Making the Band
There's a particular smell that comes from a rock band at 4 in the
morning—the smell of too many guys crowded into a small space littered
with too many pizza boxes, too many cigarettes, and too many empty beer
bottles. This is the smell wafting through a room at the Regency Hotel
Downtown in Columbia, Missouri, where the Boston band Apollo Sunshine
is crashing for the night.
For the past five days, all that the band members had talked about
was the marathon party they were going to have after they played a gig
at Columbia's Blue Note club. It would be an all-nighter for the record
books, the Perfect Hangover. Yet there we all were, slumped in a stinky
haze—them, dazed; me, confused.
Diving into an admitted journalistic cliché, I had joined this
up-and-coming Boston rock band on a road trip across the Midwest.
They've been touring the country for three years, dragging their
amplifiers to every college bar in sight, just to make ends meet.
That's how it works these days. Since the megahit era of the 1990s
ended, bands like Apollo Sunshine rarely rise from college-club
obscurity into the stratosphere of mainstream radio.
And yet, despite the bleak outlook, these guys are making a career
for themselves on the road. Their high school buddies help out hauling
their gear. And even though they're well known enough to draw crowds,
have won awards and critical respect, and have a record label (albeit
one you've likely never heard of), they're not traveling by stretch
Hummer with supermodels on their arms. They're living on
vending-machine snacks, driving to gigs in a broken-down van, and
drawing an unexpected breed of groupie. This is the life of the
21st-century rock star.
Inside a Colgate University pub, Apollo Sunshine squeezes onto a
makeshift stage. Lead singer Jesse Gallagher takes the mic, his
double-neck bass guitar dangling in front of him. At 24, he's barely
older than the kids in the bar. He has unruly auburn hair and a thick
red beard covering his freckles. As a frontman, he's a charismatic
goofball who sometimes messes with an amplifier's feedback or plays the
keyboard with his head.
“So, uh, we're Apollo Sunshine,” Gallagher says with a giggle before
the band launches into a soft instrumental. Next comes a blaring rock
tune with Gallagher wailing on a rickety keyboard, then thumbing out
bass lines. Guitarist Sam Cohen steers through a complex solo while
drummer Jeremy Black sits at the back, pounding out a jumpy beat.
Gallagher's vocals range from belting roar to gentle twitter. He
often hits notes just below pitch for a purposely imperfect tone. Cohen
adds a higher pitched, nasal twang. The songs vary: A pedal-steel
country tune is followed by a jazzy, deep-bass instrumental, which
flows into a psychedelic, keyboard-heavy jam accessorized by strobe
lights. A poppy melody called “Phony Marony” has its own dance,
involving high-flying kicks and a tambourine. But it's when Gallagher
and Cohen pull out ukuleles to play “You and I” that the crowd goes
On day two, we're on our way to Columbus, Ohio. Apollo Sunshine's
transportation is a former ambulance with a cracked side mirror, a
missing right-turn signal, and faulty brake lights. With its precious
trailer full of gear the van is the band's most treasured possession.
Inside is a homemade loft covered with a thin mattress. The ceiling is
papered with snapshots and ticket stubs. Of course, no self-respecting
rockers can travel without an iMac, a CD collection, video games, and a
copy of Talking Heads singer David Byrne's photography book, Strange Ritual. Music is always blaring and the whole mess smells like guy. It's a dorm room on wheels.
Black, the drummer, rides with me in my rental car. With his scruffy
jet-black hair, scraggly beard, and piercing green eyes, he looks like
Les Claypool of Primus. Black plays the part of band ambassador,
resident romantic, and unofficial leader. When he's not on the phone
with his girlfriend, he's reporting to the record label and keeping
tabs on the money.
Apollo Sunshine started playing together in 2002 and quickly landed
a weekly residency at T.T. the Bear's in Cambridge. It was when they
won second place the next year at the WBCN Rock 'n' Roll Rumble that
music fans caught on to their theatrics. That summer they recorded an
album on their own dime. “We had interest from some bigger labels,”
Black says, “but we would have had no control over our masters and
publishing.” He and his bandmates opted for independent label SpinArt,
which gave them freedom to control their own finances, something a
major label wouldn't.
But signing with a label doesn't guarantee success. The band
competes with downloading—its single “I Was on the Moon” has been
downloaded roughly 100,000 times, and the guys haven't seen a penny
from it. “If people couldn't download music,” says Black, “would it
mean more record sales for us?”
In Columbus, I encounter my first groupies. Groupies today are not
the sex-crazed females portrayed in so many movies. Forget Kate Hudson
in Almost Famous; think John Cusack in High Fidelity. They're mostly male, know every lyric, and travel hundreds of miles for a show. It's way less sexy than it used to be.
After the show, Apollo goes across the street with some Columbus
groupies for pizza and beers. A fan named Cameron gushes, “I'm so
impressed with what these guys are doing! Going out and seeing the
country. It's an inspiration.” After 2 a.m., as the guys say good
night, Gallagher and his buddy Sean slap high-fives. They have managed
to slip out without paying their tab.
After an early breakfast, we're back on the road toward Knox College
in Galesburg, Illinois, where the band plays a relaxed show to about
100. The guys are tired. Afterward we dine on day-old ham sandwiches.
Each band member has a $20 daily stipend, which means they often make
entire meals out of gas station vending machine snacks. There are a few
extra sandwiches, so the guys give them away. A student walks over to
buy a T-shirt and his face lights up. “Not only do you guys ROCK, but
you're giving me a sandwich? That's awesome!”
Another student invites us to drink beers in her dorm room, where
kids are passing around three-foot bongs and cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Cohen, the guitarist, tries to chat up a pretty coed with a lip stud.
Quiet offstage, the 25-year-old Texan has a sweet southern demeanor and
curly brown hair. His wardrobe hints at an inner cowboy, with big brass
belt buckles and a trucker's cap. On stage he wears the scrunched-up
face of a kid playing with action figures. Eventually he gives up on
the girl. “I mean, she was cute,” he says when his bandmates give him a
hard time about it later, “but I don't need to be taking away some
18-year-old kid's girlfriend.”
We finally arrive in Columbia. The band has visited nearly every
city between Boston and San Diego, but to the guys this college town is
Vegas and Gomorrah combined. “Last time I was in [Missouri] I slept
with two women,” Gallagher boasts. At the theater, the promoter
promises that tonight's party will be off the charts.
On stage the band is in full costume. Gallagher sports a baby-blue
suit. Cohen wears a black one and a cowboy hat. Black is in gray. As
they play, jackets fly off and they strip to sweat-drenched T-shirts.
The set is passionate, drunken, and outstanding.
After the show the guys raise a round of whiskey shots. After a few
more drinks, though, talk of partying has faded. Pizza is ordered and
the band heads back to the hotel room with a small group that breaks up
by about 3 a.m. You know the rest.
The next morning a groggy wake-up call sends the band back on the
road and me heading for home. For all the bad food and the smelly van,
the members of Apollo Sunshine like life on tour. They released their
second album last month. They've played on Last Call with Carson Daly.
They've made their own video. No, they don't drive around in stretch
Hummers. But they're earning a living doing what they want to be doing.
“We work our asses off,” Gallagher says. “And we're having a fucking
Apollo Sunshine ranked third in the 2003 WBCN Rock 'n' Roll Rumble, not second.