Every rock 'n’ roll generation has its dress code, its sound, and, most importantly, a requisite emotional state. The ’60s generation had free love and overall grooviness; the ’70s gave way to the musical onanism of prog/concept rock and the navel-gazing of California singer/songwriters. The '80s embodied the anger of punk/hardcore and the all-surface, no-substance hedonism of hair metal and commercial new wave, and anger (along with its bedmate, irony) reoccurred in the '90s via grunge and, ugh, nu metal.
For today’s youth, sincerity is the old new black. In the post-emo milieu, nonstop catharsis and an insistence on full-disclosure of any thought or experience of love, lust and ensuing heartbreak is an absolute must. With today’s climate of teenage torment, young musicians are so insistent on laying bare their insecurities and emotional pain that “sincerity” has become a pose. Why is the skinny boy in the indie rock band so intent on revealing the depth and purity of his longings? Because that’s what is expected of him.
That’s why it’s so refreshing to hear a band like the Tenderhooks. Yes, they’re as romantic as Rousseau himself. Sincerity and honesty are at a premium in their songs. One can’t determine exactly which X-factor worked in the band’s favor, but their sincerity is, well, sincere. And when this true emotion is coupled with the band’s finely honed sense of pop craftsmanship, the result is as crisp and fresh as a spring breeze.
“When I write a song, I want it to succeed as a complete song—not as a diary entry,” says Tenderhooks guitarist/vocalist Jake Winstrom. “That’s kind of a fine line we’re walking there. But what we aspire for is sincerity. So much of today’s indie rock is focused on irony. I mean, irony is cool and it’s clever. But irony is also an easy way out. To me, the perfect pop song is ‘Yesterday’ or ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ And that’s what I aspire to. I want to make perfect pop songs.”
Therein lies the duality of the Tenderhooks. The band is grasping for the perfect pop song, but they fully intend to deliver it within the context of rock. “I always say we’re on the songwriting end of rock ‘n’ roll, but I’m really not sure what that means either,” says Winstrom. “We’re a guitar band.
“I guess the band’s name is kind of obvious,” Winstrom continues. “We write pop songs with tender hooks, hence the name.” Sounding like a post-millennial version of Orange Juice, a less whiney Galaxie 500 or Belle & Sebastian with balls, the Tenderhooks deliver a refreshing mix of jangly guitars, pitch-perfect harmonies and stick-in-your-craw melodic structures that are sweet but not saccharine.
A functioning band for around two years, the Tenderhooks’ current incarnation has existed for about three months. Winstrom is abetted by drummer/vocalist Ben Oyler, bassist/vocalist extraordinaire Emily Robinson, and Travis W. Schappel on guitar. The band is on the verge of releasing an as-yet-untitled debut for Knoxville’s New Beat Records.
Schappel and Winstrom first wrote Tenderhooks’ songs on their own, but now the duo has entered a collaboration phase. “Ben had this melody that I was really coveting,” says Winstrom. “At first, we were a bit protective about our songs. But Ben was going away for a few weeks, and I asked him if I could work on a riff that he’d come up with. When Ben came back, he helped me to focus the idea even more. And from there, we kind of realized that we could find strength by bouncing ideas off of each other.”
“Ben is easily the best songwriter in Knoxville,” Winstrom says. “Really, he’s so good it’s almost not fair. For us, a song is about 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent banging our heads against a wall. It takes a long time to get things sounding the way we want. But by working together, we come up with a lot of sounds that wouldn’t happen on our own.
“I was listening to our songs in a sequence the other day,” Winstrom continues. “And it just struck me that we idolize and demonize girls in our songs. I mean, almost every band with 21-year-old guys in it does the same thing. But we’re hoping to make it real and not so cheesy.
“We just want to burst the pop bubble. It seems like every indie band tries to take the psychedelic elements of the Beach Boys and The Beatles and turn them into a half-assed, lame parody. What they forget is that both of those bands wrote great songs. And when people say ‘pop songs,’ they’re usually referring to sugary, rot your teeth stuff. But every good band writes pop songs. Sonic Youth writes pop songs, and so does Neil Young and Tom Waits. We’re just hoping to touch on something like that, somehow.”