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.
Wakeland's Texas ties took hold in 1992, when the band employed the skills of Dallas producer Patrick Keel (Tripping Daisy) for its first full-length release, Wanting. The disc sold well around the region as the group began to find its road legs, venturing into Dallas and parts of Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas. Then in 1994, John Hampton, the producer of the Gin Blossoms' New Miserable Experience, caught a Wakeland show in Tulsa. He liked what he saw and invited the band to Ardent Studios in Memphis to record To See the Sun, an uneven effort that, nonetheless, showed the first signs of a band starting to jell with its own material.
Just as Wakeland was starting to gain a foothold in the Southwest, it felt the overwhelming pull of the Left Coast. Late in 1994, the group was selected from a national pool of 10,000 acts to perform on a Dick Clark Battle of the Bands TV special in Los Angeles. While in L.A., the band played a gig at the Coconut Teaser on the Sunset Strip. An A&R man from Giant was in the audience, and he signed the band soon thereafter. Soon, notions of instant fame kicked in.
"We were under the impression that you get signed and you're this big star automatically," says Sullivan, a hint of embarrassment in his voice. "That was completely the opposite of what it was."
According to Sullivan, the band sank $150,000 into the recording of Magnetic, money that had been advanced to them by the label. Producer Howard Benson also happened to be the head of A&R for Giant, and he took the band under his wing, flying them out to L.A. for three months and keeping a polite hold on the group's studio output. But a few months after Magnetic was released, staff at Giant began dropping like flies.
"By about the fifth or sixth month the record was out, we didn't know a soul at that record label," says Sullivan. And when Giant finally changed its name to Revolution, he adds, "we didn't have a leg to stand on."
But while other bands were let go quickly, Revolution at first seemed intent on holding on to Wakeland, and the band continued to tour behind Magnetic (which at that point had sold a miserable 5,000 copies), even jetting off to London to make a video for "Falling Again" with A-list video director Jon Klein (U2, Oasis). But by the time the band had hunkered down to record demos for a follow-up last fall, Revolution had decided it was unhappy with the direction Wakeland was taking.
"[They] had a little different picture of the band than what we are," says Sullivan. "[They] wanted us to be a little more alternative and a little more hip."
With label and group at an impasse, Revolution last winter cut Wakeland loose, a turn of events that Sullivan sees as "a new lease on life" -- especially now that his group has been released from its crushing debt. Now the band can move forward on its next CD, a self-produced, self-titled affair that Sullivan describes as "more groove-oriented." And while there have been a few nibbles from major labels, Wakeland is leaning toward releasing the disc on Aware Records, the Chicago indie whose compilation CDs helped break Hootie and the Blowfish, Jackopierce and the Verve Pipe, among others.
Meanwhile, Wakeland has its collective eye on Texas. Aside from spending more and more time performing here, they've plucked new bass player J.J. Burnam (who replaced Andy Nunez in what's been the band's only unstable station) out of the Dallas music scene.
"Our motto is that pretty much you have to get Texas to be able to do really well," Sullivan says.
Hmmm. Does Wakeland know something the rest of country doesn't?
Wakeland performs at 9 p.m. Thursday, July 24, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $5 (18 and up). Quikserv Johnny opens. For info, call 869-
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