Just Like Starting over

After getting lost in the red tape of major-labledom, Sense Field is back on track

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click to enlarge ON THE ROAD AGAIN: Californian-based Sense Field - is touring in promotion of its latest album. - ROBERT SEBREE
ROBERT SEBREE
ON THE ROAD AGAIN: Californian-based Sense Field is touring in promotion of its latest album.

At some point during the shift from the conservative '80s to the ambitious, expansive '90s, lots of American hardcore bands began to hammer away at the sides of the box they'd built for themselves. Bored by the streamlined, minimalist elements of the young genre, and anxious to explore a growing facility with their instruments, these groups started bucking punk-scene dogma with dynamic arrangements, disparate new influences and (eep!) melody.

In Washington D.C., the sinewy, militant blast of Minor Threat and Government Issue gave way to the arty catharsis of Rites of Spring and dubbed-out rhythms of Fugazi. In New York City, moshy straight-edge developed a jagged metal edge.

And in Southern California's Orange County, an up-and-coming posi-core act called Reason to Believe started a side project to play some songs they didn't think quite fit in with their main focus' oeuvre — or its audience. The newly minted Sense Field quickly became the priority, and Reason to Believe was left behind. But ironically, after a few years of playing mainstream clubs and keeping their distance from the underground scene, the band found their most accepting supporters and loyal audience back there, as more forward-thinking hardcore fans embraced the style's new wrinkles.

"The first couple of years ... we were trying not to play with the same old bands," remembers guitarist Chris Evenson. "Then we ended up rediscovering that scene, or they rediscovered us. They were the ones who were actually most interested in the band. So, yeah, we were a little surprised that they were into what we were doing."

The band rode the leading edge of emerging posthardcore, self-releasing EPs characterized by Jon Bunch's huge, smoothly melodic vocals and disparate rock, pop and new wave influences. They eventually signed with California indie Revelation, released the marvelous Killed for Less in 1994, joined the nascent Warped Tour in '96, and hit the road with fellow envelope-pushers Texas is the Reason and Jimmy Eat World. Other post-core bands like Quicksand and CiV saw some mainstream success, and as pop-punk cracked commercial radio, major labels focused their attention on anything even remotely affiliated with the all-ages circuit.

Sense Field was right there; they signed with Warner Brothers, settling down to record their big-time debut in 1998.

That record, Under the Radar, never saw the light of day, and the band spent a good part of the next four years in contractual limbo.

"Everything was building [until that point]," Evenson says. "The whole time since then, it's been about trying to get back to where we were."

It's the classic tale of a major label scurrying to sign something new and different, then finding itself completely lost with regard to exactly what the hell they're supposed to do with something new and different. After Under the Radar was recorded, mixed and slated for release, Warner wanted more work done, ostensibly because they didn't hear a single. Ever more time was spent in the studio. New faces at the label replaced the familiar ones that had gotten Sense Field signed in the first place. New release dates were announced, then pushed back. Eventually, the band found themselves not so much a lesser priority as basically forgotten. They watched their peers in the underground land in the buzz bin and the glossy magazines' "Next Big Thing" pages.

"We ended up going through two or three years of not being there. When we left touring [to record the album], it wasn't that big yet, and then all of a sudden, stuff like The Promise Ring started getting really popular," says Evenson. "So yeah, it was frustrating. In a way, we kind of missed that wave of bands whose stuff was similar to what we were doing. It was a weird time to be off the road."

Eventually the band was dropped. Understandably wary of dealing with the industry, they immediately set about recording another album, with both new material and reworked versions of tunes tracked for Under the Radar. The finished product, Tonight and Forever, attracted the somewhat maverick imprint Nettwerk; they put it out, and Sense Field hit the road eager to make up whatever ground they might have lost.

And then, last spring, guitarist Rodney Sellars' daughter Leilani was in a car accident that left her paralyzed from the neck down. Sellars, originally the band's drummer and a major songwriting contributor, was forced to leave the band in order to care for her. (A fund has been set up to help offset Leilani's medical bills. Fans interested in helping can send a check or money order to Leilani Gutierrez, c/o Globe Packaging, 179 E. 17th St., Box 400, Costa Mesa, CA 92627.)

"It was about as bad a situation as it could've been," Evenson says. "He tried to convince himself that he'd be able to go on tour, but ..."

Again, the band persevered. Bunch and Evenson stepped up their songwriting duties, and the truncated lineup (Bunch, Evenson, drummer Rob Pfeiffer and bassist John Stockberger) crafted another lush, anthemic and evocative release in this year's Living Outside. And upon hitting the road to support the new record, Evenson says the obsessively loyal fanbase they discovered was waiting for the last one and is still out there. In fact, a surprising number of them managed to get a hold of Under the Radar by hook or by crook, and often request tunes from that record, or offer their opinions on the reworked songs that appeared on subsequent releases.

"That's always neat," Evenson muses. "And people invariably want to hear the original versions, because those are the versions that they've been listening to for so long. I never realized how many people have heard that record — for us, it was like the record didn't come out, so it doesn't exist.

"I remember people referring to them as 'the Warner demos,'" he adds with a laugh. "They were only the most expensive demos ever made."

Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].

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