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By Tim Roberts
Pencils at the ready, class. Circle the best answer from the choices below.
1. The biggest dog in the world
2. A sound bite
3. A city in Nova Scotia that calls itself the sea scallop capital of the world
4. 4A trucking line
5. A British admiral turned pirate
6. All of the above
The correct answer is somewhere in the following story. For those who want to check their answer immediately, you'll find it at the end.
Flashback: Early summer, 1999. The normally oppressive Ohio Valley heat enveloped Louisville at twice its regular strength, as if a thick-furred cat has curled itself about the city and settled in for a four-month nap. In an attempt, once again, to capitalize on the city's alleged status as one of the Music Meccas of the World, as reported in March, 1998 issue of Playboy, City Stage returned to the Belvedere. A series of concerts featuring local bands of all kinds, City Stage was created and produced by an agency of the city government to present Louisville's music talent in the best way possible. In 1999, it was presented in thick heat that imprisoned the smell of fried funnel cake dough and grilled meat from the food vendors that surrounded the performance area.
Closing out the first set of concerts was a favorite of the twirly-dancer-and-elbow-flail set: 100 Acre Wood, its sound meshing folk and rock instrumentation with a thumpy groove, its name conjuring up childhood simplicity and the promise of a Nirvana of honey pots and small stuffed animals come to life. Throughout their set the band tossed beach balls into the crowd that clustered around the stage and gave away small toys to anyone who would dance during their set. Young women squealed and spun up like dervishes once the music started.
"We have felt like a different band from what 100 Acre Wood had been," said bassist Ben Schneider, nearly five years later in the living room of his New Albany home, surrounded by his remaining band mates. "For some reason it kinda had a hippie vibe attached to it and we might've been that at one point, but we never really meant to be that. We just didn't feel like that anymore. That just wasn't us. Plus my voice changed."
"We became Digby because we were going through a lot of changes," said lead vocalist Paul Moeller. "The direction of the music was changing, a member who was a primary writer left, so that changed the sound quite a bit. So we figured if we're going to go in this other direction, we might as well take full advantage of the desire that was already there to just change completely."
"It was just a good way to start fresh," said Schneider.
So now it's Digby, a new stage in the evolution of five musicians - ranging in age from 28 to 32 - from Southern Indiana. In addition to Schneider and Moeller, the band features three other transfers from 100 Acre Wood: drummer Mark Book, keyboardist John Shiner and lead guitarist Rich Oeffinger. Co-founding 100 Acre Wood member Nate Thumas left the band early in its metamorphosis. Even though the band's new name is also borrowed - it's the same as a trucking line, a city in Nova Scotia, an admiral in the British navy during the 18th century and the name of biggest dog in the world (from a 1974 children's movie) - the sound, image and direction has undergone a shift. Sort of like the kind that happens when an earthquake makes a river run in the opposite direction.
The hippie vibe has been scotched. The inability to alphabetize the band's name properly in the record bins ("Okay, so do we put them under O for One-hundred Acre Wood, or under H for Hundred Acre Wood, or somewhere before A `cause 100 isn't a letter it's more, like, a number.") has been flensed away. The mellow, folky restraint in the music has mutated into something even Charles Xavier would admire. The earth-tones have been washed pale, replaced by retina-slamming primary colors. Long jams have been trimmed silent. Replacing it all: a name that clearly falls under one letter of the alphabet, a image makeover that reels them down from the patchouli clouds and into the fire, songs that rarely last past five minutes and tight, energetic, guitar-heavy pop in hooks that don't just infect you - they lock onto your consciousness like a S.W.A.T team sniper and never take the cross-hairs off.
Or, as Ben Schneider put it, "Digby is a sound bite. 100 Acre Wood is a speech."
Being succinct in both name and musical approach has produced some benefits, namely a comfortable record deal that sections out marketing and promotional efforts locally, regionally and nationally. In addition to the new deal, the band has written a song for the upcoming feature film Keep Your Distance, shot in Louisville by Stu Pollard, director of Nice Guys Sleep Alone.
All this has come through for Digby after the band had been exhausted from deal-shopping for years while confronting cretins and cheapskates.
"We've all been through the ringer with all sorts of unsavory experiences," Oeffinger said. "One guy's main crux was that he could offer us hookers and drugs. And it almost escalated into violence with him not being very open with us and telling us the truth and being able to actually tell us what he could do for us."
"He was selling himself to us," Moeller said, "as opposed to it needing to be the other way around."
"And he didn't like Mark because he wore tan pants," Schneider added.
"There were two full-time record labels we turned down a couple years ago," Book said. "There was one in Dixon, Illinois and they could offer us a lot but the big turn-off was that they wanted us to pay for studio time." Another label in Minneapolis had the same stipulation.
If the lesson Dorothy learned at the end of the film version of The Wizard of Oz is that happiness is in your own back yard, the same might be said for striking a record deal. For Digby, it wasn't found in their back yard, but across the river instead. Todd Smith, co-founder of Louisville's Label X and former Days of the New Producer, approached Digby interested in working with them.
The result? A comfortable promotional agreement that respects the family commitments of both sides, a treasure of ballsy power-pop called Go Digby and a third album soon to be co-released by Label X and Seattle-based Toucan Cove, a division of the Madacy Entertainment Group, called Falling Up. It's an exciting and appropriately family-friendly deal for a band that took its former name from the setting of beloved series in children's literature, borrows its current name from a popular children's movie from the 1970s and whose national breakout release will have he same name as the final book of children's poems from the late Shel Silverstein.
"When Todd said he was interested in working with us," Book said, "there were no strings attached. He wanted to make an album with us, so he went out and got the money to make the thing. And we did it. There was no `you guys go ahead and pay half now. . . ."
"One of the first things Todd told me," said Schneider, "was that he wanted to keep his family. He wanted to work in music and still be able to go home in the evening and see his kids. And that really appealed to me because even though I don't have a family," he paused and nodded his head toward his band mates, "they all do. That would be in their best interest and some kind of deal like that was really the only thing that was gonna keep us going."
"Among the five of us we have four mortgages, four wives and two kids," said Oeffinger.
Yet that doesn't mean the men of Digby are exempt from the responsibilities of being in a band with a recording that will soon be released nationally. There is yet another shoe that they know will drop.
"There comes a jumping off point that we all realize has to happen," Book said, "where there's gonna be some miles logged and some road time put in. But we're trying to play it as smart as we can right now. When it's time to hop in that van and hit the road, we want to know the clear reason why, where we're going and who's going to cut the check to us."
"It's because the place where we're at in our lives," Schneider said, "we just can't afford to drop everything and go be a rock-and-roll band playing for five people every night."
Acknowledging that the ultimate goal of the deal is national recognition for Digby - which entails courting the twin imps of touring and supporting - the members have been focusing on creating Falling Up, scheduled for a spring release. Funding from the project has been provided by Nick Stevonovich of Medacy Entertainment's Toucan Cove label.
"This new deal," Oeffinger said, "started happening in early November or late October. Nick Stevonovich has been totally hands-off. All the checks for making the thing have been coming from him and he's pretty much told us, `make the record you want to make and I'll put it out.'
Oeffinger paused. "With the one stipulation that `100% Free' has to be on it.
It is an unwritten requirement that a band or performer must have a signature song, a "Born in the USA," a "Freebird, a "Losing Light Fast," a "My Way." For Digby, that song might be "100% Free." Originally from the band's 2000 release Laughing at the Trees, the song appears as a slightly gutsier version on Go Digby and will make a second encore on Falling Up.
"It's an old song," Oeffinger said, "and God forbid that that's the next single, `cause if it gets released here in Louisville - "
"We're not going to be able to play here anymore," Book said with a smile.
"But, nationally, nobody has a clue about that song," Shiner said. "They'll think it's hot."
"It's not that we all hate the song," Oeffinger pointed out, "we just got bored with it."
"We're no longer emotionally involved with it at all," Moeller added.
So the next time you see Digby perform and a band member calls out "What song is it you want to hear," the proper response is not "100% Free." Or "Freebird."
But Digby's focus is such that the band members would most likely refuse to duplicate the same sound as "100% Free" on every song they write from now on, no matter how successful it is or how much those who hold the purse strings like it. There are risks to take with each new song.
"I think people are really scared to take a risk on new music," Shiner said. "We see it everywhere. I think everything is about `what have I heard before, what am I familiar with and comfortable with.'"
The musical evolution from their sound as 100 Acre Wood, up through Laughing at the Trees and auguring headfirst into Go Digby, shows a band emboldened by the choices they have made to forego comfort and in changing the way they sound. And that kind of risky, bold change is, obviously, good.
"The way we write music now," Oeffinger said, "is totally different from what it was back then. If you look at our album, it says all songs written by Digby. And there may be a point where somebody comes in with an almost finished song, but we all know that the song isn't gonna be done until we all put our hearts into it. Not just what we play, but the actual structure of the song."
"There are an infinite number of approaches we could take as a band," Moeller said, "as opposed to the way we were doing it, where it was, `I'll come in with this song and it's my song and this is the way we're going to do it.' We don't have that approach."
The decision to evolve from jam band into Team Digby has brought bigger payoffs than a generous slot machine. The Label X/Toucan Cove deal and having a song in a feature film is only the gravy. The real profit comes from working with people you like.
"I've had musicians come up to me," Schneider said, "and say how jealous they are of us, because you can be the greatest player in the world, but it's really difficult to find a group of people you can actually live with and work with. For some guys who're just amazingly great at what they do, they've just never been able to find that right combination of people to make it keep on going. We got very, very lucky."
"Plus we're all to insecure to leave," said Oeffinger.
ANSWER KEY: The correct response to the opening question is (b) Winston Churchill's eyebrows.