Not many bands can say that their debut gig was the Midpoint Music Festival. For Marking Twain, a stacked résumé probably helped. The band contains former members of local teenage Pop Rock phenoms Premium, but the deciding factor was more likely their catchy, groove-centric songs. With some new blood and a retooled sound, the Oxford-based band is already putting their experience and talent to good use.
Right before Premium started to falter, bassist Ben Kubicki left to start college in Colorado. The band replaced him with Scott Salmon, who turned out to be a talented singer and songwriter as well. After the band's demise, he and guitarist Chris Hellmann started writing songs together and a new direction started to emerge.
"We wanted to develop a sound instead of just fitting into a Rock mold," says Salmon. Hellmann's budding interest in Funk guitar playing provided a springboard and pretty soon they were churning out smooth, hooky tunes with fellow Premium alum Jesse Feister behind the drumkit and mixing board.
"I always liked to play Funk-influenced music," says Feister, who has also kept busy in projects with scene vets including The Flammables, Catalog Cowboys and The Hollowbodies.
"I still love to just rock out, but I prefer to focus on the parts and contribute musically."
By last summer, their sound had crystallized and they needed a bass player since Salmon had stepped into the role of frontman. Coincidentally, Kubicki had grown weary of Colorado and was welcomed back into the fold, although with a hint of faux resentment.
"He skated out when Premium was on top, then we paid all of our dues right after he left!" teases Feister.
Agreeing that they needed an additional guitarist/keyboardist to fill out their sound, they lucked into meeting fellow Oxford student Drew Butcher, a classically trained musician who adds deep knowledge of theory and Jazz influence, the perfect catalysts to propel Marking Twain.
"Our new stuff really adds everyone's favorite elements," says Hellmann. "Drew has a completely different take on things. He's helped us take things in a new direction."
The advantages of learning the ins and outs of the music business at such a young age are paying high dividends. For example, they were savvy enough to demo all of their songs and work out bugs before hitting the studio. The payoff is The Identity Slip, a flawless, vibrant debut that recalls Stevie Wonder and positions them with the current crop of groovy popsters that are making mainstream waves. It's smooth, but it has some edge, particularly in Salmon's lyrics.
"It's a pretty bitter album," says Kubicki. "Like, not Jagged Little Pill bitter, but there are some harsh aspects."
"We've been getting the Maroon 5 comparison a lot," says Salmon. "And John Mayer. That's fine with us. Even though they had singles that got worn out, they are great (artists). And they don't keep making the same album. Incubus is the same way; every one of their albums has been completely different."
Although they're happy with their current musical path, the band isn't afraid to continue evolving.
"The real heroes are the ones that made great Pop music, but also did whatever they wanted," says Feister. "Led Zeppelin, The Beatles ... they could experiment without alienating their fan base. It's much harder to do that now. Radio is stifling creativity."
The experienced performers are also more selective when it comes to gigs, preferring regional touring to endless local club dates. The full-time students need to make every show count and they definitely have, with recent college-circuit opening slots for Better Than Ezra at Notre Dame and Ingram Hill at Miami University getting their music in front of thousands.
From every perspective, it seems that Marking Twain couldn't be more poised for success. And considering various members are majoring in finance, accounting and business (and one considering law), they should be a self-contained music biz juggernaut in a few years. All are happy with the experiences that have brought them to this place, but what if they could go back and give their former selves some advice?
"Stick with marching band," says Feister. "It'll all work out."
MARKING TWAIN (markingtwain.com) plays Soupie's in Norwood Saturday.