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The American Princes kicked off their national tour last month at the West Little Rock Barnes and Noble on a Saturday afternoon. The concert, billed as in-store performance, instead took place outside, a few steps from the entrance, presumably as a compromise: Rather than hold patrons captive with band inside, it would force them to practically run through it outside.
There were normal spectators: A few feet out of the way, a small clump of smiling family, twentysomethings and dads with kids hoisted on their shoulders stood in support. Inside, a small girl, maybe 5 or 6, pressed her nose up against a window and eyed drummer Matt Quinn like a zoo animal. Then, there was the front row: a steady stream of shoppers entering and exiting, many of whom wore dazed, embarrassed looks, like they'd unwittingly landed in the spotlight. Others lingered, fleetingly curious. Six, possibly seven, ran in or out holding their hands over their ears. A good number just kind of grimaced.
Later that night, at Revolution in the River Market, the Princes celebrated the release of their fourth album, “Other People,” with a fiery set for several hundred fans, possibly their biggest hometown show ever. A good chunk of people stood close, singing along to just about every word, even to songs on an album that wasn't officially releasing until the following Tuesday.
So it goes for the American Princes, a band that has made tremendous strides in six years: From playing spotty Tuesday nights at White Water to filling Little Rock's biggest venues, from gigging every other week locally to touring nationally, from Max Recording to large indie label Yep Roc. Still, the Princes remain, soundly, a band stuck in the margins. Perhaps no one is bigger locally, but nationally, the band still remains, for the most part, an unknown quantity.
Common misconception number one: “Merely signing to a label doesn't guarantee anything.”
— David Slade.
After the Princes jumped from Max Recordings to Yep Roc in 2005, local buzz anointed the band before the ink was even dry on the deal. Yep Roc isn't an indie powerhouse like Merge or Sub-Pop, but a solidly international label, with a roster that stretches from the punkabillies of Legendary Shack*Shakers to pop-hero Nick Lowe.
“Less and Less,” the band's third album and first for Yep Roc, was a step forward for the band. Produced by Al Weatherhead (Lucero, Sparklehorse), it found the group quieting its Replacements-style churn in spots, exploring dynamics more. Collins Kilgore's vocals entered the mix more prominently; he and vocalist/guitarist David Slade put together a diverse but cohesive body of songs.
The Onion A.V. Club put the album in its year-end list and Magnet ran a big profile on the band. They shared stages (read: opened) for Big Star, the Flaming Lips, the Hold Steady and Spoon and others. But by and large, the Princes didn't rise above the fray.
“There were a number of bands Yep Roc signed at the same time as us who they believed were going to blow up,” said Kilgore on the phone from a truck-stop in Missouri. “None of them did. Zero. After ‘Less and Less' came out, they stopped signing bands that weren't big somewhere. Every band that they've signed since then has been at least huge in Canada or New Zealand or somewhere.”
“We ruined it for everyone,” joked Slade.
Expectations have changed. Not just for the Princes, but for the industry. Profit margins are slimming. Radio and TV and print coverage continue to remain out of reach for all but the upper echelon of indie acts. And now the Internet, once the great hope of unknown musicians, has a glut of new music. Where in their early days mp3 blogs served as organic outlets to hype unknown talent, now they're beginning to mirror magazines, where just getting content to the most influential outlets requires a big financial push and time investment.