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Johnny Clueless is paying their dues. Is anyone listening?

 

by Tim McMahan

 

Steven Brown doesn't expect the phone to ring off the hook, but it'd be nice if it rang just a little bit.

The lead singer for Johnny Clueless has reason to wonder about the silence. In the past six months, his band has been featured in Billboard magazine, appeared on the Jenny Jones Show and opened six dates for Cheap Trick. The result: deafening silence.

"Most bands that talk about getting calls from record label execs are full of shit," Brown said from his St. Paul home. "I know bands that aren't very good who are always saying they're hearing from the labels. A lot of it is just them building hype."

He doesn't want to sound pathetic, Brown said, but it would be nice if someone outside of the Twin Cities started noticing the band. "We haven't had, to this point, anyone from major industry helping us," he said. "Everything we have has been the result of us never stopping, always playing. We don't have managers and label people calling us. We've made it this far without that."

 

The Cheap Trick gigs came after a booking agent friend from Monterey called saying the legendary band needed an opener for six dates in early November. Brown said the tour of duty was like an internship to see how things are done in the big time. "We got to know the band after they found out we weren't jerks," he said. "When they played in Minneapolis, Robin Zander came and played on stage with us in St. Paul. It was like being accepted by legends."

Who knows how well they got to know Jenny Jones. That gig was booked earlier this summer, after the large Billboard magazine feature hit the stands. "We just didn't want to them to make us look cheesy," Brown said. "She introduced 'You're My Flavour?' as our new hit single. It was fun."

After each of these little victories, Brown says the band expected the phone to ring off the wall. It never happened.

He knows he has nothing to complain about. The power-pop 4-piece is one of the region's bigger successes, selling more than 28,000 CDs and gaining airplay in some of the larger Midwestern markets. And with the release of their latest CD, the pace has only quickened.

What's Your Flavour? on OarFin/Boxov Records, is one part college alt-pop and one part mainstream rock 'n' roll. The CD jumps briskly out of the gate with the radio-ready title track that features tight, choppy, power chords, Rentals-style keyboards, and Brown's made-for-FM vocals. The next track, "Pretty Little Tragedy," is as hook-filled and infectious as anything by Matchbox 20 or Third Eye Blind. When they're not sounding alternative, they're sounding rootsy rock 'n' roll by way of the Black Crowes. "Tornadoes and Hurricanes" features Miller's best Chris Robinson impersonation, while "Jodie's Winning" turns up the twang to Freedom Rock levels. Over the CD's 53-plus minutes, Johnny Clueless shows every style it can muster, never taking its eye off any chance for commercial appeal. If there's a downside, it's that they played it too safe, taking few risks in hopes of hitting one out of the park.


"When they played in Minneapolis, Robin Zander came and played on stage with us in St. Paul. It was like being accepted by legends."


 


"The evil thing is that we recorded a bad version of the song a few years ago. When the label wanted to release it, we said, 'Who wants to make it big on a single of someone else's song?'"


 

Brown said the band has moved 5,000 copies of What's Your Flavour? since its release in late 1998. In fact, the CD has received more radio play than any of their three previous albums. "This is the best thing we've ever done," he said. "We knew we needed to step up this time, that this album had to move us to the next level."

Although it's a year old, the CD will get a second "push" from the band's recently recorded cover of the Soft Cell's 1981 cult favorite "Tainted Love," a song they've played live for years. The track will be added to the next pressing of What's Your Flavour? and already has been placed in rotation at Twin Cities' The Point 104.1 FM by popular demand. "The evil thing is that we recorded a bad version of the song a few years ago. When the label wanted to release it, we said, 'Who wants to make it big on a single of someone else's song?' Well, we're so proud of our last CD, if tacking this on gets more people to listen to it, why shouldn't we?"

Since Johnny Clueless formed in 1992 as a beer-drinking, good-time party band at St. Cloud State, they've seen their dreams become more and more lofty. "When we started out," Brown said, "all we wanted was to be able to play at the bar we hung out at."

Now his goals include touring Europe, playing on Late Night with David Letterman and being immortalized on The Simpsons. "We're all big Simpsons geeks," he said.

 

"We've had ups and downs over the past eight years. We've seen our original fans get older and quit going to shows. Despite that, our morale is better than ever, even if we have to play some dumb gigs."

Dumb gigs? As a working band surviving on money generated from performances, Johnny Clueless takes as many gigs as they can get. "We have to be worth something to balance the books," Brown said. "Friday night we played at a Rochester hotel bar where we've been 10 times before. The attitude there isn't exactly 'let's go out and see original music.' They don't clap, they don't dance, they don't sing out your lyrics. Those shows are hard on a band."

The day after Rochester, however, the band played to an adoring crowd at The Caboose, a popular nightspot on Minneapolis' West Bank, where fans sang along with the lyrics. Brown says it's these fans that keep the band's spirits up. Now if only the phone would start ringing.

"We're all getting older," Brown said. "I just bought a house, I have a dog and a fiancee with a little boy. We made it a long way without a manager. Now I think a manager will help us find the right people and ultimately get us to that next level. Endurance is the most important part of this business. If it's in you, there's nothing else for you to do."


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Copyright 1999 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved. Published in The Reader Dec. 23, 1999.

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"Our morale is better than ever, even if we have to play some dumb gigs."