July 8, 1999
The Sound is In You
Make way for the
by Robert Makin, Staff Writer
An all-ages crowd of more than 100 sings along at the Hightstown Ballroom in Hightstown as the three vocalists of Evelyn Forever "ooh wah, ooh wah" during one of their power-pop songs.
As influenced by the '70s punk of The Clash and The Ramones as it is the '60s pop of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, the New Brunswick-based band jumps about the stage, guitars flailing. The sing-along turns to cheers.
Power pop's mix of energetic edge and harmonic hooks has earned Evelyn Forever and a half dozen other New Jersey bands strong, local followings.
Those followings are expected to grow -- and skew younger -- now that Hightstown Ballroom has opened its doors to the under-21 set with alcohol-free shows.
"I love this music, because it's fun," says Adrienne Floreen, a 16-year-old from Holmdel. " I'm really excited that I can go see these bands now, because I can't go see them in a club."
The Grip Weeds Many of the bands aren't much older than their teen-age fans.
The average age of the five members of Hightstown-based Velour 44 is 20. The Selzers, from Trenton, are about 21.
Both bands cite as one of their biggest influences The Beatles, who broke up in 1970, nearly a decade before many of the local musicians were born.
"The Beatles wrote the book on pop rock," says Chris Pierson, Velour 44's guitarist. "Anyone who plays pop rock is following in their footsteps."
The guitarist's father, Jim Pierson, owner of Hightstown Ballroom, is following in his son's footsteps.
Jim Pierson says he hopes to have power-pop shows fairly regularly. He hopes other venues will do the same, so under-age music fans will have more places to go.
"These kids are really well-behaved," says Pierson, who offered his first power-pop show in late June and expects to have another one in August. "We have no problems with them, so we're happy to have them."
Velour 44 drummer Andrew Isleib says good behavior is reflected in the music of the local power-pop scene.
"This is suburban, non-angst music," Isleib says. "It's a reaction to having nothing to do but hang out at the McDonald's and the bowling alley. But other than that, we really don't have anything to complain about. We're just writing about things that other kids can relate to."
Veterans help out
Music fans have been relating to power pop in New Jersey since The Smithereens were rocking The Court Tavern in New Brunswick in the early '80s. Such Hub City bands as Spiral Jetty, Tiny Lights, Wooden Soldiers and The Grip Weeds followed suit.
North Jersey also has had its share of power-pop bands. Hoboken's The Gefkins, Clifton's Every Damn Day and Wayne's Dramarama and Fountains of Wayne have layered plenty of hooks with punk zeal.
But neither of those scenes were as united and organized as the youthful scene in Central Jersey, says Andy Gesner, former bassist of Spiral Jetty.
"There's a great camaraderie in this scene," says Gesner, who put down his bass to become a club promoter, fanzine publisher and independent-label owner. "The bands help each other with gigs. They've become friends, and their fans have become friends. I try to encourage that because I've learned that artists receive a lot more if they're willing to give."
When Gesner isn't busy producing the quarterly Underground fanzine or putting out such local power-pop bands as Ben Trovato and Twelve:01 on his own Hedgehog Records, he books The Budapest Cocktail Lounge in New Brunswick.
But because of the young age of power-pop bands and their fans, Gesner decided to organize the first alcohol-free show at the Hightstown Ballroom.
The promoter hopes fans of such chart-topping teen idols as The Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync and 98 Degrees will gravitate to power pop the way their parents went from such early '60s heart-throbs as Frankie Avalon and Fabian to The Beatles. Having garnered music industry interest with two independent CDs, members of Evelyn Forever think Gesner has a good strategy. 'It's ironic that such radio-friendly music can't get on the radio. Someone has to step forward with just a little bit of vision.' -- The Grip Weeds drummer Kurt Reil "Acts like Backstreet Boys are really talented singers, but they don't write and play their own stuff," says Ed Yoo, Evelyn Forever's vocalist-bassist. "We're hoping that their fans are going to want to listen to musicians who can play instruments and write their own pop songs."
Power pop also is an alternative to the negative music of such heavy metal hip-hop acts as Limp Bizkit, which made its debut at No. 1 on the Billboard charts two weeks ago with its second disc, "Significant Other."
By comparison, the power pop of Fountains of Wayne, which has released two critically acclaimed discs on Atlantic Records, remains underground.
"It's ironic that such radio-friendly music can't get on the radio," says Kurt Reil, drummer of The Grip Weeds, veterans among New Jersey's independent power popsters. "Someone has to step forward with just a little bit of vision. There's a lot of talent here. A lot of energy has been created here. It's really just a matter of organizing the energy. It wasn't there when we started playing 10 years ago. The New Brunswick scene was mostly punk bands. Now a lot of the bands are playing this type of music."
Like Gesner, Kurt Reil and his guitar-playing brother-bandmate, Rick, help organize the energy of the local power-pop scene. They have recorded Evelyn Forever and The Selzers in House of Vibes, their 24-track studio in Highland Park.
Both young bands like the warm, fuzzy tones that House of Vibes' analog tape recorders and other vintage studio equipment brought to The Grip Weeds' two independent discs.
They also appreciate the encouraging advice the Reils often give.
"Nothing can break up a band like a lack of success," says Kurt Reil, who grew up with his brother in Bridgewater. "That's why it's so important not to worry about getting picked up by a major label. The time will come if you stay with your music and persevere."
The increasingly consolidated music industry is more interested in creating such media sensations as Backstreet Boys, Limp Bizkit and Latin star Ricky Martin than developing New Jersey's power-pop scene, says Mike Doktorski, who publishes The Underground with Gesner.
But that consolidation has given more power to independent labels to sign, develop and market acts, Doktorski says.
They include Koch Records, which Oct. 19 will release The Smithereens' first studio album since 1994's "A Date with The Smithereens."
Smithereens guitarist Jim Babjak says he expects his band to share bills with local power-pop acts before or after it goes on tour.
"I think it's great that kids are still doing this," says Babjak, who also plays in Buzzed Meg with Kurt Reil and Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken. "I love the enthusiasm these kids have. It's great that they're keeping the torch lit."
Asbury Park-based Airplay Records has helped light the power-pop torch by turning audiences from Massachusetts to California onto Evelyn Forever.
The independent label also got the band a positive review in Entertainment Weekly for its second disc, 1998's 'Lost in the Supermarket."
"I think if more independents get into what we have going on around here, then the major labels might notice," Doktorski says. "Otherwise, I think the scene might be better off staying independent."
Reil adds: "The independents are much more of a force, because the majors are conglomerates that sell microwave ovens, stereos and computers. They don't know how to sell, market and develop music. If it doesn't provide the same short-term profit margin as their other products, then you're out. That's where independent labels come in, because it's focused and human attention to an artists."
Reils believes the music industry eventually will tap into the power-pop scene that reaches far beyond New Jersey.
Such annual events as the International Pop Overthrow, a music convention that The Grip Weeds and Evelyn Forever will play this month in Los Angeles, indicate the extent to which power pop is loved throughout the world.
Both local bands will share the stage with acts from Sweden, the Netherlands and Japan.
"I think the Internet is a big factor with this scene," Reil says. "We have a well-developed website, so people all over the world are finding out about The Grip Weeds. Evelyn Forever and many of the local bands are doing the same thing. The major labels know that we can do it ourselves."