I first saw the Redwalls at a loft in Pilsen in early 2003, back when they were called the Pages. They were still teenagers--most of them are only barely of drinking age now--and their set was largely Dylan and Beatles covers, played with a surplus of charm and enthusiasm. Since then the boys from Deerfield have been through the major-label wringer--the kind of thing that's squeezed the life out of many a young band--but I get the same feeling from their new third album, The Redwalls, that I got watching them tear up that loft party almost five years ago.
In summer 2003 the Pages attracted the attention of Capitol Records with an eight-song demo, all of it material they'd release that fall on an album called Universal Blues. Capitol signed them to a one-album deal with a label option, they came up with a new band name (at the label's request), and in no time they were on the star track--Capitol saw the potential for mass pop appeal in their high-energy retro rock and clearly hoped they'd be its answer to the Strokes. The result was the 2005 full-length De Nova, an overproduced mess that captured little of the band's energy and charisma. Though the Redwalls went on the road opening for the likes of OK Go, the Kaiser Chiefs, and Oasis, the album didn't make much of a dent on the charts, selling only about 50,000 copies.
I'm not a big fan of De Nova, and neither are the Redwalls. Capitol sent them to producer Rob Schnapf, whose credits include Beck and the Foo Fighters, and the band got a bad feeling as soon as he decided to track the drum parts in isolation. "They have a formula in those slick recording studios," says guitarist Andrew Langer. Guitarist Logan Baren compares the experience to being on an assembly line. "We were a very young, naive band," says bassist Justin Baren, Logan's brother. "We just played rock 'n' roll music and that was what we loved to do." That love doesn't cut through the dehumanizing professional gloss of De Nova, though--and the record's weak sales meant that when EMI merged Capitol and Virgin this winter, the Redwalls didn't have the clout to survive the resulting purges.
But Capitol had already picked up its option, and before they got dropped the Redwalls were able cut their new album on the label's dime. They learned from their mistakes and chose their own producer, looking for someone more open to a straightforward studio style. The Redwalls is a taut collection of seriously catchy tunes, full of killer riffs and vocals that are sometimes almost heartbreakingly sweet. Overall the music feels like an expert blend of the Fab Four's carefully crafted pop and the fuzzy, frantic garage of all those hungry little bands that put out two mind-blowing singles 40 years ago and still turn up on Nuggets-style comps. The Redwalls have taken flak for being derivative of the Beatles and the Stones, but they're hardly stung when critics point out something so obvious. "You don't think that every fan or anyone that's ever seen us doesn't know that?" says Logan. "We knew that--we never thought that was a bad thing. We thought they were fucking awesome bands."
The Redwalls includes plenty of Stonesy rave-ups like "Hangman" and "They Are Among Us," and tracks like "Summer Romance" and "Little Sister" are laced with sentimentality that evokes Dylan, Lennon, and maybe even Tom Petty. But even the pretty bits feel unrefined and raw, in part because the band recorded the bulk of the instrumental tracks live and in the same room--almost the exact opposite of the way De Nova was assembled. Producer Tore Johansson (the Cardigans, Franz Ferdinand) was a major influence on the sessions. "He's a real producer," says Logan. "People think there are a lot of producers. There really aren't. There's a lot of glorified engineers. A producer is someone who looks at the song, at the bigger picture." During 41 days in Malmo, Sweden, the band winnowed down about three dozen songs to the 12 on the album, playing the hell out of them until everyone was satisfied. They only took one day off. "It was never a drag," says Langer.
In fall 2006 they returned to the States with exactly the kind of album I'm sure Capitol had wanted De Nova to be, but the Virgin merger intervened. "They could've kept the record and shelved it and totally screwed us," Langer says. "And we were so happy and proud of it," says Justin. The album spent a few weeks in contractual limbo, but the band eventually secured ownership of it. "Capitol was cool enough to give us the record," says Justin. "Obviously the whole industry's shifted. And I think Capitol is probably the least hungry of the major labels. They're all big behemoths of mediocrity. Nobody wants to take a risk anymore. They could release a new Beach Boys thing or a new Beatles thing and take care of their whole year."
More than one good band has broken up after crash-landing at the end of a short major-label career, but the Redwalls are happier than they've been in years. "We went out and celebrated as soon as we got our record," Justin says, "because we knew everything would be all right as long as we can get the music out to people." They've signed with MAD Dragon, a nationally distributed student-run label overseen by faculty and industry veterans at Drexel University in Philadelphia. (The band still owns the record; MAD Dragon has a five-year license.) "It's the only label like that in the world," Justin says, "and now major labels are coming to them to see what it's like." The Redwalls clearly have a soft spot for MAD Dragon--they get a little gushy when they talk about how amped the kids at Drexel are to work with them--but they're also skittish about any kind of contract and a little skeptical about relying on college students. "I went to school for a year," says Logan, "and sometimes I'd start a class and decide I wouldn't finish it."
The Redwalls admit they had a lot to learn when they signed to Capitol. "I think all of us have become more business savvy, even though it's not something we enjoy," says Logan. "But I don't think in this industry that ignorance is bliss." They aren't banking on The Redwalls breaking big like everyone hoped De Nova would, though it's not hard to imagine how it might. For now they seem content to simply keep playing together. They've just brought aboard their fourth drummer, Rob Jensen from Probably Vampires, and last weekend they started a tour that stopped at the Vic on Wednesday (where they opened for the Polyphonic Spree) and returns to Chicago on December 8 for a show at Metro. "The only thing that we've kept our eye on is that we want to keep doing this," Justin says. "What I can say to any band that wants to do this is, 'Know what you want to say to the people, and always say it. Don't ever let somebody else say it for you.'" Logan is a little less philosophical. "I've got no advice for anyone," he says. "I'd tell 'em, 'Man, you're really in for it.'"
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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Redwalls: Logan Baren, Rob Jensen, Andrew Langer, and Justin Baren photo by Jim Newberry.