Element H

Element H is taking over the world

By Kevin Gibson

Some people volunteer to help the homeless. Others volunteer for the United Way, at the Kentucky Humane Society or in nursing homes.

Then there are "street teams." For those of you not hip to this culture, a street team is a group of people who support a specific band or artist, and donate time, effort and expertise to help that band move forward. Duties could range from helping the band set up on stage to handing out info, telling others about the band, hitting message boards to spread the word, sending e-mails, participating in on-line chats, requesting songs on local radio, meeting with bands and tour managers, arranging media interviews ... well, you get the idea.

If a band's popularity can be related to the size of its street team, then Louisville's Element H is certainly a candidate for "Next Local Band to Break Nationally." Some 400 strong, Element H's street team is on the prowl, armed with casual fans, media types and fellow musicians. In exchange, street teamers get rewards like stickers, shirts and exclusive CDs. (Indeed, members have access to a live EP available only to them.) Members get credits for more free stuff by signing up more members. Perhaps best of all, the band has promised that each street team member will have his or her name printed on the band's first CD release.

The street team is headed up by 21-year-old Seth Firkins, who first heard the band a little over a year ago and hasn't missed a show since. Asked why, he answered, "When someone asks me what they sound like, I can't tell them," Firkins said. "If I listen to a song for the first time and picture myself writing it, I lose interest. ... Their songs always pique my interest."

Chuck Willis

Now he's one of 400 volunteers dedicated to making Element H the biggest band ever. The band appreciates it.

"I think that was Seth's idea," said Critter, the band's lead guitarist, of the street team. "He was one of the first street team members."

Firkin insists it wasn't really his idea, but that he was just the one to whom the band handed the torch. He hasn't stopped running since, and more and more people have chosen to follow. It's almost like a modern day Rocky or Forrest Gump. And they all do it for nothing in return.

"There's a lot of people who don't get paid," Critter concluded. "But then again, there are a lot of shows we play that we don't get paid for."

With that kind of support team working for it, one has to believe Element H front man Chuck Willis is only half-joking when he proclaims, "We're going to take over the world." Of course, he is joking ...

Rahul Borkar

Right?

New And Hot

Days of the New got things rolling for Louisville's hard rock just a few years ago. Louisville has long had a deep punk underground, but that has shifted to a hardcore scene, at least in terms of how the music world views us. We've all heard the Mecca crap (thanks, Playboy), but there really is a lot brewing hereabouts. Flaw last year signed a big deal with Universal Records, and numerous other bands have inked deals with labels of varying sizes. Many believe Element H will be next.

Why? A lot of reasons. The band's song "Honesty," an intense, emotional über-ballad, has been No. 1 on www.undergroundlou.com for weeks as of this writing. Element H has local radio support (from LRS and TFX, specifically), which is not as easy to obtain as one might imagine. In fact, "Honesty" was on the LRS local hour's most requested top 5 for 18 weeks in a row, and "Walk Away" was on the Fox's local show in regular rotation for more than 20 weeks.

Scott McKenzie

The band did a private showcase at Mom's Music for Elektra Records and has posted a No. 1 song on the unsigned Talent Net Billboard Charts. VH-1 almost picked the band for its feature "Bands on the Run" before learning that Willis was underage ("It's my parents' fault," Willis smirked). That almost surely would have led to signing a major-label deal.

"I still say we're better off," Willis, who is now 21, clarified. "If we had gotten signed then ..."

That was more than a year ago. Many say Element H has a recording deal "on the table" now. The band won't discuss that possibility in detail, but the five members of Element H are open to discussing the band's history, musical direction and hopes. And golf. But we'll get to that later.

Who The Hell Is Element H?

The foundation of Element H can be traced to high school. Willis and bassist Teague went to St. X together and were friends. After high school, Teague moved to Nashville for a while to Belmont University, a music school, where he worked with pop diva Jessica Simpson. Upon his return, Chuck called looking to record some tracks, which led them to some impromptu jam sessions. Pretty soon, Chuck's cousin Critter was invited along. Nearly 10 years older than Willis and Ridge, Critter brought a whole new layer into the mix and gave them a harder edge.

Teague Ridge

The name Element H came from the varying musical backgrounds among the band members, who confess they are all completely different musically. From Prince (Willis) to Motley Crue and Ted Nugent (Critter) to Herman's Hermits (Ridge's dad).

The band played together with another guitarist and drummer, but soon Ridge met a guy named Rahul Borkar at U of L. Borkar used Ridge's studio to record some tracks, on which Ridge played bass. Unbeknownst to Borkar, the band was eyeing him as their new guitarist, so they invited him over one night to jam with them. While he was there, they asked him to join.

Meanwhile, Element H had recently signed up Adam Turgeon, the original drummer for Days of the New, but the mix wasn't working exactly the way they wanted it to. In fact, it was a bit of a musical clash, and Borkar, who hadn't been on board too long, was considering leaving. One day the band finally decided it was time to find a different drummer. Eerily, a guy named Scott McKenzie, formerly of What Ever Will, called that very day.

Critter

"He said, `I heard you all are looking for a drummer,'" Willis said.

"But nobody knew!" Ridge added.

Willis called Ridge and said, "Didn't Adam leave, like, HOURS ago?"

And, as the band readily admits, how do you replace a drummer as talented as Turgeon? Nevertheless, they invited McKenzie over. When he arrived, they were a bit, uh, taken aback.

"We see this guy coming in a Ford Taurus and his head is barely over the door," Willis said.

Ridge: "We thought he was a midget."

To which Borkar, who stands all of 5-5, added, "In my mind, he was already in the band." (It seems Borkar was tired of being the shortest guy in the band photos.)

"Evidently they had just gotten rid of their drummer the day I found out about it," McKenzie recalled. "I happened to call and tell them I was looking to play with somebody."

When McKenzie, who is roughly Borkar's height (Borkar insists he's half an inch taller), arrived, "They kind of got the giggles ... it took them a while to tell me they didn't see anybody driving the car."

Luckily for all involved, McKenzie fit like a glove. "It was obvious," said Ridge.

"He was the missing piece," said Willis.

All this happened in rapid succession just a little over a year ago. The band's sound began to quickly develop. With it, momentum began to build. Strategy suddenly became critical.

So ... Now What?

Naturally, every band is looking for the album deal. Attract the majors, sign the contract. The rest will take care of itself. Right?

Wrong.

"We expect a record deal," Willis said. "A lot of people in Louisville are so caught up in getting the deal. We're not caught up in that."

"The record deal is not where it ends," Ridge added. "We want to be in the music business for years to come."

So how does a band do that? Heck, how does a band get to the point where they can think that way? Many will tell you it's Element H's stage presence that will carry them through. Others will say it's the songwriting. Whatever, it's almost unanimous that Element H either will get signed, or damn well deserves to if it doesn't.

Teresa Ensenat is a former A&R rep for the likes of MCA, A&M and Geffen. She now runs her own music promotion company, but is an Element H believer. She first learned of the band from the guy who details her car.

Asked if she would sign the band if it were up to her, she replied, "There is so much about signing a band these days that goes beyond it being about talent, and I don't live in that neighborhood, so I couldn't answer that question fairly or honestly. ... However, I think they deserve to get signed. I think they have a sound that, while hard, is also accessible -- their songwriting instincts and sense of arranging are pretty well developed. They know how to craft a song as well as write one, while at the same time maintaining an identifiable personality as a band and not have it sound formula."

Scott Clark, overnight jock at WTFX (The Fox) in Louisville, believes the band is poised to be signed and break nationally because, "They put more time into their songs re-working them. They are more concerned with the flow and tightness than just trying to be heavy and scream all the time. ... (But) getting signed isn't that hard. It's getting sold that counts, and if a record exec thinks he can sell you, you're in."

"Their demo with the females is good," said Alex "Triple X Lex" Newman of WLRS radio. "The front man has came a long way in a short amount of time. As a whole, they have a real good, tight sound. And the most important thing, they've got a lot of songs that you can play on the radio."

Newman said many of the bands in the hardcore scene don't appreciate the need for radio-friendliness, and as a result will have a much tougher time breaking nationally.

"If you want out of the 502, you are going to have to have it," Newman said. "Can't get around it. If (Element H) works real hard, in a few years they should do real well. Right now, labels are looking for bands just like them."

Says Jonathon Hay, president of Distillery Music Group, "Element H will be the biggest rock band to make it out of Louisville since Days of the New."

For Element H's part, they believe most in their ability to win over audiences.

"What's going to make us the band we think we can be is that Chuck's the best front man anywhere," Ridge said.

"And the fact that I'm really sexy," Borkar added.

"Stage presence is a big thing," said Critter. "We have fun playing together. Getting the crowd involved is important. Many times you'll see bands that are awesome musicians but they aren't good with the crowd. We try to make the crowd have fun."

"I've been in ton of bands," McKenzie said, "and I feel like this is the first band that really has a shot at doing something. ... What we're doing is kind of in right now. Who knows what's going to be popular by the time we get to that point (of being signed)? But we have been writing a ton of music, and it's all quite a bit different than what we've done. We're getting more musical with it. We're trying to be a little more creative. But we still look for the big hook, the things that make people want to drive around and sing."

Another level of Element H's drive for success comes in the form of having the right mentors. Members of Lava/Atlantic recording artist Outspoken are Element H believers, and have stepped up to help the band move forward, especially lead guitarist Kevin McCreery, bassist Frank Green and guitarist Shaun Kennedy.

"They've helped us not look like the rookies that we are," Ridge said.

"They're amazing guys," said Willis. "When Kevin came in, we stepped it up big time."

"The guys from Outspoken started offering to do this and that," added Critter, "and the drummer from PUC comes to almost all our shows and helps us set up and tear down and make sure everything is right."

Green, a longtime friend of McKenzie, said of Element H, "I think out of everyone locally they have the most momentum at the present time in regards to moving up to the next level. They have a huge following; they draw well in all-ages or over-21 situations, which is rare; their songs keep progressing past the local style of writing that plagues a lot of bands, and really on top of everything they're great people."

Lest people think this is all just local hype - and god knows we've seen it happen many times just before a band poised for stardom drops out of sight - it bears noting that Element H is putting up the toughest numbers: Local attendance.

The first local band ever to headline a summer concert event at Jillian's, this year they outdrew both Filter and Tommy Lee. That's not an easy thing to do in Louisville, where cover bands typically draw the biggest crowds to local shows. The band agrees it was a turning point. Shortly afterward, 7Mary3 asked Element H to open its show in Louisville. Almost 700 attended that concert, many there to see the opening act instead of the headliner. It was a blowout.

"Chuck and I didn't talk about that show until the next day," said Borkar. "We were still in awe that night."

Help Yourself . .

But even with all the support, it isn't as if Element H is on easy street. It's not all about performing and songwriting on the band's end. There's some marketing savvy involved there too, along with plenty of confidence and ambition.

Positioning means a lot, and Element H knows it. Hardcore is hardcore, and pop is pop, and to many the two should never, ever meet. But as Newman pointed out, hardcore is only going to go so far on radio. Element H writes and plays with the listener in mind - a lot of listeners.

"We can play with the heaviest metal bands like My Own Victim and audiences like us," Ridge said. "We could play with N'Sync and the audience would like us."

They've been called a "tweener band," but it's just possible that such a connotation might not be entirely accurate. This isn't some Bon Jovi ballad train. It's a solid, heavy rock band with guile to match its talent.

The VH-1 incident wasn't a fluke. Sure, the music got the band noticed, but the part of that story that isn't widely known is that VH-1 contacted the band and gave it 24 hours to send a videotape that would convince the channel the band should be chosen for the show.

The band got a video camera and went out bar-hopping, taping everything that happened (sort of a post-Magical Mystery Tour, without the bus). Part intentional, part impromptu, the band wound up with footage of extreme parties and young co-eds arguing over the band members. They attached a photo of then drummer Turgeon to a broomstick and carried it around with them (he was unable to attend due to a prior engagement).

"It was one of the most fun nights I've ever had," Borkar said.

The result was so convincing that VH-1 bit, only to renege when Willis' age came to light.

Another story behind the story is an illness that almost cost the band its showcase for Elektra at Mom's Music. Borkar was mega-ill the night before, and the band needed to practice.

"We were all stressed about it," Ridge said. "Rahul couldn't stand up. So we laid him down and propped his head up and put his guitar in his lap and practiced."

"I had a 104 fever!" Borkar said.

The point is, character counts. Anyone can say they want to get signed or they want to have a career in music. The bands with battle-tested mettle are the ones that actually have a shot. If the music doesn't absolutely come first, part of the battle is already lost.

Ask Critter, who is married with two kids (McKenzie also has a family). Critter said his family members understand how much the music means, and they don't try to challenge it.

"They've dealt with this forever, so they're kind of prepared for it," he said. "They stand behind me anyway." (It bears noting that Critter's family also shares him with the sport of hunting, which is another of his passions. Some call him "The Derby City Madman," a tribute to kindred spirit Ted Nugent.)

Ahead . . .

So what's the next project for this band on the brink? A golf tournament. No, that's not a misprint. It's just another story behind the story ...

Ridge's family has been in the golf business for years; it owns Persimmon Ridge Golf Club in Louisville, and Ridge went to college on a golf scholarship.

"Golf is something I've been doing since I was two, but it's not my love," he said. "I could probably make a living at it, but I wouldn't be happy doing it."

So, enter the inaugural Element H Golf Scramble in Elizabethtown, Ky., which happened October 27. Local musicians from bands like the Constant, Outspoken (naturally), Cornbread Mafia and Sex Tractor participated, along with folks from LRS and TFX, Mark and Max Maxwell, Screaming John and more. Cash prizes, dinner, and longest drive and closest-to-the-pin contests were the highlights. The intent: music scene unity.

With guile like that, it's no wonder these guys are being billed as the next big thing. The best thing is, they believe it. Ask the band members what they'll be doing a year from now and you get a variety of answers.

"We'll be on TRL," Ridge said, referring to MTV's "Total Request Live."

"I'll be flying in space," cracked Brokar.

To which Ridge responded - totally ignoring his bandmate's middling humor - "In the music business it takes a long time to make a lot of money for yourself. But we're going to be making it for someone."

"Aw, I want to be on tour," said Willis to this dialogue. "I want to be pooping in the toilet I'm not supposed to poop in."

Once the laughter died down, the band reaffirmed its intent to succeed. Taking over the world is the goal, figuratively if not literally, and Element H intends do it one sold-out show, one street-team member and one golf tournament at a time.

"You'll have to kill at least three of us to stop us," said Willis.

It would still make for great marketing. Wonder if VH-1 would bite on that?

*

Catch Element H at Tailgaters November 16 with Sex Tractor and High Output.