Jukebox Heroes 

It’s OK, everything’s cool: Hey Mercedes didn’t sell out to rock out, kids.

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It could be said that the measure of a band doesn’t matter—it’s the number of folds. Or how you use it. Or whatever. Perhaps the best way to put it is to bastardize Shakespeare and marry it with the words of Joel-comma-William: A band is a band is a band and it’s still rock & roll to me.

There you have the philosophy of Hey Mercedes’ ultra-exuberant drummer Damon Atkinson who, with bassist Todd Bell and guitarist-vocalist Bob Nanna, comprised three-fourths of Braid, the much-loved indie-emo-math rock assemblage that disbanded in 2000. His outlook stems from Braid’s blustery last days and a simple truth: Music, as a badge, loses its luster. There is no room for petty scenester possessiveness in the happy, hooky interior of Hey Mercedes.

Naturally, comparisons to Braid are inevitable, but the band (Atkinson, Nanna, Bell and guitarist Mark Dawursk) asserts they’re about simply rocking out. No need to dissect, classify and qualify the sounds coming from your speaker, just enjoy them fully and often. And share like a good boy or girl.

“When we started Hey Mercedes,” says Atkinson, “we were talking about our plans, where we want to go as a band and what we wanna do.” He furthers that it was necessary to expunge a degree of negativity which had corrupted Braid. It was time to make it fun again. Not only that, but to get it right, to grow up a bit and realize the true essence of a band: its songs.

That is a band—the songs. You can do your tours and be on the right record label, but it all comes down to the songs. And where Braid would write three or four songs in a day, Hey Mercedes takes three or four days to write one song. We take more time and, it seems, a little more pride.”

Every Night Fireworks (Vagrant), Hey Mercedes’ debut full-length, wears the extra attention well. Venerable indie producer J. Robbins corralled the band’s muscular chops (Braid-y quirk retained but restrained) to evince a band comfortable in its identity (just a rock band, thanks).

Now, part of the fun is achieving the dream—becoming Jukebox Heroes. When did money and fame, as a result of making good music, become uncool? Isn’t that part of the fun in being in a band—getting rich, getting laid and getting recognized when you’re buying a Slurpee? Hell, yeah.

“Pretty much 98 percent of Braid songs … I just couldn’t hear radio finding any interest in them, and I want the music I play to get out to as many people as possible. I want people to turn on the radio, hear Hey Mercedes and say, ‘Holy cow! This is amazing. I’m going to go see them.’ But most importantly, we want to rock! I want to hit the drums hard and I want to have a fun-ass time. Braid, that was work.”

Point taken, but the inevitability of hardcore indie rock fans—especially Braid’s culty congregation—getting their panties in a bunch over a perceived sellout is real. The question must be posed: is craving success selling out? Not according to Atkinson. Hey Mercedes won’t submit to corporate meddling, but won’t object to allowing the Gap, Coca-Cola, or even Mercedes-Benz to use a song, or even playing supertours and festivals, provided they’re not sponsored by alcohol or tobacco companies. After all, so little is guaranteed to musicians in terms of job security, money or necessities such as health insurance, why not look out for No. 1?

“We come from the same place as the kids that might have a gripe with all this,” Atkinson says. “We understand all that stuff. But we still, for doing the Vagrant tour, got e-mails from people that were just pissed! I laugh at that stuff, because they have no idea, and they won’t and it’s hard. They feel like they own us. And that’s the whole questionable thing about ‘selling out.’ What else can I do? I play music. It doesn’t offend me if we’re on MTV and someone buys our record just by that alone. If we’re not on there or on the radio, only a certain amount of people are going to hear this music. I’m not saying that’s bad and I’m not saying I want to conquer the world, but there’s billions of people in this world. Why not let ’em hear it? If they like it? Awesome. Amazing.”

Again, it comes down to the songs—good songs, something Hey Mercedes has in wide selection. There’s the jangly, bombastic album opener “Frowning of a Lifetime,” the quasi-epic “Quit,” the quasi-anthemic “A-List Actress,” the sandstorm closer “Let’s Go Blue.” All are radio-ready and touch on universal themes of relationships, discovery and the enjoyment of life.

“The bottom line is it’s just music. It’s OK. Everything’s cool. You can still go to the Hey Mercedes show and rock out and have your moments with the record. It’s not ruined. It’s being cool and sharing [laughs].”

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More by Randy Harward

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