Steriogram: The Making Of A Band – Feature

By | March 30, 2004 at 12:00 AM

“At the end of every show we’d grab handfuls of these stickers we made at Kinko’s with our name and website,” says Steriogram frontman Brad Carter. “We’d toss ’em to our fans from the stage, 300 or 400 stickers every night.”

Carter laughs at the band’s ultra-humble approach to building fan loyalty. But it’s working. Steriogram’s homemade stickers, website and music videos, together with its enthusiastic courting of street teams and high school kids, helped launch the rock-hiphop group from obscurity in Auckland, NZ, to a major deal with Capitol Records. “Our goal was to play in America because our favorite bands live here,” says Carter.

The members of Steriogram – Tyson Kennedy on vocals, Tim Youngson on guitar, Jake Adams on bass, Jared Wrennall on drums and Carter on vocals and guitar – have an instinctive feel for guerrilla marketing and the tools that make them potent salesmen of their own sound. They’re self-confessed geeks who take their Macs everywhere, reach for them constantly and use them for everything. “Our life is on the Mac,” says Carter.

High School Cafeterias

Steriogram earned a loyal following by seeking out young fans on their home turf: school. “We came up with this idea to play at high schools,” explains Carter. “It was a good audience for us, because we were still quite young – one guy was only 17 and the rest of us were 20 or 21.”

But the no-pay, high-mileage gigs weren’t easy to score. “Principals don’t usually want rock bands in their schools,” laughs Carter. “So the way we got in was to offer free music clinics. We’d teach the kids about the music industry: how to write songs, how to get their songs on the radio, the ABCs of starting a band and so on. All we asked them in return was to let us play at lunch time.”

The investment paid off. “It was a huge success,” says Carter. “We played at 75 high schools all across New Zealand, a different one every day, with 300 to 1,000 kids in each school. And we started to build fan base.”

Enlisting Street Teams

Energetic and shrewd as the young bandmates are, they invite – and sustain – genuinely friendly relationships with their fans. “Since the day we started our website, we have personally replied to almost every email we’ve received,” says Carter. “And we’ve been getting 60 to 100 a day, so that gets kind of crazy when we’re touring and playing shows.”

How do they do it? “Everyone in the band has a PowerBook with Entourage,” says Carter. “So as soon as we get to a town we go to Starbucks or somewhere with high-speed Internet hot spots. We log on and split up the mail between the five of us, and we reply to everything. We get people who say, ‘I never thought I’d hear from you guys again!’ They’re amazed that we take the time. But we know that the personal touch makes them more of a fan, and they want to work even harder for us.”

The website helps Steriogram enlist the cadres of fans who evangelize their music. “People sign up to get our email newsletter or join our street teams,” says Carter. “They go around giving out free CDs for us. And when we have a record or a concert coming up, they spread the word – it’s like an army!” The site also invites fans to submit their own guerrilla marketing ideas. “They write us about what they want to do for us,” says Carter. “They come up with all sorts of wacky things.”

Mates from Auckland

With its street teams on the march, Steriogram’s momentum grew. The mates from Auckland self-released their first single, “Soccerstar,” which gained immediate exposure when it was used by New Zealand’s national soccer team for a TV commercial. Then came their second release, “White Trash.” Says Carter, “We had our hair in mullets for the video, and it took off on New Zealand TV.”

That was a watershed for the band – at least, at home. “When we wrote “White Trash” I don’t think any of us knew what we were getting ourselves into,” says Carter. “The song and the video pretty much changed the nature of Steriogram and opened up a lot of new pathways for the band.”

After seeing how much attention Tyson Kennedy received for his impromptu rapping on the single, the band took him off drums, brought him up front as a vocalist, hired Jared Wrennall as the new drummer, became a five-piece group, and began writing more hip-hop songs. The new sound defined Steriogram, and the band was invited to play the New Zealand leg of the Australian Big Day Out festival.

The Geek Band

“A lot of bands don’t even have a computer,” says Carter. “We are the geek band. Wherever we turn up, we’re working hard on our Macs. We use them seriously all the time – to keep in touch through email, to edit the video we shoot on DV cams, to keep up our website. We even made a video about how much we love our Macs!”

Carter ticks off the Apple tools that are as essential to the band as its drums and guitars: “We’ve got five 15-inch PowerBook G4s, with Cinema Displays and AirPort and Bluetooth. We use Entourage and iLife and we edit video with Final Cut Pro. And we all have iPods – we use them as much as our Macs.”

Steriogram wasn’t always so smartly outfitted. “I remember when the PowerBook G4 came out,” says Carter. “For a year we wanted one. I knew we could use it to do recording with Protools and to make videos and demos on the road. But we had no money. Then we figured out we had just enough for a deposit. So we started buying one on installment plan. That’s how we got our first Mac. Now, we can do all our technology ourselves.”

Macs On The Road

Like many bands, Steriogram spends a lot of time on the road. “Sometimes we’re in the van for 10 hours at a time,” says Carter. Even for good mates from Auckland, the togetherness can be too much. But it’s not booze or groupies that sustain them. “It’s our Macs that keep us sane,” he adds.

Now that the band members have their own PowerBooks, they can be as individual with their computers as they are with their musical instruments. “When we travel, we’re all doing something different on our Macs,” says Carter. “They let you have your own space. We have power in the van, so we put them on AirPort and we can work or watch movies or play games like Medal of Honor and Age of Empires. We can put on our headphones and make everyone else shut up. Really, without them, we’d be tearing our hair out.”

Carter reflects on the technology that’s like a backbeat to Steriogram’s daily routines. “It’s not about this product or that product,” he says, “but a lifestyle and a way of doing things. That’s why we do so well with Apple – it meshes with how we live. When I try to think of all the things we do with Apple stuff every day… well, we don’t even realize how much we use it. We just dream up what we want to do, then we figure out how to do it.”

Hard Work – And Serendipity

The story of Steriogram’s discovery by Capitol Records features those time-honored twins, hard work and serendipity. Steriogram had just completed its high school tour when “White Trash” was posted to nzmusic.com. It was there that Joe Berman, an independent A&R guy from Los Angeles, was poking around for new bands. “He liked our name so he listened to the song and watched the video, and he loved it,” says Carter, incredulous. “He emailed me, ‘Can you send me some more music? Do you want to talk?’ We, like, freaked. We had heard stories about all the sharks out there, and we didn’t know if he was for real.”

Fortunately, Steriogram decided to take a chance. “We thought we’d give it a shot, so we sent him some stuff we’d recorded using Protools on our PowerBooks,” says Carter. “And all of a sudden we started getting calls from him. We were so excited, but at the same time we were kind of suspect… I mean, we didn’t even know what this guy looked like!”

Carter recalls the heady mix of fairy-tale good fortune and sheer chance that led the band to make the right choices. “Before long,” he continues, “we had two or three big American labels interested in us. But we were still a bit puzzled by it, and a bit suspect, being over there in New Zealand. One label wanted us to come over to L.A. We talked about it a lot and finally we decided it would be a bad idea to fly over for only one label, because in case they didn’t sign us, we’d be, like, tainted, and no one else would want to. So we decided to wait. That was a hard decision to make.”

Two weeks later, the wait paid off – big time. Says Carter, “We got a call out of the blue from our A&R guy, who said, ‘Capitol Records wants to sign your band – tonight!’ And seven hours later we had an exclusive agreement. It all happened real fast.”

The musicians hopped a plane for their maiden voyage to the New World. “It was a weird, surreal trip for five young guys from New Zealand to show up in L.A. for a record deal like that, not knowing a single person,” says Carter.

Now, Steriogram is wrapping up its first full-length album with producer David Kahne. “He’s a superstar,” says Carter appreciatively; “he’s worked with Paul McCartney, Sugar Ray, Fishbone…” Carter is equally jazzed to relate that in March “Walkie Talkie Man,” the band’s first U.S. single, will air on radio stations. (In a coup for Steriogram, the music video for”Walkie Talkie Man” was directed by Michel Gondry, a young French director of music videos and commercials whose new feature film, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet.) MTV will feature Steriogram on its “Advance Warning” segment. The album, called “Schmack!”, is set for U.S. release April 20.

Screaming for Samplers

In addition to making great sounds, Steriogram has kept a visual record of its adventures since its earliest gigs. “We collected footage of us signing the CDs we gave away to the kids at the high schools,” says Carter, “then we added it to some live footage of our song ‘Walkie Talkie Man.’ We made this video on the Mac, which ended up being a major tool in getting us signed – that’s what Joe Berman saw.”

Carter uses technology to help keep the band front and center in the minds of studio executives. “We make a lot of short little random videos on the road,” he says, “so we can show the record company what’s happening. At the end of a show, when we tell our fans to come see us at the merchandise booth, and they swamp us screaming for samplers, we get that on camera and make a movie. We want to make sure the people at Capitol stay pumped about what we’re doing.”

It’s not only the label that gets TLC treatment from Steriogram. “We’ve been making these video clips of us hanging with U.S. bands, that we send back to New Zealand for our music TV channel,” says Carter with easy generosity. “New Zealand doesn’t get very many U.S. bands to visit, so they’re kind of stoked that we do that for them.”

First U.S. Tour

On its debut U.S. concert tour, the band played more than 80 shows across the country. Recalls Carter, “Our very first show was in Dayton, Ohio, and when we looked out at the audience and saw all the tattoos… well, we were kind of scared. It seemed like a pretty redneck crowd. But by the end of the night, they were our best friends.”

Carter says the highlight for him was the Viper Room in L.A. “It was right after ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ came out,” he says, “and we got to play with Keanu Reeves’ new band, Becky. We were buzzed.”

Steriogram got lucky – and Carter knows it. “It was such a fluke that we ended up with the right people, who were not looking to shaft us,” he muses. “All I can say is, our band worked really hard, and the videos and demos we made on the Mac really helped… and somehow we were just in the right place at the right time. Man, it’s all happening, aye! But we’ll just keep working hard.”

We Are Not Rock Stars

Brad Carter is certain that fame won’t spoil Steriogram. “We want people to know that no matter how big the band gets, we are not rock stars,” he says. “We’re just five guys from New Zealand. When we do a live show, we just want people to have a good time. And we want them to know they can come by and say hi. The whole point for us is to connect with the audience.”

Carter wears his new label like a jacket he’s not quite used to yet. “We appreciate everything they do for us,” he says. “But we’re not trying to be some corporate wanky band. We just love to play. We want more people to hear about our music, but we don’t want to lose the people who were already into us. There’s something about having people on your side who like your music just the way you are – not because you’re famous.”

As busy as the band members are cultivating their American audience, their social lives have been shoved to the bottom of the playlist. “Girlfriends?” echoes Carter with a hoot. “We’ve watched ‘Spinal Tap’ too many times to try having girlfriends on the road. There’s just too many ways it can go wrong. So we’re keeping it just the guys for now.” It sounds like a solid plan. But after a short pause, Carter blurts out in a rush, “You know, really, we are all trying to get girlfriends. So do you think you could put that in the story?”

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