Those who follow music in the area know that Kansas City had its fair share of bands signed to major label deals during the '90s. And most people remember that these bands rarely stayed with said majors for more than one record. With that kind of track record, there is little reason to wonder why those "in the know" usually greet such signing news with a cynical chortle that is part jealousy, part sympathy, and complete skepticism.
However, when the news that Manhattan, Kan., band Ultimate Fakebook signed to Epic/550, a division of Sony, leaked out a few weeks ago, there seemed to be a genuine sense of excitement and anticipation for what might come if this power-pop trio got a shot on the radio outside of the college ranks. Surely the cynicism will sneak back in after this information gets favorable treatment in the press, but for Fakebook, to paraphrase another blissful pop group, for now it's fun, fun, fun until Sony takes the checkbook away.
"Touring our asses off really kicks things into gear," says Fakebook singer-guitarist Bill McShane, trying to figure out how this all came about. "Being able to get out to New York, that helped a lot. And it's weird because you don't think anyone is there. And you find out later that a buttload of label people were there, and they don't even talk to you after the show, or at least that's the way it was for us."
Although the buttload of label toadies appeared to be blowing the band off, the coy suits were in fact using the age-old dating technique of playing "hard to get." But, says McShane, when the band's path crossed with Epic/550, he found the label drove a kinder, gentler bargain -- one that was inevitably hard to pass up.
"(550 is) re-releasing This Will Be Laughing Week, and that was pretty much our goal. When we went in to record that, we hoped to someday find a major label that would want it.... One of the things we were so attracted to by the guy who signed us was that they felt like we already had our thing going through our system of touring and developing a fan base. They were like, 'You guys are a touring band, and what you do, don't change that. We'll just step in and help you,' which was great because all the ideas they had for the band and the album were totally what we would have wanted."
McShane admits that dealing with such situations as creating a "radio single" is still a foreign concept. "But we're not worried about it," he says. "We know full well what signing to a major label entails. We're not idiots to think that we'll be there forever or that if our album tanks we won't get dropped in a heartbeat. That was one of the things, though -- that we knew we would get to make another full Sony record -- and we made sure we had that going in. We made sure it wasn't going to be a shitty deal or a slave-driving type of thing. That's just all the kind of bullshit you don't want to have to put up with."
Instead, what the band will put up with after Sony re-releases This Will Be Laughing Week, which includes hits "Far, Far, Away" and "Downstairs Arena Rock" from 1997's Electric Kissing Parties, is a steady diet of tour support and distribution that should allow the group to capitalize on the burgeoning fan base its constant trips have planted around the nation.
"Why sign to a major label now versus going with a bigger independent label?" McShane asks. "We went with 550 because we thought you had to match the music to the label, and we're not under any idea that we're not totally pop or even sort of commercial -- not in a bad way -- that's just sort of our sound. So we figured we could either keep at it for a few more years and keep touring or take a chance and get our shit on the radio. That's sort of a pop band's goal anyway.... One thing about 550 that's cool and made us feel good about them, was that our A&R guy is the one who signed Ben Folds Five, and we perceived their career to be like an independent band that's on a major label. They've had hit singles, but they're not like Sugar Ray. They're a real band with real albums. We felt like 550 could understand a long-term career, even though it is a major label and they will not be able to keep bands on the roster that don't sell."
In addition to understanding long-term careers, Epic/550 seems to grasp the band's quirky sense of humor too. Or maybe the label just wanted to achieve success similar to TLC's Fanmail (which was designed using replicas of fans' letters) by letting the boys keep the authentic autographs from drummer Eric Mellin's yearbooks as the tray card artwork, even though they pulled the plug on similar candid shots in the insert of the original Noisome release.
"The pictures are something we will have to alter for legal reasons, because all that stuff was pretty much taken out of Eric's yearbooks. We couldn't find any copyright or anything, so we hoped no one would care, but obviously Sony doesn't feel the same way as Noisome."
Fear not, fans, the newly signed group has already acquired the kind of major-label prudence that would put Left-Eye and friends to shame. "It kind of works out cool, though, because what we're doing now is trying to get pictures from our fans -- old high school pictures and stuff of them in the metal T-shirts and mullet haircuts from the '80s.... But we're going to have the biggest mullets of all in there, especially when you see (bassist) Nick Colby with hair." Those wishing to compete with Fakebook for the title of biggest "soccer rocker" are encouraged to send submissions to the band at: 513 N. 16th #8, Manhattan, KS 66502.
In the meantime, the band doesn't have a lot of free moments, between remastering the record in New York with, according to McShane, "the guy who does Korn and Limp Bizkit," the pending West Coast tour, and a video to be named later. So the group members have gone on hiatus from employment opportunities at Streetside Records and Subway and dedicated themselves to the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. This is not as glamorous as it might sound, or, says Noisome Records head Jeff Petterson, any different from what the band has done all along.
"It was a combination of all the work Noisome did with college radio and getting the music in the hands of the right A&R people," Petterson says. "Then on the road the guys make a tremendous amount of contacts and follow up with people. They're one of those bands that does the right thing. After the show, they're going to shake hands and hang out and do whatever it takes to win people over. There are a lot of bands that go play a show and then go hide up in the band room and no one ever sees them. These guys, though, are genuinely excited to meet anyone who likes their music, and it shows. Their live shows get taken for granted because we've seen them so many times around here, but in other areas, people are amazed with the amount of energy they have on stage and how nice they are.
"I know that Fakebook will be out there on the road talking about bands from our area, not just bands on Noisome but all the great bands around here," Petterson says. "I just hope that no one will turn on them since they've signed to a major label -- that seems to happen a lot. But 550 is definitely not putting these guys in Monkees suits and giving them haircuts."
If the positive remarks McShane and his mates have about touring with bands such as KC's The Get Up Kids are any indication, Petterson is right. Burning any bridges with these Manhattanites could be like John Rocker's attempt to goad those other Manhattanites: career suicide.
"Touring with The Get Up Kids was pretty much the best thing we have done as a band," says McShane. "I can't say enough about them helping us out like that. It's really a big deal for them to take us on the road with them. Every night was practically sold out."
As for any feelings that major-label signing has moved Ultimate Fakebook ahead of its indie-label benefactors (who provided the year's 10th best album, according to CMJ) on some hot-artist pecking order, don't look for McShane to show the other band up.
"All we feel like has changed is that now we know our records will be in stores and we'll have constant tour support. We don't see it as any sign of success. I mean, (The Get Up Kids) have been on the road for four years straight, and if you could see some of their shows out in the country you would be amazed: The kids sing every word to the songs.... We didn't know if it would be the real emo thing or the indie rock thing, because anyone who knows us knows that we're pretty cheesy. We're not the coolest band on the block, exactly."
At least not yet.