Singled Out
Saosin’s Beau Burchell on the band’s journey from DIY poverty to major-label success—and the compromises along the way

A funny thing happened at Orange County post-hardcore band Saosin’s first gig. The group were the opening act for a crowd of about 500 people at the now-defunct Showcase Theatre in Corona in 2003. After they finished their set, the joint cleared, leaving the headliner a nearly empty house. “They were pretty bummed,” recalls Saosin guitarist/vocalist and primary founder Beau Burchell.

So how does a band—not even officially at the time, Burchell says—draw such numbers their first time onstage?

Same way anyone does anything of consequence these days: the Internet.

Burchell, who grew up in Newport Beach, did time in a number of OC hardcore and straightedge bands, split off into a Brit-pop group, then found his way to the post-hardcore scene. “I sort of ended up at a happy medium,” he says. “When I was originally talking to the other guys about it, my description was that I wanted to try to sound like a heavy Björk.”

Björk-ish elements are difficult to find in Saosin’s music, but the band deliver the kind of hooky, emo-informed sound that modern rock radio craves.

Burchell, whose previous outfits peddled tickets to play small shows, took a different tack with his new project. The budding producer/engineer gathered his ad hoc members and cut a quick EP, titled Translating the Name, then posted it on MySpace, PureVolume and other music-intensive sites. “It was like, ‘Let’s see if people like our band. Then we’ll figure out if it’s something worth pursuing,’” he recalls. “That seemed like a better way to go about it than playing shows for six months and finding out no one likes us.”

Damn if Translating the Name didn’t create a nice little Internet stir in 2003. “We weren’t even a bona-fide band yet, and we started to see more and more people listing Saosin as music they liked, and some bands were even listing us as an influence,” Burchell says with a chuckle.

The name (pronounced “say-o-sin”), suggested by original vocalist Anthony Green, is an approximation of a Chinese saying that means, “be careful.”

After the surprise turnout for their first show, Saosin went all-in as a band. The original quartet (now a five-piece) took a vow of poverty and started van-touring in earnest. “We were able to cut our personal expenses to almost nothing,” Burchell says. “Three of the guys in the band [became] effectively homeless. They gave up their apartments to tour. I had built a studio in my parents’ house, and when we weren’t on the road, they would sleep in the tracking room. We were making $150, $200 a night. It wasn’t until about three years later that we were able to have any sort of, uh, luxury, when all five of us moved into a two-bedroom apartment.”

Around this time, Saosin came to another crossroads: Whether to go with an indie or major label. In analyzing the decision to sign with Capitol Records, Burchell cites a Trent Reznor blog post that effectively states, “If you want to be a huge star, the only real way to get there is with a major label. But it will require compromises. Conversely, if making pure artistic expression is the goal, then an indie label is the way to go. But don’t expect monster paydays.”

Burchell assessed his options and decided the indie route didn’t offer him much beyond what he could provide already, especially in terms of recording. The clout of a major lured him in. “They said once they got their machine behind us, we’d get in front of every person in the world,” he recounts. Plus: “Probably the main reason we did the deal was that two of the guys in the band were broke.”

Saosin’s 2006 self-titled debut peaked at No. 22 on the Billboard 200, a solid showing. This year’s follow-up, In Search of Solid Ground, managed to climb to No. 19. But in a clear sign of the music industry’s degradation, Solid Ground sold 37,000 in its first week, while the debut moved around 65,000. “At first, I thought it was very depressing,” Burchell says. “But the label was adamant that it was an excellent first week, so I guess I have to trust the experts at the table.”

The current disc would not have charted as well, or perhaps even seen the light of day, if not for the grabby, soaring single “Changing.” The song is a case study in the compromises inherent in being with a big record company. “First off, the label wants to hear a single,” Burchell explains. “You get a lot of lip service—‘The record is killer’—but until you deliver that single, they don’t get very stoked. If you can hand-deliver the single right away, you’re pretty much allowed to do whatever you want with the rest of the record.

“But we did it backwards. We had had the record as we wanted it, completely done, and it almost got to the point where it was not going to come out unless they had the single. So we had to get back in there and find one.”

Bummer?

“It wasn’t that tough,” Burchell says. “We wrote a whole new batch of songs and handed them in. One of them was ‘Changing.’ At that point, we were just happy [the label] found one they liked.”

Saosin with Innerpartysystem, POS and Eye Alaska at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; www.hob.com. Sun., 8 p.m. $16.50 in advance; $19.50 at the door.

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