Some bands are made; others were perhaps meant to be, and if so, you can count Controlling the Famous among the latter. Even their name seemed fated: just when the band was deciding what to call itself, the cryptic phrase "Controlling the Famous" appeared high on a downtown Los Angeles building. They adopted the graffiti tag as their own. It hasn't been seen since.
In matters more substantial, too, CTF is an organic creation. Although lead singer Max Hellman often takes the lead during an interview, there's no single mastermind or distinct leader of the group. The four musicians write and arrange together (generally music first, then lyrics), and for the past couple of months have lived together on the road, touring across the Midwest and now hitting the East Coast.
A beautiful New York City sunset was painting the sky orange and aqua over the shimmering East River as I caught up with the band outside Northsix on the waterfront of Brooklyn's arty Williamsburg neighborhood. Locals and trendoids lined N. 6th St. enjoying the cooler air that the previous night's storms had brought, but although the stifling heat wave was over, the smell of garbage reminded one that it was still summer in the city. Nonetheless the band expressed great happiness to be in New York, quite sincerely declaring that it was one of their favorite places to play.
The previous night, over 50 fans had greeted CTF in the grungy basement space of CBGB, a pretty impressive turnout considering it was only the band's second gig ever in New York. Tonight's crowd, too, is big enough to sweat up Northsix's small downstairs performance space. Last year, prior to signing with The Militia Group, the band played at the less prestigious Continental, but now, with the support of an energetic indie label, things are different.
For one thing, their new CD, Automatic City, is in the stores, which is very important for bringing out crowds and sustaining interest even in the age of downloads. For another, ads for the disc (and other Militia releases) are all over popular websites like this one.
The one thing that hasn't changed, half-jokes soft-spoken bassist Brendan Hughes, is the lack of money in their pockets, and it's certainly true that the age of big advances for bands is over. But the men of CTF are pleased as punch to be signed with a good indie label, whose logistical and promotional support makes a big difference. Good turnouts, availability of CDs in local stores, and name recognition outside its home base are tough things for even a talented and hardworking band to achieve. And, for touring bands as well as local acts, New York is one of the toughest towns (even if it does have, according to CTF – three of whose members are SoCal natives – the most beautiful women in the country, hands down).
"If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere" is no idle cliché. NYC audiences appreciate good music but tend to act blasé, having seen and heard (or wishing you to think they've seen and heard) everything. With so many touring bands coming through and local ones itching to play, many clubs can and do get away with providing the bare minimum of amenities for both performers and audiences.
CTF has jumped up a level, from clubs where nearly anyone can get a gig to those that feature a more elite slice of the rock universe, but they still have to prove themselves to the trendy crowd, some of whom are still wandering down from the upstairs bar as the band churns through its second song (the punchy, ska-tinged "Detox"), filling the tiny basement space with a huge and rock-hard but unfailingly musical sound. The set is quick and to the point, featuring most of the songs from the tautly constructed CD. The stage has, evidently, a little less integrity than the music: when Hellman and the other guitarist-frontman, Johnny Collins, jump up and down, the amps and drums rock crazily like a skyline swaying in an earthquake so that everything seems to be threatening to collapse in a heap.
A few superfans pump fists and shout along with the lyrics, but there are some new fans in the making and some not-yet-convinced. One could reasonably describe the music as combining the energy and vocal fire of emo-punk with the more moderate tempos of indie rock, but that would capture only part of the creativity in evidence. The band explicitly makes music in reaction to, not imitation of, the dominant styles around them, drawing creative energy from their desire to be different. Their songs are accessible and crowd-friendly but their style is their own, with simple melodies and complex guitar interplay.
Native talent and months on the road have made the band as tight as any out there. Hughes holds down the bottom end with solidly locked-in bass parts. With varied and busy beats the extremely impressive drummer Mike Schneider speaks with his instrument as musically as a guitarist does. Hellmann and Collins combine to brighten up the songs with unisons, harmonies, and trade-off vocal duets. These, layered over intertwined guitar hooks and the abovementioned rhythm section, make for a solid, satisfying set of loud and powerful rock that's catchy enough for pop cred and interesting enough to capture the attention of a jaded New York City crowd.
At least, it did tonight. Tonight Controlling the Famous turned a bunch of Brooklynite twenty-somethings sick of emo pretention into cheering kids; tonight rock lived. Next year, who knows? A bigger venue, some real cash coming in, a career steadily flowering? The label is betting on it.