Rodriguez says that at least one person comes up to someone in the band after every show to tell them that the music has struck a personal chord. Indeed, where so much heavy music arises from the simple desire to express rage without necessarily examining it, it's rare to see a band consciously try to include its audience in the experience.

As Eyes Set To Kill ratchets closer and closer toward its goals, Rodriguez is increasingly aware of the disruptive and destabilizing aspects of success. For a group of people mostly still in their teens, the potential for being exploited and/or dismissed as a teenybopper gimmick with a feminine twist is high, to say nothing of the pitfalls of having to come of age in the public eye.

"Sometimes people see us at the mall or something," she says with a laugh. "It's not just us, though. MySpace is weird. It's weird when someone recognizes you from there. It makes you feel . . . like you're popular or something."

Rodriguez's family has not only Alexia to think about, but also her younger sister, bassist Anissa, who left high school to pursue the band full time.

"They're really supportive," Rodriguez says. "The only thing that worries them is Anissa finishing school. She's doing online school now, but it's hard to do when you're on tour because you can't find wireless connections all the time. But they help us out when we have financial problems."

Financial problems aside, Eyes Set To Kill already have suffered numerous setbacks. When the Rodriguez sisters formed the band in 2004 with Vogt, Rodriguez says that other musicians — both male and female — were reluctant to play with them on account of them being girls. Several personnel shakeups ensued, and this latest one could come at a high personal price, as the band coalesced around Anissa Rodriguez's close friendship with Vogt. And here they stand about to dive head-first into the treacherous trial and error that is the business side of making music.

Still, Alexia Rodriguez's matter-of-fact resolve bodes well. Of touring, she says: "It was better than I expected. I thought I was going to get annoyed because bands always say they get annoyed of each other, but I didn't at all. And it was really weird to see people singing our songs in different states, because we had no idea that people knew us outside of Arizona."

And on the pressures of being recognized, she simply says, "I'm not complaining."