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Onward, Christian Rockers

Out of nowhere comes the Finalist, the latest Houston rock band to sign a major-label deal

"This has been my dream...to play music for a living." -- Dylan Brady, vocals

"It's my dream come true." -- Jerry Nettles, guitar

"I've wanted to do music as soon as I was born." -- Doug "JD" Adams, drums

"As soon as I figured out you could make money playing music, I wanted to make it my life's goal!" -- Brent Nettles, bass

They sound like the statements of road-weary, battle-hardened, media-savvy band members who've been gigging and practicing in anonymity for years and are just now getting on the radar. But the guys in the Finalist are hardly that. None of them is of legal drinking age yet, and the band has been together only slightly more than a year.

But what the Houston-based Christian emo/hardcore/punk-pop group does have is a record deal. And not one of those glorified retainers or agreements with a label whose "president" hand-stuffs CDs in his mother's garage.

As of this past January, the guys are Maverick/Warner Bros. recording artists, and shortly will head into an L.A. studio to record their debut release from the 15 or so original songs they've written. The finished product probably will include concert (and Internet) favorites such as "All the Same," "Rain," "Fire" and "Lonely Lights," many of which feature the genre staple of a vocalist whose volume proceeds up and down throughout the song like a heart patient's monitor.

"We were shocked at how fast it happened," Jerry Nettles says during a brief interview in the parking lot of Mary Jane's Fat Cat. Brother Brent adds, "We were told that it might take six to nine months!" The group is sitting police lineup-style on a metal ledge just prior to the start of a four-band bill that the Finalist is topping tonight. And the sudden good fortune hasn't ended there, with Jerry saying that the label has told them to "take their time" making the record "so it will go platinum." He also adds that they'll be doing "lots of interviews and promotion."

Planning for such a grandiose future -- and taking a record company exec at his word -- without a single song in the can seems incredibly naive, dangerously stupid or strongly confident. Fortunately, the Finalist has the songs, the look and a currently popular sound that actually could break the band on a wider commercial level even before they're all out of their teens.

Brady and Jerry Nettles had been in a couple of bands together (Four Star Union, Empty Tomb) but clicked with a writing partnership and wanted to form their own act. In December 2003 they added Adams and the younger Nettles to the lineup, and only a month later they were gigging in several Texas cities with Tooth and Nail recording artist Spoken. The band also cites influences ranging from locals the Last Starfighter to national bands the Used, Glassjaw and Thursday.

The Finalist's fortunes took an unexpected and fast turn for the better when they found an early and eager champion in A&R man Fred Croshal, who has worked with Alanis Morissette. (A friend of one of the members' fathers had passed Croshal the band's demo CD.)

Brady recalls that Croshal shopped the band's demos to a number of labels, and Maverick snapped them up. "Evidently, most of the labels he sent it to 'got' our music and wanted to jump on board. I think the thing that drew Fred to us is that we're so young and so talented, and he knew it wouldn't be hard to get us a deal." Jerry Nettles says this with a mixture of egotism and corporate boardroom speak, which he also applies to the group's page on MySpace.com and their own Web site. The Internet, he says, "is gonna be a freakin' awesome tool to help us move units!"

Typically, a Finalist song starts with a riff that Brady or Jerry Nettles writes on guitar, with a bass and drum pattern added. Only then does Brady pen lyrics. On stage the soft-spoken vocalist undergoes a Hulk-like transformation: He is impassioned, he yowls, and the veins in his forehead pop out as he roars out his words with a fierce sense of urgency. The Nettles brothers bounce energetically back and forth across the stage as Adams pounds away in the back.

And though one of their songs includes the declaration "I want so badly to leave this town," the guys say they have nothing but love and respect for their Houston fans, many of whom know every lyric by heart and sing along with the group at Fat Cat's.

"Playing shows and having new fans at every show is one of the funnest things that a person can do," Brady offers. "We want to be accepted by a large audience of people, and we love our Houston fans."

The Finalist may have their music down, but they've still got a lot to learn about dealing with the media. Granted, the Press isn't Rolling Stone, but you'd think the quartet would be a bit more, well, involvedin their coverage. After a short initial interview, they ignored repeated follow-up e-mail questions, then finally answered in simply shallow sentence fragments. They even treated numerous ignored photo requests (which delay story publication) with all the urgency of scheduling a routine dental checkup. Come on, guys -- you're not U2 yet.

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