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By Michael E. Miller
It felt like deja vu all over again when I first heard Band Marino. Weren't these the alternative folk kiddies with the Nettwerk Records deal, who sound like Bread, and were doing soundtrack work for Deadwood?
Well, no, as it turns out, that's the Format, from Arizona. The whippersnappers in question here are from the cruel north, Orlando to be precise. All bullshit aside and at the risk of losing free promos from Nettwerk let me observe that Band Marino is far more deserving of major-label love than the Format. Some of the boys may not yet be old enough to drink at the bars where they gig, but they know how to make brilliant pop music.
In fact the five members of Band Marino range in age from eighteen to 24. The group was born nine years ago, as a weekly what-the-hey get-together between childhood friends Nathan Bond and Jonathan Nee. At that time Nee had no musical experience whatsoever, but Bond convinced him that he had a knack for the banjo. Score one for Bond. The band's sound nowadays is a folksy, atmospheric brew that showcases Nee's energetic strumming. Imagine a cross between Bela Fleck and Radiohead, with a dash of the Decemberists around the edges.
The quintet was recently hailed as one of Rolling Stone's "25 Best Bands on Myspace.com," based largely on the strength of its 2006 debut, The Sea & the Beast. The disc finds Bond's reedy tenor perched atop superbly catchy string-driven refrains, surprise rockouts, and danceable banjo hoedowns. That's a rather heady combination for any ensemble to pull off, particularly a young one from a musical backwater. But Band Marino has done so effortlessly, a fact not lost on the major label reps who've heard the group's material, as well as the the industry suits who mobbed the band's showcases at SXSW.
"Big-label interest has been kind of a constant thing throughout our career thus far," frontman Nathan Bond says over the phone from his Orlando apartment. "But you never know what'll actually develop and who's serious. We never get our hopes up about that stuff and just assume things will take place as they will."
Bond, who also handles guitar and songwriting duties, insists he and his mates aren't sitting by the phone. Instead they're focused on "working hard, being smart, and performing well. We want to make better music every time we get together."
As influences, Bond cites everything from Dylan to the Pixies to Edith Piaf. And that's just scratching the surface, he says. "In our van we listen to anything from David Bowie to Roy Acuff to Black Sabbath to Animal Collective to Ennio Morricone soundtracks. It really is very much an anything-goes kind of atmosphere. We definitely make an effort to appreciate anything that's well executed and interesting."
The Sea & the Beast evolved from a lo-fi set of demos which the members had recorded simply to learn their parts. The demos quickly became part of Orlando indie-scene history when the band made them available for download on Myspace.com. Killerpop, Orlando's discerning underground music zine, praised the demos as "wonderful." Fans began clamoring for the quintet to release an LP.
In December 2006 the band did just that, throwing a release party at the local club Backbooth. More than 850 fans showed up. The album went on to become the top seller in local indie record stores for the next month.
The album has also won a lot of new fans outside of Orlando, and the group is itching to broaden the base. To that end the bandmates will be touring far and wide, and releasing The Sea & the Beastnationally through their label, Street Parade. If a larger company steps in to help with distribution say, Nettwerk, for instance that would be great. But the fellas are perfectly happy going the D.I.Y. route until the right thing comes along.
SXSW may prove instrumental to that end. But it was special to the band for more than networking or catching up with old friends. It also offered them the chance to attend the world premier screening of the film they scored, The Last Romantic, which was produced by Adam and Aaron Nee, Jonathan's older brothers. Bond describes the experience as "pretty freaking surreal."
Bond chuckles when I mention that most bands with members their age are playing some form of emo. "This is very true, although it's more of an extreme pop-emo thing," he says, "instead of what was generally considered emo even just a few years ago."
What explains the emo proliferation? "I think part of it is due to the fact that that's what's popular right now," Bond says. "I don't know if it's that these kids are trying to cash in on something, so much as they just grow up on it because it's what popular culture is dictating. You want to believe that everyone is just trying their hardest and making the music that they're hearing inside of themselves, trying to make something they love."
I grumble something about that being a charitable assessment. Bond admits that he has trouble being deferential to bands "that sound so carbon-copied and forced. But it's not right to judge someone's intentions when you don't know them well enough to really make any kind of judgment," he observes equitably.
If Bond sounds a bit saintly, or at least naive, don't be fooled. He says it's the popular media, and the market-driven music industry, "that are to blame for that missing spirit of exploration which really is so important to the art of music."
So much for bootlicking the labels.
For now Bond and his mates are hard at work putting together a tour for May, which will pair the band up with the Modern Skirts, a pop-rock crew from Athens, Georgia. But don't be surprised if the band finds itself called up to the big leagues in the coming months. That's what happens when you put out an album of irresistible pop gems.