Copper's Keith Wallen has always had the waifish glamour, the sure carriage, and the note-perfect vocal chops of a platinum pop-rock frontman. But he isn't acting the part today. Deliberative, confessional, and maybe a little weary, he's taking the measure of his band's nearly decade-long run as arguably the city's hardest-working and most ambitious rock outfit.
"I've been contemplative lately, in that frame of mind where you look back at the value of everything you've done as a musician," he says, lolling over a cup of tepid coffee at a West Knoxville sandwich shop. "So much has happened. We've been through three different guitarists, six or seven drummers. We've been at this a long time—long enough to lie about our ages. I'm 24 years old now, by the way. Wink, wink."
While 24 might be a lie, it isn't a lie by much, and Wallen, with his reedy figure and boy-next-door countenance, doesn't look like he could even see the top of the hill yet, much less find himself over it.
Nonetheless, it's true that he and bassist Brad Reynolds—the only other original member of Copper—have enjoyed, and endured, plenty over the course of an unpredictable nine-year carny ride since the band's founding in 2000.
Building on the strength of its inaugural three-song EP and the liltingly gorgeous post-grunge lullaby "Miss December," the band has released two successive long-players of slick, hard-edged but irresistibly melodious pop-rock, culminating with 2004's The Fragile Fall.
They've toured both coasts; won contests; played industry showcases; garnered radio play, without label backing; earned a guitar string endorsement with D'Addario; and even grabbed a development deal with Atlantic records in 2005. That arrangement yielded a handful of well-produced big-studio recordings, but no permanent agreement. The band chose to move on with their recorded songs rather than opt for another year in development.
Copper have also seen their hopes raised and then dashed by a capricious industry that specializes in doing so. "We've literally had deals on the table, in our attorney's hands, that got shot down by a phone call 20 minutes later," Wallen says. "That stuff fucks with you.
"We're looking for that stereotypical guy with the big cigar that says, ‘Look, guys, you're gonna be stars.' But we always get the guy who doesn't have quite enough pull to get it done. We call those really disappointing incidents ‘building the story,' because that's about the only positive spin you can put on them."
But the tribulations have at least left the band with a fresh collection of strong tracks recorded on Atlantic Records' dime. Take My Chances, the band's third full-length CD, is forthcoming this month as a direct result of the Atlantic sessions.
"We feel really good about the music," Wallen says. "I concentrated on the songwriting. I wanted to beat The Fragile Fall, and I think we've done that. It's a more diverse record. We used more sounds. We explored a much poppier realm, overall, though there are some places where the music got heavier than it ever had before, too."
The Atlantic sessions also afforded Wallen the opportunity to make contacts that have enabled him to consider a side career as a professional songwriter. Since the development deal, Wallen has earned songwriting credits on major-label albums by modern rock artists Fuel and Saving Abel.
"The Fuel track, that was the first time I'd heard another singer sing melodies and lyrics I wrote, and it was pretty cool," Wallen says. "The horizon looks bright as far as the songwriting goes, but Copper has always been my passion.
"I guess I stress about it a little more as I get older," he adds with a sheepish grin. "Then I stop and try to appreciate the fact that I'm doing what I want, playing smoky clubs in a rock band all the time. No matter what you do, it isn't easy going forward, whether you're working from the mail room to corporate executive, or from garage band to arena rockers. It's that refusal to give up—we're not ready to wash our hands and say, ‘All right, dreams, see ya, bye.'"