The Power-Pop Pretty Boys In The Click Five Storm The Mainstream By Any Means Necessary
The house became known as Imrie House, and soon attracted new tenants, including guitarist Joe Guese and keyboardist Ben Romans. After playing around town in a series of go-nowhere outfits, the four formed an early version of the Click Five in 2003 with a singer they soon replaced with Eric Dill, a high-school pal of Zehr’s who moved to Boston from their shared hometown of Indianapolis. “Eric became an official Imrie House member, too,” Zehr says with a touch of leftover pride in his ad hoc fraternity.
A telling detail usually left out of this history is that none of the four Berklee students was a performance major. Romans studied songwriting, Mentzer majored in production and engineering, and Zehr double majored in production/engineering and business. (Guese was a “professional dropout,” Zehr says.) Why is this telling? Because in less than a year, the Click Five has become an honest-to-goodness Total Request Live sensation, blowing little girls’ minds as the opening act on 2005 tours by Ashlee Simpson and Jesse McCartney, and giving power pop—perhaps the least sexy music in recorded history—a shiny Top 40 makeover.
How’d they do it? Very deliberately. “When we started the band our senior year, it was basically our last-ditch effort, because we all knew we were about to be done with school and have to enter the real world,” Zehr laughs, casually peppering the conversation with MBA jargon like “fast track” and references to “breaking pop records.”
“So we were like, ‘We’re gonna go out and play shows, but our goal is not to create any kind of fan base in Boston,’” Zehr says. “‘Our goal is to use the Boston clubs to get ready for our world tour. Let’s go out and put on the craziest live shows.’
“We would play three shows a week and book them under different band names because the clubs wouldn’t allow you to play that close to each other,” he continues. “For us it was just to practice and get to the point where we could showcase [for record labels]. When we had finished our demo and everything, we went out and found a lawyer, who then helped us with the shopping process. From the beginning the goals were very much bigger than just Boston.”
The inspiration for the band’s plan for domination, Zehr says, came from a desire to give rock music—you know, the kind played with “real” instruments—some of the sparkle and pizazz we’re used to getting from teen pop and hip-hop and R&B these days. So the guys wore crisp black suits to establish a visual identity, and they carefully crafted a live show as long on spectacle as on chops. When they’d completed a demo on their own at Imrie House, they played it for the program director at Kiss 108, the big Boston Top 40 station. He dug it enough to book the Click Five for the station’s Concert on the Charles in 2004, where it first opened for Ashlee Simpson.
“The reaction was just insane,” Zehr remembers. “There were like 12,000 people there, and we did a signing. It was madness.”
A college scout from Epic Records was at the show and expressed some interest in the band, so Epic flew the group to Los Angeles to play for label honchos. “Once you start showcasing for a label, the other labels hear that and they just kind of jump in,” Zehr explains. So they played shows for other labels, too. By the end of 2004 they’d inked a deal with Lava Records. (Which, due to restructuring within the Warner Music Group, was folded into Atlantic Records last September, barely a month after the label issued Greetings From Imrie House, the Click Five’s debut).
Greetings sounds as cannily constructed as the band’s business plan, which is only a bad thing if you hate what Zehr calls “positive music that has awesome melodies and loud guitars.” For the lead single, “Just the Girl,” the band sought help from power-pop maestro Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, who penned a ditty every bit as catchy as “Stacy’s Mom,” the Fountains’ unexpected 2003 smash. True to Zehr’s stated goal, the music rocks in a way most power pop doesn’t. Tunes such as “Catch Your Wave” and “Pop Princess” crackle with the kind of energy most power-pop practitioners are too self-satisfied (or too old) to muster. Beyond the suits and the haircuts and the street team, that flair is why the Click Five’s music—along with stuff by fellow travelers such as Fall Out Boy and the All-American Rejects—has crossed over to kids who don’t know the Raspberries from Ras Kass.
“For those audiences, it’s many kids’ first exposure to Marshall half-stacks in their face, and to their parents it’s a welcome throwback,” Zehr says. “It’s an exciting thing to be able to be a lot of kids’ first rock band.”
The drummer acknowledges that the world in which such a rock band functions is different from the one those parents remember. “It’s not like the old days, where a label would spend years pumping money to develop an artist,” he explains. Today it’s up to the artists to ready themselves for the big time. Zehr, who runs the Click Five’s web site, says the music industry’s financial woes have “pushed it into more of a do-it-yourself kind of world, even if you’re signed to a major label.” He chuckles. “At this point you’re kind of turning the label into a bank.”
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