It's early December and I'm in Chicago with Cincinnati-based Indie Rock duo Bad Veins as they prepare to play yet another series of highly buzzed-about out-of-town shows.
If you were to imagine the weather in Chicago during the first week of December, you'd probably picture frigid temperatures and furrowed-brow-inducing winds off the lake. Tonight, Chicago lives up to that vision.
I meet the members of Bad Veins -- drummer Sebastien Schultz and singer/ guitarist/keyboardist/tape-operator/songwriter Ben Davis -- at the restaurant in their hotel, joined by their entourage (which, for now, includes only their significant others). Within minutes of unwrapping our scarves, removing our coats and blowing into our hands for re-warming, Davis is talking about his eight toes (childhood accident) and the fact that he was born with one leg shorter than the other (among a few other leg and feet issues).
"Usually I'm the first one to start whining when we walk a lot," Davis says, recounting their adventures that afternoon exploring the innumerable shopping options in Chicago.
Davis is skinny as a pencil with a dusty, angled haircut, the bangs of which he often pushes aside while talking. When he speaks, he alternates between self-doubt, self-depreciation and good humor. He has a low-key charm but seems slightly more reserved than his bandmate.
"My hope is that when I become mega-rich, I will have some surgery to fix it," Davis jokes abut his leg. "I'll be like Bionic Man. I might get braces, too."
"I'm getting a Porsche," Schultz adds.
Schultz -- who was born in France and raised for a time in England, moving to Dayton when he was 6 and Cincinnati when he went to college -- is friendly and blond, with a boyish face and eager smile.
The two play off of each other with balanced nuance. When Davis says something off-the-cuff or pessimistic, Schultz is always quick with a positive spin.
It's an odd way to start an interview -- talk of medical history ensues for about 15 minutes -- but, as it turns out, this sit-down isn't close to the weirdest chat we'll have.
Accidents will (thankfully) happen
Luckily for Davis' limbs, Bad Veins also spends a lot of time traveling by van. The word early in the band's career was that they'd played more out of their hometown than in it. This is still true.
Besides the Chicago trip, the duo has performed in New York City at least 10 times, mostly by invite, as bloggers, managers and label reps have been worked up into a lather. The band has made fans with its unique set-up -- the twosome plays backed by a reel-to-reel player that runs everything from keyboards to full orchestral sounds.
But most important are their songs. Sharp, memorable and often lush, they recall everything from Pavement to The Strokes to The Flaming Lips yet sound absolutely like none of those bands.
Bad Veins has been busy. Besides shopping, they did an in-studio radio performance and interview and basked in the glow of their first cover story, for the online magazine The Tripwire.
"We did (major NYC-based industry showcase) CMJ, and my old band could never get in," Schultz says. "I always thought it was impossible. They've been incredibly good to us in New York City. I don't know how it happened, but it seems like a lot of people are paying attention (to us) and have taken notice. Or maybe it's just the right people."
They explain that they've never sent a CD to anyone. While some musicians spend half of their "band time" hustling, banging on doors, sending out hundreds of unsolicited CDs and usually getting hundreds of rejection letters in return, Bad Veins has largely just worked on music and played shows, watching as the accolades roll in.
They're kind of like the naturally skinny girl who all the other girls who exercise and diet incessantly hate in high school.
"I like to brag about how little we've done," Davis says with a chuckle. "I don't want to be one of those millions and billions of bands that are forcing things in your face. Because, personally, I hate it."
Davis and Schultz are talented, but to say good fortune hasn't played at least a small roll in their fast rise would be like saying Pia Zadora won the 1982 Golden Globe for Young Star of the Year based purely on her acting skills. In fact, the group's entire year-and-a-half-long career is marked by a series of unusual yet perfectly timed coincidences. Serendipity has been an integral thread running throughout Bad Veins' short lifespan.
In New York for a performance early in its career, the duo had an off day and decided to go see the band Enon. Sitting at a table with some strangers, the Cincinnatians started complaining about the $7 price tag on beers. Overheard by a woman with a similar complaint, the two parties began a conversation about expensive beer and cats. A half-hour in, Davis confessed they were in a band.
As it turns out, the woman worked for popular and influential Seattle radio station KEXP. A few days after returning home, the band got an e-mail from the woman ("It was almost over-the-top praise," Davis says), who was apparently telling lots of her industry friends in Seattle about her new "find."
Not long after, the band was getting regular spins on her show, which goes out to millions of listeners thanks to the station's popular Internet stream.
Davis says he recently spoke to the woman, who told him, "Not only weren't you pushy (about giving me a CD), you were kind of reluctant."
"I guess we're just really lucky the way things have kind of aligned for us," Davis later says. "Even the way our sound became what it is was a total accident. Our aesthetic was an accident. They say the best artwork is created by accidents -- what you do on accident is better than what you try to do."
Bowling over the biz
Two months later I'm waiting for Bad Veins to show up at Western Bowl, the Las Vegas of Cincinnati's West Side with its neon-laced interior and exterior. Davis suggests the meeting place, saying he'd recently gone for a birthday party and was dying to return.
I'm in the parking lot watching the cars pull in. Though the crowd is mixed -- teenagers, elderly couples, serious bowlers and even a 5-year-old's birthday party -- I'm certain I'll have no trouble spotting the duo. First clue that entering parties aren't Bad Veins: They all have bowling balls. I don't think Bad Veins has balls.
It's an especially busy night at the old bowling alley
The Crunk music being played at an unreasonably high volume is drowning out our conversation, but we carry on.
Schultz's first "real" band, Cathedrals, gave him his first taste of success. They also came out of the gate with a huge buzz, even landing a slot at the first non-touring Lollapalooza in Chicago. An illness in the band led to their unremarkable break-up.
As in Cathedrals, Schultz's playing style has personality and a musicality that most drummers lack. Within Bad Veins' minimal membership, his playing brings even more of a sense of style and drama to Davis' songs. Rather than just providing a backbone, Schultz's playing is a vital organ.
"The way I play drums is kind of intuitive," he says. "It's how I feel, how I think things should go. And that's probably based off of a lot of music I listen to, whether I like it or don't like it. I wouldn't be able to play the way I do if I wasn't passionate about the music. Maybe my lack of formal training is made up for by my passion for the songs."
While Schultz was jet-setting around Europe as a toddler, Davis was growing up on a "horse farm" about 40 miles outside of Cincinnati. Totally isolated, he lived in the same house until he was 20.
Davis was stuck and alone (his parents worked a lot), so he began immersing himself in music. Like Schultz, he was forced to take piano lessons. And, like Schultz, he hated them.
When he was in his early teens, he started getting into John Lennon and The Beatles. He got a Lennon songbook one day and learned "Jealous Guy" on piano. He played it for his piano teacher the next week.
"It was years beyond what she was teaching me," Davis says. "She was completely surprised because I never paid any attention to what she was trying to teach me."
Learning Beatles tunes, Davis says he finally felt like he could actually play the songs he liked. He wrote his first song at 14, meaning he's now been writing songs for half of his life.
In eighth grade, when Nirvana hit, one of his friends suggested they start a band. He later formed the group World, which he maintained throughout high school.
During this time Davis became obsessed with writing and recording -- not to become famous or rich but "just to make records and be good at it." He'd buy bulk candy and sell it at school to turn a profit, all in the name of raising money to go into the recording studio.
After World broke up, Davis moved to Florida to get away from the depressing Ohio winters. When he returned, he formed the Giant Judys.
He had all the songs written, so within a month of forming the band they were in the studio making a record. The trio enjoyed some local success, and Davis had another record ready to be recorded.
He parted ways with the other members of Giant Judys gradually, until it became a one-man band. He decided it was time for a name change.
He abandoned the songs he'd worked on for Giant Judys and wrote another CD's worth of songs as Bad Veins. Davis was invited to play a solo show (with backing tracks, which included drum beats) at Northside Tavern with local duo wil-o-ee. By chance, Schultz was there.
"I'll never stop giving him shit about the fact that he left in the middle of the set," Davis says, laughing and eyeing Schultz.
"I guess I would have cared more if I had known I was going to be in the band," Schultz says, smiling slyly.
The not-so-odd couple
Instead of battling audio levels with Souljah Boy at Western Bowl, we decide to head outside, away from the crashing bowling pins. We're sitting in my car back in the parking lot, Davis and Schultz in the front and me in the backseat.
Suddenly, it begins to pour rain. We decide that the sound of the hard rain slamming against the roof is less distracting than the bass thud in the bar.
Sitting side-by-side, I notice that during conversation each slides into his musical role when the other is talking. When Schultz interjects, Davis starts humming a random melody. When Davis speaks, Schultz begins to play drums with his fingers on whatever surface is nearby.
Davis picks up the conversation (as Schultz's fingers start tapping), talking about the friendship he'd struck up with Robert Schneider, a fan of Giant Judys best known for his work as the leader of legendary Indie Pop band Apples in Stereo. Schneider had an electronic project called Marbles, for which he recorded all the music himself, performing live shows alone with the prerecorded tracks. Schneider gave Davis the confidence initially to go it alone.
"(Schneider) was like, 'Dude, just play the songs by yourself, it doesn't matter,' " Davis says. "I really liked Marbles. He had enough stage presence that he didn't really need a band. People always said I had decent stage presence, so I thought, 'Maybe I can do it.' "
While Marbles had a more modern aesthetic, Davis wanted his stage to have a more vintage look. He put together a box originally intended for mixers (which his girlfriend painted with their now trademark maroon flowers), wired up an antiquated phone receiver on the side of the box to use as a distorted vocal mic (he also uses a megaphone) and dumped all of his recordings onto an aging reel-to-reel tape machine, which was donated by his father.
A mutual friend suggested to Davis that he look up Schultz if he was in need of a drummer. The same friend told Schultz he should check out Davis' stuff.
Davis was reluctant. Besides having the confidence that he could go it alone successfully, he says he simply didn't want to get into a "band" situation again.
Indicative of Bad Veins' rapid ascent, Davis was offered another show almost immediately. He decided to give Schultz a call just to gauge his interest. Schultz was immediately into it once he heard the songs. They decided to get together and play.
"Before the first practice was over, I was like, 'I bet you could play this show coming up in a few weeks,' " Davis recalls.
For the next three weeks, the two rehearsed every day. For their first show together (at the Courtyard Café on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine), the sociable Schultz rallied his friends to come check out his new band. The small restaurant/bar was overflowing -- Davis says the owner told him it had never been so packed. Talk about "instant success."
Right away they were offered yet another show, this time opening for Atlanta Indie band Snowden two weeks later. Again, Davis was reluctant, not wanting to go the old "play any and every show" route some locals take instead of being selective.
Schultz finally convinced Davis to do the gig. During Bad Veins' soundcheck, the members of Snowden walked in and froze in their tracks.
"We stopped and (the Snowden guys) were like, 'That's awesome.' We did not tell them it was our second show," Davis says. "During the show, they said to the crowd, 'We've been on tour for months, and Bad Veins is the best band we've played with the whole tour.' "
The next day, the Snowden members said they'd like to help spread the word about the band. Schultz confessed it had been only their second show; Davis didn't want to tell them at first because he thought it would be "insulting."
"A day or two after (Snowden) left, we started getting e-mails from people in New York that run blogs and book clubs and book events," Davis says. "They were like, 'Hey, we really like your stuff. We want you to come play the Knitting Factory.' We were like, 'What? Yes! That's exactly what we want to be doing.' Before we got (to the first New York show), we started hearing from label people -- really hot-shit label people -- saying, 'Hey, we've been listening to your stuff in the office and are really digging it. We love your songs. We wanna hear more.' "
From there the reviews, blog attention, word-of-mouth and industry buzz built to a feverish froth (all based on a four-song demo CD they gave away to anyone who wanted it) to the point where it appeared that most everyone in the biz knew at least their name, if not their music.
'You're great but ...'
We've decided to switch locations again. Davis wants to play me a couple of new songs they're working on, so we head to his car.
The new tracks sport a slightly different sound -- Davis has lost a lot of the distortion on his vocals, showing off his impressive pipes in a less tainted atmosphere, and there's a noticeable blending of the old "lo-fi" sound with something bigger and more "hi-fi."
Davis picks up the thread, talking about their flirtations with signing with a record company. Initially, both were excited by the fast and furious attention. Now they say they've learned to not be so excitable, because the music industry is in such a topsy-turvy state right now.
New bands are having a hard time getting deals, no matter how good or "buzz-worthy" they might be.
"Now we're beyond jaded," Davis jokes.
While A&R guys were in contact, the band began to learn that one booster at a label, no matter his or her position or enthusiasm level, doesn't mean anything in the sales-driven corporate world of major and major indie labels.
"Now we know that the A&R guy can be 100 percent 'You are the best band I've ever heard in my life' and that still doesn't mean anything," Davis says. "You learn through the grapevine things like the label's not in a signing position or someone at the label is afraid because we haven't been around long enough. It's happened. ... We could make a list of at least 12 labels that got in touch with us and then disappeared. Literally no explanation. We did hear from one label that said, 'We love you, but the president of the label doesn't get it.'
"We've had a guy who has signed some of the biggest bands in the world come see us in Brooklyn and come up afterwards and say, 'You guys are fantastic.' And we're just like, 'What do we gotta do?' People less and less trust their own musical tastes. They want to know that everybody else likes you before they do anything."
Davis brings up their recent trip to CMJ in New York again, remembering looking through the band guide with all of the performers and feeling like an insignificant speck in the grand musical universe.
"We were still one of only a thousand bands that played CMJ," Davis says. "We're still nobody. Then we get back and we're on the CMJ Web site as the 'breakout band' of the entire festival."
"You think it's a big deal, and in your head it's a big deal," Schultz adds. "But that, in fact, didn't yield anything. If you would have told me four years ago that I was going to be in a band that was named 'breakout band' at CMJ, I would have been like, 'Fuckin' set! I'm gettin' the car. I'm gettin' the house. How can you be the breakout artist at CMJ and not get signed?'
"Yet," he says, his voice cracking into laughter, "Ben and I are able to not get signed."
"My friend says we're the most signed unsigned band ever," Davis jokes.
Though admittedly frustrated, neither Schultz nor Davis seems defeated. They remain optimistic. The lessons they've learned are remarkable, especially for a band that isn't even two years old yet.
All they say they really want is some money to make a record and a van so they can promote it. A few managers are working with the band, "testing" them out to see if they're serious and dedicated enough to go the distance.
"It's frustrating just because Ben and I are so serious about this," Schultz says. "We basically hate our jobs and want to do something more meaningful and fun."
Until the industry catches up, Bad Veins are continuing to work. They're tracking their next album now in Davis' home studio, with the idea of handing in a complete product by late May in an effort to hopefully sweeten any potential label deal.
This week, the band is headed to Austin, Tex., where they'll play a few high-profile shows at South By Southwest, the country's other major music showcase event. One night, Bad Veins performs at a showcase presented by huge publishing group ASCAP. Saturday, they're part of a an all-day party event curated by bloggers and featuring Indie sensations like Film School, Kevin Barnes from Of Monteral, The Whigs, Lyrics Born, White Rabbits, Peelander-Z, David Bazan and Islands.
They know they'll meet lots of people. They know they'll have a good time. But as far as emerging with a big-time record deal, they're now content to just sit back and see what happens.
Meanwhile, the buzz hasn't died down. While setting up a tour to play on their way to SXSW, Davis says every booking agent he talked to had heard of Bad Veins, either through their deal with RCRD LBL (a high-profile MP3 site that's made a few of their songs available for free), the numerous blog praises or their incessant world-of-mouth buzz among fans and big-timers alike.
With such effortless success, inevitably, there will be backlash. Some musicians work 20 years and never see close to the kind of attention Bad Veins have seen in their short run.
"We have gotten a few 'We don't understand why these guys are so popular,' " Davis says. "But then they're like, 'Don't get me wrong, I like their stuff.' Exactly! People like our stuff."
"I think the music speaks for itself," Schulz submits. "We have gotten things like (being called) 'media darlings' and stuff. One guy (wrote) that we must be well connected to play these kinds of shows."
"We are well connected," Davis interrupts, "because we're good and nice and people like us!"
BAD VEINS performs a "back from SXSW" show at the Southgate House on March 19. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.
Austin or Bust
The following local artists are heading to Austin this week to perform at South By Southwest. Some are playing the official showcases, some are playing one or more of the many "parties" affiliated with the fest and some are playing the SXSW counter-programming Red Gorilla Fest. Some, impressively, are doing a combination of events or all three.