It's easy to forget about modern rock. Straight-up hard-rock bands don't get featured in television commercials; they don't get played on pop radio; they don't get the same kind of coverage in Entertainment Weekly or Rolling Stone that crossover indie-rock groups, pop divas, or star rappers get. They don't get reviews, even sarcastic ones, on Pitchfork. The best kind of crossover promotion a mainstream rock group can hope for is for a song to be used as bumper music on ESPN. It's all become a punchline for a joke that's so old it's not even funny any more.
And yet mainstream rock is one of the healthiest parts of a music industry in critical condition. It's not exactly thriving, but it's surviving better, commercially, than pop and hip-hop. Rock bands still sell out big clubs, theaters, and arenas. Former American Idol winner Chris Daughtry's debut album is in the top 10 of Billboard's rock chart after a year and a half. Nickelback has sold more than 16 million albums in the United States in the last 10 years. Mariah Carey may be at the top of Billboard's album chart, but the Raconteurs, Panic at the Disco, Counting Crows, Linkin Park, Kid Rock, Buckcherry, Nickelback, Whitesnake, the Black Keys, Three Days Grace, P.O.D., Nine Inch Nails, Flyleaf, Seether, and Puddle of Mudd are all in the top 100. It may be a critical ghetto, but it's a commercially reliable one.
That's what the members of Knoxville's 10 Years hope, anyway. After six years of local and regional gigs, the group signed a surprise deal with Universal/Republic in 2005 on the strength of the independently released 2004 disc Killing All That Holds You. The band's Universal debut, The Autumn Effect, was a quiet success with two hit singles, the ballad "Wasteland" and "Through the Iris," both of which had appeared on Killing All That Holds You. "Wasteland" ended up at the top of Billboard's modern-rock charts in the fall of 2005, and The Autumn Effect peaked at number 72 on the album charts. Now, after two years of international touring in support of The Autumn Effect and a year working on the follow-up, 10 Years is set to release its second major-label album, Division, next week.
"The mood is complete elation," says guitarist Matt Wantland. "We've been working on getting this record out for so long, we're just ecstatic about letting the world get their hands on it."
RELEASING A FOLLOW-UP TO A SURPRISE HIT is almost always a tricky business. The members of 10 Years—Wantland, singer Jesse Hasek, guitarist Ryan "Tater" Johnson, bassist Lewis Cosby, and drummer Brian Vodinh—had six years' worth of material to draw from for The Autumn Effect. Three of the songs on that disc were re-recorded versions of older songs. For Division, they had to come up with all-new songs, a process made more difficult by the group's touring schedule. Add the pressure of matching the success of Autumn, and things just get harder.
Wantland said last fall that writing and recording Division and choosing a lead single were all done with intense scrutiny from the label. "We definitely felt the pressure," he said then. "Not only because the label was throwing a fit about hits, which we weren't really sure how to take because we've never tried to write one—we just try to write songs we would want to hear. More of the pressure was internal, trying to push ourselves to grow beyond what we've already done, as musicians and people....
"You know, there's a lot of debate [about the single] between not only us as a band, but everyone that works at our label, and at first we thought it was almost a bad thing. But then we kind of realized it's not really a problem to have, like, 10 different opinions, because that means people like a lot of different things on the record and we have more options—and options are always a good thing."
The band took its time on Division. Originally scheduled for release last summer, it was delayed by a longer-than-expected period of songwriting. But the wait paid off—the record is an obvious step forward for the band, and its production, by veteran Rick Parasher, who's worked with Pearl Jam, Nickelback, and Soundgarden, represents a marked improvement over Autumn.
"I think our fans have been ready for our return as much as we were," Wantland says. "It's a really good feeling because we were out of the light for so long and you never really know what's going to happen when you put yourself in that situation. Luckily for us our fans have stuck by us and are turning out almost more than they did before."
The first single, "Beautiful," is a topical song about contemporary celebrity—"Just as beautiful as you are/It's so pitiful what you are/You should have seen this coming all along"—but makes up for its obvious commentary with elegant melody and sympathetic delivery by Hasek. The video, cutting shots of the band playing with images of a tortured reality-television star, has already been released on YouTube.
Though "Beautiful" is similar to "Wasteland," the rest of Division is strikingly different than its predecessor. The Autumn Effect was accomplished but monochromatic; its muddy production by Josh Abraham did little to differentiate the band from the rest of the post-grunge alternative pack. The songs on Division range from soft/loud anthems ("Just Can't Win," "Daydreamer") to balls-out rockers ("Drug of Choice," "All Your Lies"), but with significant attention paid to the band's strength with slow and mid-tempo songs. Parasher's crisp production makes the most of 10 Years' dramatic sensibility, working acoustic guitar, piano, and strings, as well as a greater sense of range and dynamics, into the arrangements.
THE RELEASE OF THE AUTUMN EFFECT was barely noticed, except by 10 Years' local fans. Nobody, including the band members, knew what to expect. Now, with much bigger expectations, the situation is totally different. Wantland says he's glad to be on the road—they started touring in April, in advance of the release of Division—since won't have to run through the worst part of the promotional machine.
"We do get a little more privacy, only in the fact our tour manager has to deal with the calls instead of us," he says. "He's the one who has to work out the logistics of what will actually be able to be done. I myself kind of enjoy doing the press, because it can get pretty boring out there."
Wantland's not too concerned about the response. He's confident about the new album, and seems to think the band's mid-range profile will help the band, in the long run, to make a career, without pressure for a novelty single or television theme song or iTunes endorsement.
"It helps that a lot of people already know us, but I feel like there are a lot more avenues to reach people through," he says. "The growth of the Internet since we put out The Autumn Effect in 2005 is staggering. People want to use that since they're getting turned onto stuff by their peers instead of being told by some of the standard mediums, like radio and television, which seem to repeatedly let them down."