Playing Dumb

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand Atticus Finch. The Houston quartet's songs aren't all that complex; their post-grunge guitars plod along much like scads of other Pearl Jam/Soundgarden wannabes. So it may surprise the band's detractors that a real rocket scientist (sort of) heads the band. His name is Mike McNeely, and he's got plenty to say about finding the secret formula for success in an increasingly grunge-free world.

Tucked into a booth with his Grand Slam Breakfast at a local Denny's, McNeely might be auditioning for a part in the next sequel to Wayne's World. His straight hair cascading down from underneath his ball cap, McNeely dominates a conversation about cool guitar sounds, even doing a bit of air strumming to demonstrate what he means. But, like few guitarists who can pull off a cool, minor-key riff at the drop of a pick, McNeely has the ability to dash preconceived notions when he casually mentions his job -- some would call it a career -- as a technical engineer in NASA's Propulsion and Power Division.

"People have different pet causes; mine is that kids should stay in school," McNeely says. "Plain and simple, I could pursue my dreams because I'm making enough money to do it. What I don't like to see is the media realizing now that kids are rebellious by nature, and appealing to that instinct to sell products. They're just nurturing this mentality of, 'Oh, I guess I really don't have to pursue something.' "

When it comes to Atticus Finch, McNeely is willing to talk about anything -- even negative reviews. He doesn't need warmup time to settle into a conversational groove. His pal, Atticus Finch drummer Chris Laurents, is a bit more tentative. Like its namesake, the lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman, Atticus Finch is in an intriguingly precarious position. After all, how many Houston groups together only a year can boast of having a local CD that's received regular airplay on a major radio station (the Buzz, 107.5 FM) in a major market? Atticus Finch's fine-sounding debut, Bruised, was recorded in nine days at Houston's Sound Arts Studios, financed through credit cards and other creative borrowing schemes to the tune of about $8,000. In five months, more than 1,000 copies have been sold, and the leadoff single, "f.m.t.s," has been played at one time or another on radio stations all over Texas and Louisiana.

But while the Buzz has warmed to Atticus Finch's moves, local critics haven't been so lovey-dovey. "The worst thing so far for me was the first really negative review," says McNeely. "I'm basically an insecure person; I don't necessarily take it personally, but I do feel hurt. You think, 'Maybe we're not that good; maybe people aren't going to like us.' It's hard for me to believe that if you're going to try to please everybody, you're going to please nobody."

Laurents, who learned the basics of drumming by pounding away to Boston's debut on a comforter in his bedroom, has his own explanation of why, on Bruised, the group tends to come off sounding like a faceless combination of early Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots.

"People forget that we're still an infant band. We're still defining ourselves," he says. "I'm not making excuses for the disc; I think it stands on its own. But now that we've gotten acclimated, our sound has mutated into something different -- fairly aggressive, but with more of a pop melody."

Even that notion isn't so terribly original, but at least it's a start. Atticus Finch -- which, before cooler heads prevailed, was known as Butterfly Ranch -- is like a lot of other Houston bands, squeezing nine or ten hours of rehearsals a week between day jobs. Laurents mans the cash register at a CD store, while singer James Dildine is a DJ on local Christian radio station KSBJ/89.3 FM and fancies himself a poet. Bassist Schon Alkire is the only full-time musician. He spends much of his time working the phones to hype Atticus Finch, though he isn't the only member totally focused on the band. They all are, despite the occasional attitude problems that revolve around Dildine.

"I don't know how excited he'd be for people to find out about that," McNeely interjects, before switching back to speaking of the singer in near-Koreshian tones. "The thing is, I really believe in James. He has this presence. You can talk to the record companies over the phone, and they'll say, 'Yeah, we've heard the CD, and, well, it's okay, so we'll talk to you later.' But I wish they could see how James works the crowd."

Ego problems aside, Laurents says he's in it for the long haul, which is what you'd expect him to say at this juncture.

"I don't think I could ever fool myself into believing I didn't want to do this anymore," he says, adding that before that happened, "Mike would have to be near death on heroin, James would have to be raping people and Schon would have to had killed a few people."

That would be a hell of a predicament. But these days, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the sob stories that make major-label publicists salivate.

Atticus Finch performs Friday, May 31, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Gray and Chlorine open. Tickets are $6. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. For info, call 862-3838.

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr