Success of the Year: Little Big Bands
Three of 2010's breakthrough acts may not be household names -- but they're perfect examples of rock's new order.
Alex Ebert, the bearded, altogether Jesus-y frontman for psych-pop merry pranksters Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, has a not unreasonable theory. “Facebook is popular because we all want friends,” he says, “but we exist in three-dimensional bodies. We were put on Earth to experience more than cyberspace community, and that takes time to build. That’s what makes it special.”
He would know. For the Zeros, English folk-rockers Mumford & Sons, and anthemic Australians the Temper Trap, 2010 was defined by patience, persistence, word of mouth, and surprising success. Mumford’s Sigh No More (Glassnote) sold 316,000 copies. The Zeros’ Up From Below (Community/Vagrant) sold 160,000, and the band played to overflow crowds at Coachella, Sasquatch, and Lollapalooza. The Temper Trap earned 96,000 in sales of Conditions (Glassnote), and sold another 528,000 individual digital tracks. Each of these albums, all debuts and all originally released in the second half of 2009, had their peak sales weeks deep into 2010. At a point when we’re obsessed with what’s trending/blowing up/going viral, these bands proved the lasting power of the slow burn.
“Once you realize that this is a fickle world,” says baby-faced Mumford & Sons’ singer-guitarist Marcus Mumford, “you also realize that for your own sake, the best thing to do is to just write songs you believe in. Hopefully, the rest takes care of itself.”
From the same London folk scene that hatched Mumford’s girlfriend Laura Marling, Mumford & Sons, which includes bassist Ted Dwane, keyboardist Ben Lovett, and banjoist Winston Marshall, started playing together in late 2007. In October 2009, after three EPs, they released Sigh, an album of enthusiastically harmonized, earnestly emotional brawlers and bawlers about love and family and figuring out who you are. (A Dust Bowl fashion sense and a name that could be cribbed from an Edwardian confectionary added some old-timey sugar.)
But it was the quartet’s breathless, rollicking stage show that heralded their trans-Atlantic success. Despite lacking a radio hit, every gig on the band’s spring and summer tour of the U.S. — their first — was a sellout. So were all the dates on a follow-up trip in the fall. “The quality of the crowds was even more amazing than the quantity,” says Mumford. “People would be cheering for a fast song and then superquiet during the slow ones. It was a blessing.” In October 2010, the self-lacerating yet rousing single “Little Lion Man” went to No. 1 on Billboard‘s Alternative Rock chart. “I refuse to analyze our appeal,” says Mumford, “but we don’t try to be anything we’re not. We figure we might as well sing songs we believe in. We’re playing them every night anyway. It seems to be working.”
The Magnetic Zeros’ rise had more of the phoenix about it. Singer Ebert caught a whiff of early-aughts success with dance-rockers Ima Robot (who recently reunited to release a new album) before addiction and commercial disinterest brought him low. After getting clean in 2007, he decided to create something he’d never had. “I grew up in the [San Fernando] Valley,” says Ebert, “where all the houses are surrounded by fences, which are surrounded by gates. After AA, I had to rebuild myself, and part of that included creating my own community.”
So he bought an old white school bus, asked ten or so musician friends to get on board, and began writing and playing ramshackle celebratory songs best triangulated by hummable sunshine pop, Human Be-Ins, and vaguely unsettling head-trip prophecies — as if the spawn of the Manson and Partridge families formed a band. Ebert christened the troupe after the main character of a novel he was writing, about the messiah.
Naturally, California was receptive. “We’re definitely an L.A. band,” says Ebert. “I remember we played a show at Frank Zappa’s house in Laurel Canyon that was incredible. We did a thing at Houdini’s place. We’d get in the bus and drive to an old movie theater and play there. We’d get shows wherever we could. People started telling their friends. Each time we’d play, we’d recognize faces, but they’d be standing with faces we didn’t know.”
In a bit of counterintuitive kismet, the group’s unwieldy size also worked in its favor. “They never toured as a support act,” says booking agent Heather Kolker, who also works with MGMT. “It was too crazy to deal with the production and soundchecking for a band that had so many members. So we put them on the road as headliners and charged less than normal to get people to come. It made their shows seem like more of an event. People were like, ‘Who is this giant band that I’ve never heard of and why are they headlining?’?”
By the time the Magnetic Zeros reached Coachella in April, buoyed by an appearance on Late Night With David Letterman and a tour that played to 97 percent capacity, their audience had clearly grown. “There had to be 30,000 or 40,000 people watching our set,” says Ebert, not mentioning that Jay-Z and Beyoncé were among them. “During one song, I just started screaming — I was completely overcome. It shows what you can do if you just stay on the road and connect with the crowd.”
The band relied on licensing to get to the places the bus couldn’t. Aw-shucks sing-along “Home” was used in an NFL commercial; the gospel-tinged “40 Day Dream” showed up on NBC’s Chuck and HBO’s Hung; the aptly named “Janglin’?” soundtracked a Ford Fiesta ad. “All those things are like water on the seeds we planted,” says Ebert. “It’s been mind-blowing to watch them grow.”
The Temper Trap don’t offer up an aesthetic as anachronistically comforting as Mumford & Sons’ sepia-toned acoustic confessionals or Edward Sharpe’s flower-power flashback. But according to singer-guitarist Dougy Mandagi, the bands all have something in common. “We don’t sing about getting fucked up on Saturday night,” he says. “We’re coming from a more heartfelt place. People respond to our songs just as much as they respond to bangers; it just takes them longer to find because it’s not all over the radio.”
Instead, it’s everywhere else. Conditions‘ soaring “Sweet Disposition,” originally released in Australia in September 2008, crept into Stateside consciousness when it was featured in the trailer for the 2009 rom-com (500) Days of Summer. Then, in 2010, it was used in TV spots for Chrysler and Diet Coke. And Rhapsody. And Eat, Pray, Love. “You notice the jumps in attention afterwards,” says Mandagi, a native of Indonesia who met drummer Toby Dundas in 2005 while working at a clothing store in Melbourne, Australia. (Guitarist Lorenzo Sillitto and bassist Jonny Aherne, friends of Dundas’, were recruited shortly after.) “Suddenly the crowds are a little bigger or you get recognized somewhere. Albums are harder to sell now, so getting songs in commercials is sort of the bread and butter for putting us in a position to play live. Once we’re onstage, the proof is in the pudding.”
This year, the band showcased their easily digestible blend of ringing, echoed guitar lines and falsetto melodies on their first U.S. headlining tour. They also drew huge crowds at Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, and nearly a dozen European festivals, Glastonbury among them. “When we’re at a festival and there are more people watching us than the organizers obviously expected, it’s a validating feeling,” Mandagi says.
Aggressive licensing? Tireless touring? Inclusive vibes? Maybe the success of these bands shouldn’t be surprising at all. “Whenever a band that doesn’t have a fashionable image does well,” says Ebert, “people are going to treat them like they’re something out of Rudy. But things are different now. You want as many listeners as possible, but you really want listeners that care about you as much as you care about them.”
However they’re found, and however long it takes.
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