"I had seen the movie ten or 12 times, and it just always stuck out to me."
Chris Laurents, drummer for amiable Houston modern rockers Atticus Finch, is musing over the origins of the band's name over dinner at a local restaurant, where the band has assembled for a sit-down talk. "We could identify with his character; he's just a real honest man who stood for a lot of things we try to stand for."
Those of you who actually read your high school literature assignments should remember that Atticus Finch is the dignified Southern lawyer who defends a black man wrongly accused of rape in Harper Lee's classic 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Suitably, it was the noble, refined Gregory Peck who played the character in the movie version that made such an impression on Laurents. "After we picked the name, I figured I should actually read the book. It was amazing," he gushes.
Then, just as the conversation's subject matter is turning a wee bit too, umm, literate, lead singer James Dildine offers a more fitting, if somewhat sarcastic, assessment of the band's moniker.
"It sounds very heavy metal," he laughs. "Like, it rocks!"
As it happens, rocking out is exactly what the guys in Atticus Finch do. The quartet's brand-new self-released CD, Vertigo, is a gritty, guitar-heavy tour de force that might well be called classic rock, if that term really meant much anymore. Throughout Vertigo, the band's uncompromisingly earnest, no-frills sound comes through loud and clear, especially on "Something Special," "Shine," "Last Dime" and the track currently in rotation at The Buzz/107.5 FM, "Truly, Madly, Deeply."
Naturally, band members Laurents, Dildine, Schon Alkire (bass) and Mike McNeely (guitar) are excited about their sophomore release -- as they should be. Vertigo's generous, 17-track contents showcase a pronounced departure from the derivative, grunge-tinged sounds of the quartet's locally popular debut, 1995's Bruised. Everything on Vertigo -- from the songwriting to the singing to the playing -- speaks to the band's increased self-confidence. Dildine's deep, sturdy voice deftly plays give and take with McNeely's chunky power chords, and they both compete for the spotlight before a fat rhythm section that has plenty of opportunities to shine on its own. Atticus Finch have grown considerably in the last two years. And they hope they've hit on a sound that this time, with a little work, will lead to a major-label contract.
Alkire, Laurents and McNeely formed Atticus Finch in 1995 out of the ashes of the Houston pop-metal act 20/20 Blind, which counted the trio among its members. After 20/20 dissolved, that core threesome continued writing music as a team, though without the benefit of a lead singer or a chief lyricist. Enter Dildine, who had read about the group in a local newspaper article and called to offer his services. In the end, it was Dildine's persistence as much as his talent that won him the frontman role after a longer-than-usual process of auditions, rehearsals and band meetings.
"We were very jaded about the experience of having people in the band we couldn't get along with, and we didn't want to jump into another situation where there [might be] some conflict," McNeely says regarding the group's initial fickleness toward Dildine. "That was probably hard on James, and not completely fair."
Adds Dildine matter-of-factly, "Yeah, they strung me along for a couple of months. I was writing cool stuff, but my voice ... well, I had no training except for a six-week stint in a garage band. I was really rough around the edges. They said, 'Hey, he sounds like Neil Diamond on cocaine.' "
Vocal stylings aside, the band put out Bruised just a few months after Dildine officially came aboard. The CD's songs and attitude reflected a formula lifted directly from the likes of Soundgarden and (especially) Pearl Jam. In keeping with that serio-grunge theme, the members posed for an angst-ridden photo that was used on the CD's front cover, and Dildine delivered his self-described "hard-core poetry" over music the others had already hashed out. At the time, as he now freely confesses, Dildine "wanted to be Eddie Vedder."
Upon the release of Bruised, Atticus Finch started gigging around town, at first drawing more flies than fans. "We were playing to five people as the opening act for heavy metal bands who were playing for 20," Dildine recalls.
But Atticus Finch's luck began to change when Buzz DJ Brian Blades picked up Bruised at one of the band's shows. Blades was so impressed that on December 25 of 1995, he began spinning the Pearl Jammy track "f.t.m.s." It couldn't have been a better Christmas present for the band. The song caught on with listeners, and Atticus Finch began performing to swelling crowds at home and, soon enough, elsewhere in Texas. Within months, Bruised had found its way onto some 80 radio-station play lists in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. The disc was particularly popular with listeners in Amarillo and Beaumont; at one point, a station in Beaumont was said to be playing Bruised's "Love Crime" an average of 52 times a week.
"We went to Beaumont and we felt like rock stars," Dildine says, admitting, though, that most of the crowd knew only the one radio song.
Eventually, A&R reps from various labels got wind of the band's success and came calling. By then, however, anti-grunge sentiment within the music industry was at its peak, and the band was saddled with dire predictions about their future marketability.
"It was hard to resist falling into that grunge pattern, being a new band," McNeely says. "But since then, we've discovered each other's strengths, and we're able to do a lot more delving into the ideas that we had as a group."
Still, everyone in Atticus Finch agrees that the backlash from other musicians and local critics that followed the band's speedy ascent was as much a wake-up call as it was a punch in the face.
"The rejection we got from that first batch of songs was probably the best thing that could [have happened] to us," Laurents says. "It shook us into writing what we really wanted [to] all along."
For Vertigo, Atticus Finch may have jettisoned a dated trend and sound, but they were smart enough to retain the able services of local producer Bryan Jones for a majority of the CD (Lori Sussman did the production honors on two of the 17 tracks). As to why the band went with so many songs, McNeely replies that, in a "weird way," the quantity seemed appropriate.
"We thought we'd just put everything on there," McNeely says. "Of course, we ended up spending an awful lot of money and maxing out our credit cards to do it. That's put us deeply into debt."
That's no small sacrifice when you consider that most of the band members have more than themselves to worry about. Laurents is the only single guy in the band; Dildine, Alkire and McNeely are all married.
"We make our families a priority, in all honesty," Alkire says. "That's sometimes hard for Chris [to understand], but I think it will help us in the long run."
"I'm sick of seeing [musicians'] relationships not work, and I'm determined to do the opposite," McNeely says. "For most of the guys I see who have a problem with it, the band is their mistress."
His solution? Take the wife along for the ride, so to speak. McNeely's mate, Jodi, is also Atticus Finch's business manager and -- as the liner notes to Vertigo note -- "the real backbone of the band." And as shown during the band's CD release party at Fitzgerald's, she's also one hell of a crowd-surfer.
"Jodi and I are a team, and this is a unified endeavor, because this is her future too," McNeely says. "Plus, she put me through school. I owe her a lot of money."
The other Atticus Finch wives are similarly supportive. So, with all the matrimonial bliss floating about, you'd think that Laurents would be enjoying his pick of the band's many female fans.
"No, not at all," Laurents says, shaking his head with a grin. "Drummers don't get many groupies to begin with."
That's probably just as well, because at many shows, Laurents could be arrested for indulging in such rock-star fantasies. The Atticus Finch fan base is exceedingly underage, thanks in large part to the band's frequent shows at the teen-friendly Fitzgerald's. But rather than writing off or playing down to its young audience, Atticus Finch wholeheartedly embraces and respects its sway over the kids.
"You rarely get excited about rock music as an adult," Alkire says. "It just doesn't compare to when you discover it as a kid. It's a revelation, a life-changing event. And I'd rather be around that energy than anything else."
"Adults will analyze first [before they] decide whether they will open themselves to you," he continues. "Kids are the opposite; you really have to piss them off to drive them away. They're excited just to be able to go to a concert, be around a mosh pit, and then be able to [listen to the same songs] at home."
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But that the excitement of youth inevitably gives way to the realties of adulthood is hardly new information to anyone. And that very concept hit home recently in the Atticus Finch camp when band co-founder McNeely surprised the other members with an ultimatum: Either the group signs on with a label soon, or he's out. Unfortunately, of late it's been looking like the second scenario will prevail, as McNeely has been offered a stable, well-paying job in another field.
"It would take an awful lot at this point to keep me in the band," McNeely admits. "But I know [Vertigo] is good enough. And if anybody in the industry out there has half a brain, this band will get picked up."
Let's hope so, for the kids' sake.
Atticus Finch perform Saturday, January 24, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Doors open at 8 p.m. Cover is $7. For info, call 862-7580.