Rock 'n' roll history is jammed with near-mythic tales of discovery. In decades past, there seemed to be nearly as many legendary instances of serendipitous starmaking as there were unknown artists to trip over. The president of a record company wanders into a dive bar to use the phone after his car breaks down, just as the Next Big Thing slides an original ballad into the middle of their third set. A producer arrives at the studio a bit early, where he catches an anonymous female vocalist laying smoky backing tracks for a cigarette jingle. A world-famous manager is in the Australian Outback, stalking the last dodo in existence, when a demo reel duct-taped to an anvil falls onto his pith helmet out of a clear blue sky.
Whether or not these events actually took place is largely irrelevant. They are lore, or could be, and lore is one of the elements that lends rock music its aura of magic. But over the last 10 years or so, much of that mystique has dissipated. Commercially successful bands are no longer discovered; they're either built from the ground up or supported so vehemently for so long by the underground that the mainstream has little choice but to take notice. The point is, nobody really has a great discovery story anymore.
Sarasota-bred trio The Chase Theory doesn't either, really, although there are aspects of the band's tale that make it more intriguing than most. Formed some five years ago, Chase Theory has done the same things every good local band does — played a million shows, built an impressive reputation and hometown following, gone out of town, even toured a bit and honed songwriting skills. Chase Theory also did something else that every good local band does, but what happened afterward, as anyone who has ever played original music will tell you, surely involved a little bit of that rock 'n' roll magic: sent out an unsolicited demo cassette. And they got a call back. Gasp away.
The catalyst for The Chase Theory's ascent from local unsigned obscurity to national indie-artist semi-obscurity was a submission to Deep Elm Records, purveyors of the The Emo Diaries compilation series. Equally revered and reviled in fringe-rock circles, The Emo Diaries forgo notions like status and popularity by butting tracks from posthardcore's biggest names up against songs by utterly unknown talent, simply according to whatever happens to catch Deep Elm president John Szuch's ear.
Like The Chase Theory's "Pharaohs and Kings," for instance.
"It was a very fortunate thing for us," agrees guitarist/vocalist Matt Burke. "John at Deep Elm is very particular about what he puts on the series, and he listens to between four and five hundred demos for each chapter. But if he just happens to like something about your song, it might end up on there. And that's really all it was."
The tune's textured dynamics and earnest melody stood apart from most of Chapter Three's alternately dissonant and weepy fare, and the compilation's worldwide distribution and notoriety exposed Chase Theory to fans who weren't ever going to step into Sarasota's Monterey Deli to hear a live set. Before long, the band was receiving e-mails and fanzine mentions from far beyond its stomping grounds. The idea that music could transcend "the local scene" had a galvanizing effect on the band, who, instead of using a little recognition as an excuse to coast, plowed ahead with refreshed enthusiasm.
"Every response you get fuels your motivation, and when it starts to get beyond word-of-mouth, it pushes you harder, you try a little more," Burke says. "I go through all the e-mails that we get every day, and yeah, it does affect what you do, knowing that not only the people that you play to are hearing it."
The group self-released its debut full-length, Scrapbook, at the onset of 1999. They continued to gig steadily, embracing their local fan base while nurturing an ever-growing online intrigue. Scrapbook, one of the most mature and accomplished Bay area releases in memory, sold itself out of print. And in the fall of last year — following the departure of guitarist Chris Cantwell — Burke, bassist/brother Danny and drummer JP Beaubien were contacted by New York-based imprint One Day Savior, a small label known chiefly for envelope-pushing hardcore.
"The guy who runs One Day Savior had heard our name and song a couple of years ago from The Emo Diaries, and he came across our mp3 site. He e-mailed me, and asked if we were releasing anything," recalls the guitarist. "We weren't, because we were going through some lineup changes, but we had new material. It was his idea to do an EP, which we agreed with because that's about how much new stuff we had at the time. We talked back and forth for about two weeks, and without hearing any (of the new material), he e-mailed us a contract."
The Chase Theory had already been recording at the time of Cantwell's resignation; with a deal intact, these sessions became the impetus for the five-song In the Pursuit of Excellence, due any day now. The EP flirts more heavily with both traditional rock conventions and experimentation than Scrapbook, careening from the synth and falsetto of "Disenchanted" through the AOR vibe of "Open Road" to the utterly anthemic "Faster We Run," but remains cohesive and ambitious throughout. The threesome brings influences as disparate as The Police, Quicksand and Peter Gabriel to tried-and-true melody and power chords, producing something innately accessible, but never predictable.
"It's more fun that way," Beaubien asserts. "I can't speak for somebody else, but I would hope that a fan would listen to us and expect to not hear the same formulas, but something that would wow 'em."
"Something more than just another song to jump around to. Not that that's bad; I like to jump around, too," adds Danny with a laugh.
Fortune may have played a role in The Chase Theory making it onto The Emo Diaries, but years of effort yielded the tape (and the tunes) Szuch heard. Matt is quick to stress that while each new plateau signifies a somewhat higher profile, it also means a corresponding increase in the sweat quotient.
"Yeah, it's made things a little easier, but it's still work, nonetheless," he says. "Waking up and getting online for 20 minutes before you go to work. Coming home at lunch and getting online for half an hour. Getting home from work and getting on the phone for an hour, then getting online for three hours. If you believe in the music your band is playing, all you can do is keep on it.
"Find resources," he urges. "There are so many of them, especially online — there are so many underground music resources out there."
With the impending release of In the Pursuit of Excellence, and 16 U.S. tour dates in 22 days kicking off this week, it would seem that The Chase Theory does indeed have their work cut out for them. And they don't mind at all. It's been a pretty good story so far, but according to the band, we've barely gotten past the prologue.
"We're finally at a point where things really are just getting started," declares Danny. "And it took years and years of work to get to this point. So we're kind of psyched about what we have, but we're more excited about what's ahead."
Check out The Chase Theory's Web site at www.wonderingart.com/thechasetheory