Sunday, October 29, 2000

So, you want to be a rock 'n' roll star?


The Greenhornes travel a road that seems to go on forever as they chase their musical dream

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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The Greenhornes: Patrick Keeler (drums), Brian Olive (guitar), Jared McKinney (keyboards), Craig Fox (singer, guitar), Jack Lawrence (bass).
(Steven M. Herppich photos)
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        You form a band with a few buddies; rehearse, write some songs, book some gigs. Create a buzz, get some press. The crowds start coming, you get a manager, hit the regional club circuit and before you know it — the big time. You're making CDs, touring nationally and raking in major-league bucks.

        That's the dream.

        Now get real.

        You'll be juggling a day job (to pay the rent) with nighttime gigs at local clubs and out-of-town dates that will barely pay for gas and guitar strings. Traveling will range from tedious to dangerous, and accommodations will be lower than low budget, unless you enjoy sleeping on strangers' floors, eating fast food and praying the bar owner provides free beer.

        On the home front, you'll need a very understanding boss and an even more understanding mate (preferably one with health insurance, because you won't have any).

        Another thing you'd better have is patience, and lots of it. Those big breaks are about as hard to come by as a winning lottery ticket. A CD — even on a tiny, independent label — always takes much longer than you expect, or than the label owner tells you.

        The Greenhornes are one local band struggling through rock 'n' roll reality.

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Patrick wakes up at a friend's house in Cleveland. They stay with friends whenever possible to save money.
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        Since they signed with Telstar Records earlier this year, they've criss-crossed the country on tours that have taken them as far west as Minneapolis and as far east as New York. They've recorded the follow-up to last year's Gun For You and found that few things in life are as tentative as a CD release date.

        Their new CD was set for release in August, then delayed until October. Now it looks like it might be January or February.

        As for those major-league bucks . . .

        “There's no money in rock 'n' roll. I haven't found it, anyway,” sighs keyboardist Jared McKinney, 24, as he works his day job at Circle CDs & Records in Westwood.

        Drummer Patrick Keeler, 25, tends bar at the Comet in Northside Sunday through Wednesday. Lead singer/guitarist Craig Fox, 25, is an assistant to a furniture maker at Kessler Woodworking in Fairmount. Guitarist Brian Olive, 25, works construction. Bassist Jack Lawrence, 24, also works at the Comet.

        What keeps them at it?

        Jared sums it up simply: “I like playing.”

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        Since forming in 1996, the Greenhornes, who moved here from the eastern Indiana towns of Bright and Leon, have racked up a sizable local following for their original update of bluesy, garage band rock.

        Their appeal is immediately easy to see at their raucous live shows. Frontmen Fox and Olive thrash at their guitars, creating fuzz-toned riffs that recall early Kinks and Stones on such originals as “The End of the Night” and “Good Times.”

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Brian drives the van while Patrick reads.
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        Drummer Keeler beats his drums with abandon, aggressively whipping his cymbals, as bassist Lawrence and keyboardist McKinney solemnly work their instruments. It's a sound and a show that appeals as much to older fans of classic rock (with attitude) as it does to college-age alt-rockers.

        In 1997, the band performed at the first Enquirer Pop Music (Cammy) Awards and won the award for best new artist. In the past three years, they have performed in Cleveland; Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Carolina, West Virginia and New York's prestigious annual garage-band festival Cavestomp.

        Along the way, they drew the attention of local manager Stan Hertzman, whose international list of clients include Adrian Belew, guitarist Richard Leo Johnson, Mr. Belew's band the Bears and another local band, the Blue Birds.

        “They're fresh/old, new/vintage,” Mr. Hertzman says of the Greenhornes. “I love their songs and the attitude of the band. They have that almost I-don't-give-a-damn attitude, as opposed to all these bands who are desperate to get attention.”

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The band unloads their own equipment.
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        Mr. Hertzman, 56, and a first-generation garage rocker himself (in the '60s, he played in the Cincinnati band Them), liked the Greenhornes when he first heard them. In Los Angeles on business, he had brought four projects to pitch to a friend at a major label. All were turned down.

        “Then I told him about the Greenhornes, "This band that's a bit retro, but they have a big sound. They play right at the edge of their ability, but they write really good, hooky songs.' And (the friend) said, "Now that sounds like an interesting group.' ”

        Mr. Hertzman returned to Cincinnati, became the Greenhornes' manager and arranged a one-album deal with Telstar Records, a New Jersey-based, garage-band label.

        The band still has to eat, which means a round of daytime work, nighttime gigs and the occasional tour. The guys need to be able to get away for gigs, so a sympathetic boss is a must.

        “My boss is really just super cool about just letting me take off,” says Patrick.

        “I can get off anytime I need to. They're flexible,” Jared says of the Circle's owners Dave and Terri Heil.

        But the hope is that, before long, they'll be able to give up their day jobs and focus on music full time.

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        The Greenhornes are currently on a typically grueling 10-day road trip that included New York's College Music Journal showcase and took them all the way to Madison, Wis.

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Jack (left) rests backstage during a local band's warmup act.
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        Traveling is especially tough on the recently married Jared.

        “I don't like to travel too much,” he says. “Being away from my wife is no fun. The weekends are all right, but the longer (tours) are harder.”

        Traveling is a challenge for everyone. It means cramming the five Greenhornes and all their equipment — guitars, keyboards, drums and amps — into a windowless, 1992 Ford Econoline van.

        Patrick is the main driver. He has piloted the former delivery van through the Wisconsin Dells, midtown Manhattan and into the mountains of North Carolina. He's particularly proud that, after 245,000 miles, it's still running on its original engine.

        To pass the time, they've rigged up a VCR and TV and measure distance in terms of videos watched. “New York is four movies,” Patrick notes.

        The band can't afford to pick and choose its gigs, which can mean lots of backtracking. Their current tour took them to New York, Morgantown, W.Va., and Detroit, “and then it gets funny,” says Patrick, “ 'cause we go back to Buffalo, and then it gets really funny, 'cause we get to go back to Cleveland.”

        During cold months, driving conditions on that circuit break up the long stretches of boredom with icy patches of terror. Last winter, they drove home from Detroit through a blizzard, traveling 35 mph, following any taillights they could see.

        “Traveling in the wintertime is definitely an experience that can be pretty white-knuckled,” says Patrick with a nervous laugh. “I've been scared to death, wondering if we're gonna make it.”

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        When they arrive at their destinations, things don't get much easier.

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The band plays at Lee's Liquor Lounge in Minneapolis.
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        The Greenhornes play small clubs, other cities' versions of the Southgate House, Top Cat's or the BarrelHouse Brewing Co., places that hold a few hundred.

        They'll make only $400 or so per show (for the entire band), so they can afford only one hotel room. When they're lucky, they save a few bucks by staying with friends, usually members of other bands that will ask them to return the favor when gigs bring them in Cincinnati.

        Not surprisingly, on most tours, the guys barely break even. That's where the free beer comes in really handy.

        The guys admit that a few drinks in the course of an evening make things go a little smoother on and off the bandstand. It also makes their traveling conditions and sleeping arrangements seem a little less depressing.

        “But we don't usually get too drunk,” Mr. Keeler offers with a laugh.

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        The Greenhornes believe in themselves and their music enough to keep following their rock 'n' roll dream, leaving homes, wives and girlfriends behind, traveling in refugee conditions to perform for ridiculously small sums.

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Brian swigs from a bottle after a show in Green Bay. Free beer is an occasional perk for band members.
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        Mr. Hertzman believes all it would take for the Greenhornes to break out of the garage-band circuit is the right song, and he thinks the band has that song in it.

        “I don't know how much longer they can do this,” he says.

        Even the most successful, more established groups on the garage-band circuit rarely make more than $750 a night, plus a few more bucks from T-shirt and CD sales.

        “But I think these guys can write a couple of gem songs that somebody with some marketing skills can see the value of. They can write some great songs. I'm looking for them to come up with that breakthrough song that will turn them from a niche band into a hit band.”

        The question remains whether the Greenhornes want to break out of their circuit. They'd like to make more money, of course, but for now, they're happy playing the music they like in small clubs for people who seem to enjoy it.

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Patrick (center, rear) socializes at a party in Minneapolis, where the band was invited after their show.
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        Even as the manager in him keeps his eye on the prize, the garage rocker in Mr. Hertzman appreciates their rock 'n' roll attitude. It's a big part of what makes the Greenhornes one of the best bands in the Tristate.

        “These guys are out there playing as hard and intensely and passionately as they can,” he says. “To me, that's an exciting thing.”

        It's exciting to the Greenhornes as well, and for now, that's enough to keep them going.

        “I can see us doing this forever,” Jared says.

       



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