Cover Story: Hometown Zeroes

Moth left Cincinnati to find the bright lights of fame, but home is never far away

Mar 21, 2002 at 2:06 pm
Geoff Raker

Moth rocks Top Cat'sduring a homecomingshow on Feb. 3: (L-R) Bob Gayol, Atom Willard, Brad Stenz and Ted Liscinski

In late January, three Cincinnati émigrés, Brad Stenz and Bob Gayol from the AltRock band Moth and your humble narrator, sit in a Hollywood Boulevard pool hall at the bar, catching each other up on common friends and talking about how life in Los Angeles differs from a small Midwestern city.

As frat-looking dudes in baseball hats play air hockey and pool behind them, singer/guitarist Stenz nurses a couple of beers and guitarist Gayol has what appears to be a Coke. Like he owns the place, Gayol has control of a remote to one of the many televisions. He flips from the Home Shopping Channel to The Simpsons to an E! True Hollywood Story episode on Elvis.

Noting that the somewhat dive-y bar is unfancy, he remarks, "This bar is very 'Nati."

What's not "very 'Nati" is that the duo have to go outside to have cigarettes, since it's illegal to smoke in bars in L.A. Inevitably, as it does with all people who move to the city, the "Who's the coolest famous person you've seen/met?" question comes up.

For Stenz and Gayol, the answer is obvious, though neither is very starstruck. OK, maybe a little. Here's why: The duo were joined on the recording of their major-label debut album, Provisions, Fiction and Gear, by bassist Tommy Stinson (the Replacements/ Perfect) and journeyman drummer Josh Freese (A Perfect Circle, The Vandals), both of whom were in the "new" Guns n' Roses. Stinson, in fact, is still under contract to GNR.

Did they ever stop to realize that they were basically one step away from being Guns n' Roses, at one point the most famous band in the world?

"Yeah," Stenz says. "Minus the voice, the songs and everything else."

"We'd be in pre-production, and Tommy and Josh would bust into two seconds of a Guns n' Roses song," Gayol adds. "I played along if I knew it. It was hilarious."

It was because of GNR that Stinson ended up on the Moth album.

"We started recording the album and through our producer Sean Beavan (who worked on the yet-to-be-released Chinese Democracy GNR record) we heard that Tommy really wanted to play on it," Gayol continues. "We were very lucky that we got those guys. Very lucky."

"It totally freaked me out to be in the same room as (Stinson)," Stenz says. "I was watching him play bass on songs that I had written and I totally forgot how to play the guitar. It was incredible."

Rocking "The Suits"
The band's current rhythm section — members 14 and 15 in the 13-year history of Moth — is drummer Atom Willard and bassist Ted Liscinski, both of whom live on the West Coast. Even the newest members of the band are more famous than the group they've joined: Liscinski was part of the onscreen band in the movie version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and performed on the soundtrack, while Willard was a member of San Diego's energetic Alternative Rock band Rocket From the Crypt.

"They're not hired guns," says Stenz. "The goal is to have a band. Moth has always been about the group, not individuals. So yeah, people come and go, but it's still a group. We like these guys a lot. They're going to stay for the opportunities that the other guys left — there's something to do now.

"Atom was only the third drummer we met since we were out here, and Ted is like the third or fourth bassist we met. It just kind of fell together. Tommy and Josh definitely set the bar, and in a lot of ways Ted and Atom have exceeded that. Atom is an incredibly hard-hitting drummer. He's furious. He's like Bam-Bam from the Flintstones."

"Moth is Brad, Bob, Ted and Atom," Gayol says. "Hopefully it will stay that way. I've never been more confident about the band than what we have now. This is the best version of Moth."

Three weeks before the pool hall interview, the foursome played an invitation-only show for 150 or so people at L.A.'s famous Viper Room, an event organized by their record company, Virgin. Maybe it was because Gayol and Liscinski wore ties onstage, but there was an undercurrent of New Wave's herky-jerky rhythms in the band's powerful, blazing Guitar Rock. The crowd included Virgin's (then) co-presidents, VPs of sales, marketing, A&R, promotions, VIPs and a smattering of non-Virgin-employee fans.

The band blasted through a 45-minute set, barely pausing between songs or acknowledging the crowd. The set was filmed, with clips of the night available on the band's Web site, with the cheeky URL Later, Gayol and Stenz said they were freaked out by the crowd because of the executives in attendance and that they really don't want to play acoustic sets at their label's satellite offices because it's too unnerving and awkward to be the lunchtime act in a conference room.

Leaving Home
Getting to the point where Moth is a post-dinner act for the staff of a record company with a roster that includes Janet Jackson, Lenny Kravitz and D'Angelo is as unlikely as a former Replacement offering to play bass on their album. Stenz founded Moth when he was still an angry adolescent 13 years ago. He soon hooked up with Gayol, but the band's rhythm section has been a revolving door.

As is the case in so many bands, Stenz and Gayol seem to be opposites, complimenting each other and finishing each other's sentences. Stenz has platinum hair and pale skin; Gayol has dark hair and a complexion that inspired a person on the band's Web site guestbook to write "... send 'brown sugar' (Bob) over to my place anytime!!! Man he's got some moves!!".

Yes, the ladies love the band.

The duo developed the Moth sound in relative obscurity, even for an AltRock band in Cincinnati, a town with a reputation for not supporting local musicians until they find fame and fortune outside of town. From the always-mentioned Afghan Whigs to Blessid Union of Souls, external confirmation of a band's popularity or quality usually has been required before the groups' hometown treated them like stars.

Moth didn't even really attempt to impress music fans in town. Instead of trying to build a local following, they stayed home to write and record songs, stepping onstage every few months in front of whatever audience they could draw. And, incredibly, the band did what every person in the record business says not to do — they sent out hundreds of unsolicited tapes to record companies, which are listened to by interns, if at all, before being thrown away.

"I didn't want to put all of our efforts into building a Cincinnati fanbase," Stenz says. "That, to me, seemed self-serving and egotistical, when the real goal was to find somebody that believed in the music that could eventually back it up. Playing live was just a way to test songs out."

The fact that Moth landed a deal without a following — and has gone through 15 members — has led to some backbiting and trash-talking within Cincinnati's insular music scene. Here's a band that openly says they didn't want to impress their peers, wanted fame beyond it, didn't play by the rules and now has a big record contract. That's not fair, right? Who cares if they've been at it for more than a decade?

To put it in perspective, here's a joke worth repeating: How many local bands does it take to screw in a light bulb? Fifty one — one to screw it in and 50 to stand around and say, "That shoulda been us."

Not that the duo don't dream of hometown respect and fame. One of Moth's publicists at Virgin, with a "don't print this" caveat (oops), revealed that when the band was asked for a list of goals for press coverage, a CityBeat cover was No. 1. Frankly, who could blame them?

At the pool hall, Stenz tells the same story.

"What I always wanted was to be on the cover of CityBeat," he says. "I'm not putting you on."

Still, labels are looking for bands with an established fanbase, black-and-white proof that audiences connect with the music and would increase if a larger promotional and marketing effort were enabled. While Moth's tapes were getting piled up in record company offices, the band recorded two independent albums and toured sporadically, losing lots of money.

"We have a slim to none fanbase," Gayol. "We sold maybe a thousand CDs of our first records."

The woodshedding paid off. The band was recording its third album at Group Effort Studios in Erlanger, Ky., and engineer Jeff Monroe sent a tape to producer Rick Wake (Celine Dion, Jennifer Lopez). Wake passed the tape along to one of his friends, Mark Russell, an A&R executive. The band went to New York to recut the songs, thinking they were going to be the album. Instead, Virgin grabbed Moth, and it took off from there.

The band's A&R executive, Todd Sullivan, says he was attracted to the band because of Stenz's songwriting, not the fact that Moth was famous in Cincinnati.

"He had such a unique point of view, with such a — dare I say it — crusty voice," Sullivan says. "Lyrically, he's definitely saying something, but he's saying it with such strong Pop hooks. People at college radio will discover that it's a very creative record, and the people at mainstream Rock or Alternative Rock (radio) will discover that it's a very mainstream record."

Moth is now a full-time job. In between marketing meetings, tour planning and rehearsals, the group also has to squeeze in time for things like the casting of the video for "I See Sound." The reason the pair wanted to be intimately involved in that part of the process makes sense when part of the video treatment is described. Basically, it involves a woman in a bathtub.

At the casting session, all of the prospective female leads needed to strip down to their skivvies. It's good work if you can get it.

It was that wise sage Steve Perry of Journey who noted, "They say that the road ain't no place to start a family." Nevertheless, Gayol and Stenz have been living in a series of rented places throughout Los Angeles for the past few years, losing their leases each time they've gone "home" to Cincinnati on vacation.

Gayol explains how it works: "A year ago we started the album. We finished the album, went home for three weeks, came back to mix the album and then went home for another two weeks. Then Brad and I drove out here to put a band together, because by that time it was just he and I. We go home, and when we come back, our management says, 'You're only going to be here for three weeks or a month, so let's just put you up in a hotel. And then we're gone again.' "

Gayol is originally from White Oak, and his wife continues to reside in Porkopolis.

"That's another reason why I have to go back every once in a while," he says, laughing.

Stenz grew up in Westwood after moving from New York when he was 11 years old.

"For the past six months we've been doing artwork, rehearsing, trying to get a video together," Gayol says. "We spend so much time working, I don't know how bands that don't live in Los Angeles or New York are able to get things accomplished. I don't think we could live in Cincinnati and do what we do, because it's kind of like a real job thing, Monday through Friday. Between rehearsals and meetings, it's like a real job. I'm not complaining at all, it's fun."

Stenz laughs. "What's there to complain about?," he says. "You smoke weed, play video games and play guitar, and that's it."

"We couldn't live in Cincinnati and do this," Gayol adds. "Here, we're central and we have a better hold on our career by physically being here. I never understood how bands like Over The Rhine or even the Afghan Whigs — I know a lot of them moved — could stay in Cincinnati and do this. We can barely do it living there. And our rhythm section is out here. There's no way we could have put the rhythm section together living in Cincy."

Jokes and Tokes
Moth is now in a sort of homeless state, which is perfect, because they should be on the road for at least the next year in support of Provisions, Fiction and Gear. Part of that touring includes a concert they're playing for Air Jamaica contest winners over Spring Break in Jamaica.

For a band that toured on its own dime in a short school bus, losing tons of money playing for no people, the idea of flying to the Caribbean to play a concert has them excited, even three months in advance.

Explains Gayol, apparently the legal expert/token pot smoker in the band, "In Jamaica, weed is technically illegal, but nobody gets busted for it. I can see it now: 'We went to play a show in Jamaica and Bob was never heard from again.' No, we're going to be in and out in one night. How much trouble can we get into?"

Famous last words.

Their chances for superstar success are all the more daunting now that, in the months since their coming-out party for Virgin employees at the Viper Room, the record company has announced it's moving to New York. The co-presidents who were there when Moth signed have been replaced by Matchbox Twenty/ Collective Soul producer Matt Serletic, and there have been layoffs at the company.

There's never really a good time to be a new band breaking into the consciousness, but turmoil like this is extra work — especially considering that Provisions is nearly a year old and has been sitting on the shelf waiting for the record company to put it in stores. In fact, a late March release date was recently pushed back yet another couple of weeks. (See the accompanying review by Mike Breen.)

"We were worried when the label turmoil started, but it seems like it cleared the decks," Stenz says. "People are freed up to focus."

Weeks after the pool hall interview, Stenz is in Virgin's New York office, talking on the phone with journalists, answering the same questions over and over. What better time to throw him a curveball: Asked if the album's "Lovers Quarrel" — a track that chronicles the disintegration of a relationship with spiraling guitars and a foreboding, guttural grungy bassline — and its chorus (which begins "Lovers bite, lovers scratch...") purposely matches Def Leppard's "Love Bites" ("Love bites, love bleeds..."), Stenz sounds stunned, before asking to have the Def Leppard song sung to him. His request is denied.

"Lovers Quarrel" is a far cry from Hair Metal. Instead, it's a stunning piece of music with production twists, a huge chorus and a showcase for Stenz's vocal range. With lyrics showing rather than telling the crumbling of love, the track's maturity of emotions shows a band at a higher creative plane than most ever achieve. The album is a torrid mix of Smashing Pumpkins bombast, electronic bleeps and drum loops, freaky production and Stenz's sneeringly delivered lyrics — most of which have something to do with sleep, fire or death.

"How much more simple could it get? You could die in a house fire while smoking in bed," Stenz postulates.

These themes pop up, he says, simply because those are some of the big questions he's fascinated with. He remembers dreams he had when he was 5.

But the album isn't all dreamy. The lead single, "I See Sound," is a punky blast of mood and melody, with a tension built during the verse and released with aggression at the chorus. It's a proven formula, something the band employs frequently on the record, but they don't just go for the easy structure.

Provisions' bridges and codas make it more mature than most major-label debuts. "Cocaine Star" is a two-and-a-half-minute seesaw between Punk blasting and measured singing — and it still manages to nick the guitar-riff that MTV used to play behind the man on the moon. By far, the coolest production on the album, and pulled off to perfection live, is on "Sleepy." While Stenz sings in mellow, constant level, the rest of the band comes pounding in for two accents and Gayol howls into the microphone. The effect is jarring, but melodic. Then there's the ELO-influenced vocals of "Straight Line," which must be what Gayol was thinking of when he joked about the album's rock opera-ness.

Returning in Style
And so Super Bowl Sunday arrives, with Moth playing a hometown gig at Top Cat's, halfway through an Alternative Press magazine-sponsored tour. Weeks before, Gayol is anticipating doing laundry and sleeping in his own bed, even if it's for one night.

He and Stenz self-consciously joke about having the tour bus park up the street — though they end up having it right in front when the big day comes.

"Back in the day when we played Top Cat's, we'd drive up in separate cars and fight each other for parking spaces," laughs Gayol. "The funny thing is we'll probably have the same amount of people who saw us at Top Cat's four years ago."

Actually, the crowd turns out to be pretty large, with about 150 people sifting in following the football game.

From the stage, Stenz looks out and says, "It's good to be back at Top Cat's. It's been a very, very long time."

Fame: Ain't it a bitch.

MOTH's Provisions, Fiction and Gear will be released by Virgin Records on April 9.