The Costa Fame

Matt Costa: If you listen, he will play. Photo by John Gilhooley. Clothing: RVCA

"I don't think I can sing today, Chris," Costa half-whispers to his manager the next morning.
"Look at my tonsils. I think I want to take it easy today."

"Okay, Matt," Fenn responds, not really listening. "We'll talk about this when we get over there."

It's 9:30 a.m., and Fenn—likely through his incessant text messaging and typing on the Sidekick—has managed to score Costa an additional set, a three-song deal, on the kids' stage at Lollapalooza. He'll go on before Patti Smith. We didn't even make it back to the hotel until 3:30 a.m. But Costa needs to be at the festival in 30 minutes. He also needs to shower—a 40-minute daily ritual that is a running joke among the group. He's already late.

"Do you want to take your harmonica?" asks Fenn, once Costa is finally out of the shower—only 20 minutes today.

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"No," he says, putting on a pair of socks, not listening either.

"Matt, are you sure you don't want to take your harmonica?" repeats Fenn.

"Nope. Let's go."

This is the last I see of Costa before I head home.

About an hour later, though, Pittman gets a text from Fenn: turns out Costa wants his harmonica, and Fenn is fetching it. It's not the first time something like this has happened. In Arizona a few months ago, during another tour with the 88, Costa left his harmonica in the RV. It wasn't a problem until the encore, which was slated to be "Miss Magnolia," an upbeat tune featuring a harmonica-only chorus. Yet even this worked in Costa's favor: improvising, he invited the 88 onstage and taught them (and the audience) a na-na-na-na chorus to sub for the harmonica. To this day, it's the highlight of any performance he gives, a raucous goodbye party featuring beer-bottle percussion, handclaps and foot stomps, and an intoxicating amount of glee.

I get the feeling that "Miss Magnolia" and the happy accident that has become a tradition is more than just another encore for the band. It's nightly release for Costa and Co., a dual celebration and purge of the daily push-and-pull annoyances and forgiveness, problems and solutions. For sanity's sake, Costa needs the guys in the band as much as they need him. They are quick to translate his behavioral quirks—the forgotten harmonica, lost equipment, chronic lateness, daylong showers, all surely a byproduct of Costa's whimsical, head-in-the-clouds nature—into long-running jokes. Because as any band knows, when the fun ends, the road does too.

*   *   *

The road now feels more like home to Costa than Huntington Beach. "Home is strange," he says. "It's just a vacation."

At the end of August, Costa will grab his guitar and climb into another rented RV, this time headed to Santa Barbara, then to San Luis Obispo and Sacramento, through San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. From there, he'll roll across Canada and back down through the Midwest before reaching the final festival of this summer—and perhaps the one where he'll have the most to prove: Austin City Limits, a mecca for music snobs and zealots alike. In the meantime, a video for his second single, "Sunshine" (directed by the Malloy brothers, of White Stripes fame), stands a good chance of being aired—at least in clips—on VH1 and MTV2 beginning in September.

Overnight success—the kind that takes five years to achieve—seems poised to hit, if not next month, then the month after that. And if not that month, then the next, and so on. But it will happen. It's only a matter of time.

When it does, there'll be another tour, this time with more dates, playing for more people, under bigger and brighter lights. There will also be more interviews, more mall appearances, more handshakes, more fans, more . . . more. Can the man who stretches into 30 minutes a casual conversation with a fan he doesn't know survive the blunting experience of 100,000 such interactions that comes with superstardom—the cover of Spin, co-hosting TRL, anything on VH1?

When asked if that scenario of mega-success scares him, Costa's reply is immediate: "A little, yeah, definitely." Then he pauses, silent for a moment. "Well, I'm not afraid, but . . . I don't know. I would rather not be huge overnight. I'd feel that everything I've been doing for the last five years was a waste of time. It's meant to be a slow build."

And here's where you truly understand why, after 12 months on the road, Costa remains unscathed—remains that kid with a guitar, playing to anyone who'll listen. For Costa, "slow" is the operative word. This slow build, starting at the top with Dumont and Johnson, falling down a few notches to where he is now, and climbing back up, has granted him the opportunity to do what he loves most—play—without feeling the constraints of time.

Yet fame travels fast—so fast you get caught in the spotlight—at speeds that aren't forgiving to the Costas of this world. When Robbie Robertson talked about the road being a "goddamn impossible way of life," he might have been talking about fame—that's what the Band was walking away from, and it's what killed Janis, Jimi and Elvis.

As Costa heads off in that RV in a few days—and when he goes back to Europe in September, and to Australia in January—it's not the road that will be his biggest challenge. That'll never be a challenge. But fame? That's another story.

With additional reporting by Vickie Chang.


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