Free Energy's long and winding road

Lead singer Paul Sprangers says Free Energy needs "to be very, very good. We can't be indie-casual about this. Otherwise, we're just a bad version of who we are."
Lead singer Paul Sprangers says Free Energy needs "to be very, very good. We can't be indie-casual about this. Otherwise, we're just a bad version of who we are."
Posted: September 26, 2010

Free Energy moved to Philadelphia two years ago for the least romantic - and most rock-and-roll - of reasons.

It was cheap.

"There's romance now," says Paul Sprangers, the lead singer of the Fishtown rock band, on a frigid afternoon in March at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. "We love it."

When he and guitarist Scott Wells used to visit their friend Geoff Bucknum in Philadelphia, "We were definitely smitten with it, the architecture and all the different neighborhoods."

But in 2008 they weren't all that interested in romance or architecture. Frustrated with their indie-rock band Hockey Night, the Minnesota natives had gained a fresh shot at success working in New York. All they needed was an affordable place to live nearby.

Since that time, Free Energy has become one of the breakout Philadelphia pop acts of 2010. The band's dynamic debut, Stuck on Nothing, has earned them acclaim and gigs at festivals around the world.

Along the way, the quintet has navigated the New Rules of the music business, in which bands have a tough time convincing fans to pay for music but can make a living performing live and selling songs to movies and TV.

In 2008, all of that seemed remote. Sprangers and Wells had just been signed by Jon Galkin of DFA, a highly regarded boutique label. They were recording with Galkin's partner, producer James Murphy, the creative force behind the critically acclaimed dance-rock band LCD Soundsystem.

But it was a costly proposition. When they began recording in the spring of '08, Sprangers and Wells were living in a $3,000-a-month sublet in Greenwich Village. The recording dragged on, so they moved to a Brooklyn apartment that still took a big bite out of their budget.

"Paul and Scott move really slow," Galkin says with a laugh. "They're dudes." (Stuck on Nothing credits all songs to the "Dude Bros.") Eventually, the bros started sleeping on the floor of the DFA studio to save cash.

The two knew Bucknum from Minnesota. He was living in a trinity in Fishtown, around the corner from Johnny Brenda's. When they weren't in the studio, the pair would crash with him.

"It's didn't make sense for them to live in New York," says Neil Harris, the band's manager. "They'd be working [crummy] jobs. . . . Living in Philadelphia, they can devote time to making their art."

The Road

From Red Wing

Wells and Sprangers have been making art together since growing up in Red Wing, Minn., a Mississippi River town southeast of the Twin Cities that Sprangers describes as "kind of idyllic."

Thoughtful, even philosophical in conversation, Sprangers has a cheerfully sardonic manner that recalls a dark-haired version of Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Wells, the blond guitar player, confidently stalks the stage with a pheasant feather flying out of his fretboard. He spent his younger days playing in metal-edged hard-rock bands. "My teenage self would have beat up my present self," he says.

Hockey Night's first album, Rad Zapping, came out in 2002, postcollege. Sprangers studied sociology at New York University; Wells majored in English literature at Carleton College.

When Rad Zapping was released, Sprangers recalls, "I was convinced it was going to blow up and we were going to be on our way." He laughs.

The duo worked temp and record-store jobs in the Twin Cities, moving toward a classic-rock sensibility, digging into dollar LP bins. "The band was the only thing that either of us ever took seriously," says Wells, 32, sitting with Sprangers in a Girard Avenue coffee shop in May, the day after Stuck on Nothing came out on vinyl and CD.

Hockey Night's second album, Keep Guessin', came out in 2006. Heavily influenced by the '90s band Pavement, its songs were "trapped in complicated arrangements and a self-conscious delivery," says Sprangers, 30, who was "having a bad relationship with my girlfriend, with the band, with myself."

"I put pretty much all my energy into investigating how to fix that," says Sprangers, who writes Free Energy's words and melodies (Wells comes up with the arrangements). Sprangers made his way though a reading list of books like Viktor Frankl's 1946 work Man's Search for Meaning. ("For sure," he says, "that's a really good one.")

Pretty soon, he and Wells were writing songs stripped of pretension that were unafraid to revel in the obvious.

"We wanted to do something direct and from the heart. And we were at a point where we've processed all this classic rock, and it's coming out. . . . Scott said it best: 'As Americans, this is kind of our folk music.' "

Sprangers and Wells sent Keep Guessin' to scores of labels. Lookout Records, which gave Green Day its start, released it.

When DFA's Galkin heard it, he set the disc aside in a box. "Not yet," he thought, "but there's something about it that's very intriguing." When he heard the crisper songs the duo sent in 2007, he was even more intrigued.

Getting Signed

"Jon believed in us," says Sprangers. So in early 2008, Sprangers and Wells went to New York to work with Murphy. They chose a song called "Free Energy," a pop nugget built on a simple AC/DC-style guitar riff that rings out as a snappy, existential statement of purpose for a couple of guys ready to leave their twenties behind.

"We're gonna start a new life, see how it goes / Before we're tired and too slow," Sprangers sings, as power chords crunch. The lyrics celebrate being "young and still alive" and urge listeners: "If you want to get high, kid, just open your eyes."

It was a departure for DFA, a label known for electronic-flavored dance acts, not cowbell-and-hand-clap throwback rock. "It's by far the most commercial thing we've ever done," Galkin says. Free Energy's mainstream potential made it attractive to not just DFA. DFA is a sort of farm team for Astralwerks, a subsidiary of EMI, one of the four surviving major labels.

Astralwerks signed Free Energy, making it part of an EMI roster that includes Norah Jones and the Beatles. That gave Free Energy crucial advantages over most scuffling indie bands.

If the night's ticket sales don't bring in enough money to cover a hotel, there's "tour support" money as a safety net, and the band can use the Priceline app on the band iPhone to find a place to stay. Not every band has that choice.

In April, when New Jersey punk rockers Titus Andronicus finished a show at the Barbary in Fishtown, singer Patrick Stickles addressed the audience: "It would be nice if one of you would invite us to stay over your house." He was smiling, but he wasn't kidding.

Sprangers was in the club. "It was like, 'I'm glad that's not us,' " he says. He grimaces. "They're younger. . . . But that's hard on your body, hard on your spirit."

Being signed by a major label also meant that Free Energy received a substantial advance, "around $200,000," Wells says.

In late '08, with the album nearly done, Sprangers and Wells moved into a rowhouse on Palethorp Street in old Kensington. It cost half as much as their New York sublet, and had a basement rehearsal space and room for the three other guys who would join them in Free Energy: Bucknum, a guitarist; Nick Shuminsky, a drummer who had gone to school in the Twin Cities; and Wells' younger brother, Evan, a bassist.

The band's manager, Harris, came on later that year after parting ways with Scissor Sisters, whose 2004 debut sold six million copies ("That," he says, "was the end of the good old days").

"I liked the music, and I liked them," says Harris, whose company, Punkdafunk, is based in Jersey City, N.J. He set up a $3,000-a-month budget for the band's living expenses. When they depleted the advance, he lent them the money.

First Step:

Music Blogs

By May '09 Free Energy was ready for the world, meaning ready for the blogs.

"When no one knows a band, any blog, writer, or listener is key," says Rachel Woliansky, who works with Harris at Punkdafunk.

Bruce Warren, program director for the Philadelphia adult-alternative station WXPN (88.5 FM), heard Free Energy's "Dream City" on the blog for the Fader, a music and style magazine.

"I loved it," he says. On his own "Some Velvet Blog," he characterized "Dream City" as "da-doo-run-run meets Thin Lizzy meets the Bay City Rollers with handclaps, '70s rock riffage and time for some deep deep bong hits." He also hyped the band's first official Philadelphia show, at the Barbary, presented by taste-making blog "Philebrity."

Before the month was out, the band had won the coveted seal of approval from Pitchfork, the Chicago online music magazine whose ratings can make or break a band. It gave Free Energy's "Dream City" an 8 out of 10 in its Best New Music section.

With Internet exposure comes inevitable - and often instant - backlash. One commenter on the blog Brooklyn Vegan was prompted by "Dream City" to ask: "Can someone set fire to the brush beneath these guys feet . . . PLEASE?"

From Band to Brand

When Free Energy began playing shows, "a lot of times I felt really out of place," Wells acknowledges. In an indie subculture, a band that plays classic rock without irony and throws in a cover of Bachman-Turner Overdrive's 1975 hit "Hey You" is likely to be met with a snicker.

"We need to be very, very good," Sprangers says. "We can't be indie-casual about this. Otherwise, we're just a bad version of who we are."

To refine its act, Free Energy played lots of shows. "It's very much a hit-the-pavement, old-school, work-as-hard-as-they-can kind of strategy," says Tom Windish, the band's booking agent.

"These days, Free Energy the brand is more important than Free Energy the artist on Astralwerks," Windish adds. Building that brand means creating a community on Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook.

To keep the buzz going, the band sent a no-budget video to blogs for the song "Free Energy," showing them riding bikes through fire-hydrant spray and rocking out in their balloon-filled basement.

Providing online content is key. That might mean something goofy, like "Wood Talk With Nick Shuminsky," a YouTube video that features the band's drummer ripping a dead tree to pieces. Or it could be something more substantive, like giving AbsolutePunk.net an exclusive to stream "C'mon Let's Dance."

"In the past, a magazine would be on a coffee table for a month," says Ben Money, guitarist for the Philadelphia band Drink Up Buttercup. "In the age of blogs, you're going to be on top of the page for a couple of hours."

"It's the unending appetite of the Internet," Sprangers said last month before a show at the New York offices of Spin that was streamed live on the magazine's website.

Television

Syncs

Bands used to shun commercial use of their songs. These days syncs - short for music synchronization licenses - are critical because album sales have fallen off a cliff like Wile E. Coyote, plunging more than 50 percent over the last decade.

Free Energy landed several song placements. Their first big one was an ad for Flip camcorders, using three seconds of "Dream City." Harris won't say how much it paid except that it was enough "to keep the business going for a couple of months."

The right sync deal can be a "game changer," says Andy Hurwitz, who heads Drexel University's Mad Dragon label and his own digital-only label, Ropeadope. Last year the HBO vampire saga True Blood used a song from Ropeadope's 2005 King Britt Presents: Sister Gertrude Morgan, in which Philadelphia DJ Britt sampled the New Orleans preacher and musician.

The payday? $140,000, split between songwriter and label. "That made our whole year," Hurwitz says.

Syncs are also about exposure. The brass ring is an iPod or iPad commercial, like the one in 2007 that boosted the career of Canadian singer Feist as quickly as you could count "1, 2, 3, 4."

Galkin has high hopes for Stuck on Nothing. "It's pretty syncable," he said last spring. "It's full of big, dumb stuff."

Time has proven him right. Last summer the band landed a Target ad. "Dream City" plays throughout the 30-second spot for snowboarder Shaun White's clothing line.

"We approved the basic concept," Wells says. "It doesn't pay you as much as you might want it to, but it's a big company, and they're doing you a huge favor."

'All the Right

Parties'

Free Energy scored a double coup in March. Their publicist at Girlie Action booked the band on The Late Show With David Letterman, before the CD was even released. The band headed from the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York straight to the airport en route to South by Southwest.

"We thought: Letterman and SXSW back-to-back. That's a potent thing," Harris says. Pitchfork again paved the way, this time with a glowing 8.1 rating for Stuck on Nothing. The site's steadfast support has acted like a force field for Free Energy, protecting the band from potentially dismissive hipsters. "It makes it OK for people to like us," Sprangers says.

It helped, too, that Free Energy's nine shows at SXSW included influential showcases for Fader, WXPN, and Paste magazine.

"Those guys got all the right parties," says Windish, who booked Free Energy and 79 other bands at SXSW.

"Before SXSW, they were making $300 to $500 a gig," says Harris. "I never saw a three-figure booking amount after that."

In April, the manager adds, "The band just started to become profitable - just. It's not: How am I going to eat tomorrow? Or have money for a beer? . . . Put it this way: That's when they started to pay me."

When Stuck on Nothing finally came out on CD and vinyl in May, the fivesome played in a barn in Wisconsin, on a rooftop in New York, at a club in Paris.

They also garnered radio airplay, still an important part of building a following, on stations such as WXPN and 104.5 FM, a commercial alternative-rock station.

WXPN hosted a "Free at Noon" concert at World Cafe Live in West Philadelphia. Shaking themselves awake at that ungodly hour, the band bounded around in canvas sneakers, their scissor kicks and fist pumps invisible to the radio audience.

Sales Figures

All that activity hasn't yet translated into big sales. Stuck on Nothing has sold 12,000 albums, 8,000 of them in digital format, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and 15,000 digital songs.

"It hasn't been something that everybody woke up and said, 'I have to have this,' " says Harris, contrasting the band with such overnight successes as Atlanta pop rapper B.o.B. and Brooklyn electro-rock duo Sleigh Bells. "We're chugging along. It's hard to really go boom these days."

Glenn Mendlinger, who runs Astralwerks, says the benchmarks have changed. "It's the running joke: 100,000 is the new 500,000," he says.

Last year, according to the Marlton, N.J.-based National Association of Recording Merchandisers, just 2,000 albums - of more than 98,000 released - sold more than 5,000 copies. "Getting to 10,000 for a brand-new band in a crowded marketplace is very difficult," says Mendlinger.

Album sales are no longer the barometer of success.

"It's about touching fans on a number of different platforms," says WXPN's Warren. "It's about getting fans to say: 'I love you so much, I'm buying a T-shirt,' or 'I love you so much, I'm going to plunk down 18 or 20 bucks every time you come to Philadelphia.' "

This summer, the band played two festival dates in Japan, sharing a bill with Taylor Swift and Stevie Wonder, as well as the Reading and Leeds festivals in England. Next Sunday, Free Energy plays a festival in Beijing, followed by dates in France and another American tour.

The group has also been recording demos for a sophomore album at their Fishtown rehearsal space.

Beyond that, the band's goals are "pretty foggy," says Wells. "I just want to keep writing good songs and making good records," he says. "The most important thing is to be a good, happy band. Nothing is more important than that."

"Right," Sprangers adds. "Because we've already been in an unhappy band. No amount of money is worth that."


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www. philly.com/philly/blogs/inthemix.

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