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Almost Fameless

New York’s Ambulance Ltd. Was This Close to Ending Before it Ever Began

By Michael Alan Goldberg | Posted 8/18/2004

Maybe you’ve heard the one about the guy who sells all of his belongings, heads to the casino with a wad of cash, blows every last dollar, and, as he dejectedly heads for the door, finds a quarter on the floor, shoves it in a slot machine, and wins a million-dollar jackpot. Or the one about the woman who, despondent over the bust-up of her marriage, drives to the nearest bridge, prepares to jump, and is dissuaded at the very last second by a handsome jogger with whom she falls madly in love.

Forget such urban legends and Hollywood endings. New York City’s Ambulance Ltd. has a real-life back-from-the-brink tale under its belt. Rewind to the spring of 2002: Singer/guitarist Marcus Congleton (a Pacific Northwesterner who relocated to the Big Apple in 1999 to pursue a music career) and Belfast-born, jazz-trained drummer Darren Beckett had inherited Ambulance after the founding members they’d joined up with in 2000 decided to quit. Despite playing around town for a couple of years, the band hadn’t come anywhere close to achieving that mythical “big break.” And though the pair was able to recruit two new members—guitarist Benji Lysaght and bassist Matt Dublin—the situation was bleak.

“It was such a dark time,” Beckett recalls in his Irish brogue, diluted slightly by nine years of American living. “We had no money, we couldn’t afford rehearsal space, we were running out of friends’ couches to crash on. Marcus was pawning his instruments so we could eat—we were getting Taco Bell every day and sharing it.”

Then, a disastrous gig at Brownies—a small, now-defunct club in the East Village—practically ended the quartet. “Man, that show was just horrible,” Beckett says. “I think it was like two people in the audience, one of them being my ex-girlfriend. And after we played we went downstairs and were like, ehhhh, fuck it. Marcus was like, ‘I’m goin’ back to Oregon,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, man, I guess I’m just gonna try to do session stuff, maybe get back into playing jazz again.’ It was so fucking depressing.”

But just as the proverbial towel had left their collective fingertips, in walked Lenny Johnson, A&R man for TVT Records and, apparently, the other person in the audience.

“He goes, ‘Hey, guys, that was great! Here’s my card!’ And we were all like, ‘Yeah, whatever, fuck you,’” Beckett says. “But we called him the next day and went to his office and played him some of our demos. They ended up signing us to a development deal at first, then signed us to a proper record deal. And, I mean, I can say without a doubt that I wouldn’t be talking to you right now if that guy hadn’t been there.”

The band’s outlook improved substantially in a hurry—no stretch limos, but no more Taco Bell, either (although it did have to add the “Ltd.” to its name because of a legal conflict with another Manhattan band named Ambulance). TVT released a self-titled EP in the spring of 2003; it showed off chief writer Congleton’s flair for melodic songcraft and affection for the sweep and pomp of ’90s British music (not to mention the Velvet Underground and Elliott Smith), even if those influences were sometimes obvious. Soon after, the band was dispatched to London to record its full-length debut with noted producer Jim Abbiss (Placebo, Björk, the Music) and generate some buzz with gigs in the local clubs. It didn’t quite work out that way.

“Supposedly, we were to go there because that’s what bands do, you know,” Beckett snickers. “They go to England and then they blow up, right? But we had just one show there in two months and we were staying in this total shithole. I mean, we worked on the album in a really cool studio—the one where Radiohead did OK Computer—and that was a great experience, but we ended up scrapping all but four songs because we just didn’t like how they came out. So we ended up recording the rest of it in like a week in New York—we flew over the engineer we worked with in London and then just produced it ourselves.”

While Ambulance Ltd. chose not to excise its Anglophilic tendencies on the self-titled LP, which hit stores in April, the band allowed those stylistic spark plugs to ignite new ideas, and the results are both fresh and resplendent. So when Congleton lets his falsetto fly on “Primitive (the Way That I Treat You)” and “Ophelia,” he might remind you of Brett Anderson, but the guitar-piano shuffle of the former and the wooze-pop of the latter hardly scream Suede. Similarly, “Michigan” bears a folky agrarian soul that starts down the same dusty lane as Richard Ashcroft’s post-Verve material before taking an unexpected turn into dreamy psychedelia.

Other intriguing sounds are referenced, yet not wholly nicked: The slinky, tremeloed elegance of “Sugar Pill,” possibly the disc’s best track, whispers Luna at its most nocturnal, though it also brandishes British Invasion harmonies and a rhythmic groove worthy of Stereolab. And “Anecdote” mutates strains of the Carpenters’ “Sing” and Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks” into a brisk Appalachian strum.

Now, Ambulance Ltd. is getting plenty of attention. Credit a great, well-received album; word of mouth hailing the band’s live prowess during opening stints with fellow hot upstarts the Killers, stellastarr*, and Elefant, as well as its current headlining tour; and the band member’s scruffy, chiseled good looks and boffo fashion sense.

“The response has been way better than we ever could have imagined,” Beckett says. “It’s almost kinda silly, the amount of press we’ve been getting—especially considering how down and out we were not that long ago. We definitely don’t take any of it for granted. I just think we’re really lucky. There’s a lot of great bands out there that aren’t signed. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time.”

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