Hometown bands hope to hit big time at music festival

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009

NEW YORK -- Dan Scheuerman has worked up quite a sweat. With a soaked brow, the frontman of the Washington band Deleted Scenes leaps off the stage of Cameo Gallery, a music venue tucked into the backroom of a bar in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. His stage jump wasn't some grand rock star gesture, though. In fact, his band just concluded its set of smart and slippery indie rock. But now the real hustling begins. He and his bandmates must disassemble and unload their equipment.

And quickly.

There are still six more bands that will play before the long night ends. Space and time are tight. But the deed has been done. Deleted Scenes has officially played CMJ Music Marathon, the venerated music industry festival now in its 29th year. For a week every fall it takes over New York and has long been a proving ground for on-the-rise bands -- including a handful from the Washington region -- hoping to catch a big break. In recent years, it helped launch the careers of such bands as Arcade Fire and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. So what does Scheuerman think?

"Eh, it's sort of a résumé packer," the 27-year-old says while sitting on a bench outside the venue after the Tuesday night show. "The weird, surreal, industry thing -- it's not really what gets me off."

Playing a single "high profile" gig to prove himself doesn't sit well with Scheuerman. He prefers touring the country, hitting random cities such as Ypsilanti, Mich., and Mobile, Ala., honing his craft on the road. But that's not for everyone.

"I live with the guys in US Royalty and they seem to have focused directly on New York and it seems to have paid dividends for them," he says. "Those guys know how to dress and know how to schmooze."

A camera-ready look

Scheuerman isn't exaggerating about US Royalty's fashion sense. The nascent D.C. quartet looks more than ready for its close-up when it hit the stage Wednesday night at Fontana's. Singer John Thornley, 26, is a classic frontman, sporting a full beard, patterned headband, sport jacket, tight jeans and vintage boots. It's no wonder the band has become D.C.'s most photographed act of 2009. He stomps about the stage, taking turns on harmonica, tambourine and maraca in between his impassioned lunges at the microphone. His cohorts, including brother Paul on guitar, are also sharply dressed men.

But US Royalty isn't style alone. There's a definite spark to the band's soulful, guitar-based rock songs. And the group possesses that one important quality that can turn any band into superstars -- its members make girls dance. Maybe it's the rumbling rhythms, maybe it's the clothes, but during "Raincoats," an especially sprightly rocker, a group of young ladies made their way to the front of the stage to groove to the music. It's the sort of thing an A&R man might notice as much as the music.

Together for just more than a year, US Royalty has led a charmed life. Before the gig John Thornley -- sporting a velvet fedora with a pile of white feathers coming out of the back -- plays down the idea that CMJ is a make-or-break scenario for the band. Success "isn't even on our mind at all, honestly," he said.

And yet Thornley, a Southern Maryland native, speaks with a relaxed drawl and the cool confidence of someone who knows that things will somehow work out. "People that really like you and have connections will help you out no matter what," he said.

The band's debut single was released by Engine Room Recordings, the label promoting the showcase at CMJ. There's a full squad of managers, bookers and publicists to help the band. Press hasn't been a problem, and labels are likely to be eager when the band finishes recording its full-length album. Of all the Washington bands that have trekked up Interstate 95 for CMJ, US Royalty is the likeliest to emerge with big buzz.

Festival veterans

Back downstairs, fellow D.C. rockers Middle Distance Runner is playing to a smaller, more tentative crowd. Frontman Stephen Kilroy urges the audience to come closer to the stage during the first song, and people eventually oblige. The band's anthemic rock songs, often using a triple guitar attack, have as many hooks as US Royalty's but the difference in charisma is clear.

Kilroy, 27, has been here before. It's his fourth straight year playing CMJ with Middle Distance Runner. A couple of years ago, MDR was in USR's shoes, the new buzz band out of D.C., ready for the big time. But big things didn't materialize -- the bass player left, there was label limbo and 13 months were spent recording a second album -- but Kilroy is ready to give it another go.

With so many online avenues for promoting and discovering bands, the idea of an industry music festival where bands have to show in person may feel a bit outdated. But it turns out there's no substitute for the live music experience.

"Agents and labels definitely find out about bands from the Internet more these days," says Jim Romeo, head of Ground Control Touring, a booking agency that represents nearly 100 artists, including Sonic Youth, Bright Eyes and Cat Power. "But a chance to see them live is always important."

"We treat it as more a convenience to scout during CMJ, not a necessity," says Chris Hacker, who co-runs Engine Room Recordings. For Hacker, it's more about "simple advertising. With an official show the bands' names will be sent out by CMJ in a press release, and blogs and online publications pick that up and repost."

On the other end of the spectrum from US Royalty and Middle Distance Runner is True Womanhood, a trio of 24-year-olds from College Park. The group followed Deleted Scenes at Cameo Gallery with a set of self-described "avant-pop." The band's sound is equally influenced by Radiohead and Sonic Youth and boasts off-beat rhythms, a timpani and a drum pad. True Womanhood has spent considerable time in New York recently and just released a single on hip Brooklyn label Death by Audio.

But the band's first CMJ trip hasn't been completely smooth sailing. One show has been canceled, and the commercialism rubs them the wrong way.

"We were corralled into an area and were given some gift bag that was basically a hundred advertising postcards," bassist Melissa Beattie said of check-in. There were promises of free jeans, but those went unfulfilled.

"All we got was a $115 parking ticket," singer Thomas Redmond said. "No free jeans. No anything, really. Oh, we got a pen."

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