News Column

OPINION: A musical race against time

July 28, 2013

YellowBrix

July 28--On the telephone, Jonny Campos doesn't sound like a rock star. I'm not sure precisely what one sounds like, though I'm pretty sure it isn't a guy walking through a sticky New Orleans afternoon to a job slinging high-end cocktails.

I don't know what I expected when I emailed his band's agent about an interview. Maybe a few weeks of not getting answers. I figured a group this huge would be too busy being rock royalty to bother.

Except they're not huge. Not yet.

Campos' band -- Brass Bed -- finished a West Coast tour last week. But to say the group was "on tour" is to be grand about a series of van stops where a ticket, if there was one, often cost less than an entree.

For as long as there's been rock 'n' roll, 1,000-mile days in a van have been part of making it big. So has playing the undercard for bands few have ever heard of. But today, bands also find themselves fighting for ear time with everyone with a YouTube account. That's a lot of new noise.

Brass Bed's most recent album, "The Secret Will Keep You," came out in late April. Critics loved it. Bloggers swooned.

For what it's worth, I think "The Secret" is the best album I've heard all year. It's musically mature, lyrically smart, artistically risky. Think Wilco, or Big Star, or XTC, but with a result unlike any of them or anything else, all born in Lafayette, La., among guys on the new side of 30.

It's the kind of album you'd expect from critical alt-rock darlings entering the prime of their careers, not from a group of guys -- Campos, singer and guitarist Christiaan Mader, drummer Peter DeHart and keyboardist Andrew Toups -- still trying to secure a hold in the music business.

For now, that means day jobs and side projects and a race against time. "I just want to put out as much material as I can," said Campos.

I bought "The Secret" the day it -- as they say -- dropped, something I don't do often, and something I didn't do with the band's previous album, "Melt White." That arc says something about the way the music business has changed, for bands and consumers.

Thanks to the cultural flatness of the Internet and America and the technical ease of sophisticated music production, an album from an obscure indie outfit is essentially no different than one from Kanye West or Lady Gaga. In other words, with apologies to a New Yorker magazine cartoon: In the digital music business, nobody can tell you're not Three Dog Night.

Like so much music in my life these days, I found "Melt White" because my phone shuffled to a random song, which led to playing the album, which led to buying "The Secret," which led to emailing their manager, which led to calling Campos as he walked to work.

I figured that -- like the Avett Brothers, Odd Future, Macklemore, Alabama Shakes -- the only way a middle-aged guy like me was going to come across new music was via WHRV's Paul Shugrue or because the group had already blown up among the cool kids.

Neither has happened yet for Brass Bed. I found them entirely by accident. Instead of a frisson of discovery, I felt acutely responsible that the band wasn't already successful, that they hadn't already arrived. We were out of order.

"I know I can't continue this lifestyle into my 40s," Campos said of life on the road. So in addition to doing all the age-old rock band stuff, Brass Bed is doing the new-age replacements: Social media, constant narration, interviews with irrelevant middle-aged editors.

All in a race against time.

"It's basically trying to refine the best possible music we can put out there," Campos said. The band is doing that as well as anybody out there. It should be enough, but it just isn't.

If there were justice in the musical world -- and we all know there ain't -- Brass Bed would find a way out of that huge mass of artists shouting for attention.

They'd become the latest Southern band to explode not by being particularly Southern but by being particularly talented.

If there is justice, by the end of the year, we'll all be humming the band's catchy rocker "How to Live in a Bad Dream" as we walk to work. Jonny Campos probably the loudest.

Donald Luzzatto is The Virginian-Pilot's editorial page editor. Email: donald.luzzatto@pilotonline.com.

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