Mining the Mainstream
Screw the whole idea of indie credentials. Deep down, what Stir really wants is to be huge.
As Stir bassist Kevin Gagnepain points out, "what is considered these days as mainstream isn't necessarily a bad thing." And besides, he notes, Stir has "never been an underground act."
Gagnepain has a point there. After all, it's not like the Missouri trio's commercial intentions were ever hidden. All big guitars, big drums, big choruses and even bigger production, the group's self-titled debut is a perfectly proportioned wonder to be sold. Their souped-up first single, "Looking For," feeds off the jumbo-size momentum of ringing power chords, immaculate guitar solos and lead singer/guitarist Adam Schmidt's earnest tenor, which borrows its bluster from Bad Company's Paul Rodgers and its nasal inflection from Toad the Wet Sprocket's Glen Phillips. It's hard to tell exactly what Schmidt's talking about, but his larger-than-life delivery says it must be something important. Stir is formulaic anthem rock, to be sure. But it's also a lot of fun.
Weaned on a cultural diet equal parts Dallas and Kiss Alive II, Stir occupies that fast-expanding rock and roll territory where accessible and alternative are really one and the same, where Van Halen, the Marshall Tucker Band and Joni Mitchell figure as prominently in rock's history as the Clash, Television and Patti Smith. Such profitable middle ground is currently ruled over by Hootie and the Blowfish. But eager upstarts with platitudes aplenty, such as Better Than Ezra and Seven Mary Three, are beginning to assert some authority.
Perhaps more than either of these mainstream-soluble acts, Stir deserves a place at the front of the line. They have a rugged spark many of their brethren lack, a nerdiness that makes them a little less predictable. Something a tad rebellious lurks within their "we-want-to-be-worshipped-en-masse" approach to rock and roll. They carry themselves like would-be superstars, yet they look like they haven't eaten a decent meal in weeks. Live, they can pound out a towering epic and still come off unseemly and haphazard.
"We're pretty balls-out live," says drummer Brad Booker. "In fact, we've scared away a few people who didn't realize we were that loud, that intense."
Even so, one could easily get the impression that, for Stir, playing rock and roll is more a business than a passion. Neither Booker nor Schmidt listens to much rock in his spare time, and both claim to have more of an interest in folk, funk and jazz. When it comes to Stir's music, Booker's big on talking airplay, distribution and units sold. These things are important, he says, "to get our music out to a lot of people."
Maybe Booker could do some promotion work on the side for Capitol Records, the major label that recently snatched up Stir on the strength of its debut. That CD, which originally bore the imprint of the small Aware Records label, has just been re-released on Capitol.
Following a glowing analysis of how the new venture with Capitol will benefit everyone involved, Booker backs off a little in a vain attempt to sound a touch less mercenary. "I really don't think I want our first album to go platinum," he says, stuttering over his words. "I wouldn't want it to just, you know, blow out too quickly. As mainstream as the record is, we're not out to sell a billion copies."
Of course, he doesn't say he'd be unhappy if Stir did just that.
Teenage pals Booker and Schmidt began rocking in the basement nightly as a way of letting off steam after practicing with their high school jazz ensemble. The band bug bit the pair hard while in college at the University of Missouri, and in 1993, after a singer quit to change a quartet into the trio of Booker, Schmidt and Gagnepain, Stir was formed. "I was working at a record store, Andy was working at a pet store, Kevin was busy trying to graduate," says Booker. "The goal back then was to just have fun."
The fun turned serious when Stir was invited to play at South by Southwest, and the group's demo found its way into a number of the right hands. Like Hootie and the Blowfish and Better Than Ezra, Stir had its first real national exposure on an Aware Records compilation. The group's demo caught the attention of the Illinois-based label, which has a weakness for unsigned bands specializing in no-frills heartland rock and roll. After the band's appearance on 1995's Aware II CD, Aware signed Stir, booking studio time for its debut with well-heeled producer Justin Niebank (Eric Clapton, Blues Traveler), who beefed up the band's sound to almost gaudy proportions.
Listening to Stir, it's obvious why Capitol is so giddy over its promise. Polished and precise, the CD is tailor-made for radio. It has everything -- simple hooks that stick, achy power ballads to make the girls swoon, even a few passable stabs at grunge. It has everything except, that is, a suggestion of the group's potency on-stage.
"Part of that comes from having a producer located in Nashville," says Gagnepain. "There's a little bit of that gloss to it."
But gloss sells. And don't think for minute that Stir doesn't know it.
Stir performs Wednesday, October 16, with Vertical Horizon, Cresta and Farmer as part of the Aware Records Showcase at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Doors open at8 p.m. Tickets are $6. For info, call 869-
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