Counting Crows just finished the first song of their encore, and we're already on the bus. Well, not the bus, but it's not too far from backstage. Instead, this bus, this 45-foot, polished black monster they call Black Pearl belongs to Airiel Down, a Raleigh modern-rock quintet, parked within feet of Alltel Pavilion's VIP Lounge. Everyone within 30 feet of the bus knows whose bus it is, too: The band's logo--a cornea colored like an astronaut's view of the Earth--is painted on both sides, sandwiched between 10-foot-long Web site plugs and a 10-foot-high photograph of the band going hard with full-regalia rock poses.
Airiel Down is a completely independent band. They've started their own record label, Autumn Rain, and licensing company. They paid for their own enhanced CD, and have stuck 3,000 Airiel Down stickers on every flat surface from here to Pittsburgh. At this point, the five members have a few hundred thousand dollars invested in their dream. This is a Horatio Alger vision of rock 'n' roll, where ambition is more important than aptitude, and both come all doped on prototypical American largesse, big and strong and loud. As a band, Airiel Down is tight enough, though, realistically, the band offers little more than modern rock hellbent on willful eclecticism. But they think they have "it," and they're willing to put their wallets on the line to share.
Inside the bus, five of us take seats on couches, big, black leather loungers perfectly fitted for a 4-by-12-foot alcove that retracts back into the bus before the wheels start moving. We settle in and get ready to park the bus in its temporary home outside of a new Cary office park. New guitar player Tony Chambers is asleep in the back, out after a few cans of Budweiser from one of the bus' four hidden coolers. Lead singer Beaux Foy straps himself into the driver's seat, then decides against it. He stands up, walks into the bus' front lobby, hits a few buttons on an overhead CD changer, cranks the volume knob below and looks at me.
Suddenly, a wind starts whistling through the speakers. A guitar line twinkles through one of the channels, met suddenly by another guitar's slow, deliberate volume swells. Foy smiles wide, his huge white teeth a perfect match for his T-shirt, the words "NOR CAL" sprawled across the front in thick black ink. "Ice cold, Grayson, ice cold," he yells as he bends at the waist and flexes both of his arms, his biceps goose-egging, pointing up like explicit exclamation points to a sentence that already has them.
Earlier, riding shotgun, I asked Foy about his band, then a few feet away, giddily talking about tomorrow's big sell-out in Greensboro with .38 Special. Foy assembled Airiel Down's current lineup over two years after holding more than 40 interviews for two guitarists, a drummer, a bassist and a full-time sound technician. When Gordon Harris, now the band's lead axeman, walked in for his band interview last year, Foy played him a demo version of "December," the most pensive cut on the band's debut album, Vision.
"When he walked in and listened to 'December,' man, I told him I wanted it to sound ice cold. I told him I wanted the guitar to make me feel like I had ice pumping through my veins, that I wanted my blood to turn blue," says Foy, his smile--which alternates only with a singular, deadpan stare--practically beaming. "And he did it."
Now, Foy is rocking "December," singing along to the first verse--"Tomorrow, will we still be friends? No consequences"--and staring at me. We're having a moment, all right: Earlier in the night, Foy was delighted when I referenced the "ice cold" guitar part. Now, he's delighted with his own sonic metaphor: "Yeah, man, this is fucking ice cold," he screams again, finally turning to walk toward the driver's seat, extremely pumped.
Gradually, bassist Curt Turner and drummer Taylor Traversari turn the volume down, hoping to escape the sound of their own instruments and to talk about how they never listen to what they play.
"I like to make it, do it and be done with it. Move on. I don't want to hear myself play. You can't let yourself become your biggest influence, you know?" says Turner, who reminds himself aloud that he finally needs to take several copies of Vision home tonight to mail to friends. "I don't even own a copy of the record."
But Foy owns the record, and he's not shy about listening to himself: "To be honest, man, I don't listen to much music anymore. I listen to myself, pretty much. I listen to my own songs almost all the time now because I write so many of them."
Most would see that as myopic egotism, but Foy rightfully sees it as inner focus. For the past decade, he's been planning ahead for the moment that is now: That moment, he hopes, is the chance to be the frontman in a successful, touring rock band. For years, he worked construction jobs, slowly building his nest egg, using it to buy a three-bedroom house in Wendell. Indirectly, he prepared to be a songwriter, too. Foy, 28, has traveled to 48 countries, using every winter construction lull and summer's savings to buy an international plane ticket. He's snowboarded across North America. He speaks French and Spanish. He's raised his younger brother, Spoon, for the last seven years. He even took out a Canadian entrepreneurial visa so that he could travel into Quebec to check on a resort bar for which he was the primary investor.
And, even though he owned a bar, he says he was too busy living to waste time drinking. He's been drunk once, years ago. His band laughs and swears he's drinking the next time they have a day off.
"Some people need that stuff, man, drinks or drugs or whatever. Not me, man. I'm wired that way," says Foy, a big beam of positive energy, a musician who considers himself a businessman committed to making this operation professional on every level.
When he was searching for a touring sound technician in May, for instance, the band flew in candidates from Tennessee and Florida. While sitting in Alltel's VIP lounge, one rejected applicant from Durham saw the band and sat down. They laughed for 10 minutes, but, later, Foy explains why he didn't get the job: When the candidate came to meet the band in May, he was halfway into a 22-ounce beer. Midway through the interview, he walked across the street to buy another. The band went with someone else. In five hours, Foy uses variations on the word professional two dozen times.
"The way I see it, man, you got life and you got music. What more do you need?" says Foy, who seems to bring his image of the two together when he rips his shirt off during the band's live set, simultaneously waving a huge Airiel Down flag (and an American one, to boot) over his head. "Everyone wants to be a star, Grayson, but no one wants to do the work. I'm hungry, man."
Hungry, indeed: Foy and various incarnations of Airiel Down have done the small-vehicle touring thing. He laughs when he remembers early gigs with Turner, both huddled inside a pickup truck, praying it wouldn't rain and soak the gear Tetris-fitted into the truck's bed. When he finally found the band he wanted, Foy decided to settle in for the long haul, to afford an environment that, he says, "allows everybody in the band--crew and all--to be comfortable when they're not onstage so they can perform at peak when they're on it."
He sold his house and a condominum at a ski resort in Virginia, buying a single-wide trailer in Wendell for times when he wasn't on the road and using the rest for the band: The house supplied a down payment on the bus, which previously belonged to The Grateful Dead's Bob Weir. Foy renovated the bus, adding a full-sized refrigerator and freezer, a stove and a countertop. He used another piece of the house settlement to upgrade the entire band's gear, buying new guitars (kept inside the bus for climate control, natch) and making the switch from solid-state amps to Mesa/Boogie full-stacks. Three months into it, Foy says merchandise sales--and a slight monthly supplement from the sale of the house--are making the payments.
The band spent $60,000 on a lighting rig and a public-address system, both of which can be plugged into the bus' onboard generator, allowing the band to set up and play guerilla shows when need be. The bus rolls into each town they play hours early, too, so that the band can canvas the streets with homemade posters, handbills and--of course--lots of stickers. Airiel Down mails all of its press kits from the back of the bus, printed, of course, on personalized stationary.
With a satellite-based Internet system, they blog everyday, and--with a Pro Tools recording rig hardwired under one couch--they record every new idea. CDs are tucked into every imaginable recess of the bus. Foy grabs five of them and takes them into the show. He hands two to a security guard working the pit during the Goo Goo Dolls set to give to bassist Robby Takac, who recently founded his own independent label, Good Charamel Records. One of Takac's first signings and Airiel Down's former tourmates, Last Conservative, plays for two dozen people on the Alltel sidestage just after the Dolls' set.
Foy is watching and whooping between songs, arms crossed and smile in full glow. Does he want to make it to this stage one day, or--better yet--the main stage? That's the plan, but he says all businesses take two years to work. He reads everything he can about the music industry when he's not driving or singing, preparing himself to win. He's not rushing it.
"I ask myself what is success, man, and, sure, this is success," says Foy, pointing at the mainstage below as we walk up Alltel's lawn seating, two anonymous guys with complimentary grass tickets. "But we're on the road, living our dream. And, if it takes us 100 shows to reach as many people as these bands reach with a show like this, that's what we'll do, man. That's what it's about."