The conversation became garbled. His voice skipped in and out of a tangle of noise that left only first syllables tortured by cellular electromagnetism. But it cleared for a single second, long enough for him to yell an angry expletive before shutting off his phone. He and his band were driving to Boston after a performance at an HMV store in New York City, a brief promotional stop in the midst of the two-month Jolly Rancher Rocks tour packed with dates and an inexhaustible supply of tangy hard candy ("Watermelons are mine," Searcy said. "You can have the apple, the lemon, the peach, but the watermelons are all mine."). Joined by new bands Frankie Machine and Neve (rhymes with "sleeve"), the tour, which ends in Seattle on April 29, includes stops in virtually every Hard Rock Café (a tour co-sponsor) in the nation.
It's a deal sweeter than the sponsor's product: a date-intense tour with virtually all its performances in venues branded with the most recognized name in themed restaurants and nightclubs. Along the way are opportunities to perform at festivals, including South by Southwest and The Buzz Festival, and at smaller venues in college towns where the thirst for new music is never sated. Spliced into the deal is a video for his single "Losing Light Fast" that has already debuted on MTV and is always available to view on the Internet.
To get that deal required a name that has been circulating in the indie rock community for more than a decade, uncompromising support from a label – Timebomb Recordings – that has a roster of artists with established success, and a new solo recording that sparkles with a clean intensity.
And Peter Searcy happens to have all three.
"I'm so psyched to play. This is so awesome. You can't believe this."
From ear X-tacy's ceiling hung a trio of cardboard reproductions of the cover of his CD. Under them Peter Searcy and his band were ready to begin the in-store performance to celebrate the release of Could You Please And Thank You on its official street date. They had crowded their equipment into the store's lower level where tall arched windows overlook Bardstown Road. The weather was freakishly mild, warmer than normal for late February. The store's doors were propped open. A crowd heavy with young women spread back to the cashiers counter. Backing him was his touring band: Greg Lee on bass, Billy Adams on drums and Charles Wyrick on lead guitar, two of whom played on the CD with him.
Searcy balanced his compact, rectangular body on spread legs and held his guitar – a Gibson inlaid with silver sparkles – low against his hips. His blue eyes radiated joy. His face was split into a wide grin as his sentiments kept gushing. "There's no place I'd rather be right now. I'm so happy." The band blasted into its first selection. He was home.
Home in Louisville is where Searcy developed his singing and songwriting while performing in three-and-a-half memorable bands: as a teenager in the punk combo Squirrel Bait (joined by former Love Jones member Ben Daughtrey, with whom he also performed in a side project called Fancy Pants), in his early 20s with Big Wheel, and later in Starbilly. After a two-year sabbatical in Atlanta, where he waited tables and wrote songs, Searcy connected with producer Tim Patalan and retreated to Saline, Michigan to record Could You Please and Thank You at the Patalan family farm. For a time he seemed to have existed only in the collective memories of those who never forgot the young post-teen fronting Squirrel Bait until he blasted back into town. Now at 32, Searcy has matured into a performer who is charging across the country with his collection of pure pop songs driven by guitar and clear emotion.
Searcy called back after the last broken connection. He had asked that the band pause in the trip toward Boston and pull their van off the road so he could lock into a cellular wavelength and talk for a while. We discussed the tour ("What's it like to be sponsored by a company whose candy you devoured as a kid?"), the CD ("Is there any way to listen to it at low volume?"), the video ("Who's the cute girl with the long hair and spaghetti-strap top dancing in front of you?"), and what it's like to have a clip of your music played in Dawson's Creek ("And what parent would name his kid Pacey?").
LMN: A lot of companies are sponsoring tours. But Jolly Rancher? How'd you hook up with them?
SEARCY : Well, my manager, Rich Levy, is friends with some of the people putting it together and he pitched me for it. I had an album coming out at the same time they were wanting the tour to start. It's really about developing artists. So myself, a band called Neve, who are on Columbia, and Frankie Machine, who are on Mammoth, are on the tour.
LMN: How does your particular sound fit in with those two?
SEARCY: They kind of span the spectrum of pop-rock. Neve has a Third-Eye-Blind feel to it. Frankie Machine has a punk-rock, Cheap Trick feel. I think I fall into the songwriting mode of pop-rock.
LMN: Let's take a look at the career of Peter Searcy, if we could get a Reader's Digest condensed version of it. . .
LMN: You started off in Squirrel Bait as a punk rocker. How old were you?
SEARCY: I really started hanging out with David Grubbs when I was about 15. We just started making music together, with me playing bass. He already had Squirrel Bait going. I've always sung – in the house, in the back of the car, wherever – and I don't quite remember how it happened, but I just ended up singing for the band. We were all hanging out at the time, so it just seemed natural and worked really well.
LMN: So you were 15. How long ago was this?
SEARCY: Ummmm. . .15 or 16. I'm trying to think if I was driving or not. I'm 32 now, so 17 years ago. Seems like an eternity! And that went until I was 19 or 20. During Squirrel Bait, when the other guys were away at college, Ben Daughtrey and I did a silly band called Fancy Pants. There were a million versions of that band and for a short while I was the singer. After that, Squirrel Bait broke up and I did Big Wheel, which was my first foray into songwriting. I didn't write that much in Squirrel Bait. I almost feel I learned to write songs in front of people. I wanted to keep making music and thought I could probably write my own songs. I put together a couple albums with Big Wheel, then after that I did Starbilly.
LMN: When did Starbilly break up?
I think Starbilly broke up around the fall of 1997 or thereabouts. Right after that I moved to Atlanta. Rich Levy was managing Starbilly at the time and told me that he'd be happy to keep representing me in the next thing I did, if I wanted that.
LMN: So what did you do in Atlanta from the time of the breakup of Starbilly up until you started recording the CD?
SEARCY: I waited tables and made money to keep making music. I wrote songs, played cello –
SEARCY: Uh-huh. I did that today for the in-store [at HMV]. We did an acoustic thing. I kind of held down the bass parts and tried to play the string parts in there, too.
LMN: Is that your primary instrument or something you picked up?
SEARCY: No, it's something I studied as a kid and played some in college. So I just played cello and sang backup for a band in Atlanta and tried to keep a low profile. I tried to work on the songwriting and make demos.
LMN: Let's step back, then. Where'd you go to high school in Louisville?
SEARCY: I went to the [J. Graham] Brown School. Played cello there. I spent about a year at U of L. I had a cello scholarship there, but I was also doing Squirrel Bait and Fancy Pants at the same time. I wanted to spend more time, I think, writing and playing my own music than playing the cello. It's an instrument you have to devote yourself to.
LMN: Speaking of songwriting, what kind of songs were you writing in Starbilly or Big Wheel? How would they compare to what you have on Could You Please?
SEARCY: I think I tried a lot harder in Starbilly and Big Wheel. I tried harder to always be original and not always take the path of least resistance for a song. I think there are mixed results with that kind of writing. You listen to a Frank Zappa album. . .for me, at least, there are brilliant moments on it, but for all the brilliant moments there are those that are hard to take. If you 're trying to break new ground constantly, you're not always going to be on the mark.
LMN: Do you think that's something prevalent in music now?
SEARCY: I think it always goes on. It's the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow as far as songwriting goes. Because when you can combine the "way out there" with a good song at the same time, you can come up with something brilliant. But at the same time it leaves room for a lot of folly. The music I've always loved. . .you listen to it and you don't have to think, "God, that was an exercise for my ears." You think, "That was a gorgeous song. It did what I expected, but it surprised me at the same time." That's what I'm trying to go for. There's definitely no science to what's going on, other than the fact that I just want to write songs I would want to hear. Most artists are that way.
LMN: "Broken" is one song on Could You Please that, to me, is the most developed in terms of the emotion that's being conveyed. How did that song come about? It's such an honest song.
SEARCY: I think it's a situation that almost anybody who's been in a relationship can relate to. I think about that song as people being cogs, or keys, or anything where there's one place that has something missing. Someone else has something that fills that in for you. Gears are able to work because they have places where they extend out into other places where something is missing, and it's able to push everything forward. It's about accepting. The hardest thing with a relationship is not trying to make somebody something and just accepting them for what they are.
LMN: But that wouldn't always work if, say, the person's a severe alcoholic, suicidal, or --
SEARCY: And then you have a song like "Invent," which answers that question. In that case, you just go ahead and try to invent them into the person you want them to be.
LMN: You had one song that was used on Dawson's Creek: "Hateful." How did that come about? Was that a surprise for you?
SEARCY: Yeah, it was a real surprise. I think a couple of the songs are gonna end up in those situations. Arista is in partnership with Timebomb. The Arista people had seen my New York show and thought that any number of the songs I had would be good for a couple different television shows. They pitched "Hateful" to the producers of Dawson's Creek, and they liked it. As much as it can be a silly show, they aren't afraid to take new artists and feature them.
LMN: Did you see the episode where it was used, and in what context the song was used?
SEARCY: (Laughs) Yeah, it was pretty funny. Actually, it was a great situation. We were on a promo tour in Jacksonville, where my mom lives. So I got to sit with my mom, my stepfather, and a guy from Timebomb, and watch it on TV there. It was used in a scene where they were walking down their school hallway. The music comes in really loud. I get really excited about it. Then the vocals come in and they lower the music, then the actors start talking over it. Right about that time, my mom, in a very mom-like fashion, says, "Honey, it's not loud enough." And in a hey-I'm-30-years-old-but-I'm-still-your-kid voice I say, "But, mom, there's nothing I can do about it!"
LMN: How did you connect with producer Tim Patalan?
SEARCY: It was an interesting thing. With Starbilly we did a lot of demos for different labels, and one of the demos we did was for Atlantic. They liked what we had done but they wanted to hear how we sounded with a producer. Tim had a manager who'd heard my demo stuff and hooked me up with Tim. He then produced five songs for Starbilly. I think he felt, in watching the way Starbilly was interacting, like we probably weren't going to be a band for much longer. Not that we were fighting or anything. It's just that we had just been working at it for a really long time, and we had gotten lots of good breaks. It's weird being in a band because you always have to keep moving forward or it feels like you're not moving at all. It would be one thing to sit and make album after album independently. We wanted to push it farther. We had gotten the breaks, but Tim just had the feeling that if this didn't work out we'd probably just call it quits. He took me aside and said, "I really like what you do. If you have some songs you ever want to come up here and do yourself, let me know." Not long after that was when I moved to Atlanta and started writing and kept in contact with Tim. I went [to his studio in Saline, Michigan] and did demos with him. A lot of the songs on the album are true to what the demos originally were.
LMN: He has this capability to make a crisp and powerful sound --
SEARCY: Well, it's a no-nonsense approach to a whole song. He looks at it and tries to do everything to eliminate any excess from it. A lot of times, Tim would take a bass line and say it wasn't one if you couldn't play it with one finger on one string. I think that's the way he keeps things very tight and focused in a song. You don't stack tons of harmonies. You just keep it super simple. I'm happy with the approach. It was like, "Let's see what we can take away from the song to make it the best it can be."
LMN: It's the economy of sound production.
SEARCY: Right. And anytime you listen to recordings with drums, bass, vocals, and guitar, it will seem a lot wider. And technically he knows what he's doing.
LMN: This was recorded at a farm in Michigan?
SEARCY: His parents have a harness-racing horse farm. The Loft, which is the studio, is in one of the barns. It's an amazing atmosphere in which to make an album. It had snowed about this time last year while we were there. There's just nothing more magical than being snowed in and making an album. . .looking out a window and seeing horses running in a field behind you.
LMN: But it doesn't inspire you to write any Jewel-type songs –
SEARCY: Oh, no.
LMN: -- or anything ambient or New Agey.
SEARCY: No, no, no. Although the atmosphere when we recorded "Movie Star Life" was just out of hand. It was Easter Sunday, and Tim's family, who's Polish, was having a big Easter dinner. A little bit after dinner, we went out to the studio. My grandmother had passed away in the fall before we recorded the album. She left me her Steinway grand piano, which we had brought to the studio. It was really special to sit down and play on that. Vinny Dombrowski, who's the singer from Sponge, played drums, and a friend of mine, Doug Keys, played guitar. Tim's family came into the studio and sat around, and we just recorded the song right there. Tim's mom, who's a pianist, brought out a candelabra and put it on the piano. It had a real performance feel. Tim walked around while we were cutting the track, almost conducting the whole thing. The main thing you can hope for when you're cutting an album is that you really feel like you're making music with the other musicians and not just laying down parts.
LMN: It's an integrated effort.
SEARCY: Right. We recorded most of that song live. I played piano, then later went back and sat at the same bench and sang into the microphone that was on the piano. I sang over the piano strings, hoping to catch some of the ambient feel of the strings with my voice running over them.
LMN: Do you hope to work with him again?
SEARCY: We will. I want that kind of relationship. I like the idea of a band. As much as I'm a solo artist, it is always something that I'll hold dear to me. In Tim, I've got someone to bounce ideas off of like a band. He doesn't write any of the songs, but he helps me out a lot. Right now he's into finding other people like me in a situation where he can help coax them along.
Plus he's a knucklehead and a good guy, so. . .
LMN: That's always important in a producer.
LMN: Do you believe that the producer is part of the whole celebrity package of an artist?
SEARCY: Hell, yeah. I know that I wrote the songs for this album. I also know a lot of musicians who don't write a lot of their songs, or only write part of them. Then producers come in and fill out everything else and don't take the credit for it. Or sometimes they do. It's something that, at some point, I'd like to try. Not from a technical standpoint because it takes years and years of engineering and production to get there. But from a musical standpoint I know I have a lot to offer.
LMN: I enjoyed your video for "Losing Light Fast." Where was that shot?
SEARCY: At Elysian Park in Los Angeles. You cant see it [in the video], but Dodger Stadium was right behind us.
LMN: When did you do it?
SEARCY: This past fall. It's a unique thing to make a video, I'll tell you that much. It's just bizarre. Right toward the very end, during the sunset scene, we were up on stage just laughing at the whole thing. There are about 20 people holding lights, filming, making sure you're not sweating too much. And it's all because I wrote a song. That baffles me.
LMN: Why was that song chosen for the video?
SEARCY: The label knew that this was going to be the first song they pushed to radio as a single. Therefore, they needed a video – for what I hope will be regular rotation on MTV – for when the single took off.
LMN: Timebomb must be invested in their artists because I noticed their roster: Reverend Horton Heat, Mike Ness –
SEARCY: Sunny Day Real Estate
LMN: -- how did they discover you?
SEARCY: My demo was reviewed on an online A and R tipsheet. Pete Giberga, my A and R guy, noticed my name. He'd remembered it from Squirrel Bait and Big Wheel. He got the demo and was, in his words, blown away. I was out in Los Angeles at the time going around to different record companies. Timebomb came hard into the scene and told me that too many bands record albums that never come out. It's just a nightmare, a tragedy that happens to a lot of bands. With Timebomb, I knew that wouldn't happen. I knew they would focus a lot of energy on me. Recording an album is one thing, then you have to spend more money to start promoting it. A label may call it quits after recording a band if they don't feel they have exactly what they want.
LMN: So after you finish the Jolly Rancher tour, what's going to happen?
SEARCY: We're going to be on some other tours. I don't know which ones. We're up for quite a few of them. We're also going to do a number of the summer festivals. We're going to stay on the road for quite a long time. I think that's where it's going to build from. I think we're becoming a better band with every single show. Each time we play, I feel like we convert people.
LMN: You ever going to play back here in town?
SEARCY: Oh, yeah. I can't wait. I'm not really sure yet but I think we'll be playing the Thursday of Derby Week.
LMN: Are you going to come back to Louisville and settle down? You said you have a fiancée.
SEARCY: She's an artist named Vennita Cantrell. Louisville's my home. Living in Atlanta was great. It's one of those places, though, where you don't stand on the balls of your feet. You stand on your toes. You're kind of on edge a little bit because you're in brand new surroundings. Considering that I'm on my toes constantly on the road, constantly on edge, constantly taking in new sights, Louisville is arguably one of the most comfortable places in the United States to live. I'm always excited – when the band guys or friends of mine come in from out of town – to show off the city and to say, "Look at this gem we've got here that is so relaxing. . .and so cultural."
It was so amazing to play ear X-tacy. As much as I've been back in Louisville, I hadn't fully felt like I had returned until I played music. So much of who I am is connected to playing music in Louisville. Until I actually got to play, I didn't feel like I had come home yet. The album was coming out and I was getting to play back in Louisville. It was a great combination of things for me.
Check the progress of Peter Searcy's tours and take a look at the video for "Losing Light Fast" when you visit www.timebombrecordings.com. The video and other Searcy news is also available at www.bugjuice.com/petersearcy.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks to Peter Searcy for taking some time on his road trip to Boston to talk with me and to later answer the silly Jolly Rancher Question on a follow-up call. Also thanks to Laura Bedard for being an invaluable source of information about Dawson's Creek.