It was supposed to be a day of celebration. But when Tickle Me Pink guitarist Sean Kennedy went to wake bandmate Johnny Schou on July 1, the morning their debut album was to hit stores, he found the 22-year-old dead. Initial reports from the local Fort Collins, Colo., press had the band vehemently denying the young bassist's death was drug related, but an autopsy revealed Schou died from an accidental heroin overdose.
"He'd been clean for a long time," Kennedy says by phone from his Fort Collins home. Kennedy says the band had been aware of a previous problem Schou had with opiates but he had gone to rehab and was attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings regularly. "We supported him and closely monitored him," Kennedy says. "So we were very sure that it wasn't drugs and he didn't drink, so we were just as shocked as everyone else."
The band had spent a quiet evening together prior to the tragedy. "It was totally an accident," Kennedy says. "We weren't even partying that night or anything. He was just reading a book the last time we saw him at two in the morning."
Kennedy resents the press making what he calls a big deal out of the situation due to his bucolic surroundings. "We live in suburbia central," he says of his hometown of 125,000, located near the Wyoming border. "It's the number one place to raise a family." Nevertheless, he sees a lot of pharmaceutical abuse among the more upscale natives. "It's funny how someone could have a migraine and be addicted to OxyContin, where if you have some money and can pay for that kinda stuff, it's fully acceptable," he says. "It's pretty much the same drug as heroin, but people hear the word heroin and freak out."
The band addresses drug abuse head-on with the title cut from their debut album Madeline, with the lyric "Oh you didn't have to die/ You filled your veins with lies." Kennedy says it's a compilation of things that have happened to the band in the past.
It's not a theme the band dwells on. But Kennedy, the band's lyricist, doesn't shy away from plain talk on other subjects. You don't see many songs these days where you call your ex-girlfriend a whore as he does in the song "Typical." He says it's based on true stories. "Stefan [Runstrom], our drummer, and I had some very serious girlfriends and some stuff happened at the exact same time with them. It was pretty messed up, so it was kind of our tribute," he says, chuckling evilly.
Despite his candor, the band comes across as wholesome rockers, dedicated to its craft and ready to be road dawgs for years. "No bands have come out of Fort Collins really, so we're just very driven kids," says Kennedy, the salutatorian of his high school class. He and the only other original member, drummer Runstrom, forsook college, moving in together to work on their music. "It was a big risk, because we both had scholarships," Kennedy says. The duo used money they had saved for college to record Madeline, picking up Schou, who was working as an engineer at Colorado's Blasting Room studio. Indy label Wind Up records signed them, bought the record and released it.
Unsure about future plans in the wake of the bassist's death, they were encouraged by Schou's family to continue. Schou's place was taken by a long time friend, bassist Joey Barba. "Johnny and I were switching off bass and guitar," Kennedy says. "Because my friend Joey is a lot better guitar player than me, he's playing all the guitar now, I'm playing bass full time."
With two Vans Warped Tours behind them, an upcoming fall tour with Hawthorne Heights and the buzz from the new record, major success seems within reach. No matter how successful they get, Kennedy says the band will stay true to its Fort Collins roots. "We've all lived here our whole lives and our families are here, our friends," he says. "We don't want to forget the people who've helped us get here -- people really take ownership of our band being from here so it's something that we want to give back."
Tickle Me Pink plays Sept. 9 at Tremont Music Hall at 6:30 p.m. with Scary Kids Scaring Kids, Finch, From First To Last and Our Last Night. Tickets are $15 in advance, $17.50 day of the show.