“Smoke and mirrors,” says Beril Guceri with mild exasperation. “Smoke and mirrors.”
Guceri, the singer for Philadelphia band East Hundred, is at the end of a long psychoanalysis of the music industry, its games of chance and illusions of choice. Take, for example, East Hundred’s brush with the record business in 2010 — a showcase at the Rockwood Music Hall in New York City attended by some A&R types, including a rep from Atlantic Records. The feedback, the band later learned, focused on a cringe-worthy analysis of the band’s supposed image crisis: The songs were great, but Guceri needed to decide whether to be Gwen Stefani or Karen O; guitarist Brooke Blair came across as Dave Matthews-ish; drummer Will Blair and keyboardist Susan Gager skewed indie; and bassist Dave Sunderland was termed “undefinable.”
“It was just so clichÃ©,” says Guceri. “I understand that’s a conversation worth having down the line. But if that’s the first conversation we’re having? We were a band on a shoestring budget, playing a tiny, shitty, packed club, and they were making a marketing judgment call on how we presented ourselves. They didn’t know our band.”
And now, it seems, few ever will. After eight years, three EPs and one album, the band — its members all in their early 30s — has reached its end. Their story really isn’t a tale about the major label (or any label, for that matter) rollercoaster; it’s debatable whether anyone outside of a loyal, mostly local fanbase should care that a DIY alt-rock band from Philly is calling it quits. Bands break up all the time, for reasons that are easiest to talk about in simplistic, cynical terms. There’s always plenty of blame to go around, laid mostly at the feet of unresponsive record labels, incompetent managers, indifferent music journalists, the whims of the listening public and of course the band members themselves. Everyone moves on; the Earth hardly tilts on its axis.
And yet we’re here to argue that East Hundred is the band that should have been. Because, at one time, the pieces were falling into place, with radio airplay, song placements for TV and film, a gig opening for Jane’s Addiction last year, a cute and clever homemade music video, and whatever metric you want to use for being savvy on the Internet. Because there was no image problem — Guceri is a stone-cold fox (and more closely resembles an extroverted version of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval than Karen O or Gwen Stefani, anyway). And because the songs, while always polished, were coming into greatness with the crystalline focus of The Spells EP, a stillborn beauty of a final recording.
Over beers and Bloody Marys at a semi-posh hotel in Center City Philadelphia, Brooke Blair and Beril Guceri spill the details of East Hundred’s eight-year existence. Drinking at a hotel bar in your own city has a way of making you feel like a tourist, peering out at familiar city streets from a visitor’s perspective, and in some ways, East Hundred has felt this way its whole career. The band stands on solid modern-pop ground, writing well-polished and anthemic songs with just enough sonic weirdness that, if you slapped a Vaughan Oliver design on one of their record sleeves, could pass for a classic 4AD dream-pop band. This, however, is not the sound of young Philadelphia, whose indie scene has recently been a haven for ethereal folk outfits such as Espers and shaggier rock band variations such as the War On Drugs, Man Man and Dr. Dog.
“We weren’t totally indie and hip and we didn’t look unshowered or whatever, but we also weren’t Coldplay,” says Brooke, the group’s studio wizard. “We’re right in the middle.”
“A lot of people told us to move to L.A.,” adds Guceri. “Everyone said we’d do well in L.A. It was bizarre.”
“East Hundred had a bit of an identity crisis that resulted in an ongoing outsider complex,” says McTear. “They felt like they weren’t pop enough to be pure pop, and they weren’t cool enough to gain acceptance among the indie crowd. As someone on the outside of it all, I have to say much of it was in their head. I’ve seen this happen with a lot of young bands. As their friend, I tried to bring this to light but I’m not sure they could accept that.”
Wherever East Hundred ended up in the local landscape, its beginnings were well outside the usual alt-rock frame of reference. Brothers Brooke and Will Blair, along with bassist Dave Sunderland, came to Philadelphiafrom Alexandria, Virginia, initially serving as the instrumental backbone for a Roots-y, live hip-hop group called Infectious Organisms. Under the influence of turn-of-the-century electronica, Portishead and Kid A, the Blair brothers sought out a female vocalist for a different kind of band; it turned out that Brooke’s girlfriend,DrexelUniversity film student Beril Guceri, was available.
“I didn’t want to audition and get hurt,” says Guceri. “I just called him up one night and asked if he wanted to record this Turkish pop song that I’d been singing along to.”
The vocals seemed to fit, and after some hesitation — the stage-shy Guceri had never performed in public, not to mention the complications understood by having both brothers and romantic partners in a band — the job was hers. Sunderland eventually came aboard to fill out the live band, and keyboardist Susan Gager signed up after responding to an ad on Craigslist that read, in part: “Fans of Blonde Redhead,Denali, Radiohead, etc. would be a great fit. Please have pro-ish gear and a good attitude, and be OK with beer drinking.”
East Hundred spent its first year holed up in a stuffy warehouse space with a 16-track portable studio, and its 2005 self-titled EP reflects a more synthesized, drum machine-enabled start. An earnest, drunken email from Brooke convinced Tortoise’s John McEntire to mix 2007′s Copper Street Performer EP at his Soma Studios in Chicago. By the time full-length Passenger arrived, things were coming together for East Hundred — and yet simultaneously falling apart.
Midway through writing the album in 2008, Brooke and Guceri dissolved their romantic relationship; Will, who co-writes the lyrics with Guceri, was also going through a break-up. It was fuel for the fire, not only in terms of songwriting (Passenger effectively documents heartbreak happening in real time) but also in terms of creating a storyline for the band.
“It’s extremely fascinating,” says Justin Clowes, a photographer and filmmaker who befriended East Hundred and has made a band documentary titled Fools, Kings And Queens. “You’ve got the brothers and the boyfriend-girlfriend thing. And Brooke, Will and Dave have been together since they were babies. They seemed like a family. As I got to know them better, I saw that there were some cracks and things weren’t always what they seemed. Over the course of eight years, their relationships changed. Even after Brooke and Beril broke up, there was a connection between them. I think Beril would still look to Brooke for approval or help with songwriting or the way she was singing a part.”
“We’re all friends, we’ll all go out for drinks,” says Brooke. “But when you’re in a room being creative with one another and everyone has very passionate opinions about certain things, that can get tense. And I’ll be honest, a lot of the added drama in the band came from Beril and me breaking up, and fighting spills into the band. We’d fight differently in the band, in front of people. And then Will and I being brothers, we fight differently in the band. I was probably more respectful with Dave and Susan than I was with Will and Beril. Your communication is much more direct. You get to the point a lot quicker.”
“Certain band members got away with things that other ones didn’t,” concurs Guceri. “That happened a lot. Everyone says that bands are like platonic marriages, and some of that is true, but they’re unnatural relationships.”
What developed was a highly democratic way of doing business, an approach that more or less evenly divided the duties of booking shows, managing CD pressings, putting together artwork and photos, and tirelessly promoting themselves online.
“I’d spend Friday and Saturday nights on MySpace,” says Guceri, “finding people in the Philadelphia area who listen to the same kind of music we do and asking them if they wanted to come out and see our show.”
“We did everything,” says Will. “Except for a short few periods of time, we were self-managed, self-booked, self-promoted. That is a hard, near-impossible way to be efficient, maintain a day/night job, and still focus 100 percent on the music. But we managed to do so for quite some time. Perhaps we could’ve hounded the industry more and banged on more doors, but what was on the other side at times seemed a bit ugly, and although we aren’t the best business folks, we felt secure and comfortable in our autonomy.”
Although East Hundred ultimately sought to be signed by a label, the DIY model began paying dividends. There was airplay (notably, on local adult-alternative station WXPN) and song placements in programs on MTV and Showtime, as well as in a Disney film and the trailer for the Ben Affleck movie The Company Men. Mid-sized venues in Philadelphia were an easy booking, as were once-a-month bar shows in New York. Short tours were less successful — there was a particularly bad night in Cleveland — but the road grind was leavened by the occasional appearance of Will Kenny, an Alan Partridge-type TV host alter ego assumed by Will to document East Hundred’s adventures on YouTube.
“Right around the time of Passenger, it felt like it could really work out for them,” says Clowes. “Bigger venues were interested. I’d seen enough local bands to know they were up there. One of the things I noticed with East Hundred is the bigger the room, the more they bring it. They rise to those occasions. I see them as having a kind of Coldplay, Snow Patrol type of arena-ready sound. East Hundred’s sound is huge.”
“Passenger was the apex,” says Brooke. “There was a good buzz. The CD release show sold out, we were a WXPN ‘artist to watch.’ Things were really working.”
Just as the grassroots success of Passenger positioned East Hundred for prime time — or even simply to break out of the Philadelphia market — the music industry was curled up inside itself. Peripheral damage was everywhere: Record stores shuttered, summer festivals were canceled, music magazines folded. The recession was particularly cruel to record labels, which were tentative to make new signings based on precipitous declines in sales. But bad timing is just one of the puzzle pieces that doomed East Hundred’s chances.
“Bands still got signed after 2009,” says Brooke. “It’s not like we’re blaming it all on the music industry. The other part of the equation is that we should’ve thrown caution to the wind and been on the road more. This band got started when we were in our late 20s, and we were more cautious about things. Is it time to buy a van? I don’t know. I guess we could’ve been more prolific. We worked on things until everyone was happy — the font, what press photo we’re using. They were all big things for us. All five people had to be happy, which was great, but it slowed things down. We had a small stint with a booking agent, we had a small stint with a manager. But until someone was going to come along and do a better job of booking shows than we were doing, we were going to keep doing it ourselves.”
East Hundred’s stalled momentum, says McTear, was in some part attributable to their group-based songwriting. “It’s a very peculiar way of doing things, and particularly difficult for mature artists, I think,” he says. “They really should have taken more individual initiative and brought songs to the group more independently.”
East Hundred had plans to record a full-length follow-up to Passenger, but a combination of factors — real life in your 30s and the time consumed by band management rather than songwriting — forced a downscaled version. Turning to one of the last refuges of independent bands, the group initiated a Kickstarter campaign to raise $5,000 for the recording of The Spells EP in 2011. It took just two weeks for fans to raise the money. As investments go these days, the five-song EP makes a generous artistic return on capital.
“As tape started rolling for The Spells sessions, we heard something we hadn’t heard before,” says Will. “We were calm, comfortable and focused. Just days before, we almost cancelled our recording time due to internal conflicts. We promised each other to leave any baggage outside of the studio and just play our music.”
While recording vocals for the The Spells, Guceri insisted on a closed session, banishing her bandmates and their input. Her vocals — deeper and more subtle, fractured by emotion at the right moments — are just one of the elements that makes East Hundred’s big, stomping anthems seem as direct as whispers. The Spells is reminiscent of the National’s 2004 Cherry Tree EP, in that it seems to mark a turning point where a band finds its unique footing, slows down with confidence, and realizes a certain architectural elegance in songwriting.
“I’m not sure it was time to call it quits for East Hundred,” says McTear. “A major overhaul would be in order, sure — learning to write more quickly and efficiently, overcoming the outsider’s complex, etc. But for everything they had going for them, it’s sad that what I think are nothing more than ‘operations’ problems could keep the group from getting off the ground. Running a band is running a business. Writing songs is your production line. If what you make is good, then the most important thing you can do for the rest of us if establish some best practices — for your own psychological preservation if nothing else.”
Back in Philadelphia with Brooke and Guceri, a late night has turned to early morning, and we’ve downgraded from the hotel to a nearby dive bar, from Bloody Marys and chilled Pilsner glasses to $2 bottles of Yuengling lager. The reality of East Hundred’s denouement begins to dawn in the beerlight. The final show is set for this month, the band sharing the bill only with the premiere screening of the documentary Fools, Kings And Queens. We talk about life after the band, with Brooke and Guceri each in the early stages of making music on their own; Will writing a book about his experiences playing music; Gager in school for hairstyling; Sunderland enjoying normal life without band membership for the first time in 20 years. Despite tensions over the years, the bandmates remain friends. The official reason for the break-up has to do with the five of them not giving 110 percent anymore, which makes East Hundred sound vaguely like a basketball team.
Having exhausted the details of their own band, Guceri waxes nostalgic about Depeche Mode, and Brooke discusses Radiohead — they’ve studied rock’s sacred texts all their lives. There’s an unspoken realization that East Hundred traveled some of the same roads as their idols, that the 110 percent effort they used to give created something permanent, too. And then it feels like a record skips backward, that East Hundred is a new band excited by the prospect of the world hearing its songs as Guceri asks uncertainly, “Wait, do you really like our music? Why?”