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Not Quite Almost Famous

On the road with pop-punk phenoms the Talk


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I meet the band in Chicago, at a place so cool it seems to be discouraging business. It's called the Hideout and is buried in an industrial lot close to a highway. An Old Style sign in front of the venue's wooden plank building serves as the only indication it's not abandoned.

I've joined the Talk for a leg of its Midwest tour: Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville, Cincinnati, Charleston -- then back to Charlotte. That's the plan.

In the back room, about 40 people have crowded in to see the show, 10 of whom are related to the bassist of Birdmonster­­­ -- the Talk's tour mates. This, the band tells me, is a good-sized crowd. (On the last tour, not one person came out for a show in Houston. While the Talk were packing up its van, a kid found them in the parking lot and said he traveled an hour and a half to make it to the show. The band unpacked and played an entire set just for him.)

Lead singer Justin Williams introduces the trio, "We are a tall band from North Carolina." Onstage (as well as off), the band is laconic. Bassist CR Rollyson's straight black hair covers his eyes, and in a grungy, too-apathetic-to-care sort of way, he makes no attempt to part it away from his face. On drums, the beanstalk-like Jeremy Holcombe wears a completely blank impression. Justin performs barefoot. The only sign of emotion is in his mouth, which twists and contorts as his British-sounding singing voice pours out. On other songs, he hits a higher, chirpier note that doesn't seem like it's coming from his body.

"We don't have any gimmick. There's no coolness to it, we go up there and play," Justin says of the band's stage presence. Birdmonster is a foil to the Talk's style -- cookie-cutter, trendy types replete with tight-fitting jeans, over-zealous strumming and jumping bean dance moves.

Sunday night I spend in my childhood suburban home, tucked into bed by mommy, then rejoin the band the next day on the way to St. Louie. A queen-size mattress lies on the floor of the van in lieu of the first two rows of seats. This van, supplied by the band's label owner Chuck Morrison, is where the members crash many nights on the road. When the band was unsigned and on its first tour, the members lied to a van rental company and said they were a church group to get a discount.

Morrison always wanted to run his own music label. He managed a few bands, but felt that it was more like babysitting than anything. His dream wasn't possible, until he doodled a racecar on a napkin one day. The racecar was in the shape of a computer mouse which gave Morrison an idea. Before NASCAR mania swept the nation, he saw its potential. He designed mouses to look like replicas of popular drivers' cars and got the necessary patents and licenses.

He sold the product on QVC, flying to Westchester, PA, on 26 occasions to do the eight-to-nine minute infomercials himself. The company went from a garage in Concord without a bathroom, to a 20,000 square foot distribution center with 11 loading bays. Morrison is like the guy who invented the keyboard tie.

Shortly after he started his label, Justin called him up, saying, "I hear you signed Elevator Action. You should sign my band. We're the best band around." Morrison was impressed by his boldness.

Hungover from the night before, and with a day off before the St. Louis show, we stop in Pontiac, IL, a podunk exit town, to get a hotel room. A hotel is a rare treat. Earlier on the tour, the band slept outside in a park. The day is spent watching TV.

At night, while the band falls asleep under the TV glow, Justin talks to me about his music. He writes three songs a day because "if you write 21 songs a week, you should have one good one out of that." The lyrics of his songs cover a range of topics. "I'll make up some really fake stories about shit, like a GI going off on a leave, meeting a hooker and killing her. Then I wrote another song about this guy whose kid gets kidnapped, and he's all pissed off at God and denounces him. Then I wrote a song about fucking a chick."

Justin tells me he went through a phase when all his songs were about how pointless life is. Then he changed his tune. "I think music should be more about love and girls and stuff like that. Everyone can relate to it. It's the easiest thing for me to write about because I'm always thinking about girls and relationships. I'm 16 years old in my hormones."

As we leave Pontiac, Jeremy shows everyone that his hand is shaking from booze withdrawal. Other than describing the band as "genuine," Morrison calls them "a beautiful trainwreck."

At lunch in Bloomington, IL, we take turns spraying the air out of the spicy mustard bottle so a little of the poisonous gas enters our sinuses. This is as crazy as it gets while I'm with the band. In the past, it hasn't always been that tame.

"They're a band that trouble always seems to find," says Morrison. CR has had staples put in his head after getting in a fight in Pittsburgh. They won't talk about the incident that got them kicked off a tour with the Fall (note the irony), in which Justin threw a banana peel at the band during their set. "Don't quote me on anything, except that I like booze ... a lot," CR says. He relates another story in which a reporter asked them what they wanted fans to take away from a show. "Merchandise" was the answer the band gave.

The Nashville and Charleston shows are cancelled, giving the band two more off days (one of which they planned on spending at Six Flags) and forcing me to return early to the office.

Sensing I'm short on material, Justin tells me, "I could go crazy and go kill someone if you want me to. Just write that we glued chairs to the ceiling and then we tried to sit in them. And you can write that we all have really cool nicknames. Like mine can be the Ox."

Ox and the rest of the band play this Monday, Aug. 21 at the Milestone.


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