News & Features » Miscellany

Part 3

Rock 'n' Roll Lifestyle


"God, what a mess, on the ladder of success, where you take one step and miss the whole first rung."
The Replacements — "Bastards of Young"

Two years ago, local Richmond jazz-rockers Agents of Good Roots were on the cusp of stardom. They sold more than 20,000 copies of their two independent records, they acquired a sizable fan base touring the college circuit, they signed a record deal with RCA, and Billboard Magazine classified their upcoming album as a "hot prospect" for the charts.

"We couldn't seem to shake the 'Dave Matthews stepkid' label. We had the same management, same A&R guy, same record company," says Agents drummer Brian Jones from his Fan apartment. "Dave is a phenomenon in the business — we are nothing like him, except we mine a similar genre. I was always kind of nervous because I didn't know if they actually got what we did or if they were just signing us because we were from the same area."

Play It
Song clips from Agents of Good Roots

"Smiling Up The Frown"
"Time Bomb"

Requires RealPlayerAgents' improvisational jazz-rock, pleasantly rolls with Jones behind the drum kit and Stewart Myers plucking the bass, while J.C Kuhl's skilled sax and Andrew Winn's distinctively gruff vocals add some spice. But when their major label debut "One By One" was released in 1998, its dark, aggressive songs strayed from the band's characteristic meandering rock.

"We'd been on the road nonstop for two years," says Jones. "We just wanted to get creative, record different ways, and we definitely wanted to make something that was a little more pop-friendly. As far as sales, all I cared about was that we sold more than our independent releases."

AGR's first major-label release sold 30,000 copies, more than their two previous albums but not enough to be considered a success, although the first single, "Smiling Up The Frown" went to No. 2 on AAA (light alternative) stations.

"I think the execs and the people in the business were definitely disappointed. They were saying if we sold less than 200,000 it was going to be a disappointment, but we had no track record of even getting close to that," says Jones. "They heard the final product and they were kind of surprised because there was a lot of material they thought could get played on the radio. Since we're lumped as a jam band, they didn't know we had the songwriting skills."

"One By One" sounded more rock-oriented and radio-friendly than their previous albums, which were more heavily jazz-influenced. Many of the band's fans criticized them for "selling-out."

"If everybody who made those comments had been inside the van and to every show the year before, they would have seen a progression toward [a harder sound]," Jones says. "I like Black Sabbath, everybody in the band likes Zeppelin, maybe touring 200 dates a year you get a little jaded and songs come out with a little harder edge. We got a lot of flak from the hardcore fans about the record, but we've always gotten flak. We can't please everybody, as long as the band is somewhat pleased."

But after disappointing sales and lackluster radio rotation, Agents realized they weren't going to achieve the instant success everyone anticipated, so they began touring in support of the album, the way they'd made their living previously.

"I think we realized when we got on the road that we can't play like [the recordings]. We like to expand upon our songs. We don't look at any of them as being in stone, so we came up with a happy medium," he says. "We don't want to make a song one way and be stuck — if we want to put a 20-minute drum solo in there, we should be able to."

Improvising with the poppier "One By One" tunes confused some fans who had never seen the band before, but it proved therapeutic in working out the Agents' identity crisis.

"We were very green when the initial RCA thing went down. After the last two years we've kind of realized, this is a career, we want to build it from the ground up and not necessarily look for any easy way out. We're going to just keep playing and doing it. I don't think we're the kind of band that all of a sudden's going to be on MTV all the time."

Jones says touring is where they make a living and where they feel the most comfortable, and he anticipates Agents averaging at least 120 shows a year for the rest of their careers.

The second album of their two-album RCA deal has been recorded but not scheduled for release yet. In the meantime, Jones says they will probably release a live EP from their last tour.

"This time we just want to sell more. If we can double what we did on the last album, that is the goal. I don't have any expectations except that it gets put out, that people hear it and hopefully like it. … I really like it."

Don't look for Agents to give up on the big dream anytime soon. With RCA solidly behind the band, sax player J.C. Kuhl, says the band will persevere for as long as the members believe in their material: "I still feel like we're writing and still growing. As long as the growth potential is there, we can do it as long as it takes."

"Hello, world, here's the song that we're singing. C'mon get happy."
The Partridge Family — "C'mon Get Happy"

[image-1]Photo by Chad HuntAlthough they don't play to crowds quite as large as they used to, BS&M is not about to throw in the towel. The band has evolved in order to survive, playing weddings and corporate events more often than colleges and bars.During their peak in 1994, BS&M played to more than 700 enthusiastic fans at Sunset Grill, while a little known band called Hootie And The Blowfish performed in front of 40 people at the Flood Zone. "That's how crazy this whole thing is," says Dave Barton who says members of Hootie came over to watch BS&M's show. "I look at situations like that and hanging out with Dave Matthews, and remember those crossroads. Some people do well, others take off, some fall off the face of the earth."

After playing their upbeat, acoustic pop for 10 years, BS&M falls somewhere in the middle. Some Richmonders, who remember when BS&M was voted "Richmond's Best Unsigned Band" by Style readers and when they packed bars in Richmond and Nags Head, may think they're past their prime, but BS&M has simply evolved in order to survive. And survival isn't the easiest thing to pull off in the music business. Instead, and without sacrificing their sound, BS&M maintained their audience by adapting from college/bar band to festival/wedding band.

Play It
Song clips from BS&M

"Faith Hope and Dignity"
"Walkin' On Ice"
"She is his Messiah"

Requires RealPlayerWhen asked if BS&M has already peaked, Barton says, "It depends on how you look at it. In terms of playing bars, yes; now we're doing more festivals. People who saw us in college are now yuppies, and they're hiring us for their weddings and corporate things."

No matter where they're playing, BS&M still consists of the original trio: Dave Barton (guitar/bass/vocals); Rick Schaffer (acoustic guitar/vocals); and Kyle Mills (percussion/guitar/vocals). In '97 they added drummer Danny Fisher and guitarist Buster Bohannion to flesh out their light-hearted, folk rock.

"We are a different force than we were three years ago — we're different musicians than we were 10 years ago. Our audience has changed and if we can still adapt and match up with them then we've still got it. I don't expect to be on MTV, I don't really want to. I enjoy writing songs, playing them and making people smile. That's what we've always done. At one time more people came out to see us, now they have families and kids."

All five members of BS&M are full-time musicians, supporting themselves with the band's more than 120 gigs a year, plus their solo or duo side projects. "When you're a musician and you try to compare yourselves to the bands on MTV, you'll go crazy. We stuck to the basics, just being entertaining," says Barton. "But we were fortunate, we all have houses, and it's nice to be able to pay bills and count on a consistent income.

"It's a matter of being comfortable with the way things evolve; yes, it's disheartening sometimes to see your numbers fall, but you know it's going to end, you can't be flavor of the month forever. The industry's just like that, it's geared toward pushing a new face. A lot of people, it really gets to them, they think they're not of value. As a musician you just try to maintain your vitality, as a human you've got to move to the next square on the board regardless and hope for the best and that's what we've done. We can all smile and enjoy this. It's been a cool ride."

Jump to Part 1, 2 , 3

Add a comment