Taproot vocalist Stephen Richards doesn’t want to come off like some religious nut, or worse yet, like Creed’s Scott Stapp. But he’s not afraid to talk about his beliefs. While it’s not exactly cool to wear your faith as a badge of honor, especially in the rock world—I mean, remember how cool Stryper was?—Richards freely admits that, yeah, he believes in God and maybe a little more—i.e. guardian angels and clairvoyance. He claims to have seen visions. And he’s taken more than a few hits for it; friends and fans occasionally label him as a kook.
“If people think I’m kooky, well, I’ve been in their shoes and I’ve been in my shoes,” Richards says. “But now I can walk on top of the fence rather than next to it. I’m a lucky bastard. I’ve gotten everything I’ve wanted. There’s got to be a reason for that.”
Richards has accomplished pretty much everything he’s set out to do. In the last two years, Taproot has gone from a favorite around the University of Michigan to one of neo-metal’s rising bands. One more Ozzfest and it could be over: Taproot overload. The group’s debut, Gift, has already yielded a couple of minor hits, the hooky “Again & Again” and “I,” a track that switches between a mellow calm and raging angst faster than a manic depressive. And, oh yeah, the band really pissed off Fred Durst.
It’s what got the group some serious early exposure. Taproot was labeled the band that told Fred to drop dead. The group had hooked up with Limp Bizkit’s lead goon in ’98, just after it released its self-produced EP Mentobe. (The group sold 10,000 copies of the disc, all burned for free at the U of M’s computer lab while other students waited to do their homework.) The quartet sent a copy of the disc to part-time Interscope Records talent scout Durst on a whim. He liked it, got in touch with Taproot and told the group that he’d help them get a deal.
A year went by. Fred never called. Other labels came knocking. Eventually, Taproot signed with Atlantic Records. Word worked its way to Durst who, in an apparent fit of rage or stupidity (you pick), called and left Richards a rather nasty message on his answering machine—something to the effect of never bite the hand that feeds you, I’ll kick your ass if you show up at one of our concerts, blah, blah, blah. Richards saved the tape, and when Taproot released its first single, “Again & Again,” the message was mixed into the song. It was instant notoriety. While Richards hasn’t seen or talked to Durst since that initial phone call, he says the band holds no hard feelings.
“It’s whatever,” he says. “We’re fine with it. At least we know who we are, and I think a lot of people respect us for turning Fred down.”
But Richards hopes people are beginning to pay attention to Taproot for its music rather than its feud with Fred. Rightfully so. Gift is a rarity, one of the few heavy albums that manages to successfully balance pop sensibilities with snarling seven-strings—think someone punching you in the gut while whispering softly in your ear. Sure, there’s enough sonic violence to keep any social outcast more than happy, and Richards can bark just as easily as he can be a calming agent, his vocals often tempering the blasts behind him. But, like Incubus and to some extent Deftones, Taproot never looses sight of the hook. The group made sure songs like “Smile” and “Emotional Times” are as hummable as they are headache inducing.
Underneath it all, though, is the real oddity. While Taproot’s crunchy cohorts are all scuffling to see who can most accurately regress to 16, trying to boil down all the those bad childhoods and awkward transitions into lyrics that say, “Hey, dude, I’m pissed too,” Taproot has gone the high road. It might be the only spot where, if not Richards’ beliefs, at least his optimistic attitude pops up. What other heavy group could get away with lines like, “Enjoy life as much as I can / I will/ trying to create that contagious smile” (“Smile”). For God’s sake, that’s almost cheery. And Richards is down right mushy on “Now”: “I love you on a level so high it’s hard sometimes to know.” Richards says it all helps to create that balance between extremes, something he says doesn’t come very easily.
“Actually, for us it’s really hard to write the heavy stuff,” he says with a chuckle. “The melodies come naturally. But as far as the heavy parts, we’re past the overly pissed-off rebellious stage in our lives. And, funny thing is, sometimes that makes it a little hard. We’re not angry all the time.”
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
But for now, Richards is worried about less involved things. He’s on vacation, sitting around at home back in Michigan. A former hockey player, he’s hit the ice a couple times. He’s hung out with his girlfriend, a student at the U of M. “You’ve got to satisfy the girlfriend and the family for a while,” he laughs. The only thing he wishes he didn’t do on his break was go skiing.
“I think I dislocated my shoulder,” he says. “I thought I was doing really well so I went right for the half-pipe. I was up in the air doing the splits like David Lee Roth. But then I ended up right on my ass. God, it hurt. I guess I’ll stick to hockey.”
Taproot opens for Linkin Park at Saltair, I-80 West Exit 104, Monday, Feb. 5, 8 p.m. Tickets available through Smith’sTix: 467-TIXX, 800-888-TIXX and www.SmithTix.com.