Maroon 5 have had it all in the three years since their debut album SongsAboutJanecame out: world tours, insane fan adulation, glossy magazine covers, packed hockey arenas, platinum records, big bucks, a Best New Artist Grammy, SaturdayNightLiveappearances, mountains of cocaine, prostitutes who could suck a golf ball through a soda straw . . .

Okay, I don't know if those last two are true—I'm just going by the dictates of clichd rock N roll history. But what I know for sure is that Maroon 5 would never have existed if it weren't for Orange County.

More specifically, if a Nebraska band called Square hadn't won $25,000 in a national battle-of-the-bands contest five years ago, moved into a house on a placid Anaheim street, and started gigging anywhere and everywhere in OC, building up a buzz that had local club owners, band managers and musician types talking Next-Big-Thing-isms. There seemed to be no reason why Square—drummer Ryland Steen, singer/keyboardist Sean Beste and guitarist James Valentine—couldn't have achieved what Maroon 5 eventually got.

But only Valentine would—because he joinedMaroon 5. One band that dug Square's mix of jammy, Steely Dan-esque jazz-rock was LA's Kara's Flowers, who had shared club billings with Square in local rooms like Chain Reaction. Friendships developed, bonds formed, alliances were cemented, and eventually Valentine bolted Square after being asked to join Kara's Flowers.

“If Square didn't happen in a timely fashion, I knew that James or Ryland would get snatched up by other bands,” Beste says. “But I wanted James to be successful.”

Kara's Flowers, of course, later changed their name to Maroon 5, got a record deal, and, well, you know the rest. Beste took his band mate's departure hard for a while—who wouldn't, when your old sonic comrade and his new band keep popping up all over the radio and those couple of minutes a day when MTV still plays videos? The two have since patched things up, and they speak frequently, says Beste. “James honestly doesn't know how to comprehend the success he and the band have had. We talk about that a lot.”

In their struggling Square days of 2000, back when their $25,000 was close to drying up, I took Valentine, Beste and Steen to an Indian restaurant for an interview over lunch. They were grateful to be able to feast for free courtesy of my Weeklyexpense account, and they wolfed down curry platters like they hadn't seen food for days. Five years later, Valentine can probably afford to buy his own restaurant chain.

I don't even hate Maroon 5 as much as I did when I saw them at Chain Reaction a few months after SongsAboutJanecame out. Then, I thought their music was horrible—bland, watered-down R&B, what the Backstreet Boys would've sounded like if they had bothered to learn how to play instruments. And I thought Valentine had completely sold out, abandoning Square's wide-open canvas for something far more restrained and sterile.

Now, partially because of the welcome death of the boy-band craze, Maroon 5 songs actually sound fresher to me as they've aged—either that, or the omnipresence of their tunes practically demands that if I don't necessarily likethem, I should at least toleratethem. Square was stilla better band, though.

These days Beste lives in LA, runs a recording studio out of his house, and plays in a new band called the Excuse, which he says has been making industry connections that will hopefully lead to . . . something. (No gigs yet, but when they're ready, Beste says he'll only play in OC because the LA club scene is so dreadful.) Ryland Steen is currently the full-time drummer for local ska-rock icons Reel Big Fish. Valentine? He's in some band that's playing the Pond Sunday—not too far from Chain Reaction, or the old Square house he used to live in.


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