I would like to damn to hell a certain colleague who planted the idea in my head that Orange County's poppy, piano-based quintet Something Corporate sound like Bruce Hornsby and the Range because now I have to admit that I like Bruce Hornsby and the Range, and that is painful. Am I really a fan of melody layered upon melody nestled upon melody, served on a robust bed of tinkling keys with a hefty side of hooks? But more pasteurized and lily-white and safe? But with a little nutty frat-boy madness thrown in for good measure? Oh God, here we go . . .
See, wildly popular Something Corporate are extremely polished and tight. They don't so much jump out of your stereo as pirouette out, with perfectly formatted, radio-and-television-ready ennui and, I suspect, extremely perfect teeth. And I get the self-conscious wink-wink band name and all, but the truth is that they are something very corporate, and just because you consume something with a sticker on it that says, "Hi, I know you're consuming me" or even, "Hi, I've read the collected works of Walter Benjamin," it doesn't really allay the feeling of being compromised.
That said, the songwriting is impressive, the lyrics are solid, the playing is taut. And I really can't get the songs—most of which are about being far away from everything familiar—out of my head.
On the heartbreaking, languid and tinkle-happy "As You Sleep" (the first track off their second full-length, North), main songwriter/piano-playing front man Andrew McMahon paints a series of lonely images, including "watching heartache on TV." This act is akin to listening to Something Corporate. This is emotion done up all glossy-style. When you consider that Something Corporate have been played on The O.C., the hall-of-mirrors/infinite-regress effect is mind-blowing.
But I dare you to not be affected by this cheese. This band will have their way with your heartstrings whether you want them to or not. Resistance is futile.
Not that the damn kids in this county—who've embraced Something Corporate with a passion usually reserved for whippets and skateboarding—even tried. It's their fault Something Corporate have turned into the colossal, whopping, how-the-fuck-did-that-happen success story they are, selling out the UC Irvine Bren Events Center and getting hounded on the street and going for the kind of zippy ride that one day they'll look back on and wish they had the presence of mind to enjoy more because back then they were too young and foolish to appreciate what was happening. Actually, strike that—this band was never young and foolish.
"I emulated Alex P. Keaton. That guy was my idol to no end," admits McMahon, calling from somewhere between Indianapolis and Cleveland, in the midst of radio-station-promotion engagements, which he enjoys. He's referring to the young Republican scion of idealistic hippie parents Steve and Elyse Keaton from television's Family Ties. Like Alex, McMahon wore neckties to school in kindergarten.
"I've always loved the idea of being young and able to handle yourself," he says. Truer words could not be spoken. To say he's buckled down, serious about his career and/or got his shit together would be an understatement of the highest order. This guy could plan your wedding. This guy could revamp your company. This guy could run for president. And on that tip:
"We're trying to be as political as possible right now," he says, after saying something that he wished he hadn't said and then asking if he can take it back.
But he's one of those lovable, tightly wound types. Slick as all hell, probably one mother of a control freak, but with an undeniable sweetness that comes through as genuine vulnerability.
"I was a pretty sensitive kid growing up," he says. "I was a pretty big freak, to be honest."
McMahon was the youngest of five siblings, and about this, he says, "If you didn't have the loudest voice, no one heard you, so I always tried to have the loudest possible voice." His musical talent revealed itself early. At age nine, without instruction, he was writing full pop songs on the piano. He never says it, but it's not too hard to imagine the word "prodigy" was bandied about.
"It was weird when it happened," he recalls. "My parents were really shocked. I really loved the piano, and it was a difficult time—I had an uncle who passed away, and for whatever reason, that was the mechanism I went to to cope with that loss."
He describes his early work as "simple, uneducated little songs," but come on, the kid was fucking nine. His simple, uneducated little songs were probably freakishly complex compositions. Sadly, he hit a midcareer plateau just as he was going into fifth grade.
"I couldn't write anything else; I just didn't know what else I could do, my hands weren't capable." He enrolled in classical-music lessons for three years, after which he was able to "hone and develop my songwriting skills."
Near the end of high school, he started playing in bands with fellow OC kids. He felt a kinship with Josh Partington, the other songwriter in the group, because Partington was a "really creative player open to other types of music. Not the typical pop/punk type stuff a lot of the bands coming out when I was in high school were doing."
The group—rounded out by drummer Brian Ireland, bassist Clutch and guitarist William Tell—built its ardent following at the Coach House and the Galaxy Concert Theatre. Which is weird, right? I think so, too, since those places aren't exactly known for fostering the scene on a small level or helping out the little guy. But Coach House and Galaxy owner Gary Folgner saw potential in Something Corporate and even funded their demo.
"We always hustled a lot and did everything we could do get shows and get people to them, and promoters developed interest in us because we were bringing a couple of hundred kids every time we played," says McMahon. A couple of hundred soon turned into more than that, and once the group sold out the House of Blues, labels started sniffing around.
In a way, Something Corporate's success story reads like a business success story. Like a grassroots sales campaign. Like finding out you were just going door-to-door as a Brownie trying to sell your dumb little cookies when other kids had entire teams of parents and shit helping to hawk their wares, all to win some dumb trip somewhere that would cost less were you to just buy the trip than to win it. You know, theoretically.
"We would create these ticket networks where we would get these diehard kids who were fans of the band, and we would say, 'If you can sell 10 tickets to your friends and convince them to come see us play, we'll give you a free ticket or a signed something-or-other,'" remembers McMahon.
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"Orange County is so much a pay-to-play situation," he says, in a way that suggests he doesn't really have a problem with it. And hell, it worked for them, so why should he?
Now that Something Corporate are on a major label and on tour until forever, you'd think they wouldn't have to hustle so much, which must be nice, right? Wrong.
"We've always found that when you let people do things for you, they tend not to do them as well as you would if you were paying attention," says McMahon. "So we make it a point to be extremely involved."
Something Corporate perform with Yellowcard, Rufio and Steriogram at The UC Irvine Bren Events Center, 901 Mesa Rd. (at W. Peltason), Irvine, (949) 824-5000. Sun., 7 p.m. $20. All Ages.