You can get an idea of how much Motion City Soundtrack has toured over the past two years by the disasters it has encountered.
The five scruffy members of the frantic-sounding (but don't call them "emo") Twin Cities pop-punk band saw pieces of the space shuttle Columbia in Texas, for instance.
"We were pulling out of the place we were staying, and there was this big chunk of something," guitarist Joshua Cain remembers.
They also passed people in surgical face masks on the streets of Toronto (on two different trips, no less). And they drove around the Washington, D.C., area worrying about sniper gunfire. They almost canceled a tour that was to begin three days after Sept. 11, 2001, but their biggest worry -- $3-per-gallon gas prices -- proved not to be a threat.
The frequency of Motion City Soundtrack's road trips helps explain two mysteries that many people in the local music scene want to know about this band: How did they get signed to Epitaph Records? And why haven't more people around here heard of them?
"We couldn't get any gigs around here for a long time because, well, we pretty much sucked," Cain said with admirable candor.
"So we hit the road. And we've basically been there ever since."
Coming up Rose
Hanging out at their grimy warehouse rehearsal space in St. Paul last month -- they toured Europe for two weeks between then and now -- the members of MCS have trouble remembering all their upcoming tour plans.
The band's CD, "I Am the Movie," came out on June 24, with roaring love songs and a few Gen-X style social diatribes. Its release, of course, means more road shows for the band, which already has been gone most of the year, playing shows with big names like Dashboard Confessional and Jimmy Eat World, plus hot newcomers such as the Starting Line, Weakerthans and Reggie & the Effect.
They'll be in Minneapolis for a CD-release party Saturday at the Triple Rock, but are soon leaving again.
"We figure we're only going to be home 22 days all summer," keyboardist Jesse Johnson said.
The first big payoff from all their touring came in 2001 when they got the attention of Ed Rose, who produced "I Am the Movie." The in-demand record producer had worked with MCS' pals Ultimate Fakebook and other popular emo/ punk bands such as the Get-Up Kids and the Anniversary.
"Ed basically beat us up and got us into shape," Cain said of the group's first sessions at Rose's studio in Kansas City.
Between the first sessions with Rose and the final ones, the group went through a drastic lineup change, with only Cain and singer-guitarist Justin Pierre remaining from the original band formed in 1997. Drummer Tony Thaxton and bassist Matt Taylor, both from Richmond, Va., joined in 2001.
The addition of a keyboard ist a year earlier proved to be a crucial change. Johnson's synth-punk parts gave the band a more distinctive style and proved to be the missing link in the music MCS was trying to make. That sound, somewhere between the Pixies, Weezer, the Promise Ring and Jimmy Eat World, is part flavor-of-the-day and part timeless alt-rock.
Johnson said, "Most bands [with keyboards] just sort of plug it into the soundboard, and it sounds real cheap and synthy. We play it loud and run it through the amps like any other instrument."
Having keyboards also has gotten the band a bit of notoriety. When it was signed by Epitaph, many older-school punk fans got on the label's online chat room and complained that the group was too poppy.
Epitaph founder Brett Gurewitz, of the veteran punk band Bad Religion, posted a defiant response: "I haven't discovered a band this compelling since the early '90s."
Said Cain, "I understand we may not be what some people think of as punk, but punk to me is more about how your band does its business.
"These people should spend as much time in a van as we have, and survive on as little money as we have. Then tell us what's punk and what isn't."
Gurewitz saved the band from debt when -- much like with Rose -- he got a recommendation for MCS from another band it met on the road, Matchbook Romance. He signed them in January, and four new tracks were recorded for "I Am the Movie" (the rest of the album already had been on sale at the band's shows).
Epitaph funded a low-budget video for the song "My Favorite Accident" -- featuring a giant pink bunny who falls for frontman Justin Pierre -- which already has played on the MTV2 and Much Music cable-TV channels.
"For the last year, things have really sort of fallen into place nicely," said Pierre, who is soft-spoken in person compared to his wailing vocal style and wild demeanor on stage. "We had to work some things out, like any band, but we're really happy with where we're at now."
That includes being happy about all the days spent in a van -- and not just because they'll be playing bigger venues with larger crowds.
"The one big thing we did buy with our [record-deal] money was iPods [mp3 players]. They can keep us occupied for days on end, which is good for this band."
BYLINE: Chris Riemenschneider
CREDITLINE: Star Tribune
HEADLINE: Emotions in Motion: Motion City Soundtrack is signed and road-tested