Untimely death in Rock is a tragedy as old as the form itself. Last summer, Fort Collins, Col., Emo/melodic Pop quartet Tickle Me Pink joined that sad roll call when bassist Johnny Schou inexplicably died in his sleep on the eve of the release of Madeline, the band’s full-length debut.
It was a blow that could have derailed the young group, but TMP was motivated to push ahead.
“To be honest, it was Johnny,” says TMP frontman Sean Kennedy. “He wanted this as badly as we did. If he had been around and one of us had passed away, he would have wanted to go on because he knew the passion all of us have shared. There’s a lot of songs on the record that bring a whole new purpose to our live show. It’s almost like our purpose is to get Johnny across at every show.”
Rather than dwell on Schou’s death, TMP continued as a tribute to their fallen friend. After a brief but appropriate period to collect themselves, the remaining members (vocalist/guitarist Kennedy, drummer/co-founder Stefan Runstrom, guitarist Steven Beck) made adjustments and resumed touring. Kennedy’s move to bass and guitarist Joey Barba’s addition to the lineup made Tickle Me Pink reasonably ready to tour.
“Johnny and I were switching off already in the past year and I’d play bass in a few songs so it wasn’t a horribly awkward transition,” says Kennedy. “But Johnny had timing things that are kind of awkward to sing vocals with. I really wanted to play the same parts he did because I felt he deserved that, so I practiced my ass off before we came out.”
In fact, Kennedy had little ass to spare in that regard. A band veteran since sixth grade, Kennedy recorded a “really shitty EP” with an older brother’s outfit when he was in junior high and a solo acoustic album before forming Tickle Me Pink with high school chum Runstrom three years ago
“We were in this talent show and he beat me, barely, and I got pissed, but we ended up becoming friends and forming the band,” says Kennedy with a laugh. “We encouraged each other not to go to college even though we’d both done well in school. We had scholarships and bands from Colorado weren’t making it so it really was a leap of faith, but we were confident and that’s what it takes.”
Originally a trio, TMP endured standard lineup shifts until Schou, an employee of the renowned Blasting Room studio, switched from guitar to bass, bought all the necesary equipment and learned the TMP canon.
“Our bass player had just left and we went to Virginia to record and while we were out there, this guy Johnny, who we didn’t even know and who was mutual friends with one of our roommates, moved into our house while we were recording in Virginia,” recalls Kennedy. “He bought a bass and amp — he was a good guitar player, but he didn’t play bass — and learned all of our songs while we were gone. He told us he was a bass player and then he tried out for the band and he was awesome. So he kind of joined by default.”
TMP operated as a trio for a while, until their songwriting began to outstrip their ability to recreate their sound live. They added Beck, who had been teaching guitar at Fort Collins’ Academy of Guitar, after a single audition. When the foursome was complete, they set about recording Madeline, long before signing with Wind-Up, which released the album last September.
“It was kind of the final straw for Johnny and Stefan and I,” says Kennedy. “We were so broke. We each took out $5,000, and our friend at the Blasting Room superhooked us up. And since Johnny worked at the studio, we did a lot of it on our own time in the middle of the night and ended up doing the record for super cheap. But we worked our asses off. The label thought we did such a good job, they just bought the record from us.”
Schou’s death was disorienting in its suddenness, and Kennedy realized that TMP would have to approach reconfiguring the band with some sensitivity. In that regard, Barba was the best possible fit. An old friend of the band, he already had the late bassist’s stamp of approval.
“We couldn’t have done the first tour stretch if we’d had to hire some studio musician,” says Kennedy. “For me personally, I couldn’t sing songs like ‘Madeline’ and ‘Tomorrow’s Ending’ and look over seeing some stranger making money playing those songs. But Joey was a mutual friend of all of ours; his band grew up playing with our band. When it happened, he was in L.A. working with Crazytown, and we called him and he flew out the same day. When we finally started talking about playing a week later, it just fit right. Johnny really liked him. He’d played with us as a guest on a couple of songs on the live DVD that came out with Madeline. So it’s worked out. Joey shares a lot of the same passion as the rest of us.”
TICKLE ME PINK performs Wednesday at the 20th Century Theatre with Red Jumpsuit Apparatus and The Becoming. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.