Forget "Do it for the kids" or "You gotta have attitude." Only one scrap of conventional rock wisdom doesn't ring like a hilarious cliché: "Work your ass off." Sometimes a band actually takes that adage seriously, rather than counting on its own genius to deliver success. Oakland pop-punk scamps the Matches did, in their own peculiar, exuberant way, and the band's perseverance has led to multiple world tours and a sweet deal with Epitaph Records, modern punk's mecca label.
"We began like any other borderline awful local garage band aspiring to impress the ever-feared and revered local promoters," explains Matches singer and guitarist Shawn Harris, e-mailing after a show in Eindhoven, Netherlands. "Handing out fliers just wasn't converting to any new faces at the shows, so we started playing our acoustic guitars outside every concert, high school, and college campus. We had something like a colonel's map of schools and addresses and times pinned on the wall, and every day we'd attack a different locale."
The band -- then named the Locals and still enrolled at Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd High -- cutely branded its sidewalk self-promotion the "commotion promotion." Harris brags that within six months they drew more than five hundred people to every show, staged mainly at Oakland's now-homeless all-ages club iMusicast. "We were selling out," he deadpans. "As in, selling out shows."
These early-millennium gigs got an assist from local promoter Jocelyn Kane -- now deputy director of San Francisco's Entertainment Commission -- under the catchy name L3: Live, Loud, Local, which Kane's Motogirl production company designed to create a secure, alcohol-free venue for under-eighteen audiences. "They were just cute little kids, to be honest," says Kane of the Matches, which also includes guitarist Jon Devoto, drummer Matt Whalen, and bassist Justin San Souci. "But I thought they were great."
Indeed, the Matches are a fine example of the doggedness with which "cute little kids" can pursue a dream. "The Matches are the most relentlessly hard-working local band I've come across over the last five years," raves Live 105 music director Aaron Axelsen, who snatched up the band for the rock radio station's stage at last year's Oakland Art & Soul festival, bundling the Matches with platinum punk act My Chemical Romance and local hero Lyrics Born. "They've had this organic snowball effect on a young audience, where their fanbase seems to grow exponentially with every local gig they've played."
For every rapid rise, though, there's a backlash, especially among other bands with a less infectious effect on audiences. Or is there? "I doubt I could name a band that resents them for their success," Kane says. "The band made sure they always remained available to their fanbase. They didn't hide in the dressing room, or talk shit about other bands."
"I haven't heard any band go 'Hey, fuck the Matches' or anything like that," concurs Mario Capitelli, who through his involvement in Marin youth centers helped organize some of the band's earliest shows. "They didn't go out and say they were the best band. They said, 'We love our music; come check it out.'"
Perhaps the only enemies to speak of are Yvonne Doll and the Locals, a Chicago band that threatened legal action over naming rights for "The Locals" in 2002. "It didn't take long before we recognized we were fighting for the possession of a really pretty poor band name," Harris admits. Nevertheless, while some bands would be immobilized by such a branding snafu, the Matches didn't skip a beat and joked about it instead, christening their debut record E. Von Dahl Killed the Locals and inventing a fictional mustachioed villain, Duke Von Dahl, who's been known to show up at Matches shows (and who bears a suspicious resemblance to Harris himself).
Ultimately, the Matches are tough to hate because live or on record, they represent a value even more valuable in rock scenes than hard work: unpretentious fun. "Shawn's got a good rapport with his audience," Capitelli says. "He knows how to talk to a crowd so that they not only do what he wants, but have fun doing it."
"They're willing to go outside a venue and make asses of themselves," adds Adam Davis of fellow East Bay pop-punk group Desa. "No one in my band would ever do anything like that. They used to be so amped up on stage that in the first song or two, someone was bound to get injured."
As for the tunes themselves, E. Von Dahl -- first self-released in 2003, and reissued a year later by Epitaph -- is packed with agile hooks and ripping guitar work with that friendly, punkcentric, unstylized tone. Here's a band that's not raging against anything in particular, fixating instead on raging hormones and raging parties. Furthermore, Harris' lyrics indicate he has an increasingly adept way with words. Though things get callow at times (meditations on the age of consent and so forth), he also pulls out writerly lines most self-styled early-twenties poets would kill for, such as She's never turned down and she's never down twice/"Getting lucky" for her ain't luck, it's just naming a price or She wants to see me, but not to be seen, as if she's got some mystery.
"I remember the Boss being one of my first exposures to rock music," Harris recalls. "My dad brought a cassette on some family trip, and I preferred it to my former staple, Raffi. It was a big milestone."
Don't expect a Nebraska out of these guys anytime soon, but one day the Matches might just make some great pop-rock for adults. For now, they'll settle for the absolute adoration of the Kids. "I just hope the ball keeps rolling for them," Capitelli concludes. "They've earned every break they've ever gotten. There's a lot of bands that make it and no one can figure out why. When the Matches do it, we'll all know it's 'cause they earned it."
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