[3 August 2010]
PopMatters Associate Interviews Editor
Lollapalooza, since reinventing itself as a one-weekend, one-location festival in 2005, has become one of the pre-eminent musical events of the American summer. It’s a major show which audience members travel to from across the continent (and further) in order to imbibe vast quantities of live music in a single sitting. But while big-name headliners this year like Lady Gaga are the primary draw for many of the thousands of attendees, there are well over a hundred different bands and artists scheduled in the 2010 lineup. Many of these performers are up-and-comers in their own niche-genres or geographical regions, but Lollapalooza will see them playing to vast crowds whose main goal for the weekend may not necessarily be giving new acts a fair chance. PopMatters follows one such band—Ann Arbor, Michigan’s My Dear Disco—as they spend a long summer touring, recording and promoting in advance of their first gig on a Lollapalooza stage. Through MDD’s eyes, we’ll try to see how an unsigned band-on-the-rise deals with a busy touring schedule, finding new fans, and leveraging every opportunity to their advantage.
+ + +
On a cloudy June 18th, 2010 evening, My Dear Disco takes the stage for their headlining performance at Ann Arbor’s first “Top of the Park” show of the summer. The event has turned the city’s intertwined shopping district and university campus into a sea of sun-kissed local citizens, ranging from young families pushing strollers around, to entrepreneurial-restaurateurs hawking their Chicago-style hotdogs from vending booths. Most of the crowd’s attention, however, has been focused on the stage since long before the band energetically bounced onto it. Last year, My Dear Disco played to a crowd of 4,000+ ‘Ann Arborites,’ the biggest audience so far in Top of the Park history, and this show marks their triumphant homecoming after a year of heavy out-of-town touring and locked-in-the-studio recording sessions. MDD has gained a much bigger audience since their previous performance, but the people here are the fans who loved them first and they’re ready to dance the evening away with their hometown heroes, as MDD takes their places behind their instruments in what is rapidly becoming an Ann Arbor tradition.
The band launches into one of their many upbeat, danceable tracks, and the fans who have crammed the area immediately in front of the stage are quickly moving their feet in time to MDD’s intricate grooves. MDD blitzes through two, then three songs, with the audience-frenzy showing no signs of abating. Elementary school-aged children skip and leap around the edges of the crowd, while the now thoroughly-buzzed drinkers in the festival’s beer garden nod their heads in funk-and-microbrew induced bliss. After the third song comes to a close, MDD seems all set to kick things up another notch, when disaster strikes. Before the band started playing, an anonymous announcer had been warning over the P.A. that “inclement weather” could potentially shutdown the show. Before MDD gets a chance to begin song number four the voice returns, warning the crowd that they should start searching for cover, as rain and 70 mph winds are less than 20 minutes away from hitting the outdoor venue.
For a few minutes, the crowd lingers around hopefully, and the band assures them that they will do their best to continue the show if at all possible. Unfortunately, the sky continues to look more and more threatening, and the band reluctantly starts packing-up their expensive live rig. The festival-goers, with even greater reluctance, start to make their way to shelter in Rackham Auditorium or the nearby bars and restaurants. It’s an unfortunate end to what was supposed to be something of a victory lap for this local-band-made-good. Amazingly enough though, in almost a month of doing research on and corresponding with My Dear Disco, it’s the first time I’ve heard of anything remotely resembling bad luck befalling them.
My Dear Disco first formed as a two-piece back in 2006. Originally a computer-based project for Tyler Duncan, the group began to expand when his University of Michigan School of Music classmate Bob Lester contributed an electro-pop track called “My Dear Disco” which featured the vocals of another friend from U of M, Michelle Chamuel. Impressed by the song, Duncan swiftly reformed as a dance-music group with an emphasis on live performance. At one point the band featured seven members, mostly fellow School of Music students, but has since shrunken down to five touring musicians, with bassist Christian Carpenter and drummer Mike Shea assisting the three core members at their live shows.
The band-members were all still in school as this project came together, and a few great college-party-shows followed by a sudden disbandment after graduation would have been a predictable end to this tale, but that was never an option according to the band’s leaders. Instead of joining their classmates in filing endless job applications during their last year of undergraduate study, the band hit the road, playing 150+ gigs in 2009 alone. They also spent time in the studio, putting out the full-length DanceThink LP in January, 2009.
This post-grad course of action actually isn’t that strange for graduates of the U of M School of Music. Many of the band’s contemporaries are successfully pursuing music full-time now that school is out, but not exactly along the same avenue that MDD is. Over the past few years, traditional genres like bluegrass and folk have experienced a remarkable resurgence in the Midwest (among other places), and many of MDD’s former classmates, like popular yarn-spinner Michael Beauchamp, have used their vast musical knowledge to explore these older music forms through younger eyes and ears. MDD, however, went in another direction. They decided to apply past experiences like Duncan’s years touring with traditional Irish ensembles and Lester and Chamuel’s formal production training at the School of Music’s Department of Performance Arts Technology to the one type of music they’d spent most of their lives listening: pop.
Bright, young people treating pop music as an art-form on par with other, more venerated genres has been a dominant theme of indie-music since the end of the last century. Yet the idea of artists with extensive technical knowledge turning their talents to something that is commonly dismissed as a mere commercial product is still, despite post-punk, “poptimism” and Andy Warhol, one that doesn’t feel quite right to a lot of people. While MDD understands that this is a common reaction, they admit it has no relation to their own activities and listening habits. “It doesn’t make sense on paper, that’s for sure,” muses Duncan. “Here’s one theory. No matter where you are, you’re surrounded by pop music. That’s one thing you know you can hear if you’re driving through the plains of North Dakota—you’ll be able to tune into some kind of pop radio station.”
A further part of the explanation may lie in the relatively young age of this group of recent college graduates. Like their elders, MDD were raised listening to The Beatles, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, but they also were teenagers when groups like Basement Jaxx and Daft Punk started putting out albums that took techniques associated with “the underground” and used them to re-imagine the sounds they’d heard on Top 40 stations. In addition, they grew up at the same time as the internet was evolving. Lester explains that “with the internet at our disposal it is possible to find and obsess over any kind of sound and music that interests you.” Most people may divide their time between listening to folk bands at local shows and then nodding along to a Max Martin production (another MDD influence) in the car, but it’s likely that their iTunes playlists are nowhere near as segregated.
When talking about contemporary influences, the band mentions beloved indie acts like Justice and Phoenix. Those two groups in particular seem to represent the crossroads MDD’s music inhabits. Justice re-imagines classic pop and rock through their computers and samplers while Phoenix looks like a typical pop-rock five-piece who just happen to build their aesthetic with the aid of sparkling, electro-inspired hooks. Listen to Dancethink LP or any of MDDs shorter releases, and you’ll hear all these ingredients in the mix, although they won’t seem as important as the fact that, much like their influences, this is a band that makes really good, really catchy dance-pop.
Their best songs range from “Replacable”, a club-ready track that glistens like a well-calibrated dance machine fresh off the factory floor, to “Amsterdam”, a frenetic anthem that uses stomping Bristol-punk-style guitar stabs to drive home its equally danceable chorus. This band of formally-trained musicians has a range of arrows in their quiver that is inconceivable to the casual Fruity-Loops producer—ranging from Lester’s guitar-shredding abilities to Duncan’s encyclopedic knowledge of his synthesizers, as well as the way Chamuel belts out her lyrics about love and loss with what seems like unconscious ease (like many great pop singers, she has that rare and hard-to-learn ability to make a string of simple “baby, baby, baby’”s sound like the most heartrending moment of introspection imaginable) – but for the band, they are all tools used to serve their goal of making good, enjoyable songs.
While making good pop music of the electro-influenced variety might lead one to think that My Dear Disco are first-and-foremost a studio band, the truth is that much of their success has come as a live act. Before I’d ever downloaded their album on eMusic (they also sell it at their shows, on iTunes, and give it away for free on their site, I’d spent a year hearing what felt like an endless stream of enthusiastic plugs for the group from friends who’d unintentionally seen them live somewhere and had gotten themselves hooked. I spoke with many people who enjoyed Dancethink LP, as well as the remix work the group has done for internationally-sold dance-compilations, but the awe-filled way people talked about their live-set was startling for a group that plays dance-pop at local venues often more associated with folk acts and jam bands.
This sort of reaction has led to many of the lucky breaks that I mentioned earlier. Their ability to gain exposure outside of Ann Arbor, for example, got a big head-start when their very first shows at the town’s nationally known Blind Pig venue sold out thanks to word-of-mouth. The same sort of thing is still happening, as seen at a show in Brooklyn a few months ago that led to two huge opportunities for the band. An employee of BMI was so impressed by their set that he immediately offered to put them forth for the selection process that eventually led to their upcoming set at BMI’s Lollapalooza stage. They also met Holly Garman, an experienced New York publicist who had never heard of them until the show. “I was so blown away by their performance that I think I just stood there with my mouth open for most of their set,” she remembers. “The room was packed and people were going crazy! When it ended I just ran up and introduced myself. I just knew I had to work with them.”
On the other hand, “you make your own luck” is a saying that never seems to go away. Bruce Houghton, founder of Skyline booking agency and the popular “Music 2.0” blog Hypebot told me that he believes that any “luck” a band experiences is usually the product of hard work. “After talent,” he explains, “it all boils down to effort. How hard are you willing to work to connect with your fans and with the industry? Will you make the most of every piece of luck that comes your way?” In a world where getting music to the fans is easier than ever before and the range of musicians competing for space on those fans iPods is greater than ever before, an ambitious young band has to leverage every opportunity they get.
For My Dear Disco, that starts with a level of attention-to-detail that the band admits might seem obsessive to outsiders (“We’ll argue forever about whether one hi-hat sound should be on the offbeat or not,” Chamuel laughs). The band makes a conscious effort to think about how songs written in the studio will eventually have to be performed live, which can be tricky given that their songwriting process generally starts with sequencer-based loops and grooves. They also have to worry about their touring setup, which is intimidatingly intricate. This means the band has had to get really,really good at getting the stage ready in the shortest amount of time possible, given that they’re not yet to the point where they can employ an army of stage-hands to do it for them. Luckily, the members all have a passionate interest in the technical aspects of their shows, which leads to a growing, shared reservoir of knowledge which makes the process easier (“I can’t imagine how hard it’d be if Michelle wasn’t able to setup her own rig,” confesses Lester).
This curiosity and ability to learn fast extends to all areas of the My Dear Disco “business.” The band members voraciously hunt down any knowledge that might be advantageous to them, whether through books and blogs like Hypebot, or through their own experiences with trial and error. They’re savvy enough to suggest that PopMatters could premiere a new MDD single along with this piece, and capable enough to produce and continuously revamp their own website. MDD is a full-time job for them (well, almost: the band members all work occasional jobs like teaching bagpipe lessons or DJing to help pay the bills), and they take it seriously. Susie Giang, who signed the band to MDD’s booking agency Fleming Artists (Ani DiFranco, The Verve Pipe), recalls her first appointment with the band, where she was “so highly impressed when at our meeting, they handed me a business plan! I promise you, we don’t get approached by many artists with [business plans].”
While the band members clearly have the competence to handle many of their own tasks, in the end there are only so many hours in a day. They are not signed to a label, but work closely with Garman and Giang on picking shows and increasing their visibility. Not having to handle all of their own booking seems to be a huge relief for the band. “I used to book the band back in the day,” recalls Duncan, “and I would sit there on a computer for hours making lists of venues in nearby cities, then trying to find who the hell you have to talk to about playing there and finally hitting them with a phone call, email, and packet in the mail. Of those, maybe 20% would respond, and about 10% turned into anything. Once you’ve put that work in, anything that comes back is a celebration, and you’ll be damned if you’re not going to take the gig.”
Having professional firms handling some of the band’s business certainly helps, but life on the road is still no walk in the park. MDD tours in a shuttle-bus converted to use vegetable-waste and as a result have to do some extra planning to make sure they can locate sources of clean oil when on the road (they say they end up eating a lot more at Chinese buffets than they would otherwise). While they have gained a lot of visibility in some parts of the U.S., there are plenty of areas yet to visit. “It’s been amazing to watch the audience numbers grow from 10 to 400,” comments Chamuel, “but we still have many markets to develop.” This means that they are not able to setup a touring schedule that is regular and predictable, which can be a pain when they have other things like jobs and girlfriends to think about back home. For now, they pack up once or twice a week to travel out to some part of the country, play one or a handful of shows, and then return. They do not yet have the luxury of a regular three-month tour followed by three months in the studio. Touring, recording, business and personal lives all have to be conducted more or less at the same time.
Photo by Myra Klarman
The band are very reluctant to complain about this, however, primarily because playing live is so enjoyable for them. They tell me they’ve developed their live show considerably since the early days, and at their gigs it’s hard to see anything but a highly-seasoned group of musicians doing all the right things to work an audience. Onstage they’re an eye-catching group, with their color-matched outfits and energetic playing-style. Lester is a little Prince-like, with his high-strapped guitar and light figure, while the diminutive Chamuel (who couldn’t sing in front of others for years thanks to stage-fright) plants herself in front of the audience with all the confidence of a diva with twice the experience. The band knows how to provide a big moment or two, especially at the close of their sets when Duncan, with his immaculately-styled facial hair and oversized top-hat, comes to the front for “Clubbin’”, a uillean pipe-featuring track that crowds generally react to like a Guns and Roses audience watching Slash perform a guitar solo.
The band often plays to mixed-crowds, as was the case recently when they performed at Founders Brewery in Grand Rapids, MI. Plenty of young revelers who claimed they would be catching the band at Lollapalooza filled the dance-floor, but they were also joined by middle-aged couples who regularly go to Founders to grab a beer and hear some music. Surprisingly, My Dear Disco’s cover of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” seemed to please them as much as it did the local college students. The band says they sometimes wonder about what their listener-demographic might be (they were curious as to whether they are known as a something of a “gay band” after being invited to play several LBGT associated events, and have noticed that lately some of their most ardent fans are elementary and middle-school aged children), but they and their team don’t tend to worry about targeting one specific group or another. They just play every good gig they can get and do their best to win over every audience they encounter.
The truth is, My Dear Disco often have to work with being a “little different,” no matter who else is on the bill. At Floyd Fandango, a beer, wine and music festival the band played this summer in Virginia, the schedule featured a long list of folk artists and other traditional musicians, and the band were a little apprehensive that their upbeat dance music, usually performed indoors to tightly-squeezed dancefloors, might seem a little out of place at a rural festival being held high up in the mountains. But once again luck came their way, when the stage where they played their nighttime set turned out to be directly in the path of people leaving the just-completed headlining performance by the Sam Bush Band. The band started up just as the crowd was heading past them on their way home, and they quickly convinced the festival-goers to stay a little longer and dance to their tunes while surrounded by a forest of Christmas-light wrapped trees. Their daytime set the following afternoon was subsequently very well-attended, and over the next week the band received a slew of emails asking them to come back to Virginia as soon as possible.
Photo by Myra Klarman
Even with My Dear Disco’s track record, however, Lollapalooza could be a tough gig. It’s outdoors at 3pm on a smaller stage that will feature mostly regional bands. The 2009 Top of the Park gig was MDD’s biggest so far, and that was drawing from a local populace that was more familiar with their music than most of the 100,000+ expected visitors to Lollapalooza this year. The band and their team are doing everything they can to leverage this festival for greater exposure (Garman says she’s been “100% focused” on getting press for them at Lollapalooza since she started working with them and Giang is hoping that this show will “will effect Disco’s draw dramatically”), but with 100+ bands playing at the 2010 event, it’ll take a lot of work to make themselves heard.
On the other hand, they’ve still never failed to make the most out of an opportunity, no matter how unfortunate the circumstances may seem. While sitting in a Buffalo Wild Wings after Top of the Park gets rained out I text Lester to see if there’s any hope of them returning to the stage. “Nope,” he replies “but we just played in Rackham Auditorium. Until the cops came and shut us down. It was epic!” A reporter is on hand and the story, entitled “For My Dear Disco the Show Must Go On” shows up in the local paper the next day, as well as in the Facebook statuses of the 150+ fans who got to see their band rock-out, despite nature’s best efforts to thwart them. Once again, My Dear Disco has turned their luck around.
Check back in with PopMatters after Lollapalooza to read about My Dear Disco’s set (3pm, Friday. BMI Stage) and what kind of opportunities it ends up bringing their way. We’ll also be talking to several other bands making their first appearances on Lollapalooza stages (including Freelance Whales, Wild Beasts and Chiddy Bang), and will be finding out how they have planned for such a high-profile gig, as well as what their impressions are of the festival. Stay tuned.