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Cherchez les Broads

The French Broads play rock 'n' roll for grown-ups. Kind of.

by Matthew T. Everett

Just a couple of years ago, John Baker had nearly given up on being in a band again. After two serious attempts at becoming a professional rock 'n' roll star—the first with a college cover band in the late '80s, then in Memphis with a power pop band called the Martini Age—he had resigned himself to writing and recording songs in his South Knoxville basement, then distributing them on cassette through the Internet. He'd had some success with that system, getting tapes of his basement-studio pop songs into the hands of tape-trading critics and tiny distributors in Europe, Canada, and Australia.

"I was content to keep doing that," he says. "I've got a cheap set of pawn shop drums and an even cheaper bass, and it's easy to write songs that way."

Then, in 1999, Baker met Chris Hurt. Both shared a passion for bicycles—they met through a cycling club—but soon discovered that they both also loved classic guitar pop like the dBs and XTC. Since Hurt played drums, Baker reconsidered his musical seclusion and recruited Jim Rivers, his bandmate in the Martini Age, on guitar and bassist Brian Williams to form the French Broads.

"Being in a band is like having three different girlfriends," Baker says. "When you're by yourself, you only have yourself to agree with. But it had been so long since I performed live, and I forgot how much fun that is."

Now, a year and a half later, the Broads have released their first CD, My Friend Speed, on Disgraceland Records. It's a solid first release for a local band, with plenty of hooks and nice guitar interplay between Rivers and Baker. More than anything, it's a fun record, full of shimmery summertime pop songs and infectious energy. Rivers and Baker complement each other on guitar; Rivers, who cites guitar guru Tom Verlaine as an inspiration, adds fuzzy, post-punk guitar noise to Baker's jangly, Beatles-inspired melodies. "We like to make it sound like one big guitar," Rivers says.

Baker's had to cede the single-minded authority he had when he was doing everything in his basement. But he's still the one who comes up with the basic ideas for the French Broads' songs.

"Typically, if we have a song-writing formula, I'll come up with the basic chunks—a verse, chorus, and bridge—and play it for Jim," Baker says. "Then he'll throw some jagged guitar mess in the middle. I was uncomfortable with it at first, but it forces my songs to be better."

To date, the Broads have played fewer than a dozen shows. Most of their performances have been at small clubs like the Pilot Light, Prince's Deli, and the Longbranch, with expectedly small audiences. The Broads' upcoming show next month at a Disgraceland showcase at Patrick Sullivan's, with the Ghosts and John Paul Keith, should expose them to a larger local audience, and they hope to play outside of Knoxville next year.

But that's about all the Broads want out of the band. Baker and Hurt are both 36, close to decrepit in the rock industry, and they, along with Rivers, have already tried to make it big. None of them want to go through that again. "We've got perspective on the whole thing," Hurt says. "We've gone through the touring b.s. You can go out and have the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, and whatever goes along with that. But it's not that romantic living it every day."

Besides, they've got wives and girlfriends and careers. Baker recently started a bike touring company, and Rivers is an M.D. Williams works as a graphic artist, and Hurt is a "software metaphysician" for a local Internet company.

"If there's something else you do for money, it keeps the creativity pure," Baker says. "That's why we do it. I've done it to make money before, and it got so bad that I didn't want to make music anymore. I've never been signed, but I've talked to enough people who have to know what it's like, and I don't want that experience. As long as the band pays for itself, that's all we want. Even if it loses money, we're paid back in different ways—and so far we've been pretty good at losing money."

But they're doing what they want to do. "It's like we've got our own label and studio," Rivers says. "It's not like a major label, but it's pretty close for four idiots in a shed."

November 30, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 48
© 2000 Metro Pulse