At least once a month, the music industry offers up another Next Big Thing—a new, little-known band purportedly bound for global fame. Most often, they disappoint and vanish. With all of one album to their credit, Two Door Cinema Club reeks of NBT overhype. Forming in their native Northern Ireland in 2007, the trio took their name from a mondegreen of "Tudor Cinema" quickly built a following in local clubs, rocked MySpace, scored a record deal, and released an EP, Four Words To Stand On in January 2009. The British music press was in love. A full-length debut with producer Eliot James followed. Tourist History dropped this spring, and the band has been touring the globe in support ever since.
Hey, this rock star stuff is easy!
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Tourist History—32 minutes of alterna-pop candy—is all jangly guitars and cascading harmonies, syrupy-sweet melodies over synthesizers in full-blown Depeche Mode. Babyfaced lead singer Alex Tremble has a clear, strong, high alto, but shows a limited emotional range on wax. After a half-hour of lilting optimism, it's easy to wonder if the guy has ever had a bad day. It's also easy to wonder if TDCC has enough stones for the long haul. Are they really the next Coldplay, a new Vampire Weekend? Or just another Kula Shaker, one more Next Big Thing that turns out to be a Flavor of the Month?
Music critics, thankfully, don't get to make that call. Neither do record companies. No matter how much PR and payola a band might have behind them, and no matter how passionately the critics love you in New York—or in London—hype won't get you a spot next to Jagger and Richards in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Even now, in the downloadable, mashable, post-American century, a band can go only as far as its ability to connect with a certain audience can take it. That audience would be us. Every band since the Beatles has faced the same fact. If you want the whole rock star package—the stadium-sized adoring crowds, supermodels backstage, private jet with gold-plated toilet seats—you have to conquer the American market. And the United States is big, literally, in a way that most Europeans can't quite fathom until they get here. That is, not until they have to crisscross it five or six times in an old tour bus, playing dives in every city and college town from Portland to Portland, subsisting entirely on a diet of Stuckey's Pecan Logs and microwaveable truck-stop burritos.
With Two Dollar Cinema Club's relentless cheer and relatively quick UK success, the fear is they would show up on our shores expecting a kind of coronation—something like the Beatles arrival at JFK, U2's "Angel of Harlem," or, in darker minds, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle.
But talent and a hot sound only gets you in the door. There is no surefire way to the top of the charts—no matter what Weezer says. Barring Timbaland's help, though, the best plan for Stateside success is to hit the road, Jack. And stay there. Like, forever. Play hard, too. Give a rafter-shaking, blow-the-roof-off-this-dump, kick-out the jams performance every single freaking night. Even if you're sick. Even if only five people showed up, and the club owner stiffed you. Tour long enough and play hard enough, eventually, the crowds will come. Better yet, they will buy t-shirts they don't need to reward your perseverance. Americans are nothing if not generous.
Most new acts though, flinch at the prospect. After only a few months of living in a Bob Seger nightmare a lot of young bands, especially fragile imports, get a sort glazed, defeated look, and soon scurry home to make records, produce friends' records, and wait five years until they can join the Where Are They Now Club.
Right now, TDCC is in the midst of its initial road test—the first full scale foray into North America. A show Friday night at RecordBar in Kansas City, Missouri, was the fifteenth stop on a brutal 20-date tour—including a long, scary Halloween weekend of four straight one-night stands in four different cities—Chicago, Minneapolis, KC, and Denver.
But none of the customers in the low-lit, wood-lined barroom cared one whit about anyone's road woes. RecordBar is a music lover's Rosenblatt Stadium—one of those places fans go expressly to see stars before they become stars. The near-capacity crowd had seen a dozen Next Big Things play the same small stage—like TDCC's American label-mates Mumford & Sons, just a few months before.
If you didn't know the band was on their first trip through the States, it was evident from the start when Trimble tried a little stage banter. The poor guy made a faux pas so common it should have been in This Is Spinal Tap, when he told the crowd in Kansas City, Missouri, that the band "had never been to Kansas."
Um... You still haven't, dude.
The big question of the night, however, wasn't about U.S. geography, but how Two Door Cinema Club's feathery sound in the studio would translate to the live stage. The crowd came to be wowed. They came—and paid their $15—to see incipient greatness. What they got instead was very-goodness.
The performance was technically first-rate. The harmonies were pristine. The arrangements were spandex-tight, with nary a sour note or missed beat the whole show. Good, old-fashioned grungy distortion on Sam Halliday's guitar replaced much of the billowing synth. In a surprise to no one with a soul, a live human playing real drums—in the person of Ben Thompson—added much-needed depth and drive to the songs.
But rock n' roll isn't about musicianship alone. Rock is also about style and lifestyle, about stage presence and persona. It's about creating a theater of personal freedom, a space where anything seems possible—with more than a hint of implied danger. TDCC was fun. They were super-competent, raucous, and highly energetic from the first note to last. But no one ever lost control, or even threatened to. Never once, even for a second, did you think someone on stage might dive off it, or roll in broken glass, cry, faint, or make an inflatable pig fly. No one seemed willing to let themselves spill into self-abandon—to lose themselves in the music, and take us along for the ride—to go crazy, so we don't have to.
There's hope, though. Two Door Cinema Club wraps the tour this week with another five straight one-night stands—in LA, San Diego, San Francisco, Portland and, finally, November 6 at Neumos in Seattle. If that schedule doesn't drive them crazy, nothing will.