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Time To Be Tantric
By Tim Roberts
"End and beginning are dreams! Birthless and deathless and changeless remaineth the spirit forever / Death hath not touched it at all, dead though the house of it seems!"
-- Bhagvad Gita, Chapter II
"There are no second acts in American life."
-- F. Scott Fitzgerald
". . .so walk away, don't turn around cause i won't be standing here cause all the lies that i've been living through are becoming very clear"
A Thursday night, early April in Louisville - Headliners Music Hall was crammed to the grouting with Abercrombie and Fitch's core demographic - a cross-section of the city's 18-24 year olds. Outside the air was unseasonably sticky. Spaghetti-strap tops and clingy muscle shirts came out early to show off spring break tans. Inside the temperature was slightly above uncomfortable. Assault guitar and ballsy vocals and white rap from the latest bands of the moment hammered through speakers on the stage where the preceding band's equipment was being hurried off. The energy they had whipped up during their set had dropped into a low buzz that rattled the walls.
The adhesive from my wristband - traffic-cone orange and papery with a thin plastic backing - snagged my arm hair. It announced that I was at the legal drinking age. The security guard at the entrance had wrapped the strip quickly around my wrist in a hurry to put one on the person behind me, so there was a micro-stab of pain each time I moved my left hand. The line of people at the door extended out to the street. They were still filing in by the time I had made my way to the stage door at the rear of the hall. My girlfriend and I were drawn to the small draft of air that came from it. It was also a chance to get close to the stage, take a few gulps of fresh air when the door opened, and have a quick means of exit if it were needed. Behind us, more bodies were packed closer together than there had been two minutes earlier. We could not move from that spot for the rest of the evening.
Stagehands hoisted the headlining band's banner up the back of the stage, the name spelled out in slithery white letters. A cheer came from some cluster in the crowd. True, it wasn't like the Marines hoisting the American flag on Mount Suribachi after the bloody carnage of Iwo Jima. But to see it slide up two poles then hang there soaking up the color of the stage lights gave a feeling of triumph over the old ghosts, failed dreams, broken partnerships, and crumbled faith from which the band had developed.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote at a time when the endless possibilities of his young generation burned into a white heat that hit its flashpoint and vanished into the cold ashes of a national depression. The reckless youth of "Ain't We Got Fun" were the unknowing purveyors of the waste land. Fitzgerald could only write about what he saw of that generation when he said there are no second acts in American lives. He never lived to see the late 20th century marvel called reinvention, where a likable B-movie actor could change his politics and become the pinnacle of conservative thought and action, where a young southern singer could incite another generation to rebellion and metamorphose two decades later into a Las Vegas lounge act, where a large calculation machine that once filled a room would become as indispensable a household item as a toaster and fit inside a back pocket.
Where three young men abruptly exiled from their former band could link with a fourth to revitalize their lives and their music.
And, true to their name, Tantric (a Sanskrit word for loom) has woven common goals into a destiny that mystically defies the common fate of many musicians who were once in now-famous (and infamous) bands. They adamantly refused to become a rock-n-roll footnote like Pete Best, or even Stumpy Pepys of The Thamesmen.
The band's growing fan base knows the story: Tantric is made up of three former members of Days of the New, guitarist Todd Whitener, bassist Jesse Vest, and drummer Matt Taul, with vocalist Hugo Ferreira, a Detroit native who once fronted a band called Merge. Whitener. Vest and Taul were, according to officially sanctioned Days news, relieved of their duties by their frontman Travis Meeks in early January 1999 due to the ubiquitous, catchall reason of "artistic differences." This after they had toured worldwide opening for such bands as Metallica and Veruca Salt and Creed, gained a platinum-selling debut release on Geffen's Outpost label, and had a studio built for them inside the Distillery Commons, a knot of brick buildings that looms over a curve in Lexington Road just before Payne Street, across from the northern wall of Cave Hill Cemetery. The buildings had once been a distillery and warehouse for Irish Hill whiskey and were later renovated into upscale office space.
How conveniently karmic, then, that their return to Louisville on that steamy April night took place less than 20 yards from the studio built for their former band.
"We found ourselves living our dream with the old band," Whitener said, "and one day it was all stripped away, pretty much. You come to the fact that most people don't get one shot to do that kind of stuff. So instead of being angry and whining about it, we used the energy that was developed off that and threw it into music as kind of a therapeutic release.
"And somehow it pulled us out of it."
It's a great time to be Tantric.
An appearance on "The Tonight Show"; a lengthy, festive tour to support their self-titled debut recording on Madonna's Maverick label; a song, "Breakdown," that has reached the top 10 of Billboard's Modern Rock Singles chart; a video for it (directed by Marco Siega, who has directed videos for Blink 182 and Papa Roach) in rotation on MTV-2; a song featured in the soundtrack to the movie Driven; a web site that received half a million hits in February alone; a CD release party in their hometown crammed with their fans.
And the simple comfort of being in a band with shared objectives.
"The best thing that's been true ever since the beginning," Whitener said, "is that it's all of us working toward a common goal. It's 100 percent of us working toward the same exact thing, and we all know what it takes to be where we want to be. It makes it much easier."
"We all work together harder as a team," drummer Matt Taul said, putting his comments in a suit and giving them a seat on the board. "Everybody puts in equal effort and works just as hard. We run this company. We own it. We have the freedom to make decisions, and we've pretty much made good ones so far. And we have fun every day."
"They're great guys," said smoggy-voiced vocalist Hugo Ferreira of his bandmates. "They're my family."
"We took a big spill," said bassist Jesse Vest, "and just knowing for myself that I was able to come back from something like that was just amazing."
Each member of Tantric spoke to me over the phone from their hotel room in Charlotte, North Carolina, preparing for that night's show, just one stop on their city-by-city jaunt towards the CD release party at home. They were watching VH-1, where the programming apparently now focuses less on what performers are up to today and more on reminiscence. The soothing videos of "Sunday Brunch" have been bulldozed down by the trivial pursuits of "Where Are They Now" and the rise-and-fall dramatics portrayed in "Behind the Music." It is a network that seems to have become an endless episode of "Biography," but with music from your past that you either loved or prayed to never hear again.
The promotional material for Tantric mentions that the dissolution of the first iteration of Days of the New could have become part of an episode of "Behind the Music." You can even visualize it. There's a slow zoom onto a picture of Days, shirtless Travis Meeks posed off center, the other band members surrounding him, their faces sullen, cloaked in exhaustion. Jim Forbes' voice intonating sadness as he always does when the down-spots of a band's career are described, morose synth music underneath, when he says, "But the parties, the touring, the excitement were abruptly, sadly over as artistic differences dissolved the first version of Days of the New." And when Forbes says the word dissolve, Matt, Jesse, and Todd dissolve from the picture, leaving Meeks. Alone.
Music out. Fade to black.
Fade in on the control room of a studio in Nashville. Toby Wright, who has produced and engineered recordings for Alice in Chains and the latest mega-stars Korn, is behind the control board making preliminary mixes of bass and drum tracks for a new band. Ideas for the emerging album project are exchanged, tried, and altered. Later, they will transplant their operation to Los Angeles to record guitar parts and vocals, then do the final mix. It has been more than three years since the guitarist, drummer, and bassist have had their work slicked up by a noted engineer and producer. The vocalist adds his smoky gravy to their sound. Behind their backs, but with their blessings, lawyers and managers are building a deal with Maverick Records. That label, founded by a cultural icon (who has herself defied Fitzgerald's dictum and has had probably up to four acts in her own American life), will be home to a rebirth of faith in ability. With the self-titled project, the four men in Tantric were obviously determined to make something happen. But a lot of what did, especially landing Wright as their producer and engineer, involved simple luck.
"What happened was a [demo] CD ended up in a friend of a friend's hand," Whitener said. "Next thing we knew, Toby called. He loved the stuff. We had gotten this list of producers before and he was somebody I had had my eye on from the beginning. But we thought he'd be too busy, so we got lucky in scoring him."
The next bout of luck came when, after their manager Dan Colucci obtained the services of a music lawyer in Los Angeles who had the kind of network no band can be without, Maverick showed some interest in the emerging band - an interest that was mutual.
"They were definitely a favorite from the beginning," Whitener recalled, "because a lot of those people were at Geffen, which was the label our old band was on. So we already knew a lot of those people who'd gone over to Maverick. They know what we have done and what we haven't done, and what we could do and what we couldn't do. It makes it much easier that way."
The finished product was delivered to Maverick and released on February 13. The overall sound of the recording is a blast of cool air in a genre of rock dominated by brackish guitars that scream and wail and thrum, making the sound of demons being pulled of Hell by the short ones. Lyrics are undecipherable as the vocalists scream them. Instead, Tantric brings the rock to us with generous use of acoustic and electric guitars that alternate between lead and rhythm, gentle intros that suddenly kick in the nitro and slam through to the finish, vocal harmonies stitched together as tightly as bookbinding, and lyrics that present both the light and the dark of the things that slam at the soul.
"We'd hoped to shed a light on the dark things of life," Whitener said. "but kind of turn it around at the end and say how that's just part of life, that you can turn those things into positives. I hope everybody who hears it gets that kind of message off of it."
The clearest example of one such message song is the opening track "Breakdown." It challenges people contemplating suicide, who've been listening to the voices in their head telling them they're "four pawns down" in some cosmic chess game, to find the reason that no one else is living the way they are: despondent, hopeless, dying. Just as the anti-suicide theme of Billy Joel's "You're Only Human" was trying to reach a generation growing up in the mid-1980s, Tantric's "Breakdown" sends that same message out to youth early in this third millennium. Its line "you better check yourself before you check out" is also akin to the axiom of "Free your mind and your ass will follow." You are not your thoughts. Your thoughts are not your destiny. Your destiny is not your ending.
"Breakdown" also contains the most impressive harmonies among the tracks on the CD. Ferreira's sonorous melodies and Whitener's harmonies are corded together like muscle, without effort or the need for overdubs, something that was apparent when Ferreira first sang with the band at an audition.
Twenty-seven-year-old Ferreira was frontman of Merge, a band in Detroit with, as he put it, "limited musical ability" that kept changing members as often as they changed razor blades. They had opened for Days of the New during one tour, and Ferreira became friends with them. Merge's manager, Dan Colucci, was working for the same company that managed Days of the New. "When he told me about what had happened to them and they guys called me," he said, "I thought that maybe it's time for a change. I had a gut feeling. As soon as I sang one note with Todd, I was like, `Bam! This is it!' It was a perfect fit."
Whitener's desire to sing harmonies was something else that drew Ferreira into the band, something he claims that most rock bands don't want to do. It violates an expectation that has been prevalent in modern rock since the early 1990s: lead singers carrying the entire melody with a mimicky vocal quality that sounds like Scott Stapp trying to sound like Scott Weiland trying to sound like Eddie Vedder.
"A few bands made it really big doing that," Ferreira said. "It became popular for awhile, everybody started liking it. A whole bunch of bands rode on their coattails. But like everything it reached a saturation point. Music evolves independently and collectively at the same time. People will want to revert to something else, whether it's vocal, rap, hip-hop, rock, whatever.
He continued. "The best thing about Tantric is that we set no limits for ourselves as to how the music will sound. I think we're definitely going to evolve, but we're also staying close to our roots in rock-and-roll. I see us evolving and this band becoming a better band the longer it's together."
And that's the plan this time - to last longer than one album and a tour or two.
"Longevity in our career is a common goal," Ferreira said. "Doing as well as we can and also to establish security doing what we love to do in our lives for our families, for everyone in the band who has children. To be able to do something that you love is incredible. To be able to do that and support your family is a miracle."
Jesse Vest, married with two small children, agrees. "The whole project has been a great thing to be working on, from meeting Hugo and making the album from pre-production to finishing the mixes, and all the touring - I have no complaints. And that's amazing."
Source material for future projects won't be a problem. The two demos discs Tantric had recorded contained a library of tracks, only half of which appeared in developed form on the debut CD.
"We had about 35 or 40 songs going into the recording of the album," said Whitener of their backlist. "That's a lot. But I guess if we have writer's block for the second album, at least we've got a backup."
And with that kind of a power reserve, will they take advantage of the momentum powered by the current release's success to get back into the studio for the next one?
"It's gonna be awhile," said Vest. "We're really proud of this record and we're gonna work it for a while. We'll probably tour for another solid year and see what happens from there."
Tantric has a distinction of being a band that is riding high on the aftershocks of a dream that augered in as quickly as it rose. It has happened before and, in the candied karma of the music industry, it will happen again. For now, though, in the rubbly waves behind them are the fresh memories of a failed dream. With them now is success that comes from weaving their musical experiences with shared goals.
Ahead of them, a chance to make it work. This time.
This time is a great time to be Tantric.
"The Soul's light shineth pure in every place / And they who, by such eye of wisdom, see How Matter, and what deals with it, divide / And how the Spirit and the flesh have strife / Those wise ones go the way which leads to Life!"
--Bhagvad Gita, Chapter XIII
. . . I mean the thing that lies behind all great careers. . .[is] the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not "happiness and pleasure" but the deeper satisfactions that come out of the struggle. Having learned this in theory from the lives and conclusions of great men, you can get a hell of a lot more enjoyment out of whatever bright things come your way."
--F. Scott Fitzgerald
"look into yourself / find out what to do / life is made of simple nothings opening to you / the best is still in you."
--"I'll Stay Here"
Your next chance to experience Tantric in Louisville will be at the Crown Royal Festival in the Field, on May 3 in the Infield of Churchill Downs. Admission is only $2.
Check on the latest Tantric news at www.maverick.com/tantric.