Roman Candle – Upon further Revue…
It’s said that first impressions linger. Roman Candle can relate, because the band is in the midst of the most protracted first impression in recent memory. Its excellent debut album, The Wee Hours Revue, was released June 6 on V2 Records but has been in circulation in various forms for years, since it was first released as Says Pop on the independent label Outlook in 2002. That was two labels and several lineup changes ago for the band’s core of Skip, Logan and Timshel Matheny.
“Going back to these songs again, yeah, it’s kinda like moving back to your old hometown after being gone a long time,” says Skip Matheny, Roman Candle’s singer/guitarist. “Hearing this record again is like riding around your old neighborhood. But having a new lineup to play them live is exciting. We’ve had to work hard to retain that excitement. If the live versions don’t sound like the CD, well, that’s intentional.”
The retooled album, immaculately produced by Chris Stamey, is high-gloss, detailed pop music for the senses as well as the mind. Most pop records fall short on groove, but The Wee Hours Revue is as rhythmically smart as it is sharp and catchy. The first ten seconds or so of opening track, “Something Left To Say”, could pass for ambient dance music, setting a pulse that the album maintains throughout. Those bouncy hooks, a bushel of insidiously catchy melodies, and Matheny’s forceful voice are the album’s distinguishing features.
The first version of Roman Candle formed in the late ’90s when brothers Skip and Logan were at the University of North Carolina. Logan was the drummer; Skip’s wife Timshel played keyboards. After posting some demos on www.garageband.com, the band made an unexpected connection with professional football player Trevor Pryce, a dance-music recording artist who was also an All-Pro defensive lineman for the Denver Broncos. Pryce liked the demos enough to sign the group to his new label. Roman Candle’s self-produced version of Says Pop was Outlook’s first release.
“Says Pop, everybody thought that was supposed to be ‘pop’ like the Backstreet Boys,” says Skip. “But ‘pop’ is all the music we love — Sinatra, Merle Haggard, Roxy Music, the Clash, that universal stuff you can find in anybody’s record collection. Wee Hours Revue was actually our original title, but I’ve got this friend from high school who got me into Captain Beefheart back when I was listening to Dwight Yoakam. He had the coolest, most amazing taste. And when he heard the album, he said we ought to call it Says Pop because, ‘It sounds like you’re trying to make what you imagine to be pop music. Like trying to do both DJ Shadow and Oasis.’ That’s what was so great about hooking up with Trevor; he just totally got that. We used to have long chats about drum sounds.”
Says Pop attracted major-label interest, and Hollywood Records signed Roman Candle in 2003. “Hollywood signed us at this point where it wasn’t clear which direction radio was going to go,” says Logan. “It seemed like maybe college pop would be the popular thing. But this was before the Killers and Modest Mouse and this harder wave of more indie-rock stuff took over rock radio. So it went the other way, and then Hollywood didn’t know what to do with us.”
By then, Roman Candle was already working with Stamey on recutting the album. Through Stamey, the band also hooked up with country singer Thad Cockrell, recording a live album that’s still in the vaults (a limited-edition EP from the sessions, featuring a killer cover of Outkast’s “Hey Ya”, is out of print).
As one purported release date after another came and went, the band kept busy with Cockrell and also worked with a series of studio types to try to come up with that ever-elusive hit single. One particularly memorable attempt, with producer John Algia (John Mayer, Dave Matthews Band), happened right before Timshel gave birth to the Mathenys’ first child.
“Hollywood did let us work with a lot of great producers, we’ve got to give them credit for that,” Skip acknowledges. “But we still don’t really know what went on; we just never heard from them. I think it’s for the best, ultimately.”
Eventually, Hollywood let Roman Candle go and V2 came calling. Now that The Wee Hours Revue is finally out, the band can begin to consider its backlog of material — two albums’ worth, including a song cycle called Love Songs For An Empty Room. Meantime, Skip has also been writing a guidebook to surviving the music industry.
“None of this was traumatic or anything, just annoying,” he says. “But we realized that there’s this massive gap between what most bands think they know and what they really do. So we’d like to pass that knowledge on. It’s based on Walker Percy’s The Last Self-Help Book, which posed 20 questions about life. I’m working on 20 questions about the music business. I had to reach the ‘acceptance’ phase of all those stages you go through.”