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Slippery Slope

luvjOi creates corporate-style rock without the corporation

by Matthew T. Everett

The one thing that has to be said about luvjOi is that they know how to sell themselves. Kenny Alphin, front man for the modern rock quartet from Nashville, is just as much a propagandist for the band and its good-natured hedonism as he is a fledgling rock star, and his energy seems equally divided between the actual music luvjOi makes and the band's efforts at self-promotion—like CD giveaways, a gallery of nearly-naked "luvjOi goddesses" on the band's web site, and multimedia concert "events" with disco balls, go-go dancers, and psychedelic projection screens.

"Five years from now, I honestly believe luvjOi will be a whole lifestyle people can pick up on, the World According to luvjOi," Alphin says. "Why not? Who knows? It might just catch on."

The suffocatingly positive vibe that surrounds the whole luvjOi package—the band's good looks, the palatable mid-tempo rock songs, the vague peace-and-love message reflected in the name and lyrics—is surprising, considering Alphin's tortured ride with Hollywood Records in 1999.

Alphin moved to Nashville from Virginia in 1994, at the age of 29, to pursue a career as a songwriter and performer. He left the construction company he had built since his graduation from high school, packed his bags, locked the door to his house, and never went back. After five years in Nashville as a songwriter and performer, Alphin's then-band, Big Kenny, signed with Hollywood and recorded an album that was never released. A single, "Under the Sky," was placed on the soundtrack to the film Gunshy and topped the pop charts in Turkey, of all places, for 20 weeks. But the album never made it to record stores. Alphin got out of the deal with a substantial financial settlement, but he also lost the rights to the Big Kenny songs for five years.

But he rebounded, apparently without resentment or bitterness, and recruited a new band, including guitarist Adam Shoenfield, bassist Justin Tocket, and drummer Larry Babb.

"I don't mind. I just want people to hear the music," Alphin says of the Hollywood debacle. "I'm not bitter at all. It was an incredible learning experience. I can call up anybody from that period, and they're my buddies, and we hang out together."

With the money from Alphin's settlement with Hollywood, luvjOi recorded their debut CD, a collection of professional, if predictable, radio rock songs, and began holding monthly "events" in Nashville, Knoxville, Birmingham, and Atlanta.

Here's where it gets tricky: Alphin insists that he doesn't want a new deal, that he's comfortable selling the band to the kids through free CDs at concerts and buzz on the streets. But, for all his self-professed populism, he's really just following, on a smaller, more efficient scale, the model established by big record labels. He's got a manager and a legal team headed by Kid Rock's attorney, and he's got hundreds of industry people plugged into his palm pilot. This is the new economy version of DIY ethics, and Alphin isn't interested in playing the college club circuit. He wants to play arenas; he just wants to do it under his own direction.

The arena tours are still a couple of years away, as is worldwide adoption of the luvjOi lifestyle. But the band's fist-pumping single, "Discoball," is in regular rotation on modern rock radio stations in Nashville, and the music press there has given the band a considerable boost.

Alphin's got plenty of ideas for pushing luvjOi without the support of a record label, like a corporate-sponsored effort to give away a million CDs at record stores across the country. But for now, the "events" and the connection between the band and its audience are what count.

"Ultimately, we want to have them in arenas, with the band stage in the center," Alphin says. "We'll cut the lights and then turn them on the audience, and the next thing you know, everybody's a rock star and we're watching them...When the audience is giving a little bit, the band gives back 10 times that much, and it sets up this perpetual motion thing, and the next thing you know it gets to be pretty fun."

December 14, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 50
© 2000 Metro Pulse