More than 4,500 bands applied to play this year's CMJ Music Marathon, a massive annual convocation of college-radio-ready bands in Manhattan. Only 1,000 of those groups made the cut. And, somehow, six Raleigh kids called Annuals, some of them well below drinking age, were the source of the industry's loudest buzz this year. The adulation of indie hipsters everywhere isn't exactly a logical result considering their backstory, but—on the merit of the band's debut, Be He Me—it's happening.
Five years ago, three of the six members were in a sloppy, unoriginal pop-punk emo band called Timothy's Weekend, which still claims an unauthorized MySpace page complete with angsty demos. Neither Timothy's Weekend nor Annuals call the typical North Carolina indie rock hotbed of Chapel Hill home. They're from another Triangle vertex, one known better for beer-guzzling rock and the pinpoint screamo of Between the Buried and Me. Durham's Merge Records had no interest in Annuals. Instead, they're on a small New York imprint called Ace Fu. And, to the possible chagrin of fans everywhere, their primary songwriting influence isn't Mac McCaughan, Eric Bachmann or that dude from Arcade Fire. It's the guy who used to front Faith No More.
"Mike Patton is our idol," says Adam Baker, singer, songwriter and frontman for Annuals. "Fantomas, Mr. Bungle, all of it. And I think it was unexpected to me for people to get so excited about a band with our sound."
"Wait, you're all collectively into Mike Patton?" I ask the rest of the band. They nod.
"Were you expecting us to be into Arcade Fire or indie rock like that?" Baker's face somewhat sours as he fires back.
"Well, is it fair to say that I hear some Arcade Fire in the Annuals record?"
Baker looks perplexed: "I think it would be more accurate to call it a mixture of Mike Patton, Brian Wilson and Paul Simon."
I'm interviewing the Buzz Band du Jour on the day of their arrival to New York, the city that makes this stuff. We're roaming downtown in Union Square, looking for lunch. We settle on a reputable Italian restaurant. After subsisting on food from rest-stop vending machines for the past few days, they're happy with the choice. "We're kinda on a budget," says bassist Mike Robinson.
Their time is tight, too: Over the next week, Annuals—Baker, Robinson, Kenny Florence (guitar), Zack Oden (drums/guitar), Anna Spence (piano/synth) and Nick Radford (drums)—will perform seven or eight times. When I run into their manager a week later, he can only say, "I've lost count." This is the beginning of a quest to maintain (or earn) the position Pitchfork Media gave them and nearly every music blog in America affirmed: a "fantasy hybrid of Animal Collective, the Arcade Fire, and Broken Social Scene."
Or, capping a stream of Beach Boys, Yes, U2 and Replacements comparisons from the classic rock-inclined Jon Pareles in The New York Times, "indie rock with boundless ambitions, few of them commercial."
Baker, all scrappy brown hair and three-day-old beard, sits at the end of the table, two seats away from me. He's a reluctant interview, playing with the pizza crusts on his plate. He generally allows the more vocal Florence and Robinson to answer questions for him. Robinson is the most genial member of the band, and he is also the only member who looks like he actually once was in a pop-punk trio. But, alongside the silver bolt earring and the carrot red hair, he is the guy with the BlackBerry, the caretaker. There's one in every band. There has to be.
He tries to explain his friends: "We don't want people listening to Be He Me and comparing us to those bands because we don't want that to affect the listening experience."
"When I wrote these songs," Adam says, finally speaking up, "I had no idea who Arcade Fire was. It would upset me if people thought I was influenced by them."
"I should say that I think Arcade Fire is a great band," Florence stresses. "But I don't listen to them. Saying that we're ripping off a band that doesn't turn me on is a bit weird to me."
Another review suggests that Annuals is a stoner band.
"We like to have fun," jokes Robinson.
"But we don't like to party," posits Oden. "In fact, when we do go to parties, we're the people standing in the corner. We're our own social scene."
Interesting, but mostly because they get the Broken Social Scene comparison daily. I ask Oden if that's what he just said, "our Broken Social Scene."
He's not amused: "No, no. Not Broken Social Scene. I said just our own social scene."
Baker is describing his songwriting methods, and I have no fucking idea what he is talking about: "Fishing, catching something really small, dipping it into candle wax repeatedly, and then decorating it. Dipping it into candle wax again and then dipping it into chocolate sprinkles, not rainbow sprinkles—rainbow sprinkles are played out—and then you have a song."
This could be another example of the self-proclaimed, childlike randomness Baker says is at play on Be He Me. "I write songs to make me happy," he explains, "and I also want people to become happy from listening to the music."
Indeed, Be He Me is a jovial, playful record of sunshiny naiveté. There's nothing calculated about the maniacal curves of each song, yelping and shouting peppered throughout like melodic turrets. While journalists and bloggers are drowning on their own hyperbole for the band's sound, ultimately, this album only hints at Annuals' potential.
But, live, they shine. The exuberance is so raw and effective that, every time I see them live, I almost think they're improvising when they're certainly not.
Tonight, the band is playing at Irving Plaza, opening for the wry, ironic post-punk Art Brut. After lunch, I walk them over so they can see the place for themselves. They walk into the room, and they're genuinely excited. Despite all of the buzz and all of the praise, they still get that surreal feeling from time to time.
"There's a 90 percent failure rate in this industry," Robinson says. "We do not lose sight of the fact that we're incredibly lucky."
"But we're the same people," says Spence. "Nothing's changed. All the articles and reviews haven't exactly hit us yet."
Oden, her boyfriend, walks around the plaza and then heads upstairs to the balcony. "This is by far one of the nicest venues we've played."
"There's actually room for everyone to fit on the stage," she adds. Now, that's the big time.
Irving Plaza even has a room backstage for the band. The refrigerator is full of Amstel Light, not the cheap domestic stuff. It's 4:25 in the afternoon. I'm asking Baker questions. He's drinking. I ask if he thinks the buzz and its expectations will affect his songwriting.
"I've been writing songs exactly the same since we've started this," he says, sprawled out on the couch. "I never really consider what's a single. And I don't plan on changing that."
Does he wear a green robe onstage for effect? "I think it looks good on me," he shrugs. Perhaps like the tattoos he starts to show me—a rabbit, a bear, a man with legs that are too short for his arms. He's still showcasing them when Nick walks in with the newest Spin. Gnarls Barkley is on the cover and Be He Me is reviewed in the back. The debut gets four stars.
"We understand that there's a risk of getting our feelings hurt when we read press," Robinson explains. "So we don't make it a habit of reading our reviews all the time."
Has there been anything particularly hurtful?
"Not yet. But there's always time for a backlash."