In the Company of Misfortune500

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After about six questions, Misfortune500 bassist Martin Rice abruptly takes mock offense at the direction in which the interrogation seems to be heading.

"This is an "old guy' article, isn't it?" he demands to know. ""These guys are all past their prime, and they got together because no one wants to play with 'em anymore.'"

The group, assembled on the chilly, nearly deserted patio of St. Pete pub Limey's around midnight, and over beers that range from Bud Light to Speckled Hen, breaks into laughter. Five minutes' worth of age-related wit-swapping ensues.

Rice has a point: Terms like "mature," "veterans," and "more experienced perspective" pop up rather frequently over the course of the interview. After all, everyone sitting at the table was more than legally qualified to drink at North Tampa's semi-legendary Stone Lounge during the rise of the Bay area's last original-music renaissance, nearly nine years ago. In fact, a couple of 'em helped to make it happen, and in the time since, all of MF500's members have contributed to some of the local fringe-rock scene's best music.

They all ended up in the Pinellas pop-rock institution Spiller, too, excepting Wisconsin transplant Chris Skogen; and each made a serious splash along the way. Guitarist/vocalist John McNicholas fronted raucous Buffalo Tom acolytes Lie. Rice played and sang in frenetic crowd-pleasers Joe Popp, before settling into a group-juggling schedule that includes Sparky's Nightmare and Gotohells. Guitarist/vocalist Marcus McCord did time on bass with the trendy-indie Edison Shine and booked shows at St. Pete venue/musicians' clubhouse The Voodoo Lounge. Brett Sherman was the drummer for new wave-inspired rock heroes Goddess Mooncar. And guitarist Skogen led modern-alt outfit Brainiac's Daughter to within inches of the big time.

So, yeah, they've been around. What of it? Mainstream music may currently be dominated by adolescent fantasy objects, inarticulate disaffection and the old bling-bling, but then again, mainstream music and your average vacuum cleaner have at least one thing in common these days: They both suck. Misfortune500 isn't interested in TRL. They're interested in good tunes, and, as Skogen points out, there's no substitute for experience when it comes to honing songwriting talent.

"There are only two ways that bands achieve anything. They're either together from day one, and eventually hit on it, turn it into something," he says. "Or they're all kids who play in different bands, and go through the scene, and somewhere at the other end the guys who are left pop out and form a great band."

Where their peers either traded the music life for the security of a career or abandoned the concept of a future in favor of the eternal bar tab, the five elements of MF500 have admirably managed to make room for both rock 'n' roll and a real life. It may not fit the couch-surfing-and-ramen-noodle archetype, but they really couldn't give a shit. And while the "weekend warrior" scenario usually indicates a cover band or some woefully half-assed output, they've somehow held onto those intangibles that precipitate the good stuff.

"What's interesting to me is the fact that everyone that's still doing it, should still be doing it," muses McNicholas. "And everybody that's not, well it's natural selection at its finest."

Misfortune500 has forgone the local-band practice of keeping one's name in circulation at all costs. Spiller played their last show in August of 2000, and let it be known that the group would "start fresh" with a new name, new songs and a different dynamic. Yet, barring a brief (and incredibly well received) appearance at last winter's Ramones tribute show, they've remained completely off the radar for 14 months. The hiatus can be partially attributed to a desire to explore their newfound multi-songwriter dynamic as Misfortune500, and the conscious decision to focus on recording an introductory release rather than pimping the outfit live. But come on; 14 months is an eon in local-band time — they couldn't possibly have counted on tinkering with an initial batch of songs for this long.

So, what the hell have they been doing?

"I think we all just got to the age where you just can't rock every time you want to. There are other things on the plate," says Sherman.

"No, we can't tell the kids that," Rice interjects wryly, to general laughter. "Basically, we spent six months doing this thing. With most recording scenarios, you rush through it because you're spending money."

Skogen engineered MF500's debut at his home studio, presenting the band with the double-edged sword of nearly unlimited tracking time. While financial independence from the studio time-clock is a luxury most groups would kill for, the vicious cycle of endless modification, rearranging and second-guessing is an easy trap to fall into when you don't have a deadline. McCord asserts, however, that "the record has been done for a while now," and the entire band agrees that the biggest delays came not from protracted sessions, but from reconciling the members' schedules.

"You're talking about five guys in five professional careers," says Rice. "It's like, "have you talked to Chris? Yeah, he's in Germany.'"

"There have been easily six-week periods where we haven't been able to get together," adds McNicholas.

"On the other hand, though, that's part of what makes it work," Skogen claims. "You've got five guys at the same point in their lives. There's not one 20-year-old kid waiting on the other guy's job. We're all in the same place."

The quintet is still struggling to reach a consistent modus operandi, but, beyond some casual bitching, no one involved is particularly anxious about whether or not Misfortune500 will work. They've made it work by relying on a love of creating music together rather than outside validation.

Their debut CD provides ample justification. Misfortune500 is mature, ambitious and remarkably complete. McNicholas, Rice and McCord take turns leading the band through six tracks that embellish finely honed pop-rock songcraft with iconoclastic indie-bred touches, from earnest mid-tempo revelations to speedy, memory-adhesive romps. Skogen's homespun production is thick and lively, thanks to the harmonious three-guitar interplay, but the distortion never overrides those big, big hooks.

Fans of intelligent pop from Superdrag to Sloan will find something to sing along with, and local pundits looking for something that finally covers that glaring bald patch between too-predictable jangle and the emo scene can rejoice. Misfortune500's only, er, shortcoming lies in its brevity (that's a song a month in the studio, dudes); otherwise, the disc is an eminently listenable example of what can happen when talented musicians get together and shun both genre and trend in an attempt to create something that makes them smile.

"We're just five guys who try to write good songs. We're not going for any specific genre," affirms McNicholas. "I'm still doing what I was doing 10 years ago."

With the product in the can — finally — and expected to drop any day now, the quintet has turned its attention toward a live debut. Having seen their share of scene permutations, and having done the every-show-you-can-scam grind, they're unconcerned with re-assimilating themselves into the usual routine.

"We're gonna try to do some different stuff, as far as live shows, to keep people interested. We'll play some shows where everybody else plays shows," McNicholas allows, "but we've talked about playing places that aren't bars, doing things that aren't typical rock shows."

"We don't want to jump on every eight-band bill that comes to the State Theatre, and play every weekend," adds Rice.

Whatever their assault plan turns out to be, Misfortune500 will in all likelihood find a couple of people willing to check them out.

When the "supergroup" issue is raised as the evening's last topic, they seem both mirthful and exasperated.

"That part is actually kind of fun," Skogen grins.

"Because it means so much locally," Rice retorts sarcastically. "It doesn't mean crap to anyone."

"Hey, it's fun for the crowd, it's fun for the band," Skogen presses. "It may not be fun for Joe Blow reading the paper, but who cares? It's fun for us."

After a second's consideration, Rice relents.

"OK," he sighs, "maybe it means crap to someone."

Scott Harrell can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

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