By Jim Ballas
The crowd stops its murmuring as the stage lights go down. Shadowy figures come onto the stage and get their instruments ready.
“I want you all to dance, 2, 3, 4…”
The spotlight suddenly flashes on Matt O’Dowd, 27, lead singer and songwriter of the band Liam and Me. The 750-person hometown crowd at the Trocadero in Philadelphia starts dancing and singing along with the band. To the band, it’s another Thursday night, another chance to show a live audience why they should be famous.
The room fills with the sound of catchy keyboard hooks and a driving bass and guitar. Liam and Me is a five piece dance-rock band from West Philadelphia that has .been together for three years. Matt O’Dowd is joined by Dan Larkin, 23, lead guitarist and backup singer, Kevin McKenzie, 26, bassist, and Jon Briks, 24, drummer. They recently added fifth member Ryan Petrillo, 23, keyboardist and backup guitarist.
Liam and Me is a band on the rise. They have either been on tour or in the studio for 10 out of the last 12 months, furthering their music and their hopes of one day being in the limelight.
“It’s a lot of hard work, playing music every day,” says Dan Larkin, 24, “but I love it. There’s nothing better than being on stage and seeing the crowds dance to our songs.”
Liam and Me has garnered a following, not just in Philadelphia, but extending far beyond their tour locations, including California and Canada. As the crowds grew, this newfound popularity gave Liam and Me the attention of record labels – both major and independent – in the summer of 2006. These labels offered record deals, tour dates and the potential for stardom.
However, the charismatic Matt O’Dowd would not brag about all this success, especially not at a show. He is six feet tall, lanky and his hair constantly falls in his eyes. When singing, he commands the stage with his impressive range (including a superb falsetto) and his trademark dance moves (mostly gyrations in front of his keyboard).
Offstage, he is approachable, friendly and just a bit mischievous, but this dynamic helps Liam and Me maintain their self-proclaimed band image as “sensible adults with a penchant for rock, drinking, and flirtation.”
The band gets ready to perform their last song of the night. Drummer Briks counts it off and the band starts rocking out. Again, the keyboard and guitar hooks are catchy, and then the lyrics come in.
Take a deep breath, try and relax.
Clear out your head, and take a few steps back.
“He’s singing about this whole experience of ours,” says Larkin, after the show. “We’re not quite there, but there’s this anticipation of what might happen.”
The music fades, the lights go down, and the cheers get louder as Liam and Me walks off stage. They will stay and talk to their fans for about two hours, but they have to hit the road soon. They need to be in Canada tomorrow. It’s going to be a long drive.
“So is the life of a band trying to make it, I suppose,” says O’Dowd. “I mean that in the least pretentious way possible.”
First things first
Touring and interacting with fans is only the beginning of what Liam and Me wants to accomplish. In order for a modern band to take a shot at stardom, it is necessary for them to have a demonstration CD -- or a“demo” as it is known -- , as well as word-of-mouth type appeal.
They also have to learn how to deal with a recording industry that is constantly changing, as are its motives and methods of signing bands.
What do record labels look for? In a single word – marketability. A label needs to decide if they can make money off a band’s look and sound.
“We try to make artistic music that is still fun and easy to listen to,” says O’Dowd. “You could call us a pop-rock type outfit.”
And this type of well-written-but-catchy music is what record labels have been searching for recently.
“It all started with the Killers,” says Briks. “They made synthesizers cool again.”
The Killers are one of many on a list of influences Liam and Me has. The Killers helped start a new wave of keyboard pop-rock when they released their 2004 album, “Hot Fuss.”
“Without a band like the Killers, you wouldn’t have the popularity of this type of music,” says Larkin. “They turned what some indie bands were doing into a whole movement, and now there are clones and mimics and mockeries of the original.”
“I guess we’re just paying homage,” he adds.
Liam and Me’s differences, in both style of music and lyrical content, make them a more upbeat band than the Killers, and with more dance-happy music. It gives them – to use one word – marketability.
However, even when the big record label comes calling, a band must be wary. There are many ways labels protect themselves from losing money – often in ways that can hurt the band.
“A few labels tried to screw us over,” says O’Dowd. “We had to get an entertainment lawyer on top of our manager and agent.”
A common technique major labels use is to sign multiple bands to fill the same niche. They try to find a Liam and Me and nine other bands deemed similar in some way. All the bands record an album for the label. When the albums are finished, the label can decide if they want to release it or not, offering no guarantee of the record ever seeing the light of day.
“[Virgin Records] tried to put a clause in our contract allowing them to buy us out if they didn’t like the CD,” says O’Dowd. “They added that the day we were going to sign, so we decided against that deal.”
“I don’t know if we thought they would actually buy us out, but how could we even take that chance after all of this?” asks Larkin.
“And that’s why we kept looking,” added O’Dowd.
After being offered multiple deals from many different labels, both in America and England, Liam and Me signed with Thrive Records, a California-based subsidiary of Sony/BMG. Thrive is mainly known in Europe and America as a prominent electronica label, specializing in club and dance music. Thrive was looking to jump into the pop and rock game, so they offered the band a great deal, including a $200,000 advance for the record.
It seems that Liam and Me was on the verge of success.
“It’s been an awesome journey with these guys, and getting signed only made it better,” says O’Dowd.
In order to understand where they’re going, the band likes to look back on their past.
“We’ve been in and out of music projects together since 1999,” says McKenzie. “It doesn’t seem like such a long time.”
Liam and Me started as high school punk band in Florida called “Mad Mardigan,” created by Dan Larkin. He later added Kevin McKenzie and McKenzie brought in Matt O’Dowd. They had one summer playing together, and then they went their separate ways to colleges around the country.
O’Dowd attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a member of “the Counterparts,” the same a cappella group that featured R&B artist John Legend. Larkin went to University of Florida in Gainesville, McKenzie to Miami University.
“We were far apart, but we’d get together over breaks or vacations to write, play and record,” says Larkin. “Oh, and to kick out our first drummer.”
“We played at our friends’ house on the Florida campus all the time. There were some big crowds, but it was never too serious,” says O’Dowd.
After a few years of rehearsing, the band was asked to play on the 2002 Warped Tour, an annual touring music festival specializing in punk and alternative rock. This made the band reevaluate how they worked together and created a desire for change. Their location and their genre would both soon be shifted.
McKenzie graduated and moved to Philadelphia. O’Dowd graduated and stayed in Philadelphia. The youngest of the three, Larkin transferred to Villanova. McKenize and O’Dowd both got jobs at business consulting firms, working by day and rocking by night.
In summer 2004, Jon Briks was introduced to O’Dowd by a college friend and later joined the band. With a new drummer and with the change from punk to dance-rock, the band began to click. They started by playing local bars and roller rinks, but moved quickly to opening for bigger artists in big venues.
“It happened pretty quickly,” says O’Dowd. “We got a booking agent who got us a ton of shows, so we were constantly playing.”
In February 2006, Liam and Me released a self-produced 10-song album called “There’s a Difference.” Online music site AbsolutePunk.net, which features many reviews of bands and albums, called Liam and Me “the best band of 2006 that you have never heard of.”
The buzz was beginning, and that meant the opportunities were growing. Suddenly, playing music constantly got in the way of consulting.
“McKenzie and I both quit our jobs a little abruptly, but we had so much traveling and playing that we couldn’t make it work otherwise,” says O’Dowd.
The attention the band was getting, from shows and the CD, led to an increased buzz in Philadelphia and Liam and Me took advantage of this. They were able to get into label showcases – shows which spotlight up-and-coming bands for record labels.
In the summer of 2006, the offers came in. There were major labels (Virgin, Columbia) and minor labels (Thrive, Decaydence) all hoping for Liam and Me. After taking a few months to consider their options, Liam and Me signed with Thrive Records.
“It was a tough decision for us, but we went with a smaller label that would hopefully focus on us more as a band, not just an investment” says Larkin.
Onward and Upward
More and more gigs. Their first cross-country tour. A contract with a record label. Things were looking up for Liam and Me. They were now on a label and they were due to have a record out in the fall of 2007, a little over a year after they had signed. That would give them enough time to rerecord songs they were keeping and still write new ones for the album.
“We wanted to jump in the studio right away,” says Briks. “The more time we had to work on it, the better we could make it.”
Briks, who mixed and produced “There’s a Difference,” was very involved in the production of the new album as well. He contributed many ideas and added many of the minor instruments to the mix, such as other percussion instruments and synthesized effects.
In the spring of this year, after 8 months in a New York City studio, the band was finished recording. The album was now set to be mixed and mastered, so the band could go back to doing what they love to: tour.
Thrive sent Liam and Me on a summer tour, opening for popular artists such as Shiny Toy Guns, Under the Influence of Giants and Young Love. All of this was in anticipation of their debut album, which would appropriately be called “Liam and Me.”
Then came the problems.
“Our album was going to be delayed,” says O’Dowd. “Instead of a September release, they were giving us a December release.”
Thrive knew the band was mad so they gave Liam and Me extra points on the album. A point is a percentage of the money made from each CD. Liam and Me were going to make more money, but they still wanted a finished CD.
“They said they’d have it finished or give us more points,” says Larkin. “Unfortunately, we got the points.”
Months later, Thrive still hasn’t released the record. The album is finished, but Thrive does not have the money to give it the distribution promised to Liam and Me in their contract. The label is claiming bankruptcy. How does the band respond?
“We’re suing them to get our album back,” says O’Dowd, rather matter-of-factly.
The band’s relationship with Thrive went from strained to broken. Instead of touring to promote their new album, Liam and Me is spending time in lawyers’ offices giving depositions. Though Thrive cannot currently release the album, they will not let it go to the band without a fight.
The legal battle currently rages, and Liam and Me is trying only to get their music back, not their contract. They hope to shop it around to other labels now that it is a finished product.
How will other labels respond to this? Liam and Me turned down other offers to work with an independent label that doesn’t have the same resources as a major label. Will a major label take them back now? This setback is more than just minor, but the band is optimistic.
“We’ve been through a lot, and honestly, this sucks,” says Larkin. “But we’ll get through it and we’ll be fine.”
The success of Liam and Me hangs in the balance, with the band members unsure of what will happen or what they should do next. One thing is certain however; they do not aim to give up.
“We’re a band that loves to tour,” says O’Dowd. “We’ll keep playing as long as people are there to keep listening.”