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Race for Titles

With the release of their debut CD, Race for Titles goes to work carving a niche in the overcrowded Omaha music scene and beyond.

Race for Titles: Crossing the Finish Line

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: October 22, 2002

Race for Titles
w/ The Red + The Black, Sound of Rails, 1989 Chicago Cubs
Saturday, Oct. 26
9 p.m.
Sokol Underground

13th & Martha

Interviewing Omaha rock band Race for Titles is like talking to four brothers eager to finish the others' sentences -- never quite agreeing but ultimately seeing eye-to-eye on everything after the conversation has bounced from one to another like a game of hot potato.

The scene is the offices of Media Services where a couple Racers work day jobs for the company that makes, among other things, CDs. The band has set up a space in one of the warehouse-like back rooms and chills before practice while drummer Matt Bowen eagerly devours a plate of hong shu chicken.

Though they're celebrating the release of their debut CD Oct. 26 at Sokol Underground, Race for Titles has been around for more than a year. Bassist Ryan McLaughlin and singer/guitarist Jamie Massey formed the band with guitarist Zac Lorenzen (ex-Come On, Jack) a few months before their former band, Red Menace, broke up in June 2000. The original line-up included Eric Ebers (Five Story Fall, ex-Ritual Device) on drums, who was replaced briefly by Roger Lewis (The Good Life) and then by a drum machine named Ernie.

Ironically, Race for Titles' June 2, 2001, stage debut at Sokol, backed by the ghostly Ernie, was an opening slot for another band making its debut, Magic Kiss, which featured guitarist Matt Bowen, a veteran of a handful of Saddle Creek Records-related bands including Norman Bailer, The Faint, Commander Venus and Lullaby for the Working Class.

While Ernie always kept a steady beat, he lacked something -- a human pulse. "The problem with using a drum machine is that there is no sense of dynamics," McLaughlin said.

Plus, there's always room for malfunction. During one gig in Lincoln, the stage was so dark that Lorenzen accidentally stepped on the wrong control pedal. "We'd be playing a slow part of a song and then step on the thing and it would just take off -- dinga-dong dinga-dong dinga-dong."

"We fired our drummer after that and sold him on Ebay," Massey said.

"Ernie was a special man," McLaughlin added, "but he just couldn't hang with us."




As luck would have it, the magic in Magic Kiss wore off quickly and the band broke up after playing one gig. Having just purchased a new drum set with birthday money, Bowen was looking for job. By late August 2001, Race for Title's current lineup was in place and playing its first gig at The Howard Street.

Bowen, who looks like a cross between a younger, thinner Frank Black and a non-goth Billy Corgan (right down to Corgan's Uncle Fester haircut), said the band had only written six songs by the time he joined, all of which ended up getting a complete facelift. "They definitely became louder after I got ahold of them," he said.

With limited funds, the band entered Lincoln's Presto! Studios last summer with 11 songs. All made it onto the completed CD. "That was the game plan entering the studio," McLaughlin said. "We spent a month going over those songs before we started recording."

The band laid down tracks for seven days, followed by a rough mix, which they took home to mull over individually. When they got back together, they approached the project "with fresh ears," Massey said. Producer AJ Mogis had developed a few ideas to help fill out the sound with additional instruments. "AJ has a natural approach," Bowen said. "He knows how to get what he hears on tape. I don't know what the word 'overproduced' means. If you have to lay down 12 guitar tracks, that's what you do."

The finished product is a dark, glowing emotional thrill ride. When The Cure is mentioned in passing, one band member considers the comparison a huge complement, while the other would just assume that The Cure never be mentioned. The resemblance, however, is undeniable. The self-titled debut has that same haunted feeling that can be found on The Cure's moody classic, Disintegration, thanks to echoing, chiming guitar lines (the CD's most distinctive characteristic) and Massey's fallen-down-a-well yowls.

Lines also can be drawn to pals Cursive (and Tim Kasher's spin-off ensemble, The Good Life), whose influence can be heard in the complex rhythms, angular guitars and bone-breaking drumming on such epic tracks as "We Can Start Here," "The Distance Session" and "6B."

But beyond the influences, Race for Titles has created an atmospheric, almost ambient punk rock CD whose dark, gothic overtones cover everything in a blanket of foreboding and ennui. Despite the crunch, the CD is best played on overcast days toward the end of autumn, when you know the darkness of winter if just around the corner.


"I don't know what the word 'overproduced' means. If you have to lay down 12 guitar tracks, that's what you do."



Race for Titles contact sheet image

"This business is a bunch of handshakes and who-you-knows."


The lyrics, printed beneath the clear CD holder in the jewel case, are hard to read and that was probably intentional as Massey uses his voice more as an additional instrument than a tool to convey his thoughts. If you read closely, you'll find stories of alienation and longing in lines like "I can hardly stand / The sight of myself / What am I doing to myself" (On Air); or "Don't bother saying goodbye / Just leave the note on the table" (Static Online). Sad, sad tales, though lyricist Massey is hardly a sad-sack. "I never sit down and actually write lyrics," he said. "They're usually the first things to come out of my mouth when I'm trying to find the melodies; they reflect the feelings that I get from what we're playing."

"We would sound pretty silly if we were singing New Found Glory lyrics," Bowen added.

The band has found itself in a niche in the Omaha music scene that includes such bands as Neva Dinova, The Monroes, The Carsinogents, Fizzle Like a Flood and Musico -- quality, original indie-rock acts that just happen to not be on the Saddle Creek Records label, though their music is no less unique or worthy of national attention. Fact is, this special niche is always overlooked when national magazines roll into town to write feature stories extolling Omaha as "the new Seattle," focusing entirely on the Saddle Creek club.

Bowen says his band is comfortable where it's at. "Saddle Creek bands don't have a magic wand," he said. "They tour nonstop. If other Omaha bands got out and toured, they would have the same high profile."

That said, Race for Titles' first national tour will be supporting Cursive in January, which Bowen calls "a good kick-start to get people out to see us."

"This business is a bunch of handshakes and who-you-knows," he said. "If you want to get in with labels and booking agents, you need to drop a couple names. The guys in Cursive are good friends of ours, and that relationship helps a lot."

It was Lorenzen's friendship with Redemption Records' owner Ryan Kuper that helped the band land a record contract. With a finished CD in hand in June, the band had sent the recording to a number of labels knowing that Kuper wanted to release it. "His offer was always out there," Lorenzen said. "It's huge to have someone really into your record who has a good idea how to market it."

The promotion plan includes extensive radio and press, along with advertising provided by Kuper and the label's national distributor, Lumberjack.

The next step, Bowen said, is lining up a booking agent and then finding time to hit the road. He discards the idea of generating a strong "Omaha following" through constant local gigging.

"There's no reason to play more than once a month in town," he said. "When you over-saturate yourself, it's not an event anymore."

"We want to be recognized on a national level," Lorenzen said.

"Yeah," added Bowen. "We want to be successful everywhere."

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Published in The Omaha Weekly Oct. 23, 2002. Copyright 2002 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.