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We're a Happy Family: The Story of the Merediths
By Kevin Gibson
Walking into Brian Haulter's house is like walking back into the '70s, what with the open kitchen, the split level design and the wood paneling. Oh, the wood paneling. It's almost like walking onto the set of the Brady Bunch.
"We always said this would be the Brady house if the Brady dad got divorced," said Jesse Lucas, Haulter's bandmate in the Merediths.
Uh, you see, Haulter and Lucas live together in this modest home in Clarksville, Ind. A young fellow named Joe Meredith also lives there; he's the lead vocalist and main songwriter for the Merediths. Jonathon York lives in the house as well. He plays keyboards and percussion in the band. Mark Bryant, who joined last summer and plays lead guitar? He lives there too.
In fact, the whole thing shapes up more like the old Monkees TV show: Hard-working band sharing a house and doing whatever it can to make ends meet, all because the music comes first. That would make Haulter, the drummer, the Mickey Dolenz of the Merediths and would make Lucas, the bass player, the resident Peter Tork.
Main difference is, these guys play all their own instruments and they write all their own songs. And this is no TV show, no put-on that was organized by a record label to capitalize on the success of the Beatles. The Merediths are the real deal and if you hadn't heard of them before you started reading this, well, that probably wasn't going to last long anyway. The band has only just released its first CD, a five-song EP titled A Closed Universe on Debauchery Records (which is actually just a co-op of a few local bands and some good old fashioned smoke and mirrors) and already it is making waves in the CMJ charts, getting airplay all around the country and being noticed by the gentleman who promotes the Flaming Lips, a band you probably have heard of.
Queue "Last Train to Clarksville" ...
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING ABOUT THE MEREDITHS
Haulter managed to get Scott Booker, the aforementioned manager of the Lips, to listen to their demo. Booker liked it enough that he booked the band for a show in Oklahoma and offered some guidance in getting their songs heard.
For instance, while Universe was released to the public in mid-March, the CDs actually came into the guys' hands in January. While most bands might take those CDs and immediately do a release party, the Merediths methodically put them into the hands of labels, print media, radio, etc. The first batch went out as review copies.
"The day we got (the CDs) back, we made this huge assembly line," Lucas said.
"We sent out like 300 CDs that day," York said. "We used like 1,200 stamps." One week later, another 300 went out to radio.
It paid off. A Closed Universe recently appeared in - and proceeded to climb - the CMJ charts. As of this writing, it had reached 105. Airplay was reported via the Internet at 88.1 FM in Anchorage, Alaska (it was No. 21 on the Top 30); WSBF FM at Clemson University in South Carolina (No. 12 on the Top 30); WMFO FM at Tufts College in Medford, Mass. (which played "Cruel Kind of Love" off the EP); WRMC FM at Middlebury College in Vermont (which played the song "Homo Erectus" in its Top 30 countdown); and WPRB in Princeton, N.J., which played "Marmalade Maggie" as its choice from Universe. And those were just a few that a recent Google search turned up.
But to make a splash on the CMJ charts with a self-made and self-promoted EP? That's uncommon, if not unheard of. This is not lost on the Merediths, who alternate between wide-eyed wonder and complete disbelief when talking about the attention and airplay the CD has gained.
"We started out at 170 (on CMJ)," Lucas said. "But I just think it's great to be on the CMJ charts. There's, like, us and then next there's some real band."
The reviews in the indie rock press have been quite positive as well and the comparisons drawn have been far-reaching and interesting. Curiously, few people have compared the band to the Beatles, York said, although "it's so obvious."
"One review said we were trying to sound mainstream," Lucas said. Mainstream? Like Ashlee Simpson mainstream?
"Yeah," said Haulter, "she's been a big influence on us."
CopperPress.com wrote, "Light, bouncy stuff reminiscent of Being There-era Wilco but without all the desperation and more of the beauty." That writer did mention McCartney when discussing "Marmalade Maggie." The writer went on to say, "Forget the comparisons to The Shins, Superdrag and all that, these kids are in a class by themselves and deserving of wider acclaim, a full-length and plenty of spreads in magazines where journalists ask: `With a name like the ... uh, Merediths ... are you, you know ... related?' Keep the spirit of highly melodic and imaginative rock `n' roll alive, boys. Please?"
BettaWreckonize.com's writer spared nothing in comparing the band to other artists (albeit with more questionable grammar): "If I ran a matchmaking service for indie rock bands I'd have a lot of options for who I'd set The Merediths up with. Would they mesh best with the Anniversary? ... Perhaps an evening outing with Modest Mouse? ... As a matter of fact, I'd be comfortable sending The Merediths to dinner with Superdrag, The Shins, Weezer and even Bright Eyes. Hell, if I wasn't married I'd probably take The Merediths home and make sweet love to them myself."
Hybrid Magazine wrote, "My ears are very happy. It's times like these - times when you realize that indie rock can be on key and in tune - that I remember why I began to review music in the first place." The writer goes on to compare the Merediths to the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the, uh, somewhat lesser known band Gomez.
And the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote said the Merediths' sound is "Brit-loving power-pop ear-candy, really, but there's something in the offhand charm and quirkiness with which they pull it off that could just speak to indie fans who dig the Shins and A.C. Newman while rolling their eyes at the latest from Fountains of Wayne."
The disparate comparisons are interesting, even to the band. "It's just people's frame of reference," Lucas said. "Like, our bosses have a limited frame of reference, so they say, `It sounds like one of those rock bands.'"
Bosses notwithstanding, Spin.com (as in, Spin magazine) has told the band that the Merediths will be a "Band of the Day" sometime in the near future. In addition, AllMusicnews.net has reviewed A Closed Universe - comparing them to Badfinger in the process - which should help more people become aware of the band. (AllMusic is a music geek's paradise and simply appearing there offers a sense of legitimacy to the music-aholics of the world.)
Of the airplay and press, Haulter said, "It's pretty awesome, being an unsigned band and doing it totally on our own."
"It's overwhelming," agreed Meredith. "I don't know what to say."
"It's been amazing," Bryant concurred. "To put out a record we produced ourselves and is on a label that doesn't have any money at all, it's really awesome."
"It's very reassuring," York explained. "The positive responses we've gotten have affirmed our belief that we can do a lot of this stuff on our own. We don't have a label and we don't have a manager. The positive response and the attention we've gotten has really encouraged us. The work we've put in seems to be culminating and paying off. The plan from the beginning was to release that and gain some attention and then go to the next level. A lot of these things are starting to happen now."
Much of this attention came about because of the band's relentless drive to have its music heard. Haulter, while surfing the Internet looking to see who managed his favorite bands, e-mailed Booker and asked if he would listen to the Merediths' demo. Booker agreed (yes, sometimes it's just that easy) and became interested. They continued e-mailing back and forth until one day he made the offer they couldn't refuse.
"He called us like eight days before and said `Can you be in Oklahoma for this show I'm doing?'" Haulter recalled. "We said, `Yeah, we'll be there.'" So they went. No, it hasn't gotten the band signed to a label yet, but Booker's help has been invaluable to this fortuitous start to the Merediths' career.
ABOUT THE MEREDITHS
The Merediths grew from the remains of the Audio-Video Club, which included Haulter, Lucas and York. (Haulter previously was a member of the Lynnwoods, as well.) It was when Meredith hooked up with Lucas that the new sound started to fall into place.
"We were writing these pop-folk songs," Lucas said. "I was like, `Let's come up with a name.' Joe's last name is Meredith, so I said, `Let's be called the Merediths so we're like the Carpenters or something.'"
That was in late 2003. The band grew from there as Haulter and York came on board. Bryant joined last summer.
The group made a few CD-R copies of a three-song demo it had recorded (Haulter works at Downtown Recording Studios, which is where A Closed Universe was made) and it sold 100 copies or so. The response was good enough that they added two songs and produced the EP.
For those who haven't heard it, A Closed Universe is a work of sheer pop joy. From the opening acoustic chords of "Marmalade Maggie" with Meredith's instantly endearing vocal, to the singsong chorus of "Let's All Live Underground" (which really is the perfect marriage of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" and "Octopus's Garden - there, I said it), it's an irresistible 16 minutes of sweet, accessible, fun music. It's like those potato chip commercials; no one can listen just once.
The band insists there was nothing premeditated about its signature sound. While they all admit they have been heavily influenced by the Beatles and other 1960s pop bands like the Zombies and the Beach Boys, the plan was just to put together a band that became whatever it was destined to become. Previously, many of the members had been in bands that sounded like modern EMO or pop-punk bands (think Get-Up Kids), but that just didn't stick.
"That's not even what we listen to," Lucas said.
Haulter added, "It's just easy to write songs like that."
But Meredith's songwriting style and vocal capabilities would lead them back to their roots.
"We just talked about playing music we liked and not just what was popular," Lucas recalled.
York added, "We didn't sit down and say, `Let's play '60s pop.' We just wanted to play in a band. We ended up sounding like a Beatles-era band because we wanted to have the vocal parts up front instead of the fancy guitar parts."
The quiet Meredith started writing songs as a teen-ager, almost immediately after he started playing the guitar.
"I never learned lot of covers," he said. "I started writing lyrics and stuff. I always hated poetry, but I thought song lyrics were a little different - they're not so self-righteous. Songs for some reason can have a sense of humor that doesn't come across in poetry."
His early influences came from his father's record collection.
"I got into music when I was pretty young," he said. "My dad had a bunch of classic rock records like the Beatles, the Stones, T Rex. That's where it kind of grew from. When I was about 14 or 15, I started playing guitar. I've been doing it ever since."
York, a multi-instrumentalist, got into music because his older sister started taking piano lessons when he was very young. He followed suit and wound up being leader of the Elizabethtown High School percussion section all through his high school years.
"Joe and Jesse were over at my apartment one time playing some Merediths songs," York said. "I started playing along on this cheesy keyboard I had. They thought it was a great idea (to have keyboards in the songs), so I spent a bunch of money and started writing real parts for them."
York's part in the band shouldn't be undervalued. He often plays keyboard with one hand while using a tambourine, shaker, bells or some other percussive instrument with the other.
"It affords a lot of flexibility," he said. "One of my keyboard modules has 256 different sounds. It really opens things up in terms of what we can actually do live. With recording, we have a lot of time and resources. But to duplicate that live, having the keyboard parts there makes the show a lot better."
Lucas, raised by his grandparents, was into '50s rock early on - Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. An uncle introduced him to bands like the Mamas and the Papas, the Eagles and CCR, which expanded his influences. He started out playing guitar; then he wanted to be a drummer in the school band, but that didn't work out.
"I did some test or whatever and they said, `You have good tone; you should play trombone.' So I dropped music to take an art class." Playing bass came later and he does so with quiet, harmonic aplomb as a member of the Merediths.
"I always work with Jonathon," he said. "He's a really good musician, so we always try to intertwine bass and drum and keyboard parts. There's no real egos in the band, so if someone comes up with part that's better than your part, we're like `Yeah, that's better.'
"I've been in a lot of bands and had never had a really good rhythm section. Brian, this is his first band playing drums and he's one of the best drummers I've ever played with. He just plays so musical. It isn't about him; he just wants to make the song better."
Haulter was a guitarist and singer with the Lynnwoods for seven years before he formed Audio-Video Club with two of his current bandmates. But it was the Eagles' "Take it to the Limit" that made him love music as a child and he later got into punk through his interest in BMX racing. He fell in love with a song by NOFX ("I Wanna Be Your Baby") and that was it.
"From there you find the Ramones and then it's over," he said. "Once you find the Ramones, there's no turning back from that point."
For Bryant, the soft-spoken guitarist, it was his parents' love for music that opened his eyes and ears as a child. "They would listen to oldies stations driving back and forth to Louisville," he said. "Mom had a lot of Dylan records and Simon and Garfunkel. Dad had a lot of Cream and Jimi Hendrix and stuff like that."
A tasteful guitarist (his solos and fills are always just enough for the song, never in your face or even resembling the musical masturbation of some lead guitarists), Bryant first started playing in the sixth grade. His father can play a little, his older brother got a guitar and it grew from there. He went to high school with York, which is how he became involved with the Merediths.
"It's nice to be in the band because everyone is a proficient guitar player," he said. "I'm not egotistical about anything, so I don't mind asking them what they think."
WE'RE A HAPPY FAMILY
But ask outsiders what they think and you'll get a pretty standard response. "They're probably my favorite band in Louisville," said Jason Cox of labelmate IamIs. "They're tight as hell."
As for the Merediths' throwback sound, he said, "I would have to say it's just free thinking. I don't think really good melodies and harmonies can be limited to a certain time. That's just a trait of good songs."
Said John Timmons, founder of ear X-tacy Records and a guy with his finger on the pulse of local music, recalled the irony of how he came to admire the Merediths' sound. "I was first made aware of these guys months ago. I got a call from Gerry Hart from CMJ magazine, calling me from the Flaming Lips' office in Oklahoma, where he had fallen in love with the Merediths. Imagine, a guy from New York City, calling from Oklahoma - to turn me on to a band from my own town. Geez."
As for the attention the band has gotten thus far, he said, "I have a feeling this will be huge, in Louisville - the CD debuted at No. 1 last week on our sales chart - as well as nationwide."
And so the Merediths push forward, practicing nearly every day. The proximity of living in the same house makes it easy to develop songs, bounce ideas off each other and stay tight. Everyone is in the loop; communication is unhindered. Heck, they share bathrooms, so how could they not be close? Not to mention productive and prolific.
"Plus, once in a while I get to see Jonathon in his underwear," Haulter said.
"I didn't realize how fast we work as a band," Lucas explained, "until I went to California for a week and a half and came back and there were five new songs. I said, `What happened?'"
The band assured a recent visitor to the House of Merediths that there is no competition for girls, no secret rivalries, no bad blood. Just a tight-knit group of young guys who love to make music together. And who hope to be able to do just that for a long time to come, maybe even make a living at it. Based on the early returns, the Merediths seem to be front-runners to succeed.
"When we started doing the demos, we loved the songs but we didn't know if other people would get them," Haulter said. "We're real music nerds and it's tough to figure out if people are going to like it. So far, so good."