Being in a local band -- hobby or job? According to the members of Tess, a local Pop/Roots band, it's a combination of hobby, job, passion and addiction. "On the financial end, it's a hobby, because we pay to do it," says Tess' lead singer and guitarist, Jason Bender. "And the day that it pays the electric bill, it's a job." Adam Martin, the band's bass player, adds that it's a passion and an addiction as well. "Music is kind of like religion to me; it's healing, it's therapeutic, it's a release," he says. The four members of Tess have been working together since August. Prior to this project, though, Bender worked with fellow bandmates, keyboardist Ryan Greis and drummer Chris Verbanic, in the bluesier Horselover.
According to Bender, Horselover ended up going a different direction than originally planned, which became a source of frustration. After he was fed up with it, he says he was ready to just give up on being in a band altogether.
"I think I had a total of four weeks without being in a band," laughs Bender.
It didn't take long for the three to collaborate again. This time, though, they decided to focus more on songwriting, and less on "jam qualities."
"In this band, we've made more of a concerted effort to write good songs," says Bender.
They put an ad for a bassist in CityBeat and Martin, who had been playing bass for about 11 years, responded. Now that they've been playing out together at the Southgate House and the Barrelhouse, the members of Tess say they are very realistic about where their music will take them.
"We're all past the age where we're under the delusion that somebody's going to show up at our show and say, 'I want to sign that band,' " Bender says. "We aren't pretty enough and we certainly don't fit the mold."
"None of us wants to be the Dave Matthews Band," says Martin.
"Being national or international is such a high school pipe dream," adds Bender.
Instead, this band wants to expand from the local scene, but with boundaries. "What we're aiming for is just to have a regional fan base that we can nail on a regular basis," says Bender.
To do this, Martin says they concentrate on making their live shows and songwriting their strong points. Bender does most of the songwriting, although each member of Tess puts his stamp on a song.
Even if he hadn't gotten back into a band, Bender says, he would still be writing songs. "I'd write the songs anyway, but these guys let me take them to a level that I would never reach on my own," he says. "I'm not a killer musician; that's not what I'm aiming for. I want to be known as a kick-ass songwriter."
And so, Greis says, "We write our songs based on the number of jeers we get."
In addition to perfecting their songwriting, Greis says, "We're all becoming better musicians."
"I would say that we are one of the only bands with any roots influence that doesn't have a lead guitar," says Bender on what sets them apart in the local scene. "And having a really bad-ass piano player makes a huge difference. Having that texture is different from a lot of bands around -- especially letting it step up and do lead stuff instead of just support every now and again."
Which brings us to the ever-crucial rhythm section. Verbanic came from a formal background in music at the Percussion Institute of Technology in California. Actually working with a band after coming from that kind of schooling was tough. Too much emphasis on the technical aspects of music, he says, tends to make a musician stale. Like Bender, he took some time off from band work before getting involved in Horselover and now Tess.
One of their biggest motivators, aside from their obvious passion for music, is that they really enjoy working together.
"We were really fortunate," says Bender. "It's hard to find musicians who are all on the same page."
"We chose to be with each other. We enjoy the music and we're here for a reason," adds Greis. "We could have separated a long time ago."
The guys of Tess say they very rarely play cover songs. "We have too much good material to be worrying about doing someone else's," says Martin.
From their own material, they have already developed a couple of multi-song demo CDs and are starting to work on getting into the studio to work on a full CD and possibly a single.
TESS will next be at The Barrelhouse on Feb. 9.