"Your everlastin' summer and you can see it fading fast / So you grab a piece of something that you think is gonna last."
-Donald Fagen and Walter Becker,
"Reelin' in the Years."
"The funny thing was, we were going to do it just for fun. We weren't going to get serious."
Luca Bianconcini leaned forward in his chair, his elbows on his knees, hands clasped and bouncing to emphasize the last six words. He was relating the story of how three of the band's members had reunited for a new project years after real life had collared each of them: college graduation, marriages, children, the necessity of finding employment, the strata that makes being a musician possible while keeping food in the belly (or beer in the `fridge, depending on personal priorities) and finance companies from filling the answering machine with demands you return their calls (today, please, they say in a clipped voice with the we-mean-business efficiency of an old adding machine, before they are forced to make a decision for you).
Bianconcini had known two of the other members since high school. Even though the band was originally going to be a minor side project for three professional men who had barnstormed the area during the previous decade as a power trio called Joe's Report, the need to expand on the music they wanted to make again was nudging them back to place where they had once been.
Forming a new band was inevitable.
Ultratone was the result.
"We wanted more musicians involved," Bianconcini said, his voice curtaining the excitement of being in a band again. "Let's look for a keyboard player. Let's look for another guitar player. Anything."
That "anything" has since crystallized into Ultratone, made up of drummer Bianconcini, guitarist Mike McGinnis, bassist John Hulcher and vocalist/guitarist Joe Scheirich (a scion of the same local family that manufactured cabinetry that is still in thousands of kitchens nationwide). A lark of a project that the members were, originally, not going to be serious about is now a band with two recordings, the latest of which is Pass It Along (reviewed this issue), a collection of fresh, made-for-radio power-pop on their own DaDork label, a name created on the spur of the moment at a party several years ago. They were on the phone talking to a one-upping friend, the kind of person that if you said Jennifer Aniston had just made you her love slave, he'd say it was because he had just resigned the position to take the same job with Angelina Jolie and moonlight with Jessica Simpson (and both offered retirement plans and stock options). The one-upper wanted to know how the band was doing. To make it sound like things were going well, they told him they had just been signed to a major label: DaDork.
The one-upper was silenced with awe. The label name stuck.
So now they have a CD on a home-baked label with airplay on about 300 college stations and is now also in rotation on a programming band on XM satellite radio. While getting some airplay (or would that be spaceplay?) on that medium might be a better fit for Ultratone, being placed on so many college radio stations seems a bit surprising considering that the sound of Pass It Along is similar to what the parents of today's college students might have heard when they were growing up. It is a continuation of what the band attempted in their self-titled initial release: refreshing wall-of-sound power pop like the songs that dwelled on the airwaves of AM radio during the early 1970s, the kind that came from the hissy speakers of transistor radios or from cars driving through neighborhoods with the windows rolled down. It is a sound as fresh as summer, not a tunnelvisioned early Beach Boys eternal summer (before Pet Sounds or Smile), where the world is nothing but sand, surf, cars and going steady. But one with cookouts, July Fourth fireworks, crowded public swimming pools, church picnics, state fairs with the smell of grilled fat and fried grease cutting through the air, where you bear the season's extremes of heat and stormy weather only to have it make a gradual exit when cooler temperatures sneak back in as leaves lose their green, turn stiff and flutter to the ground.
So is Pass It Along merely a tribute to the kind of music that was popular when the members of Ultratone were still drinking out of sippy cups?
"We didn't even think about it," vocalist Scheirich said. "We always think of our jazz influences as well as rock influences, so that kind of falls into there. It was John Schroeder, who did the mastering for us, who said that a couple of the tracks had a little Steely Dan tinge to them."
Bassist Hulcher agreed. "The more intelligent `70s rock. That sort of comes through."
Scheirich , Hulcher and Bianconcini began their work as musicians at Louisville's Ballard High School, where Hulcher played bass violin in the school's orchestra and Scheirich and Bianconcini played in the school's band. Outside of their school music commitments, they lived out the one single fantasy almost every adolescent's has that doesn't involve something from the letters section of Penthouse: they formed their own rock band. The stuff in the Penthouse letters could wait.
"We played together as a talent show band our senior year of high school," Hulcher said. "We played sporadically, then we all went off to college. Joe goes to Berklee College of Music in Boston, I go to Western, Luca goes to UK. After the first year of college, Joe comes back and we write our first song."
"Actually," Scheirich said, "we recorded on a couple of vacations when I'd come home. We recorded that first song `Kiss the Sky Goodbye,' then we recorded three more on breaks. Then when I came back after the first year at Berklee, that's when we recorded the other five that made up our first little EP."
"That was as Joe's Report," Bianconcini said.
With the onset of a new decade, the early 1990s saw a new kind of music suddenly eclipsing hair bands and the detritus of the New Wave/New Romantic acts whose plentiful talent didn't have the gas to run the distance of ten years. The Aristotelian urge in the music business to immediately classify this new sound gave it a name: grunge, a tag that either described the way the musicians dressed or the stuff that was usually found under their fingernails from squeezing grounds of Seattle coffee through their hands so they wouldn't have to fork over two dollars for a cup of Starbucks. At the same time, thanks to college radio stations, lots of bands the radio and MTV seemed to ignore were getting exposure. Music became interesting again. It was the perfect time for the guys in Joe's Report to take the stages in Louisville.
"We had a little cult following around here," Bianconcini said. "We did really well in some places. We had a spot, but we died away. People around here didn't get it."
"It was more of a culture back then of The Hammerheads and Nervous Melvin," Hulcher said, "with people going out and seeing cover bands, because that's where the girls went to dance and guys went where the girls went."
In a city that had spawned an underground indie rock scene that once dispatched bands around the world, people wanting to hear some good live music still handed over their cash to clubs that featured cover acts, making it harder for bands like Joe's Report to acquire a large fan base. Instead, the only thing they acquired was boxes of unsold CDs.
"We did a couple of albums as Joe's Report," Bianconcini said.
"Signed up with a manager out of Nashville," Hulcher added.
"For a little while. That didn't work out."
"That's when Joe's Report started to taper off. The lack of success over a three or four year period. . . ."
"Longer than that," Bianconcini said. "More like six years."
." . .and a soured relationship with a manager. Everybody just had to do their own thing."
But another relationship gone bad also contributed to the demise of Joe's Report.
"I had a breakup with a girlfriend," Scheirich said, "and was going through some tough times. I had writer's block for two-and-a-half years. I actually started writing again and that's when John and I started talking about trying to do something again."
"I had gotten the itch," Hulcher said. "My daughter was getting a little bit older and I had settled into the fatherhood scenario. I need to start playing, so I bought another bass, called Joe up and said, `Joe, listen,' and played a little of my bass over the phone."
With Hulcher and Scheirich wanting to restart a band with a sound different from what they did as Joe's Report and Bianconcini the obvious choice as drummer, the next phase was to expand the instrumentation.
"We definitely wanted another guitar player," Bianconcini recalled. "We put out ads, we tried people out, they didn't work."
"The problem is," Scheirich said, "we've got some harder-edge stuff, some lighter stuff, some jazzier stuff and everywhere in between. It's hard to find players that really know how to rock that also know how to do the jazzy stuff. It's also hard to find players who can do jazzy stuff who can turn around and do a scorching guitar solo."
The solution was closer than they had realized. And he was easy to find.
Lead guitarist Mike McGinnis tilted his head toward Scheirich. "Our wives are best friends."
McGinnis's audition was informal, an impromptu jam on Scheirich's acoustic guitar at his grandmother's house. It got him into the Ultratone lineup, but it was uncertain at first whether or not he would be a good fit..
"I came from a hard rock background," McGinnis said. "When I heard some of the stuff at first, the first thing I thought was Steely Dan," he emphasized with an elongated drawl, "and Alan Parsons, that type of sound. So I tried to change my sound up along that alley. When I set my rig up to play in this band, I had to set my gain back about 50 percent."
Even though he would have to back his amp off from its setting at 11, McGinnis, who had his first professional gig at 17 in a band that played at the old Rascal's bar on Bishop Lane (located on the bottom floor of the Watterson Towers office building, handy for secretaries to meet for margaritas after work or for lonely middle-managers to hang out on Friday nights so they could claim they actually had a life outside of their jobs and have something to report back to their mothers, who would immediately say that such a handsome man as himself will never find a nice girl in a place like that!), had the broad range of chops for which Ultratone was looking.
"Joe's Report was a power trio," Hulcher said. "We added more musicians because when Joe and I were doing the demos, we realized the music was more mature and there was a lot more diversity between the songs. So we needed that kind of diversity in another guitar player. Mike's background couldn't be a more perfect fit, totally evident on Pass It Along. He really brings back the guitar solo."
The evolution of the band from the heavy blasting of Joe's Report to the sultry pop of Ultratone is a story of maturity coupled with some trial and error. But evolution is challenging if not painful and it does not come without conflict. In their case, the conflict involved drummer Bianconcini.
"It was an interesting time for me," Bianconcini said. "I had to take a break from the band. I was going through a lot of personal things: a child six months of age, a new position within my company that took a lot of my time, my mother got sick. I couldn't give to the band what Joe needed. And there was a lot of infighting. Unfortunately, it got a little ugly at the end. I parted ways with the band. Neither of us was happy. It was the night before a gig, we got into it, it got physical and I left there on the spot."
The band was in the midst of recording their debut, self-titled CD. Now they were without a core member. Drummer Nick Haas, a friend of McGinnis, came in, finished the sessions and then rejoined them for work on Pass It Along. When Haas moved to Florida after the recording was finished, the band went ahead with finding his replacement. After hearing that Ultratone needed a new drummer and regretful at how his first stint with the band had ended, Bianconcini began to reconnect with them.
"I had been thinking about it for a long time," he said, "and I had always wanted an opportunity to come back. I had looked at other situations. I wasn't going to join a band and start from scratch. And if I had found a band that was already established and it was up to me to come in and learn the material, then that's what I wanted. But I kept hoping something would happen or break with these guys."
After speaking with Hulcher and Scheirich, exchanging e-mails asking if he could audition, Bianconcini was welcomed back. Almost.
"We were actually trying to audition some other drummers," Scherich said, "and there was a guy who fit the bill. . ."
"We actually hired the guy," Hulcher said, "told him he got the gig. The next day was when Luca sent his e-mail."
." . .what could I do? That's obviously who we wanted."
Bianconcini's return happened just as Pass It Along began getting college station airplay with help from a promotion service called Tinderbox that also provides the band regular reports on station spins and coverage. In the two months since the CD was added to playlists, it is being played on 75 percent of the stations that have it in regular rotation.
So does that mean Ultratone will be visiting all the colleges and cities where they are being played?
"We're trying to build a story and do so in a realistic fashion," Hulcher said. "It's not realistic for us to quit our jobs and pile into a van and we realize our performances outside of Louisville are going to step up quite a bit. Some bands will build a story through a live show. I think we'll build a story through radio play and what we do in the studio."
"That's reality," Bianconcini said.
"Yeah. So we're gonna find out where there's demand and then we'll go and play."
The summer has been good for Ultratone: a second CD getting airplay nationwide on college stations and worldwide through satellite radio, the chance for the kind of publicity that builds by word of mouth in the markets where the CD is getting played, the reuniting of all four original members, all appropriate for a band whose sound is like summer: bright, full, sometimes warm and pleasant, sometimes blazing and sweaty, taking us back to summers past or making us aware of summers now so we can make memories for later.
Hulcher said, "I'm flattered that, for the most part, anyone who has heard us goes, `Y'know, I can't peg your sound. It's not offensive or out there, but I can't figure out what you all sound like.' And I think that's great."
For Ultratone it is not so much what they sound like, but:.
"It's how it makes you feel," McGinnis said.
Keep up with the band's story at www.ultratoneonline.com.