Sweet suburbia

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The Pop Project finishes its rehearsal in the basement of a small home in Ann Arbor. Moments later the creeeak-pop sound of cans opening fills the kitchen where Adam Kempa — the Pop Project’s resident computer geek and drummer — is passing out Molson’s.

The Pop Project crew is here (guitarist-vocalist Dave Lawson, keyboardist-singer Zach Curd, bassist Will Yates and Kempa). The Recital’s guitarist Ryan Brescoe — who shares the Ann Arbor home with Kempa — appears occasionally.

The frothy conversation turns quickly to sugary TV theme writer Jesse Frederick. “You’re hoarding,” Curd says. Kempa, it turns out, is holding a few newly acquired Frederick tracks.

Frederick is the god of T.G.I.F. programs on ABC during the early to mid-1990s. He didn’t act, produce or direct. He simply wrote the theme songs. You know his work: “Everywhere You Look” from Full House, “As Days Go By” from Family Matters, “Nothing’s Going to Stop Me Now,” from Perfect Strangers, and so on. We’ve all been pretty obsessed with the guy,” Kempa says between gulps of beer.

The Pop Project is one of five bands currently involved in a rather eccentric metro Detroit record label called Suburban Sprawl Music, and has recently recorded an album of Frederick remakes.

Suburban Sprawl Music is a jumpstart do-it-yourself record company founded on the idea of autonomy; no budding CEO, no nascent A&R staff, just a collective of like-minded musicians. The SSM family — 20 people at the moment — is a tight-knit group of young area bands: the Recital, Javelins, Those Transatlantics, El Boxeo and the Pop Project. Curd and Kempa are the label’s de facto mouthpieces.

Each of the bands offers atypical (not your standard indie fare) blends of sundry pop: The Pop Project is an antithesis to Detroit gee-rage with keyboard-guitar driven indie sing-alongs. Those Transatlantics play crafted songs — a quick comparison might be the New Pornographers. El Boxeo does artful — with some requisite posturing — sound track-worthy, post-rock instrumentals. The Recital winningly mixes looped beats and arch pop. The Javelins’ would fit on a mix tape between Arcade Fire and Death Cab for Cutie.

The label’s music is distributed through Chicago’s Carrot Top Distribution, which has made SSM’s music available through iTunes. The music is also at Stormy Records in Dearborn and select record stores in the Ann Arbor area, as well as online at the label’s Web site. It’s filling orders from all over the country. Kempa said the sales are now consistent enough to maintain the label’s operation and release cycle.

“It’s easy to get discouraged with the futility of being an independent label in today’s music industry, but the fact that someone who’s probably never had any direct contact with the band is willing to pay for their music is pretty encouraging,” Kempa says. “This happens more than I would have expected.”

Suburban Sprawl Music applies grassroots-style development in an effort to thrust regional music into the national spotlight — ideally, anyway. SSM’s credo is all about working for yourself in a local community and creating music for both self and audience — a nod to utopian community ideals of the late 1960s. “It’s pretty simple actually,” Curd says. “Make awesome music with our friends and make new friends along the way. Also, keep things diverse.”

Suburban Sprawl Music was started in Livonia by Erik Koppin in 1999. Koppin’s friends were in bands and he saw the need to create a commercial outlet for their music. “I think all of the bands involved got sick of trying to convince some indie label in Chicago or wherever to release their music,” Curd says.

Koppin headed the label from 1999 to 2003, with Kempa’s help on Web site operation. Under Koppin’s direction, Suburban Sprawl pushed albums by The Red Shirt Brigade — which featured half of Zoos of Berlin and half of Thunderbirds are Now — and a home recording series — with songs from The Recital, Saturday Looks Good to Me, The Pop Project, Judah Johnson and others. Then Koppin and Kempa became consumed with college work and the label went on the back burner for months.

In 2004, Kempa purchased the Web domain (www.suburbansprawlmusic.com) that Koppin had let expire and became the label’s new proprietor, so to speak. Everything was in place and ready for re-launch. “I had the vehicle and knowledge to do it,” Kempa says.

The first release was a Christmas comp from local bands doing their take on holiday classics or inventing their own. SSM has put out four volumes of its holiday sampler including such bands as the Hard Lessons, the Pop Project and Thunderbirds Are Now.

The first full-length release since the DIY coup d’état was the Javelins’ bouncy pop album, No Plants Just Animals. The disc is getting significant airplay through college and Internet radio outlets. “We faked our way through the business end, but we all learned how to put out a CD again,” Kempa says. SSM’s second release was the Recital’s Colour Up, in July. More are on the way.

The label survives on community effort. There’s mutual appreciation among bands — not competition — and, get this, each celebrates the success of the others. It doesn’t hurt that the label’s bands are incestuous — many members help other SSM bands in concert and the studio. Kempa, for example, pulls double-duty as a full-time component of the Pop Project and the Recital. Kempa also works for Enlighten — a Web design company out of Ann Arbor — and fronted the sizable costs of restoring the label.

“As that money slowly comes back in, we’ve been putting it back into mailings, future releases, et cetera,” Kempa says.

When the label sends mailings to national press, they have packaging parties where the band-label constituents — plus a few stragglers — come to the Ann Arbor house and form assembly lines to stuff and lick envelopes.

The label began using Wiki to extend their reach within the Suburban Sprawl Community. Wiki is a message-board Web site allowing the members to log on and post items relating to the label’s operation. “It sure is better than calling 25 people,” Dave Lawson says.

The cover art for each SSM release is designed by Shawn Knight — also of the band New Grenada — and approved by each person involved. “He [Knight] does great work, he’s very collaboratively minded,” Kempa says. “And like many of those involved with Suburban Sprawl Music, he agonizes over details that almost no one will ever notice. That’s the kind of thing we all love — the shit that almost no one will notice. If people saw some of the e-mail exchanges between Shawn and I that have produced our sleeve art, they’d probably want to beat us all up. The end result of these collaborations is always something we’re all thrilled with, and totally not clichéd local band art.”

Recent history has taught us that the Internet levels the playing field somewhat for indie labels overshadowed by major record companies. Peer-2-Peer file sharing, blogging and downloads have boosted the profile of tiny labels like Suburban Sprawl.

Back in 1993, Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst helped launch an indie label model similar to Suburban Sprawl. Saddle Creek (then called Lumberjack) used the Internet to create an immensely successful label that pushed regional music to national heights.

“The Internet changes the dynamic,” Oberst said in a Business Week interview. “It takes away the marketing advantage that the big labels have and gives people a chance to listen to music they couldn’t hear on the radio or get in a Wal-Mart.”

It’s this idea that has fueled countless upstart labels around the country, labels that have major labels trembling in their Guccis and reconfiguring their approach to artist acquisition and marketing.

It’s all about thinking locally. And you can’t get more local than in the rehearsal space basement beneath this home’s kitchen. It doubles as home base for Suburban Sprawl. It’s a laboratory of sorts, missing only schematics and Bunsen burners. Computer parts fill as much space as amplifiers and Curd’s piano. A tired Ms Pac-Man sits unplugged with its guts spilling out in one corner. Another corner is stacked waist-high with antiquated radio parts (the Recital’s Ryan Brescoe repairs vintage radios). Kempa built a home recording computer that looks more like a time machine designed to contact the ghost of Bobby Pickett than a recording device. A small studio space where some of label’s music is recorded juts from the back wall; the center of attention in a processor chop shop.

The guys of SSM are humble almost to the point of timidity, but they’re skilled. Their music is based on independence, camaraderie and, certainly, songs. They’re elated to be putting together a label from the basement up and, so far, seeing it succeed.

“I don’t think we’re doing anything particularly revolutionary, but we are doing something very practical,” Curd says. “So if you’re in a band, and you think your band is great, it doesn’t hurt anyone to work for yourself. Hopefully more people will hear what you have to offer.”

What if a bigger label steps in and offers one of the bands a deal, or one to the label as a whole?

“I think the collective spirit of SSM isn’t hard-line at all, so no matter what, all of us will be involved with SSM somehow,” Curd says. “Moving on is totally an option.”

Music Samples

Square Hips - The Javelins

The Head Rhythm - The Recital

Boys and Children, Sing for Summer - Those Transatlantics

Devotion - El Boxeo

House of Books - The Pop Project


Suburban Sprawl Music Discography

Red Shirt BrigadeMock Election and the Post Selection (EP) – July 2000
This is AdelaideSelf-Titled (EP) – July 2000
NymbSo, This is how it is – Spring 2001
Red Shirt BrigadeHome of the Cannon Saints – Fall 2001
Scott Allen & the BreakdanceThe Selfish Sweetness –Summer 2002
The RecitalThings That Could Very Well Happen and Ruin Your Life (EP) – Summer 2002
Various ArtistsHome Recording Series, Volume 1 – Winter 2002                          
Various ArtistsHome Recording Series, Volume 2 – Winter 2002
Army / NavyEverything Will Meet – Summer 2003
Thunderbirds are Now! – Thunderbirds are Now! (EP) – Summer 2003
SummersaultResemblances – Spring 2003
Javelins – No Plants, Just Animals – March 2005
The RecitalColour Up – July 2005
The Pop ProjectTGIF – September 2005

Upcoming SSM Releases

Those Transatlantics – November 2005
El Boxeo – January 2006
The Pop Project – March 2006

Dustin Walsh is a Metro Times intern. Send comments to [email protected]
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