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In the margins, thriving 

Five misconceptions about Little Rock’s favorite sons, the American Princes.

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.

“It's such a game,” says Kilgore. “It takes so much money and effort to get something.”

Yep Roc, by and large, doesn't play the game.

“On the ground, the ball is in our court,” says Kilgore. “We're the ones building this entity. The label is very hands off. They're not a record label like Merge or Sub-Pop, where if you're signed to them you're going to have important booking agents and go on power tours.”

That said, the Princes could be in a situation like Ho-Hum found themselves in years ago, where the label spent a lot of money promoting the band and then charged it money it didn't have for those services.

Kilgore said the band's relationship with Yep Roc is good.

“We've had total creative control,” Kilgore said. “They told us from the beginning, ‘You bring us music and we'll put it out.' They don't pick out what our singles might be. Their input is the same, in a lot of way, as our trusted friends.”

 

Common misconception number two: “People think that we're making a lot money or money at all.”

— Collins Kilgore.

 

The Princes tour hard. In six years, they've crisscrossed the country several times over, playing name venues like New York's Mercury Lounge and Stubb's in Austin, but also Nowheresville Midwestern stopovers. The Missouri truck stop, from which Slade and Kilgore recently talked to me by phone, found them “in a tough stretch,” playing cities like Omaha, Columbia and Kansas City in venues they'd never played and others not for several years.

Slade said he didn't realize how long the band had been grinding its way on tour until his friends in Smoke Up Johnny and the Moving Front, fresh off a two-week tour, wondered how the Princes managed to keep it up.

“I don't know how we do it,” Slade said. “We kind of fall in lock-step.”

Still, though touring isn't profitable, Kilgore said that the band has been able to graduate from sleeping at rest stops and dirty floors of punk rockers.

“As our standards have risen, the qualities of the tours have risen. It's been a slow rise, but it's risen enough that it's tolerant. Unfortunately, gas prices have risen at a similar curve.”

Then, there are the derailing tour dramas. Like broken buses and stolen amps. Just a few weeks prior, on his birthday, vocalist and guitarist Will Boyd had an amp stolen from a Des Moines venue.

The tour soldiers on. After the Princes play Rock 'n' Roar at the Little Rock Zoo on Saturday, they'll join the Northern State, a increasingly popular act oft-described as a female version of the Beastie Boys, for a month of dates throughout the South and the East Coast.

 

Common misconception numbers three and four: “Recording live is better.” “Three guitars are too much.” — Prevailing notions in indie rock.

 

If the band made strides with “Less and Less,” they made a giant leap forward with “Other People.” The new album, which the band described in advance press as its “ '80s record,” is filled with buoyant, almost danceable arrangements that echo a diverse lot of the decade's finest — the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Amidst indie-rock's current obsession with '80s post-punk and new-wave, the Princes manage an impressive feat: They never sound derivative or cloying. Instead of wholesale embracing the new (old styles), they manage to integrate them into their existing sound without a hitch.

Space and restraint were operative words leading up to the “Other People” sessions, particularly, since the album would be the band's first with third guitarist Will Boyd (Evanescence).

“With Will joining the band, we thought if we have three guys doing something that was reasonably minimalist, hopefully, each respective guitar would have a lot of negative space in it, and if you put it all together, it would sound full without being Creed, something a little more ephemeral, or a little more elegant, but at the same time, creating a rock band sound,” Slade said.

Kilgore and Slade were quick to give credit for the album's sound to Chuck Brody, a producer and engineer known for his work with Wu-Tang Clan and Jennifer Lopez. Brody handpicked the band from the line-up at the CMJ music conference in 2006 and offered to record a song for free for a test run. Sufficiently swayed, the Princes holed up in Brody's Manhattan studio last summer for several weeks of nonstop recording.

“Chuck brought an entire new element to the way we recorded,” said Kilgore. “We built a lot of songs from the ground up. When you're doing that, you have to think of every element. We had to think about each little part. In a sense, it was like putting together a serious composition.”

Recording piece by piece can, as Kilgore acknowledged, make the music feel static. But “Other People,” even with all the reverb and control, shimmers and sparkles; it always feels lively and whole.

The Princes are proud.

“It's definitely the kid we like most,” said Slade, laughing.

 

Common misconception number five: “One of two things will follow the release [of ‘Other People']. Either (fingers crossed) the band will, deservedly, blow up, or this'll be its swan song.”

— Me, April 10, “The To-Do List.”

 

Kilgore and Slade said that their prevailing sense of the band's future is “guarded optimism,” though their outlook on “blowing up” is much more pragmatic.

Kilgore and Slade said that it's not been hard to sustain the group even though four of the members are in Little Rock and Kilgore's in New York, where he lives with his girlfriend.

“Initially, I thought, this is just going to be an ass-ache, and it could turn into a real problem. For my money, it's been totally fine. Collins is good about coming back,” Slade said. Kilgore said the band is already writing new material and looking forward to touring more.

“I feel grateful to be in this band. I really love what each member does. ... It's a really galvanizing, exiting and affirming thing to be able to play this stuff night after night, and it almost makes sleeping on cat-piss laden floors worthwhile,” Slade said.

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