The Features

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The Features

There are two groups with this name: When The Features signed to Universal Records in 2004, no one was surprised. They’d appeared on the Murfreesboro scene a decade earlier with an invigorating, quirky pop sound that lent itself to easy crowd participation with rowdy sing-alongs and whimsical handclaps. Immensely likable and talented, they were shoo-ins for local band most likely to succeed. So when news spread that the band were dropped in just under a year, fans were shocked. Sparking weeks of message-board rants and raves, the cause for the drop split their loyal following along the increasingly blurred line between art and commerce. The band had refused to cover a song for a commercial. The commercial? Chase Credit Cards. The song? The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” From the cheap seats, it looked like the band might have shot themselves in the foot. In an age of MySpace, digital downloads and band branding, the formula for success is murkier than ever, and musicians are advised not to be too picky about who signs their paychecks. Artists must be shrewd businesspeople always looking for the next promotional opportunity, whether it’s ringtones, clothing lines or product endorsements, and commercial placement has both launched new careers and salvaged old ones. But The Features dug in their heels and opted not to take the money and run. Here’s why. It’s certainly a horror story we’ve heard before: band signs record deal, doesn’t get promoted. Label drops band for not selling enough records. In the music industry, success is a crapshoot. Lady luck gives with one hand and takes away with the other. Majors drop bands like most of us drop change in a tip jar, and they’ve practically turned career crushing into an art form. Just ask anybody courting label attention what it takes to score the elusive record deal, and they’ll give you a slew of contradictory messages about the equation for success. If you have great songs, you haven’t toured enough. Or if you’ve spanned the globe in a shitty van on a 3-dollar per diem, your image isn’t marketable. How’s your web presence these days? We don’t see that X factor. Or hey, you’re road warriors with great tunes and star appeal, but your songs don’t test well with the radio demographic. Maybe you’re over 25, or your live show’s not that exciting. Maybe they just don’t hear a single. That a band like The Features bypassed these roadblocks—they didn’t tour much, weren’t the types to stump for the cause and, after a decade together, hadn’t even released a full-length—is a feat in itself. Most bands never even get the deal. And the ones who do often talk of their stars aligning just right, as though some higher power were at hand. Though they’ve arguably had luck—songs with as much staying power as the fans they attract—it’s perseverance that has kept the band charging forward, through more than 10 years, two botched record deals, two lineup changes, three unreleased albums and two unexpected bundles of joy. The Features formed as middle-schoolers in Sparta, Tenn., a typically homogenous small Southern town about 15 miles outside of Cookeville that boasts bluegrass picker Lester Flatt as its musical calling card. The three original members—Matt Pelham on guitar and vocals, Don Sergio on guitar and Roger Dabbs on bass—came to Murfreesboro in the mid-’90s, where they met drummer Jason Taylor. Sergio brought friend and keyboardist Parrish Yaw on board, and they began playing their off-kilter pop with a slacker vibe, Hawaiian shirts and coordinated moves. Whereas most artists struggle to define their sound and attract a following, The Features never wanted for compelling songs, devout fans, industry attention or critical praise. They were an instant success at The Boro and Chameleon Café, long before the “The” bands had taken over, even before vintage keyboards and synthy waves made their resurgence. The darkly appealing Sergio was the heartthrob of the band, but Pelham’s shyness and introversion offstage in contrast to his possessed, kinetic live performances drew many a curious girl to the front of the crowd. So it wasn’t long before a new label in town came calling. Spongebath was the brainchild of former local Matt Mahaffey, along with veteran songsmith Seth Timbs and entrepreneur Richard Williams. The label’s roster included Mahaffey’s and Timbs’ groups—Self and Fluid Ounces—alongside acts like Gumption, The Roaries, The Katies and Count Bass D. Excitement buzzed around the hip new office in the ’Boro’s square, with its purple painted walls and ’70s pop-art logo. Fliers advertising Spongebath lineups—particularly those that included The Features—were guaranteed draws around town. Matt Meeks, who now co-manages The Features with Rory Daigle (both of whom did time at Spongebath during its heyday), remembers the first time he saw the band play, long before he knew them. “At first, I thought they were a Pavement ripoff,” Meeks says. “So I resisted liking them. Plus, at all their shows, there were always tons of girls up front fawning over them, just entranced. I was in a band at the time, and it made me not want to like them. But I ended up really liking them anyway.” There were four Features songs over two Spongebath samplers in 1998, Soaking in the Center of the Universe volumes I and II. But the first substantial introduction to the band was the previous year’s eponymous EP featuring the crowd favorite, “Armani Suede.” The track is a falsetto thrill with a jagged bounce that hinges on the slow burn from casual musing to frustrated explosion. Its love-obsessed subject matter would find its way into countless future songs. “Maybe she will / Maybe she won’t / Find what she’s looking for,” Pelham sings casually over a jaunty guitar riff and twinkling synth line. The jangle builds along a disco beat, then climaxes on the angry outburst, “I thought I knew / What you were going through / But I don’t!” Andy McLenon, who ran Nashville’s first indie rock label, Praxis, had since moved to a position as general manager at Spongebath. He’d heard about The Features through Williams. “He found The Features in a Pizza Hut,” McLenon says. “I don’t think that’s a legend—I think it’s true. I think they were still in high school. They were my favorite out of the batch. What I heard in them was like The Kinks. I heard the new Southern rock. That was part of what I did—I tried to figure out how to spin it. I know that sounds corny, but I thought that if The Kinks came to Sparta, they would sound like The Features.” Though the band technically came to Williams through Timbs, Williams did finalize Spongebath business with the band at a Pizza Hut. Myth aside, the band’s infectious live show confirmed McLenon’s suspicions. “I saw them live and they were so tight. I’d be thinking, if anybody saw this band they would see them as the premier band of the ’90s,” McLenon says. “My fantasy for them was that they’d define the new Southern rock. It used to bug them, ’cause they hated that phrase and at the time they didn’t like Southern rock. But to me it was just like the B-52s in Athens.” Despite the group’s inexperience with the industry machine, they were already showing early signs of what would become their reputation for staying tight-knit and tight-lipped about band affairs. “I’d never seen anything like them,” McLenon says. “They were so young, but they always seemed like they knew more than I knew about them. I could never figure them out, except that I knew they were great. If you had a meeting about something controversial—about something going on in their career at the time—they just stuck so together. You couldn’t separate them, no matter how much you tried. You’d leave not knowing. They’d never say, ‘This is what we think.’ They’d get all the information—this was so smart—they’d hear all your arguments and then say, ‘We need to talk about it.’ Then three days later you’d get their answer. This when they were nobodies. They were so tight.” But it wasn’t in the cards for Spongebath to make The Features a success. Self enjoyed premier status on the label, which wasn’t equipped to devote its meager resources beyond its star talent. The Features were stalled along with other acts on the roster like The Roaries and Fluid Ounces. “If we’d done things right, they’d have been huge,” McLenon says. “I felt they were ready way before they had the opportunity.” Not only had the band not been a priority at Spongebath, but they also produced three albums during that time that never saw the light of day. There’s speculation that Pelham’s insistence on perfection held up the records as much as the label’s inefficient handling of the band, which Pelham admits is partly true. “Part of that was the band, and part of that was Spongebath,” says Pelham, who speaks carefully and deliberately, and has the sort of thin, sensitive face and delicate features ideal for a Modigliani rendering. “It was mostly lack of confidence on Spongebath’s behalf. It seemed like they needed a band to break to have the money to put out a Features record. We recorded three records and none of them were this great thing that anyone thought would do something. It just ended up being this thing where I started second-guessing everything. You know—‘Is any of this really that good?’ I think that’s why some of that stuff never got released.” The band also lost two members over the stasis—Sergio and Taylor left in ’98—provoking its second setback. But it was a loss that soon proved fruitful. Rollum Haas assumed the sticks, and with a second guitarist gone from the band, Yaw’s circus whirl moved to the forefront, and Haas’ drumming—a maniacal beat that whips from trotting to hyperspeed on a dime—solidified the band’s sound. They no longer sounded like slackers, but like a tightly wound, adventurous pop band. With the new lineup, the band instead focused on singles, releasing the 10-inch “Thursday.” It’s a track that illustrates the band’s strengths, where musically sunny songs belie wistful lyrics and plangent frustration. It begins with a simple but propulsive pluck, the occasional guitar squiggle and swipe, and the yearning lyrics, “Thursday is the only day that I’ve been looking forward to / ’Cause Thursday is the only day that on my way I run into you.” Pelham’s voice shifts toward defeat on the next line, cracking into the whine, “I’ve been trying hard, I’ve been trying hard for a while / Change my walk, change my talk, change my hair, try to make you…smile.” The la-da-da-da’s kick in, overlapped by a drunken ya-da-da-da, before the song stomps off, headed for confrontation and chaos. It’s a scorned lover’s rebuke, but Pelham’s sweet frustration makes it sound harmless. If the band were finally ready to take a forward leap beyond local success, it would be now, with a solid lineup and a flawless batch of material. But there was another snag—or rather, two. Pelham learned his wife was pregnant, and he found himself the sole breadwinner of the family. 2001 brought an EP and a set of twin daughters. Recorded with local analog loyalist Brian Carter, the self-released The Beginning is a five-song tribute to impending fatherhood that shows the band alternately tender and fierce. But with newborns, extensive touring was suddenly impossible without substantial income for the band. Still, the songs cut through, and the EP was picked up two years later by UK label Fierce Panda, who had released singles from acts like Coldplay and Death Cab for Cutie. With that leverage, Daigle and Meeks began shopping it along with a three-song demo, which included the song “Blow It Out,” to various majors like Island, Atlantic, Warner Brothers and Universal. “We felt they were a major-label band,” says Meeks. “If they were at the right label, they could be successful at that level.” Universal bit. The A&R representative, Jolene Cherry, a former film music supervisor and head of the Cherry/Universal imprint, loved the band’s sound and worked up a one-year, two-option deal. That meant the band would release one record, giving the label the option to release the next two albums if they liked them, or release them from the terms if they didn’t. Along with the deal came an advance—six figures, according to Meeks—that gave the group enough money to make a record, tour and live for a year without day jobs. Out of all the labels they’d talked to, Universal seemed the most enthusiastic. “It came down to the excitement of the A&R person—her excitement for the band,” Pelham says. “She seemed to really have a genuine enthusiasm for what we were doing. But even with Universal, we wondered if it was the right thing for us, because they were mainly pop. They didn’t really have any rock records at the time.” Exhibit A was released on Sept. 14, 2004, in the States, the previous April in the UK. It’s a stunning 33-minute album that buzzes with addictive hooks and fervent pop gospel, and everything you’d expect from a debut that, in many ways, was some 10 years in the making. Search for press on the record, and you’ll have to dig just to find a lukewarm review. (One reviewer, referring to the lyrics of the single “Blow It Out,” remarks: “Ridiculous, expect it to be stuck in your head for days.”) But the album’s release was an early sign that the label wasn’t promoting the band as it should have been. “Before the record came out, there was pretty much no press and no publicity,” Pelham says. “But six months after the record came out, that’s when a press team really started working for us. And by that time, anyone at press had either already heard of us or said, ‘Well, this record’s been out for six months. It’s too late for us to write about it.’ It fell apart.” Though the label paid generously for the group to tour the UK a handful of times, most notably on a few runs with Kings of Leon, even those shows weren’t promoted. “We got really lucky with the Kings asking us out on the road,” Haas says. “But once again it seemed like the ducks weren’t in a row,” adds Pelham. “We would get there and there wouldn’t be promotion. It was really odd. The last tour we did with Kings of Leon—we heard at one point it was the biggest tour of the summer in the UK. We were the opening act for the biggest tour of the summer in the UK, and there was absolutely no press, no posters in the venues saying, ‘The Features, Exhibit A, Buy it now.’ ” The band received modest exposure for the track “Blow It Out,” notably a two-week run on CBS—but it wasn’t Universal who pushed the track to television. The CBS hookup was more serendipitous. An ad agency had heard the band and contacted them directly about using the song. The Features might have been more excited about potential exposure for their single, had they not been concerned with making a second record, which the label had already optioned. They’d sent demos to Cherry for consideration, with the answer that they should keep working on them. “The main time it started to go sour for me was when we were working on songs for the second record,” says Haas, who is the antithesis of Pelham’s quiet, reserved manner. He has a smiling, boyish face and speaks quickly with animated gesturing. “And it was the kind of thing where we were working very hard at it. Practicing a lot, trying to piece songs together and send them to our A&R person. Every time it was like, ‘No, this isn’t cutting it.’ That started to shake the confidence of the band.” Just as the deal with Spongebath left the band feeling like an afterthought, so did the deal with Universal. The record wasn’t selling well by industry standards—just over 12,000 copies in all were sold in the U.S., with UK sales thought to match that amount—and the single wasn’t getting the airplay the band or the label had hoped for. “The things I remember hearing were, ‘People at radio like it, but it doesn’t fit with what’s going on right now,’ ” Pelham says. “The Kaiser Chiefs had just been signed to Universal in the States, and their single ‘I Predict a Riot’ came out to radio when ‘Blow It Out’ did, and they said, ‘This is what’s big.’ I think all focus, if there was any focus on The Features, always seemed to get pushed to the backburner for something else—for another band. And that’s the way it is on a major. It’s sort of just priority. Just like on most labels.” With an ill-promoted record not exploding on radio, the label did what labels do. It sought to recoup its investment, and looked for a last-ditch effort to salvage the band’s career. All the band needed to do was cover a Beatles song for a Chase Credit Card commercial, put it on their second record and release it as a single. And not just any old Beatles song—one of the top Beatles songs of all time, used for the first worldwide televised broadcast in 1967: “All You Need Is Love.” It’s worth noting that The Beatles got their start playing covers. But all you need is love…and a 23-percent APR? It’s one of the least-covered Beatles songs due to its revered status, a flower-power anthem that espouses utopian ideals and astonishing optimism. It was incongruous to the band. “That Beatles song for that commercial feels really wrong to me,” says Haas. “As far as covering the song, whatever. If we were just to do that, cool. But using it for something like that seems wrong to me.” Not that the band were averse to putting a song in a commercial. “From the beginning it felt very wrong, the whole idea of it,” Pelham says. “If they had asked us to use one of our own songs, we would have considered it. But to ask us to cover a song without some sort of permission, especially ‘All You Need Is Love,’ seemed wrong.” And along with the request came pressure, the dangling carrot that the band’s career might be launched from this precarious move. “She [Cherry] said, ‘This is a great opportunity; it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,’ ” Pelham says. “ ‘This could potentially break the band. We put it on the record, it could be a single, and you can get the next record out.’ ” In their eyes, the label’s request showed a complete lack of confidence in the band. And not only did Universal need an answer, they needed it in an hour, with a finished song in two days. It’s not unusual for songs used in commercials to be turned around quickly—artists working on spec often churn out tracks in 24 hours to be considered for placement. But those are veterans, used to working under tight deadlines. The Features, used to working at their own pace, were understandably flustered. But far worse was the label’s response when the band admitted they didn’t think the cover was such a good idea. According to Pelham, the rep had already obligated the band to do the commercial, and when the band said they didn’t want to do it, Universal took a hard-line stance. The Features were two weeks away from entering the studio for their second record. “It’s so odd to wake up, get a phone call asking, ‘What do you think about this? Think about it for maybe 45 minutes to an hour,’ ” Pelham says. “Then being on the phone with the A&R person saying, ‘If you don’t do this, you’re gonna lose your record deal.’ We were so excited about going into the studio. Everything just completely changed.” If they’d had more time to discuss the cover, things might not have escalated within the band and become divisive to the point that keyboardist Parrish Yaw left the group. The band might not have shut down the message board on their site if the discussions of what the band should or shouldn’t have done hadn’t grown so heated. As Pelham puts it, “It was getting out of hand. People started taking it too seriously, and it was weird. We were just trying to figure out what happens next.” Pelham and Haas admit that despite the label’s botched efforts, they could have been better about promoting and networking—something they weren’t accustomed to in sleepy Murfreesboro, where they’d spent years honing their sound and perfecting their lineup. They have a certain childlike naïveté about the business, but it isn’t surprising. Pelham is a songwriter who finds joy in the little things—the monograms on his daughter’s clothes, the catharsis of a solitary jam session. It’s not that The Features aren’t smart guys or didn’t understand the consequences of their decision—it’s that they’ve never had to hustle for it. Their fans are as steady as they come, and it’s easy to see why a band in their favor would become complacent. This much they know. They’re intent on keeping the momentum going, even if that means dreaded networking. They’ve replaced Yaw with former De Novo Dahl keyboardist Mark Bond. All four band members are married, and Pelham of course has the twins to look after. But they’re getting used to thinking about video concepts and artwork for an EP, Contrast, that the band will self-release in September. And they will continue to seek a balance between their lives and their art. There’s talk of new label interest and showcases, but the band don’t want to discuss anything until it’s official. Meeks has even passed the torch of MySpace upkeep to Haas. Despite the experience with Universal, the band actually came out lucky—they were smart enough not to sign away their publishing. They aren’t sore toward major labels, and they realize compromise is necessary. To detractors who ranted on various forums about what they should or shouldn’t have done, Pelham and Haas are adamant that The Features made the right decision. “I think some people look at this like, ‘They had a deal, didn’t they know what that entails?’ ” Haas says. “But I think you still have to keep your integrity. You still have to do what feels right to you. Being on a major doesn’t mean doing whatever they ask and buckling to any pressure. “I’d like the band to be successful,” Haas continues. “I think that’d be really great. That’s a weird thing to say, though. I mean, I’d like the band to be successful, but I don’t know what it takes to do that exactly. What I have noticed is that historically, most bands that have been successful have had it together on every angle.” “I think there’s a lot of luck involved,” Pelham interjects. “We realize you have to ‘play ball,’ ” he adds, with an obvious distaste for the phrase. “Or make some sort of compromise, but I don’t think you should have to compromise….” “To that point I don’t think you should have to compromise,” Haas adds. “I think the band should be secondary to a lot of things we have going on sometimes,” says Pelham. “When we come home from work, we don’t want to go out or get on the Internet and start hyping the band, or go out and do public relations. Just because we want to spend time with our families. I guess if I had to choose, if someone told me, ‘You can’t be in this band unless you go out and network,’ I’d probably say, ‘OK, I guess I won’t be in the band.’ ” Meanwhile, the machine churns on. Nada Surf recorded the Beatles song, which you can currently hear on the Chase commercials airing on television. Online, fans of Nada Surf seem to like the cover, while critics shake their heads at the legacy of The Beatles being dragged through the muck in such a way. On a muggy Thursday night, Pelham and Haas are waiting around at Murfreesboro’s Grand Palace to sound check for their first show in months. The show, despite its secret status, packs the crowd into the cramped showroom and fills the hallway, so that necks must crane to catch a glimpse of the band. (A second secret show the following night at The Basement will sell out.) Despite no advertising and little air conditioning in the venue, the fans have still found their way to The Features, and their faces are old and new, with ages that range from 18 to 40-something. The band sound lean and mean onstage, although it could be that, with Bond on keys, Yaw’s two-fingered plunk and frenzied carnival organs have been replaced with a more formal subtlety. It moves the skeletal structure of the songs back into the foreground. The band debut new material that’s stronger than ever, like the glittery but pensive “Contrast.” “Look at what we have done / See the colors begin to fade,” Pelham croons in a soft warble. “Soon we’ll lose everyone / And they’ll only be shades of gray.” The song is meant to signal new beginnings. But its lyrics could be interpreted as a response to the controversy—that by holding true to their convictions, The Features have risked losing everything they have worked for, including making a career of playing music. A cynic might wonder whether anyone that naive belongs in the music industry, at a time when selling out is not a stigma but a strategic career move. But tonight, The Features are at home, before a crowd that will love them whether they sell 12,000 copies or shill for credit-card consumption. The band kick into a frenetic number called “Exorcising Demons,” and when it hits the chorus, “Demons / Be gone / Leave me alone tonight,” the crowd’s hands shoot up in the air with the beat, like a congregation testifying. Soon afterward, the show ends. And now The Features are about to learn whether love is really all you need. by Tracy Moore www.nashvillescene.com 2) The New Zealand post punk act who recorded two EP's in the early 1980s. The comprised Jed Town, James Pinker, Chris Orange and Karel Van Bergen. They were signed to Propeller Records in Auckland and also recorded one unreleased album , which has been mixed and is due for release in late 1980. Town went to Fetus Productions, Pinker to Dead Can Dance and Van Bergen to Band of Holy Joy. Listen at Last.fm
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