A Power Greater Than Themselves

This is when Buchanan could become mega, but first they get to turn their lives over to the music industry

Photo by Tenaya HillsThis is it.

This is the moment for any band that's been suffering its way through years of artistic indecencies—beer-soaked clubs, shifty promoters, tone-deaf sound guys, piss-reeking tour vans, blowing-smoke-up-the-ass record-label execs.

This is the moment when the expectations of your fan base—building with tectonic inevitability—are finally satisfied. When you finally have an answer for the strangers who come up to you at shows and incredulously ask why you're not signed yet. When all the hard work is supposed to pay off, even though half the band is living off MasterCard withdrawals and the other half can't qualify for credit. When you think that maybe, finally, you've "made it" and can breathe for a while.

But this is really just the start of a whole new kind of nervous. Truth is Buchanan haven't done anything yet. It's two weeks before the Feb. 24 release of their first proper label album, All Understood, and the band—guitarist Ty Stewart, drummer Chris Powell, bassist Todd Sanders and front man Jay Buchanan (the singer/songwriter, naturally)—have stumbled into the dark cave that is the Gypsy Lounge, one of their many home-away-from-home clubs. And they're beat, having just driven back from a quickie San Francisco sojourn, where they played four songs to a bunch of radio people who may or may not decide to add them to their playlists.

In an hourlong chat, they shift between cocky confidence and near panic. They know their music's great and that if enough people hear it, there's no reason they couldn't be mega by this time next year. But this is also when they have to turn their lives and art over to people they barely know—people they've entrusted with promotion, press, marketing, booking and distribution, work Buchanan used to do themselves. All the band can really do now is concentrate on playing music and hope that All Understood actually shows up in the CD bins on Feb. 24.

"We definitely have the prerelease jitters on this thing because we've all worked so fucking hard," says Jay. "But I've learned from the past about letting ambition control my expectations. We'll play it smart and see what happens, but we have to look at things as realistically as possible."

Part of playing it smart is knowing the chances of a new band succeeding on a national level are positively microscopic, particularly in this era of record-industry layoffs and lowest-common-denominator radio stations. Buchanan have already weathered pangs of uncertainty with their label, Ultimatum. All Understood was supposed to have been released a year ago, but Ultimatum was in the middle of changing distributors, so instead of just dropping the record into a black hole and watching it disappear, they opted to wait until they could give it proper support.

The band spent the time touring and tweaking.

"We hit new cities, made new friends," Jay says. "Plus, we were able to go back in the studio and re-track a few things."

The version of All Understood that would have come out was . . . nice. Fine, with Jay's deeply personal, relationship-centered lyrics (sung in his sweet, high, slightly eerie lilt that recalls Buckleys both Tim and Jeff) in songs such as "Steal Your Kisses" and "Three Times Coleen" standing out from just about everything else in the aural atmosphere. There were the songs familiar to anyone who'd caught Jay solo or with the band at the Gypsy Lounge or Linda's Doll Hut or many a Tuesday night at the Hub CafĂ© or famously busking in front of doughnut shops after plugging his amp into the electrical outlets normally reserved for the kiddie rides—"Satan Is a Woman" and "How Crazy I Am" and "The Sun Burns My Eyes." Good songs, good album—just not a great one.

And that's because version 1.0 of the album didn't have "If You Leave," probably Jay's most popular song, a harrowing tale of spousal abuse that starts off feeling like a charming love sonnet ("So we're married now, you can be my wife/And I'll love you, girl, for the rest of your life") before turning black and vicious ("We can have our fun, for the rest of your life/But don't you ever think you can leave me behind/I'll kill you if you leave"). Before, "If You Leave" had more of a folkie-driven acoustic bent to it; the new version is an absolute Zeppelin take, the music as raucous and threatening as the lyrics—a sonic punch that beefs up the whole album. The band also re-recorded three other songs—"Plans," "Reborn" and the angry anti-war rant "American Son" (which was also freshly injected with some searing guitar licks)—turning All Understood from what had been a pretty good folk/pop record into a monstrous rock & roll one, with a few quieter moments fluttering about.

Great tunes, but even as Buchanan get ready for a year's worth of playing them for crowds of people who've never heard them before, they're also sort of done with them. A lot of songs on All Understood are considerably old. Some first turned up on Violence, a self-released album recorded in 1999. Some are even older.

"I wrote the last track, 'On Me,' when I was 16," Jay says. "'If You Leave' I wrote when I was 17, and now I'm 28. It's almost like another person wrote those. I've had to rework things and switch lines so they stay current, and I can't handle playing or singing if it's not something I can identify with or feel. The crowd knows when you're faking it, and I have faked it before. I've been in that complacent, blasĂ© state of mind, where you're apathetic and complacent—'Here I go, doing my thing again'—and you're not feeling the energy. I went through a stage like that about a year ago, and boy, that was murder."

* * *

What Jay went through was a divorce. Coupled with the frustrations of having the band's debut album in limbo, wondering if it would ever come out, made him take stock of who he was, who he wanted to be and the way he was treating people.

"I really got past the whole postured-rock-star-ego thing, which some had accused me of. But I just realized I really didn't want to be doing that. You wind up just losing track of who you are completely. At the end of it all, I'm just not comfortable treating people shitty."

Being nice helps, Jay's discovered, but he's not above talking smack about people who deserve it. When he was being courted by several major record labels and performing special showcases, he was very blunt when he needed to be.

"There was a big major-label do-si-do going on, and we really got burned out by that," says Jay. "There were these record people who would show up an hour and a half late for private showcases, all sorts of sleaziness and bullshit. People who wanted to mold us into something we're not—'We love you guys, but how do we market you? You're so different!'

"There was this one guy we almost signed with. He hung out with us and talked to us all the time on the phone. And this wasn't long ago, either, maybe 2000. So, last summer, the band was in New York, and we ran into him in the club we were playing. We went up to him and said, 'Hey!'—and he looked at me and didn't have any idea who I was. It was very telling, like someone who you had an affair with once and who instantly forgets you."

Jay's frustration with the industry may have actually helped him score his Ultimatum deal. When he met with an A&R rep from the label, he first proceeded to let loose an angry spew for a good half-hour.

"I was just going, 'Fuck labels, fuck everybody, we don't need them! We'll record our record ourselves!' And the next day, we got a call from him saying that he was really into us, and they wound up picking up the ball. I went to their office, and right away, I saw this big picture of Joni Mitchell on their wall—a good sign. And once we got to talking, they gave us the impression they were really about letting the artists do what they want without outside interference. I got to meet the president of the label, and I could call him up right now and get him on the phone right now if I wanted. And I know not everyone can do that at other labels."

Still, nothing is guaranteed, no matter how much the label people may love Buchanan. Like so many debut albums by so many new bands, All Understood could easily vanish into a plastic netherworld of used-CD bins in sad little record shops. But this is still a promising time for Buchanan: something might happen. The San Francisco radio set went fabulously—"We were told their program director usually only sticks around for half a song, but he stayed for all four of ours!" drummer Powell says. "Then we went outside to smoke, and there was this guy with a suit sitting there, and he told us everyone was practically shitting their pants over us."

Ummm . . . in a good way?

"Yeah, in a good way. But it's just a matter of lighting sparks and taking things one step at a time," Powell continues. "Like Maroon 5—we ran into [guitarist] James [Valentine, who had previously been in OC band Square] in New York. Maroon 5 are platinum now, and James told us it took a year's worth of van touring, thinking it was never going to happen, and then all of sudden: sparks! And then they're in a bus, and he's buying a laptop and pinching himself every morning."

"This is the first time we've really had stuff out of our control," says bassist Todd Sanders. "For so long, we existed with having everything in our control, and we've prospered, and now we're at a spot where our future isn't entirely up to us anymore."

"We know how to handle our shit," Jay says. "But when we leave it up to other people, it's scary."

* * *

It's Tuesday, Feb. 24, and we've wandered into the Costa Mesa Best Buy to pick up the new Buchanan album. Where Buchanan should be, we find only Buckcherry, so we hunt down a yellow-shirted employee who can hopefully help us out. The shiny-faced clerk is friendly as he punches some keys into his computer. "Uhhh . . . no, doesn't look like we got any copies. It says it came out today, though. Don't know what to tell you."

We also see the Buchanan inventory at other Best Buys in the neighborhood pop up on the computer screen: goose eggs across the board, suggesting that the other outlets never got copies either.

"Do you know where Second Spin is?" the clerk asks us. "They might have it there. You might even be able to pick it up for four or five bucks."

We drive over to Second Spin, where we find nothing. A short hike away is a Tower, so we try again. Nothing in the bin—but, hey, we can pick up several copies of a month-old Time on the magazine rack or peruse copies of Shins and POD CDs, which bizarrely have been placed in an "Orange County Sounds" display case.

We need help finding Buchanan again, so we hit up a nice woman working the counter, who writes the band's name down on a slip of paper ("That's B-U-C-H-A-N-A-N, right?"), dashes off to the stockroom and pesters a colleague. "It just came out today, so it might not be on the floor yet," she tells us. It's 6:30 p.m. But a couple of minutes later, she flags us down and hands us one of five copies of All Understood—$12.99. "Life is all about timing," she says, stickering the rest of the Buchanan stock and slipping them in the B section.

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