any artists feel as though the word “radio” carries with it the perception of commercial compromise and the taint of diminished artistic content in favor of increased sales. Cincinnati-based vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Eric Tepe understands that mindset but also feels there are ways to be commercially viable while maintaining artistic integrity.
“I’m not trying to be an oddball that sells it in from a different angle, I’m trying to go the Pop route,” Tepe says over coffee at a downtown Starbucks. “Top 40 radio is where I would want to be. I don’t consider us to be an Indie Rock band, I think we’re Pop/Rock, probably a little heavier than the standard.”
Tepe’s idea of a balance between aesthetic beauty and commercial functionality, clearly evident on his excellent self-titled EP, has been reinforced during his five years at LPK, one of the city’s leading design and marketing firms. Tepe notes that in some quarters he’s been accused of “selling out” based on his radio-friendly songs and a certain amount of production polish. When offered a definition of selling out as reverse engineering your song to include the name “Oscar Mayer,” Tepe doesn’t hesitate for a moment.
“I would totally do that,” he says, laughing. “I’m a consummate seller-outer. I would do that in a heartbeat. To me that’s all part of it. Make Oscar Mayer your art. That kind of relates back to my exposure as a brand person at LPK.”
Tepe began playing by ear with no formal musical education as a child, plinking out melodies and tunes on an old Yamaha keyboard. In college, Tepe picked up a guitar after being cut from the University of Cincinnati baseball team, leaving him with a surplus of time that allowed him time to explore his new instrument.
“I had a chord diagram book and learned five or six basic chords and could play 150 songs right off the bat,” Tepe says. “I started jamming on a lot of Classic Rock because it was easy to play.”
Within a year and a half of learning guitar, Tepe was playing cover sets at area bars, offering multiple renderings of “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Brown Eyed Girl” every night. Tepe gained more than mere playing time from the experience.
“I learned how to perform doing that,” he says. “When it’s you and 10 other people (in a venue), you’ve got to entertain yourself a little bit. I gradually learned how to sing, too.”
For five years, Tepe played solo, primarily at The Blue Note in Price Hill, opening shows for a variety of acts, including local favorites Denial. Tepe learned a good deal about the business end of the music business from Denial’s Kevin Finkelmeier (the pair is currently collaborating on material that could show up in Tepe’s sets and recordings in the coming year).
When Tepe felt confident enough to record a demo, he worked with a number of area artists, most notably former Over the Rhine drummer Brian Kelley, who became Tepe’s drummer of record. After a year of playing out as a guitar/drums duo, Tepe added veteran local bassist Mike Georgin, high school/college classmate Aaron Brown on guitar and experienced keyboardist Andrew Lenihan. The quintet recorded an EP’s worth of material but they all felt it could be better, so they hit Ashley Shepherd’s Audiogrotto Studio in Newport and came away with their six-song debut as the Eric Tepe Band, released officially last November.
“He brought us to a new level,” Tepe says of Shepherd’s work on the recordings. “Previously, I’d recorded with people who had their own sound and it didn’t seem like a good fit. Ashley has a better ear for Pop music.”
The proof of Tepe’s experience and approach is all over ETB’s EP, six songs of crystalline Pop that bristle and soar with modern Rock energy. Tepe has heard plenty of vocal comparisons to Coldplay’s Chris Martin and former Police frontman Sting, which isn’t a bad place to start for a guy who adheres to the concept of success by radio.
“To me, it’s a compliment, because I like the person that the comparison is being made with,” Tepe says of the comparisons. “I would rather sound like someone I enjoy listening to than someone I don’t relate to. I’m fine with arranging and marketing things to the masses and going the mainstream Pop route. A lot of how I sing is what it is and if you try to mess with that, you’ll lose what makes you unique.”
Tepe’s current plans are to write new songs (possibly on piano, to move away from his guitar-strumming singer/songwriter comfort zone), establish the band’s presence regionally and open themselves up to greater possibilities, including the possible recording of a full-length album.
“This year we’ll have opportunities to get a lot of exposure and I want to have songs that I think can fly against anything on the radio now,” Tepe says. “I think we need to get more beat oriented, and I need to adjust how I’m phrasing things to get more relevant to where things are at right now. We’re getting there.”
ERIC TEPE BAND (etbmusic.com) plays downtown’s Mainstay Rock Bar on April 15.