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—"
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."
One of the reasons for Square's appeal could be attributed to just how much they stick out among the current local band crop. Not punk, not "emo," not roots, ska or rockabilly, their sound is in part a throwback to the Steely Dan jazz-rock fusion of the '70s, crossed with more current bands like Ben Folds Five and Jamiroquai (those last two mostly because of Beste's high, reedy voice). They're the one band in OC right now who'd look just as right playing the Fullerton jazz club Steamers as they would Linda's, a band as likely to cite fIREHOSE as an influence as they would the Dan. They're also very much a musician's band, which always brings out the gearheads. Valentine's picking is as schooled in the Nirvana style that initially inspired him to pick up a guitar as it is in jazz-based guitar heroes like John Scofield, Pat Metheny and Charlie Hunter. Steen can expertly handle sudden time changes, and his fills never feel like filler. As for Beste, anyone pounding out synth-bass parts with his left hand onstage these days is bound to attract a few bug-eyed gawkers.
And their songs are about real life. "26," an older tune available on an EP they sell at their shows, is loaded with self-doubt, touching on feelings of paranoia some people get when they're not sure they'll ever make those life goals they once set for themselves. Beste says he has also penned a song called "Political Cop," about police who cross the line between enforcement and oppression. "Lots of short stories, basically," Beste says with a shrug. "But we're not like Rage Against the Machine or anything."
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Some of these stories will surely find their way onto the album they're recording themselves—in other words, there aren't any label types telling them what they can and cannot do. Though they say several labels have been feeling them up, they're opting to play things cool for now. "We're not pushing any of it away; we just haven't wanted to pursue any of it yet," says Beste. "We're just on hold a little bit. We want to make this record our own way first, doing it the way we want to, like the Killingtons did. They didn't have a label saying, 'No, that song's not going to be on here; this one is.' And if people don't like it, tough."
It sounds intriguing so far. Valentine says there's everything from straight-ahead pop to straight-ahead jazz, and even in-between excursions into odd Euro-dance grooves. "We're a weird band, and it's gonna be a weird record, but I think it'll be pretty cool."
"That's why I really wish we had our record out now," Beste says. "When you're in a band, you've got to constantly be doing new stuff. It's great to get a buzz, though at the same time, you don't want people to think, 'Oh, they were fun a month ago.' Still, every time we see something written about us, it always says 'OC buzz-band Square.' James and I were talking the other day, and we decided that if for some reason we couldn't use the name Square, we'd change it to OC Buzz Band."
SQUARE PLAY WITH JAY BUCHANAN, PEOPLEMOVER, P-NUT AND OTHERWISE AT THE GYPSY LOUNGE, 23600 ROCKFIELD, Ste. 3A, LAKE FOREST, (949) 206-9990. FRI., 9 P.M. CALL FOR COVER. 21+; AND AT THE ORANGE COUNTY GAY PRIDE FESTIVAL, ALDRICH PARK, UC IRVINE, IRVINE, (714) 637-7768. SAT., 7 P.M.; SUN., 6 P.M. $12.