By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
Buzz begins in unusual places. At the tail end of a much-CC'd e-mail, almost as an afterthought. As a story pitch left on your answering machine by someone whose instincts you can trust. By a clerk slaving behind the counter at your favorite used CD store, who, after he finds out who you are and what it is you do, feels the need to inform you not of the punk band he's in, but instead of this cool jazz-rock combo he caught the other night at Linda's Doll Hut. You suspect there's some sort of well-bankrolled, subtle conspiracy afoot, a media infiltration propagated by multinational conglomerates like Sony, Time-Warner and BMG—until you start getting more e-mails and more phone calls about this band from people you're absolutely sure have never met before in their lives. Soon, the buzz band's name is popping out everywhere: on the lips of the drive-through lady as she casually hands you your bagful of Double-Doubles; on the personalized license plate of the car in front of you. You swear you can make out their name in the patterns of your popcorn ceiling as you lie in bed on weekend mornings. When friends come up to you, you find yourself finishing their sentences for them, correctly assuming each time what they're gonna blurt: "Hey, have you heard of this band called—""—Square?!?"
If the buzz about Square seems to have come from nowhere, it has: they've been an Orange County band for just six months. In early February, the trio—drummer Ryland Steen, guitarist James Valentine and singer/ main songwriter/keyboardist Sean Beste (who also plays synth-bass with his left hand, Ray Manzarek-style)—loaded up a rental truck, cut out of their Lincoln, Nebraska, hometown, and moved into a house in Anaheim just a car alarm's blare from the 5 freeway. They had planned to move anyway but were coincidentally one of four finalists in a battle-of-the-bands-type contest sponsored by the Ernie Ball company, the last round of which was to be held at LA's Bonaventure Hotel. The grand prize: $25,000.
"Sean was embarrassed to even tell us that he entered us," says Valentine. "Really, we were more embarrassed about it than anything else. And winning was the last thing on our minds—I mean, we didn't actually think we were going to end up winning the $25,000."
The judges were mostly a bunch of creaky old heavy-metal shredders—people like CC DeVille, Nikki Sixx and Duff McKagan, a crew of cretins you'd think would have been repulsed by Square's intricate, rocked-up fusion. But after the final tallying—after a long process of winning several preliminary rounds that involved some 600 bands from across the country—Square walked off with the check.
"I was shocked," Valentine remembers. "We needed that money. We really needed that money to make this whole move and everything else work."
"It's scary how long ago we would've had to move back home if we hadn't won," Beste says. "We sure wouldn't still be here."
"Having a competition based around music is pretty weird anyway," Valentine continues. "It was like I was back competing in sports. Waiting for them to announce the winner was the weirdest thing, too. And then after we won, Dweezil Zappa, who was emceeing the whole thing, pulled us aside and said, 'It's all downhill from here, guys.' He basically told us, 'Good luck, but go home.' And that was our first exposure to that scene—all these jaded musicians who'd been hurt by their livelihood."
Jaded and hurt by not being smart about their careers, most likely—a problem Square are trying hard to avoid. For starters, they're wise about managing the dough they won, putting it away for rent and assorted gear expenses (they splurged on some frills, though, like annual passes to Disneyland, to break those occasional moments of creative stress). They bought a van for touring, which they plan to do more of as soon as they wrap up recording a full-length album, probably around October. For now, they're staying local, playing any and every room they can. They've done Linda's Doll Hut, the Hub and the Gypsy Lounge and will likely have gigged in every major OC/Long Beach club before too long.
"I pictured us struggling through these months just to get some recognition," says Valentine. "But it's been really good. If we played this much back in Lincoln, we'd be the house band in every single club. At least there's an actual music scene here."
Beste concurs. "I love OC—it's hip! Everybody's been nice to us, and we've met so many other musicians," he says. "We haven't really come across a lot of attitude, either—we got more of that out there than here."
Square's buzz began with their live shows. Not long after their move and winning the Ernie Ball contest, they got their first gig at the Hub on a bill with equally buzzed-about singer-songwriter Jay Buchanan. "He was the first musician we saw after moving here," Valentine says. "That kind of messed us up because we were thinking, 'Wow, everybody out here is really good!' Since then, though, there have only been a couple of other bands that have interested us. But we hooked up with Jay right away and opened for him a few weeks in a row—he was playing there every Tuesday. And that's where we started building this small following. It was basically his crowd, but it was really diverse and open."