Aug. 8, 2009 was a good night for Tulsa's music scene. The inaugural Urban Tulsa Absolute Best of Tulsa Music Awards spent the evening spotlighting our city's premier artists and celebrating the vast pool of talent that calls Green Country home.
As the evening came to a close, the final -- and perhaps most coveted -- award was yet to be announced.
As the nightcap to an evening of joy and celebration, the announcement finally came: The title of 2009 Band of the Year was awarded to My Solstice. After being nominated in four categories and falling just short for best rock band, best single and best album, the group was crowned with the title that might mean the most of the night.
After witnessing the band collectively exhale with a mix of shock, surprise and relief, the group's four members gathered on stage together for a moment of triumph.
You'd be hard pressed to try and say that My Solstice's story differs much from any band that has its eye set on stardom. After all, the story of the rock 'n' roll dream is an old tale that's relived on a daily basis nationwide. What sets this group apart from the pack is well executing an old formula: hard work, will-power, solid songs and a great stage performance.
After spending more than two years toiling over its live show, touring incessantly and becoming one of Tulsa's favorite live bands, not to mention recording and releasing two CDs, My Solstice finally got the vote of validation and recognition it had worked for so diligently.
The thing making it all the more sweet was the fact that it came from the source that mattered most -- the public at large. From nominations to the final vote, the ABoT Music awards were determined solely by the fans -- and as a musician, that's the vote that matters most.
What most people couldn't see at the moment, however, was the win also marked a point of transition for the band. After nearly two and a half years of solid touring, the band was ready to step back and reduce its live appearances.
Even the group's showcase performance was significant in that instead of playing an established single, the band seized the opportunity to play a new song, "Will.Want.Need.," that offered a glimpse into the next chapter of the band's story.
Where've You Been?
Now, roughly nine months later, after only a handful of live appearances (and only two since the beginning of the year), My Solstice is stepping out of the shadows with a new CD, a new attitude and a renewed vision for the future.
Band members agree that it was an honor and all the more special to win in the "Band of the Year" category.
"We've got a lot of fans and friends in this town, so getting the award wasn't the end all/be all, but it certainly was gratifying," lead singer Brandon Davis said.
Drummer Nate Lindley admits to being caught up in the atmosphere of the awards that night and winning the final category came as something of a surprise, but that didn't make it any less significant. "For what it represents musically," he said, "it's just a combination of everything, all of the forces coming together, which makes it even more special."
As a contender for the "Band of the Year" award, My Solstice was asked to perform at the awards that night to showcase its nominees. In a move typical of the band's mindset, however, instead of sticking with a formula and playing its popular single, "Let Me Stay," the group chose to perform a new song that no one had yet heard.
Not only that, but the song also included a shuffling of the lineup, with guitarist Dustin Howard and bassist Tom Pritner swapping instruments. As expected, the performance was electric and powerful, but it signified more than the fans knew.
With the new single and forthcoming CD now ready for release, My Solstice develops in a new direction. Still a rock 'n' roll band, the group has continued to grow and develop its own style. After three years of playing and writing together, the group no longer sounds as close to its influences in Muse and Incubus as it once did but still fits with them in the modern rock genre.
More than the change in sound, however, is the change in mindset that has occurred within the band. After years of toiling, the group is set on working smarter, not harder, in order to progress to the next level.
You can see it in the fruits of the band's labors. After months in the studio, the band has emerged with a lean, six-song EP, cutting away the fat and getting right to the point.
Instead of playing out of town every weekend and wearing out its members, the band has opted to choose its shows carefully, having played only twice since the beginning of the year. To anyone on the outside, it might appear that My Solstice is a band in recession but that's part of the strategy.
"We've taken the approach the last three years of play, play, play, tour, tour, tour..." Davis said. "We've got our CDs in the six markets or states that we've been working, but we haven't seen that much sales success, even though we're playing shows and getting airplay. We've done better with online sales, so we'll probably stay online with this next record, for the most part."
Davis said instead of touring heavily and picking up every show possible, the band is now trying to tour wisely, playing strategic shows for the best exposure. There is also a new focus on shopping the band to radio, A&R reps and booking agents in order to better position the band to break through to the next level.
"We've exhausted a lot of time, energy and money trying to do it all ourselves. We've played some good shows, sold some merch and made a bunch of new fans," he said. "For mainstream success, though, you just can't do it without radio and promoters and the right concert tours."
Davis cited The Feds as an example of one band who toured for 10 years and built a following, yet never found the mainstream success that many people thought the band deserved. In contrast, he notes Aranda, an Oklahoma City band that was essentially on the same level as My Solstice, but that has found some support in pushing it to the next level and is now getting tour offers and radio airplay.
Another prime example is Violence to Vegas, a local band that doesn't play Tulsa frequently but took the time to shop itself to DCF Concerts and radio and has reaped the benefits by scoring prime touring slots and a recent record deal.
In much the same way, My Solstice now plans to position itself in a manner that will help the band get a place on the tours that it wants to play and gain airplay in new markets and on major radio stations.
That's not to say that the band won't continue to perform live -- far from it. That's where the band's heart and soul thrives, especially for Davis. "For me, personally, touring and working hard is what it's all about," he said. "Putting your nose to the street and doing it on our own is what we'd love to do, but we've done it for three years and it wears on you. It's difficult to do on your own.
"We've exhausted every opportunity at our hands, and now we want to spend some time shopping our music to the right people to get that next push," he said.
Everyone in the band agrees that playing is still important, but the members want to make each show more of an event. As bassist Tom Pritner said, "We're going to be choosy about when we play." It's a strategy that has seen the band only play a pair of shows so far in 2010, opening for Fair To Midland in April and again opening for Violent Soho at Bob's in May.
"We're still going to play shows," Lindley said, "but we want to make them bigger and better. Instead of playing 50 shows to just a few people, we'll play once and unify the people to come to that one date."
In Lindley's reasoning, "If people don't necessarily know when you're going to play again, they'll make more of an effort to be there. It becomes more of an experience; there's more of an atmosphere of anticipation where nothing's completely determined, and it brings people together."
The band has also been toying with production ideas and wanting to step out beyond being just another band on stage. Dustin Howard, in particular, has embraced the idea of making the show more of a spectacle, integrating lights and video with the performance, an idea that everyone else in the band is open to.
Resetting the Music
In the end, however, the songs come first, and there's no shortage of good songs with My Solstice. The band's latest effort, titled Passion in Progress, might well be the group's most focused and solid work to date. The title alone is indicative of where the band is right now in that while the band's sound has developed, there's a new urgency that comes through in each song.
Davis said that this time around, the songs for the disc were written without any predetermined ideas or motives -- just to write good songs. And although his lyrics have previously taken a more socially conscious bent, drawing from the news or current events, this time he made a conscious effort to write from a more personal viewpoint.
That perspective is apparent from the opening lines of lead single "Will.Want.Need." as Davis simply said, "I've got something to do, I've got something to do that keeps me away from you," before the song explodes with energy.
That's not to say there isn't a depth in Davis's lyrics. Even when he's paying tribute to Tulsa and singing about the local music scene at 18th and Boston, he turns the tables and examines the depth of relationships and how well you really know the person you call your friend.
Elsewhere, on "Like Leaves We Fall," he ponders the loss of a friend who succumbed to addiction and refused to quit what he was doing and better himself with the line "We'll not desert the life, choose to walk amongst the beasts."
Even when Davis does take on a more universal topic with "Slave to the Apocalypse," which addresses the 2012 phenomenon, he turns the concept on its ear and takes a personal approach, addressing those who live in fear and forget to live life in the now by singing, "You live your life from inside a grave."
My Solstice has always built its reputation as a passionate modern rock band, but there's a new sense of urgency in these songs that wasn't as apparent on the band's previous work. Each of the three original members (Davis, Pritner and Howard) agrees that the addition of Nate Lindley on drums was the spark plug that helped tune up the band.
Shortly after finishing the recording sessions for Persistence of Vision, original drummer Ely Gattenby departed the band to join Congress of a Crow. Shortly thereafter, in an odd twist of fate, his vacancy was filled by Lindley who had ironically been dismissed from Congress. He stepped in to play the band's CD release show and immediately made an impact.
"Nate is the best thing that ever happened to this band," Pritner said. "We just click better than anyone I've ever played with before."
And as far as the songwriting process is concerned, Pritner said, "He's probably been the biggest influence on the band, even though he's only got six songs to show for it. I love playing with Ely, but everything just sounds better with Nate."
Even Davis, who has pushed himself to new levels both lyrically and vocally with the new disc, said that Lindley has had a profound effect on the band. "This is the first record where he was a part of writing and recording all of the songs," Davis said, "and it's a whole different dynamic."
It's a sentiment that is echoed within the band.
"This is kind of Nate's record to me," Pritner said. "It's him putting his stamp on what we're about. This is not the same band that recorded the second record."
Lindley said there's a level of excitement to finally having a product for fans to hear that he actually played on and had a hand in writing. In considering his effect on the band's songwriting, however, Lindley believes he helped the process become more selective.
"Dustin said it became harder to write because I'd critique ideas as they came up," he said. "Instead of writing four songs, though, we'd only write two. It's just that Tom and Dustin write in very different styles and I had more to say.
"It became more of a survival mode in the process, but if we didn't like something, we'd just write something else instead of finish it. As a result, we didn't write 20 songs this time -- we wrote eight and made them the best they could be."
When reflecting on the new CD as a whole, however, Lindley credits vocalist Brandon Davis as the one who has come the farthest with the new material.
"I think Brandon has developed the most, vocally," he said. "He was being pushed, and he pushed himself. He took it upon himself to take it to the next level, and I think he really did that."
It's exactly that work ethic that earns Davis the respect of those around him. Pritner has nothing but praise for his singer and band leader.
"That's just how Brandon is and what I admire about him," he said. "That's why he's getting all of the things he's getting -- he's worked hard for it and deserves it. I've never seen Brandon half-ass anything."
Lindley is also the most vocal in his opinion of the new single, "Will.Want.Need." In expressing why he thinks the song is the best choice for the band to send to radio, he said, "It's probably the most interesting choice for us because it's so different. Tom and Dustin swap instruments, and Brandon's vocal line is out front and really carries the record."
In truth, it's Davis's vocals that immediately set the song apart -- not only from the other songs on the disc but also from standard radio fare. Opening with a vocal line alone, it exudes a raw emotion which is initially a little off-putting but grows on you with repeated listens. That comes by design and partly at Lindley's suggestion.
"Brandon started out with it a little differently," Lindley said, "but I wanted it to be gritty and not so perfect. I told him to relax a little and give it a sense of anticipation, like it's building to something, and he did it just that way."
The result is suspenseful and breathy, building to a swell before Davis explodes with emotion, and the band bursts into action in the background.
"At first, I wasn't completely sure about it either," Lindley said, "but after a couple of listens, I was like 'Yeah, that's it!' The intro is driven by attitude, not vocal perfection. I really like the fact that it's not so perfect -- it's a little raw.
"I think it's a great single because it's a breath of fresh air, not only from what's on radio but from Persistence of Vision. It's really representative of the changes the band has undergone," he said.
That's exactly what makes the band's new release and especially its title so poignant. It's a nod to the band's past with an eye focused squarely on the future. The title itself, Passion In Progress, refers to a conversation Davis had with the guitarist from Nothing More one evening during a show.
"I was talking to Mark (Vollelunga) one night, and he said, 'One of the things I've always enjoyed is the passion you guys put into your show. I always know you're having a good time'," Davis said. "That's something that always stuck with me.
"My answer to him was 'It's (a work) in progress.' We're always trying to get better. We want everyone at the show to not only be able to sing all the words, but also say 'they rocked my face off, '" he said.
According to Davis, that conversation stuck with him and clicked in his head, bringing the phrase to him: Passion in Progress.
When it came time to name the album, the title fit perfectly with a twofold meaning. On one hand, it speaks of the effort spent to be passionate and how every artist works to express or exude that passion. It's also about the listeners, however, and how while listening, that passion grows in them. In that manner, the title is not only appropriate but also fits the mold of the first two releases, both of which had dual meanings as well.
"To me, 'Passion in Progress' means there's always something to look forward to in the future, you're always progressing," Lindley said. "It's kind of like saying this is where we're at now and still looking into the future. Even though you may not be where you want to be right now, you can still be thankful and look forward to the future.
"That especially applies to the band. It's exciting to see what we're going to do -- that's what it represents to me," he said.
As stated earlier, part of the band's vision is to work smarter, not harder, and to make each show something special.
With that goal in mind, My Solstice is making the weekend's CD release party at Flytrap Events Center a free event, in hopes of making it an event that everyone wants to be at.
With a lineup that was still being finalized at press time, the evening promises to be just that. Not only will My Solstice be presenting all of its new material and have the CD available for purchase, but Astellaway, a promising young band that recently completed its full-length debut, will be opening the show along with two more bands who were yet to be announced.
"Our main focus isn't on money," Lindley said. "It's to get as many people, friends and fans to come out as possible and make it an experience. If you want to buy a CD, great; if not, just come and enjoy.
"This is an idea we've had for a long time. We're making it absolutely free -- we don't want money or a cover charge to be an issue at all," he said.
That's an attitude which keeps My Solstice a step ahead of its peers. The band has always been acutely aware of and connected to its fans. Now, it's looking for more creative ways to market itself and score a big break without damaging that relationship.
"We want this band to breathe," Lindley said. "We want it to be fun (for us and the fans), and if everything works cohesively, everything will take care of itself and fall into place."
Davis is quick to acknowledge the support My Solstice has received from the very beginning in Tulsa.
"The Edge and KMOD have been big assets to us," he said, citing the band's placement on The Edge's 9pm "Cockfight" and regular rotation on both stations. "They've both been really helpful in getting our name out there and without The Edge, KMOD and Urban Tulsa Weekly, who knows how far we could have gotten."
Having reached the top of Tulsa's rock scene, garnered the respect of fans and peers and being named 2009 "Band of the Year" is only the beginning for My Solstice, however. With a new record and fresh perspective, the band has lost none of its passion for music. If anything, that resolve has only grown stronger, as exemplified by the new music. There's a fresh urgency and snarling passion that comes through each song, whether bursting at the seams in "Will.Want.Need." or simmering just under the surface in "Like Leaves We Fall."
"I think this record is more an overall picture of where we are as a band and individuals right now," Lindley said.
His point is hard to dispute. Even the title is apropos: Passion In Progress. Despite the group's previous successes, all of which the members are grateful for, there's still a focus on the future and the opportunities to reach a new plateau. The passion is still there -- and it's what drives the band to continue evolving, making it a work in progress.
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