POSTED ON MARCH 2, 2011:
The Power of POP!
If youth is king, Tulsa is preparing for a new pop takeover
Young Stunner. Zeke Duhonís shows have been limited to all-ages event and venues, but his solid songwriting and evolving talent has landed him some prime slots opening for big-name acts, including American Idol contestant Kris Allen. As impressive as his young career has been, Duhonís songwriting has taken itís biggest strides and drawn the most attention in the past four months
There's no arguing the fact that Tulsa has a rich musical heritage. Just taking a cursory glance back at our history reveals roots buried deep in country, western swing, jazz, blues, classic rock and red-dirt. Nearly any musician you speak to about Tulsa acknowledges the depth of our talent pool and how many amazing musicians we have in such a concentrated area. It comes as no surprise then that our city continues to be a breeding ground for new bands and new music.
What has been surprising is how little pure pop music has sprung from our well of talent over the past 15 years or more. Music, like fashion, tends to go in cycles and in that time, Tulsa has seen waves of alternative rock, Red Dirt, alt-country, hardcore, emo and blues. Just in the past few years we've seen an infusion of great, eclectic indie-rock acts cycle through and more recently seen a resurgence of the jam band and classic rock aesthetics in the group of bands that encapsulate the "New Tulsa Sound."
Not since Hanson emerged in 1997 has Tulsa created a wave of undeniable pop music and even then, it wasn't a movement so much as one band finding its muse and acting upon it. Sure, there has been a constant pop undercurrent in our more commercially minded pop-rock acts, whether it be in the Beatles-esque leaning of Admiral Twin, the undeniable hooks of Midwest Kings or Greg Hostermann's melodic vocal lines in Clovis or RadioRadio. All of those bands were incorporating pop into a distinctly rock driven format, however, leaving us with relatively few, if any, pure pop acts in Tulsa. Until now, that is.
Over the past year, the tide has shifted and we're finally seeing a shift in styles and a reemergence of simple, yet classic pop melodies and song structures. What's most surprising about this new movement, however, is where it's coming from. Instead of being presented by veterans of our music scene who are growing into and embracing their pop sensibilities, the artists at the forefront of the current movement are Tulsa's young guns. Primarily set between the ages of 16 and 21, this is the next generation of pop and rock musicians who aren't afraid to unabashedly draw inspiration not only from icons like The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and Michael Jackson, but from current artists like The Fray, Maroon 5, John Mayer and Taylor Swift as well.
Don't let their youth mislead you, however. These kids are taking their cues from the masters and are learning their lessons well. If it takes a whole new crop of artists to reconnect to Tulsa's pop lineage, then so be it. It's hard to argue with simple song structure with strong melodies and undeniable hooks and if it takes a youthful innocence and exuberance to get us back to the basics, there's nothing wrong with that.
So just who is at the forefront of this new movement? While the latest generation of young artists has largely moved from emo and hardcore to pop-punk and bands like RadioRadio continue to infuse more melodic hooks into their rock, there are a trio of young acts that are truly shaking things up with their return to classic pop structures and melodies. Chances are, even if you haven't seen any of them, you've at least heard the names Chase Stites, Apollo and Zeke Duhon come up in conversation as they continue to not only play as often as possible, but also create and release new music to catch in your ears and subconscious.
CUT TO THE CHASE
Cut to the Chase. Chase Stites has already made quite a transition since starting out fronting his first band the post-hardcore outfit Valmont in 2006. From there, his pop sensibilities started to move to forefront with Restless Ribbon, the high school band that garnered nominations for Best Rock/Pop, Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Band of the Year in the 2010 ABoT Music Awards after winning Best New Artist in 2009.
As the winner of the 2010 ABoT Music Award for Best Male Vocalist, Chase Stites' name is already a familiar one to many UTW readers. In fact, he's the veteran of this movement, both in age and experience. The oldest of the current crowd -- he turns 21 this month -- Stites has already made quite a transition since starting out fronting his first band, the post-hardcore outfit Valmont in 2006. From there, his pop sensibilities started to move to forefront with Restless Ribbon, the high school band that garnered nominations for Best Rock/Pop, Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Band of the Year in the 2010 ABoT Music Awards after winning Best New Artist in 2009.
What many people didn't realize was that by the time the awards show rolled around, the band had already run its course and dissolved, a byproduct both creative differences and differences in vision and direction for the band. As the primary songwriter for Restless Ribbon, Stites was constantly working on new material and knew he wasn't about to quit when Restless Ribbon came to an end.
"I decided it was smarter to just do it myself," Stites said in late July as he headed into the studio with Geoff Rockwell, producer for Forever the Sickest Kids and Schoolboy Humor, amongst others. Stites said he entered the studio intending to emerge with high quality demos, but the end product was far better than expected, so he decided to use the tunes to test the solo waters and released them via iTunes.
At the 2010 music awards on Aug. 8, I finally met Stites in person and he handed me an un-mastered version of "Love Again," his first single. Within three spins, I was sold: a mid-tempo ballad with a soaring chorus, a big hook and a bridge catchy enough to tie it all up in a perfect, radio-ready package. Well, almost. Clocking in at about four and a half minutes, radio stations balked and called for a shorter radio edit.
The second single, "Be My Vice," was more guitar-oriented, but hit its marks, clocking in at almost three minutes exactly. Building upon an already growing online following and positive reception at the few solo shows he had played to gauge response, Stites shot a video for the single in October, which added to the digital frenzy and reaffirmed that Stites was on the right track with his latest effort.
Stites returned to the studio in the fall, this time with producer Kevin Gates, to work on four new songs. The tracks are tentatively slated for an April release and have a mature, developed sound that strays from the sound associated with niche acts like Forever The Sickest Kids, Mayday Parade and The Maine and enters the more commercial territory of acts like One Republic, Maroon 5, and even Taylor Swift.
Considering his influences, Stites development and evolution seems logical.
"Early on it was Green Day all the way," he admitted. "That's all I knew, played or listened to thru my middle school years. Nimrod was the album I grew up on -- Dookie was great, but that wasn't my record."
Later, as his taste began to develop and expand, Stites' older sister introduced him to more pop-oriented artists like John Mayer and Maroon 5, which he said "completely broadened my horizons."
It only makes sense, then, that Stites' writing has been a work in progress, evolving from post hardcore to pop-punk to more straight-forward, melodically oriented pop.
Even when measured by his first demos, Stites' compositions have the most potential for mainstream radio success and can stand on their own next to pop acts such as Girls Like Boys and Hello Goodbye or even more commercially oriented artists.
Stites' new tracks, especially "Still In Love" and "Leavin' the City," definitely move him in a more adult-contemporary direction. The songs incorporate just enough acoustic guitar to possibly give him a toe in with the pop-country genre that has embraced Taylor Swift and Darius Rucker. That possibility isn't lost on Stites, who puts his focus on the song above style.
"I'm not trying to specifically fit in anywhere. I'd be fine if country radio wanted to pick me up and make me something like the male version of Taylor Swift," he said. "I'm just trying to write songs to entertain people. I just want to make people feel something -- I'm not trying to teach them anything. I'm an entertainer, above all."
SHOOTING FOR THE STARS
Apollo Mission. Apollo is a true newcomer to the scene. The group originally came together for a school talent show in 2009, and had its first formal show in December 2009 at Joe Mommaís Pizza. The quartet draws inspiration and direction from bands like The Fray and Snow Patrol, with front man Patrick Turnerís keyboards and soulful vocals pushed front and center.
While Stites has been writing and performing the longest among the key players in the current movement, Apollo is true newcomer to the scene. The group originally came together for a school talent show in 2009 as a one-off for friends Chaz Gnaedig, Patrick Turner and Mitchell Rhoades, where they played a cover of Kanye West's "Heartless" to a positive response.
Afterwards, "People kept asking us, 'Hey, what's the name of your band?' so we thought maybe we actually need to form a band," said drummer Chaz Gnaedig.
From there, the trio enlisted Chaz's brother, Chris Gnaedig, to play bass and round out the lineup that included Rhoades on guitar and Turner on vocals and keyboards. Shortly after completing the lineup and beginning rehearsals, the members decided that if they were going to take music seriously, they needing to start writing their own material.
The band's first official show was in December 2009 at Joe Momma's Pizza, and the band has taken off from there. By June 2010, the group had followed up demo attempts with recording sessions with Arliss Moon, who helped Apollo produce the five-song Speechless EP, which included the first couple of songs the band had written together, "Ides of June" and "Breathe." The band quickly followed with another, self-produced four-song EP, Take it or Lose It, which was released in August.
If all this seems unremarkable, you need to step back and consider the one missing detail: this is the first band experience for each of the four members. Luck struck like lightening here, and this quartet somehow managed to harness it. In just shy of a year and a half, the group of friends has gone from a one-off event for a high school talent show to releasing nine original songs and playing more than two dozen shows, including opening slots for Stars Go Dim, The Willowz and John Lefler, a solo singer-songwriter and guitarist with Dashboard Confessional. The group even played sets at the Black Gold Oklahoma Music Run and Free Tulsa music festivals last July, which were both on the same night.
It makes it all the more amazing, then, that this quartet has made such great strides in such a short amount of time. As a whole, Apollo draws inspiration and direction from bands like The Fray and Snow Patrol, with Turner's keyboards and soulful vocals pushed front and center. As the group continues to develop, however, Rhoades' tasteful guitar playing has become a more integral part in the band's sound and style.
Although songwriting is a collaborative process within the group, which has continued progress as the musicians develop stronger chemistry, conversations with the band make it clear where each member's primary role lies. Chaz Gnaedig is the business head of the group, keeping the band on point, covering the detail work and chasing down live bookings. Turner is key in the songwriting and overall musical direction, while Rhoades continues to help shape the sound and vision as he embraces and grows into his role.
As can be expected with a young band, Apollo has made great strides over the course of the last year, but that growth is most apparent in its live show, where you can see the band's stage presence improve with each performance. No longer timid, each member is obviously growing comfortable with the spotlight and becoming more confident, engaging the audience and becoming showmen more than mere players on the stage.
Turner is clearly a student of music. Vocally, he draws from a variety of styles and artist, with a predominant pull toward soul and R&B singers, and he cites influences that range from Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Al Green and Whitney Houston to Justin Timberlake, Rufus Wainwright, Gavin DeGraw, Hanson and Kings of Leon.
Most influential to Turner, however, are his peers within the local music scene.
"When I was a junior, I saw Chase (Stites) in Restless Ribbon at the Satellite Battle of the Bands and was blown away," Turner said. "It really started at the battle of the band the year before, when I saw Here Is There and got inspired and decided I needed to learn to play piano. I started learning to read music off of the Internet and learned to play by ear and started learning chord progressions.
"It was when I saw Chase and Restless Ribbon that I really put it all together and thought maybe I could be in a band," he said. "Later that year, I was at Elliot Elementary School, playing basketball with some friends when I recognized Chase. I was with a couple of buddies and we sat and talked from maybe 9pm to 1am. Apollo was just forming at the time and he was really helpful, just talking about it with me."
When speaking with Turner, it's obvious that a love of music has always been brewing within him and it was only a matter of time before he found an outlet. After all, this is the kid that laughingly admitted that at 9 years old, he would close the door to his room and turn up 'N Sync, mimicking all of Justin Timberlake's falsettos. It's all the more amazing that he only started playing piano a year before Apollo came together and he found a special chemistry in his first band experience.
Apollo's appeal hasn't just been within the all-ages shows that are often attended primarily by friends of whatever band is playing. Local radio has been receptive, with 97.5 KMOD-FM's DOMK! show, in particular, latching on to the single "Lose It" at the end of the summer.
The real challenge for the band at this point is how to continue moving forward. Although Chris Gnaedig is still a junior at Booker T. Washington and Mitchell Rhoades is attending Tulsa Community College, Turner and Chaz Gnaedig have been out of state as freshmen at the University of Arkansas and Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., respectively.
Even though education has put the band on pause, the distance hasn't kept the musicians from making progress whenever they get the chance to come together. The band put together a pair of shows over fall break and Thanksgiving last year, and managed to work in three gigs over the Christmas break, including securing a key spot opening for Tulsa pop favorite Eric and the Adams and the big New Year's Eve celebration in Brookside this year.
Songwriting is ongoing as well, with the members each writing on their own and sharing ideas via phone or e-mail. In fact, Apollo plans on recording a few new songs that it already has worked up when it reconvenes over spring break in March, and the members hope to have a full album completed and ready for release by the end of June. Live shows are also in the works, and the band has already scheduled gigs at the April 26 -- May 1 Festival of the Arts in Oklahoma City and Memorial Day weekend's Backwoods Bash Music & Camping Festival at Lake Keystone, and are eyeing a possible summer tour as well.
Right now, it seems the sky is the limit for Apollo -- a band that despite its recent launch is already being greeted warmly at nearly every turn.
Big Break. No one was ready for the reaction Zeke Duhon received when he previewed his next single, ďFrom A to Z,Ē online. The song, which Duhon said was actually written after a breakup with his girlfriend, had sat unused for nearly a year. When Duhon posted the song on his Facebook page, the response was immediate and passionate. Knowing whom the song was about made many people take sides and online comments quickly escalated into a flame war.
The real wild card of the current crop of pop wunderkinds has to be Zeke Duhon. As a 16-year-old sophomore at Union High School, he may be the most underdeveloped of the three, but he might also have the most potential.
In Duhon's case, music is in his blood, or perhaps his DNA. His sister, Olivia Duhon, garnered nominations for both Best Female Vocalist and Best Jazz Artist in last year's ABoT Music Awards and the siblings share a genetic talent pool. Zeke said he and his sister's affinity for music comes from their father's side of the family, where four brothers and one sister all sing and play instruments. As a result, Duhon family reunions in Southern Louisiana always include someone playing music and the influence has quite simply rubbed off and been handed down.
Although Zeke Duhon's first public performance was singing in an elementary school talent show in the second grade, that really didn't launch his aspirations. It was when his father gave him a guitar for his 13th birthday and taught him a few chords that his talent truly began to rise to the surface.
"When wrote my first song, it wasn't something I planned on doing," he said. "I just started playing with chords and a melody came into my head so I put words with it.
Duhon was reluctant to tell anyone about the song. Hearing the song for the first time, his dad couldn't believe his son wrote the tune.
"Then he realized I only knew the few chords and songs that he'd shown me, so I had to have written it myself," Duhon recalled. "After that, he told me 'If you can write another song this good, I'll take you to the studio to record it. A couple months later, I thought maybe I'll try to write another song. After the second one was written, it all started to come out quickly."
Duhon's father made good on his word and Duhon released his first CD, Eric's Marine, in early 2009. The five-song EP set up the foundation that Duhon would continue to build upon. Primarily singer-songwriter material with a distinct pop sensibility, it didn't break any new ground, but it was incredibly impressive for a then 14 year old who was writing, recording and playing his own material.
In the interim, Duhon briefly fronted the hardcore/emo band Relax/Relapse.
"That was a very brief period in the 8th grade," he said. "It got to the point where I was neglecting my solo stuff, though, and when I looked at the two I thought I can play in a metal band and get really good at it and play until I'm about 26, then have to get a real job. The more time I spent on one took away from the other."
Since then, Duhon has focused primarily on his own material and continuing to grow as a songwriter. In that time, he has been performing roughly ever month, careful to not over saturate the market, but still play regularly. Of course Duhon's shows have been limited to all-ages event and venues, but his solid songwriting and evolving talent has landed him some prime slots opening for bands like Capital Lights, Never Say Never, Mayday Parade, and most recently, American Idol contestant Chris Allen at The Marquee.
As impressive as his young career has been, Duhon's songwriting has taken it biggest strides and drawn the most attention in the past four months
Last fall, Duhon filmed high-definition video for his new single, "Need," with director Ryan Valdez and released it online in December. A haunting, modern pop ballad, the song reveals just how far Duhon has come already since writing his first song, "Papercut." The video immediately drew attention to Duhon via Facebook and YouTube.
No one was ready for the reaction Duhon received when he previewed his next single, "From A to Z," online. The song, which Duhon said was actually written after a breakup with his girlfriend, had sat unused for nearly a year.
"We were in the studio and looking for a catchy pop song, so I decided to do it," he said. "It just happened to work out conveniently because we had just broken up again."
The song itself is an amazingly catchy pop song, complete with Beatles-esque harmonies and a chorus that sticks in your head as a consummate kiss-off to an ex and with the title, "From A to Z," many of his friends and fans were able to tie the track to his ex.
When Duhon posted the song on his Facebook page, the response was immediate and passionate. Knowing whom the song was about made many people take sides and online comments quickly escalated into a flame war.
"The first comment came in within less than five minutes of me posting it online and it just kept going," Duhon said with a laugh. "I think posted it over a weekend and the first day back at school after that was like a movie. I can't think of anything to relate it to.
"People just have to realize that every song is a little exaggerated. It's not like she was a terrible, scheming bitch, but I was still hurt and feeling kind of burned. I did it on purpose and wanted people to know. I went in knowing it would cause shit, I just didn't realize how much."
It was definitely a lesson in both personal politics and marketing that Duhon learned from. "I have to laugh about it," he said, "because who ever though a 16 year old in a public high school could write a song and cause such a response? I was pulling out of the parking lot that afternoon and some random girl I don't even know flipped me off."
The online response also drew additional attention, landing the song plays on 104.5 KMYZ-FM The Edge's Homegrown and 97.5 KMOD-FM's DOMK! shows, both of which feature local music.
Duhon's style is constantly shifting as he draws from influences ranging from The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel to Copeland and such contemporaries as Radiohead and even Taylor Swift. The more he continues to grow, however, the more Duhon's pure pop influences continue to come out in his songwriting.
Duhon is currently writing and recording and has an eye on releasing a longer, 10-song album my mid-summer and recording videos for at least of two of the singles to increase his exposure.
At the same time, Duhon is working to ensure his live performances match his studio output in quality, and improving his stagecraft to engage audiences. Even though he's only a high school sophomore, Duhon already has a good idea of what he'd like to do for a career and he's already on the path.
So where does that leave us as music fans in Tulsa? We all know there's no guarantee that any one act or band will make it big and sign a huge record deal, especially with the current state of the music industry. It is apparent, however, that for the first time in many years, we've got a legitimate pop movement growing within our local ranks.
If someone should step up and take notice, however, any one of these young artists could make the move to be the next big pop star and draw more attention to the talent pool in Tulsa.
As is stands, Chase Stites is the most radio ready of the bunch with a cool grasp of melody and big hooks. Apollo is not far behind and all the more impressive in how quickly the band has found a chemistry the goes beyond explanation. The group's piano-pop sound fits squarely within the realm of bands like The Fray, The Script and Snow Patrol and could lead them into even more success on the college circuit. Meanwhile, although Zeke Duhon is the youngest of the bunch, his affinity for simple singer-songwriter oriented fare rounds things out and balances Tulsa's pop palette.
One thing is sure: we've got plenty of promise and talent in Tulsa and the emergence of these young artists will make 2011 even more interesting when watching the music landscape to see who becomes the next big thing.
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