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Having tried the major label route, Wakeland is now happy to go its own way

Wakeland makes pop music for wimps -- love songs, if you will, for those of us lacking a spine. With a near-childlike take on the world around them, the Norman, Oklahoma, quartet has never been afraid to play faint-hearted victim in a song.

"Maybe I'm invisible, just too hard to see / Maybe there is something in the air that makes me seem not there," bellyaches lead vocalist Chris Sullivan on "Half of You," from the group's sadly overlooked 1995 release, Magnetic. "And any way you look at it, it wasn't meant to be."

A hair too vulnerable for its own good, Sullivan's plaintive tenor resembles that of the Gin Blossoms' Robin Wilson; for that matter, much of Wakeland's immediately appealing jingle-jangle sound resembles the Gin Blossoms in general. Still, Sullivan and company haven't taken to drowning their insecurities in the sort of boozed-up self-pity their Arizona contemporaries are known for. Former frat boys with an obvious distaste for the traditional Greek mating rituals, they'd rather wallow in their dysfunction, wearing it proudly, as if it were some twisted medal of honor -- proof positive, perhaps, that rock stars are human.

But then, the members of Wakeland aren't really rock stars -- far from it, actually. As yet, their wide-eyed idealism has failed to translate into sales, and the band has become road kill for a music industry driven by the desire for high volume and fast turnaround. Still, with a gem such as Magnetic to call their own, you'd figure Wakeland would have been able to dodge the heavy traffic. Apart from its smart songwriting, the disc had all the earmarks of runaway success: slick production from Howard Benson; a glossy, snare-heavy mix from Gavin MacKillop (Toad the Wet Sprocket, Goo Goo Dolls); and a home on a Warner Bros. subsidiary. Most important, however, it was lousy with potential hit singles, from the effervescent power-pop uplift of "Don't Worry (Star Song)," to the breathy mid-tempo courses of "Half of You," "She Said" and "Good-bye," to the misty-eyed, love-at-first-sight idealism of "Falling Again" and "Burning."

And Wakeland had already done its part, building a strong, if regional, following the right way -- via continuous touring in a beat-up van. The group had started small, playing student dives and parties at its alma mater, Oklahoma State University. Within a few years, they'd won over a large portion of their home state's college crowd and self-released a pair of CDs. And when the labels came calling, Wakeland did what was expected of them: They signed on the dotted line. After all, they'd dropped out of college for this, so a recording deal was for them the equivalent of a degree.

But unlike a diploma, the slimy nature of a big-label contract often makes it unsuitable for framing -- or, for that matter, holding in any sort of trust. Little more than two years after placing their future in the hands of industry experts, the guys in Wakeland found themselves teetering close to destruction. Not only were they more than $300,000 in debt, they were saddled with a major-label debut that their handlers seemed unable to market -- a hard to explain dilemma, especially in light of the Gin Blossoms' huge success the year before. To top it all off, the band's label, Giant, was undergoing a massive restructuring that would see its name change to Revolution and its roster flushed of almost every act signed under the old moniker.

"It was just the worst nightmare any band could ever dream of," says Sullivan. "I don't want to bash [Revolution], but that label was awful."

It was so bad, in fact, that Sullivan would prefer that Wakeland's story get out there so that other young acts can avoid the same rotten straits. "We don't have a label right now," he says, "and actually we're happy about it."

Wakeland began in 1990 as simply Wake, a prototypic college cover band hammering out versions of radio hits by the likes of the Cure, R.E.M. and U2. Band founders/fraternity brothers Sullivan and guitarist Brad Heinrichs also shared a love for Tucson, Arizona's Sidewinders, a passionate desert-rock outfit that has seen its own share of identity crises and major-label misfortune over the years. Little did Sullivan and Heinrichs realize back then that the two groups would wind up having so much in common.

With the addition of Shane Litsch on drums and Craig Pentecost on bass, Wake quickly evolved into the hottest party band in Norman -- something Sullivan has never been shy about mentioning. Playing covers night after night, he says, made the group as tight and well-lubed as an oil drum. By 1991, Sullivan and the others had dropped their studies to be full-time musicians, and Heinrichs began concentrating on writing originals, simple, bittersweet ditties whose make-up/break-up themes have varied little since. The best of that early lot made it onto the Nothing Lasts Forever EP, the band's independent debut. Around that time, the group was compelled to lengthen its name when it was discovered that a Goth-rock act from Ohio already had dibs on Wake.

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