Aug 31, 2005 at 12:00 am

A skittish butler with forced mannerisms and short, unkempt hair opens the home’s double doors. A butler. He looks barely old enough to shave and is clearly discomfited by his ill-fitting suit.

His “master,” Snowhite frontman Christian (just Christian), appears to have it made. At age 19.

His house is one of those suburban monsters, a custom-built, split-level-on-steroids, hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars beast of the sort shoring small lakes around Macomb County. He has a Mercedes and an SUV in the drive. The yard is smartly manicured.

The home’s interior is sleek, open and clean, loaded with cushy country comforts — vast recessed lighting, granite counters, fireplaces, up-to-the-moment furnishings, cabinets made of exotic wood and many bedrooms on multiple floors with exterior decks that offer views of, yes, a lake. You get the picture — digs you’d imagine inhabited by prosperous drug dealers or your friend’s loaded parents or some preening rap pinup on Cribs.

But before you judge this kid Christian as some silver-spooned and fortunate son, hold on.

His childhood wasn’t so suburban lily-soft. And it’s not his fault that his old man built a successful real estate concern and re-entered his kid’s life to fix him up with condos and a Coney Island franchise. What’s more, the kid is skilled.

See, Christian is kind of a one-man-band version of Todd Rundgren, or a much younger Brendan Benson. He’s a whey-faced and rangy boy-man who wrote, recorded, produced and played all the instruments and sang all the vocals on his debut Atlantic Records album, to be released in the first quarter of next year. There are no outside producers, songwriters or band members on the record, though Christian’s band does include four other dudes, and his A&R man at Atlantic says the only touch-up the label will do on the homespun record is remix tracks to “compete at radio.”

While Christian doesn’t sound like the gifted one-man-band Rundgren at all, his songs are as pop-chart-contemporary-sounding, and at times almost as experimental, as Rundgren’s were in 1972. But it’s not avant pop; it’s commercially unconcealed — kid siblings to the Strokes or Jimmy Eat World fans, or Fall Out Boy-heads will likely eat his shit up. It fits an up-to-the-moment pop cup mold — and then it doesn’t.

How did this skinny kid land a deal on a major label and get big management firms making huge promises and offers? He hasn’t gone the pay-your-dues indie label and fetid van tour route, much less done dog-shit shows at Detroit clubs. He got signed the old-fashioned way; he made a demo, stuck it in an envelope and mailed it to Atlantic Records in New York.

In the home’s walk-out basement (to the small lake) boy-butler Tony (no last name, just Tony) brings individually packaged Ding Dongs and assorted other sugary cakes out on a platter.

On one side of the basement, four gents of Snowhite (Christian, guitarist Thomas Amason, drummer Damon Pantfoeder, bassist Seth Anderson) splay out on two couches in front of a big-screen TV and stereo setup. (Newly married keyboardist Nathaniel Boone is off on a honeymoon.) Each sports good looks and a swimmer’s build, and could double as an OC extra.

They munch on the Ding Dongs and don’t say much unless questioned; they’re strangely reserved and obsequious, mostly letting Christian do the talking. And Christian’s quirky humor slowly reveals itself. Weirder, they say they’re not into booze and drugs, except for Pantfoeder who indulges in “the occasional beer.”

“We get girls around and watch them drink,” the 19-year-old Christian says with a discernible wink. “You need your wits about you when you work the video cameras.”

On the other side of the basement is Christian’s studio, a state-of-the-art Mac setup with pricey microphones, a drum kit, some tube guitar amps and a dominating, big-screen computer monitor that allows Christian to control the mouse while he’s recording his own drum tracks.

Christian wheels impatiently through his iPod, which is plugged into the stereo, and plays bits and pieces of his tunes — of the 150 he has arranged, recorded and mixed.

The songs are nearly as sugary as the crème-cakes on boy-butler’s tray. Instant sing-song and butterfly flutter pop; a young, if not eyebrow-raising, contemporary intermingling of the Beatles, Prince, the Cars, Jimmy Eat World, Fall Out Boy and even Phil Collins.

Tunes are crammed with remarkably well-arranged vocals and drumbeats, big distorted guitars, sparkly if not bizarre production twists (bending noises, pitched whoops and dips, sonic blips, between-verse chatter and the occasional trumpet, etc.). There’s little-girl-ready balladry, Crayola-smeared punk rock and power pop. Cheeky couplets are riddled with confession-booth innocence, and lots of shut-in, lonely-boy observations, running the chicks, pop-sex innuendo gamut: “Keep me cracking like a bubble, pop, pop, pop.” Much of this would sandwich nicely on a Laguna Beach sound track, and there’s a lurking songwriting base intimating that a greater musical range and lyrical depth is on the horizon.

If the idea of rock ’n’ roll as a powerful cultural reference point is lost forever, then Christian’s reference points are his own; from the vantage of a 21st century kid who has hermetically sequestered himself in his basement for years in quest of the perfect three-minute pop tune. He’s written an on-the-road, can’t-wait-to-see-you love song in “Sara,” though he’s not yet toured. It’s his imagination that makes the pop ditty plausible, and his writing and producing skills are years beyond his age. His warm, sometimes affected tenor is a smooth, youthful wail, and he’s a bashing guitarist, groove-worthy drummer and is accomplished at melodic, roller-coaster bass lines.

Affordable recording technology has allowed budding songwriters — those with no real-life experience because they’ve spent most of their short lives learning the tools of the craft — to market their wares on judgment-impaired Internet sites like MySpace and other nontraditional sales outlets. (The downside to this is the legion of idiots who fancy themselves stars, who make records and hawk them on their Web sites, complete with fabricated press quotes and hyperbolic bios.)

“Since I can remember, he’s always been recording,” Anderson, the 17-year-old bassist, says. “Every day on his computer. He’ll stay up for days and work on songs like Prince. What’s in his head has got to be perfect.”

Anderson, whose crimped and bobbed red mane renders him a slimmer Danny Partridge, graduated in June from Gross Pointe North High School. Anderson and Christian are cousins; his dad is Christian’s mom’s brother. (Keyboardist Boone is also related.) His face seems frozen in a permanent grin; it’s almost eerie. When quizzed on his role in the band, which sees his playing used only in live situations and not on record, he gushes. “I’m floating on air right now. I’m lovin’ it.”

Anderson later calls Christian a genius and “the mastermind.” And why wouldn’t he? Through Christian, the 17-year-old will get to rock stages the world over. Great work if you can get it.

How would Anderson answer a critic’s comment that perhaps the band has had everything handed to them? That they haven’t paid penance for the major-label opportunity of mass exposure and world travel?

“I’m lucky, I guess,” Anderson says, without missing a beat, or a grin.

Snowhite’s A&R (Artist and Repertoire) man at Atlantic Records is Danny Wimmer, who previously worked A&R at Sony-owned Epic, and had a big hand in the careers of Puddle of Mud and Limp Bizkit. After hearing the demos with Atlantic’s Leslie Dweck — who’s co-A&R on the Snowhite show — Wimmer was smitten with Christian and his “vision.”

After Christian sent Atlantic his demos and homemade performance videos, his mom, Crystal Lutz — who once ran with a gospel-pop vocal group — called and harangued the label.

“And she kept on calling,” Wimmer says. “So Leslie [Dweck] plays it and falls in love with it. I walk in the room when she was playing it and fall in love with it. And we fly out to Detroit to sign him.”

That was about seven months ago.

In the interim, Mom called Sony, and record biz bigwig Kaz Utsunomiya heard the tunes, flew out and immediately made Christian an offer, which he turned down because Utsunomiya didn’t think his band was ready. But the Sony offer only sweetened the Atlantic deal.

Christian’s getting music-biz savvy, learning to talk the knotty jargon of publishing and management offers. He says the deal he worked out with Atlantic is heavy on the back end, which is smart because Christian’s debt to the label is relatively small going in. He also has total control over the music. But Christian won’t go into figures, although he says the Sony offer upped his signing bonus.

“He got an unbelievable back end deal,” Wimmer says. “He did a deal that kind of invested into his future. The money goes toward marketing and touring. It wasn’t a deal that he got rich on. He came in and said, ‘I want to put the money where it’s gonna help my future,’ and that’s in the tour support and the marketing and publicists. He was very smart, and that’s the kind of artist we want to be involved with.”

And he drew talent management too; big concerns such as the Firm flew in and made offers. Christian’s going with San Diego-based Bill Silva Management, whose roster includes Jason Mraz and Dropping Daylight. Silva came to town and laid out for Christian exactly what he could do for the band. Christian agreed.

In this era when there are more bands making records than ever before and reportedly fewer people actually buying records, the going for Snowhite will be, in a word, daunting. The scrap heap is piled high with Killers and Jimmy Eat World rejects.

Most people have heard the tales about a music biz in woe, one beset with dipping record sales, label consolidation, illegal downloading, runaway CD piracy, crappy economic conditions, competition from video games and kids with too many options.

Figures released by the International Federation for the Phonographic Industry this year revealed that 2004 was the fifth straight year of falling global music sales. That doesn’t include ring tones and digital downloads. And it’s nearly impossible to quantify just how great the slump is at major labels — slews of recent “downsizing” layoffs are an indicator — or to what extent indie label successes, from the Shins to Norah Jones, have picked up the slack.

Wayne Sharp, of Boston-based Wilkins Management, has been nurturing the career of the Click Five, a new, young pop band on Lava/Atlantic. His early success with them has been big, in spite of the odds. The band’s debut last week entered the Billboard Top 200 charts at No. 15. Sharp says the prognosis is grim for young, developing bands. The quick-fix, bottom-line consciousness at major labels, which need hits to increase return, is a commerce-over-art attitude that hasn’t helped the development of actual artists.

“It just keeps getting tougher and tougher every year for the major labels,” Sharp says. “So they are like, ‘We gotta find a band that can sell.’ But it sounds like a band like Snowhite is going to have an easier time thanks to bands crossing over like Fall Out Boy. If it’s got that emo-pop sound to it and if it’s got enough polish that they can make it work on MTV ... But you know how it is; as soon as something’s hot, they need to find 10 just like it.

“There was an act signed to Lava/Atlantic called the Blackout Effect, that seemed a lot like your kid in Detroit,” Sharp continues. “This kid was from Philadelphia, and he wrote everything, recorded everything and was putting a band together to go out; and for whatever reason they pulled the record at the last minute. It’s jungle warfare out there for new bands.”

Sharp’s Click Five is doing well, which he acknowledges has much to do with the band’s first single, “Just the Girl,” which was written outside the band by Fountains of Wayne songsmith Adam Schlesinger (“That Thing You Do,” “Stacy’s Mom”).

“What I think you have to do to compete in the marketplace is you have to get what the band is instantly. You have to see the band, hear the songs and go, ‘OK, I get it.’ But if people don’t get it right away, you’re sunk.”

Of his Atlantic A&R man, Wimmer, Christian says, “He gets it. It’s all about getting the music. If you don’t get it, you just think it’s another overproduced pop thing.”

A&R by definition is all about nurturing careers, in theory. It describes those at labels in charge of discovering and developing talent. Wimmer says he and Atlantic are dedicated to artist development, a seemingly antiquated idea lost on major labels consumed with that ever-looming bottom line. The rise of the indie label culture has taught that homegrown music and local repertoire are mighty healthy. Just look at the White Stripes, the glimmering example of a real indie-to-major triumph.

Are the big labels changing with the times? Wimmer says his label is. And he’s committed to Snowhite.

“Listen, it’s really about discovering timeless artists that have the ability to write more than one song,” Wimmer says. “If you want to sell records, you’ve got to have six or seven songs on there that are undeniable. It is a tough time out there, but I think Atlantic is a true music company now. It’s an A&R-driven company and a very creative environment. I think it’s all about getting back to what is the key to the music business, which is artist development.

“We signed Christian because of his vision. There’s something special about him.”

And that “vision”?

“We are just a vehicle that he drives — this isn’t about us putting our hands in and trying to figure out how to get this guy out there,” Wimmer says. “This is a guy who really knows what he wants. He’s a go-getter, man.”

Christian’s bassist puts his leader’s manifesto into rock ’n’ roll band terms: “His vision is to take over the world.”

When asked just what this “vision” is that everybody’s going on about, Christian says without hesitation, “My vision is to bring back songs. Radio sucks right now and I just want to bring back songs.”

So what does he think separates him from other contemporary bands?

“I’m not afraid to be experimental. I don’t care what I put in my songs. I don’t care if it doesn’t even have real drums. So many guys are like, ‘Oh, I want to record analog on tape, I want to do this, do that. I don’t care. It’s whatever fits. It’s music, it evolves. You don’t have to use all this stuff to get good sounds.

“But,” he adds, “it’s cool to use old stuff to get good sounds.”

Wimmer says Atlantic is taking a decidedly more “organic” route with Snowhite, meaning that nonstop van touring — physically taking the music to the kids — will come. “Snowhite still has to pay their dues. This is the thing; people have to discover him. Just because he’s on Atlantic doesn’t mean ... I think all artists have to pay their dues. And he’s about to. You can’t blame Christian for having a successful family. I only looked at him as a music-lover and kid with a great, great work ethic. And that’s what I see in him.

“It’s important to protect his integrity,” Wimmer continues. “I believe that right now we could go to radio and to MTV and get this played. But I want [listners] to get invested in this on their own without Atlantic cramming the band down their throats. This artist is not about the first week; this is a marathon. This record is something we want to grind out for the next two years.”

Christian has a flair for the absurd, flip tartness and chaff that’s a little arrogant and a little naive but ready-made for rock ’n’ roll.

The idea of Tony the boy-butler is not pretentious or pompous; it’s about Christian’s warped sense of self-mockery, his way of poking fun at his current standing in the world. Tony, who’s a longtime pal of the family, will accompany the band on its tours too, but nobody seems to know in what capacity.

And Christian, a guy who says he used to regularly read the Bible and knows everything in it, has been spotted in public wearing large, downy angel wings attached to his back. “I’m a messiah trying to save music,” he says half-jokingly.

The one-time prom king at South Lake High in St. Clair Shores wears a Chanel costume diamond earring and a faux diamond belt — a sparkle of cheeky white-boy bling. His dark hair is short and gently spiked. His skin is perfect. From a distance he could be Killers frontman Brandon Flowers.

His polished élan hints that he’s only a Prince-like shut-in to a point. “I hook up with girls a lot,” Christian says with a sheepish laugh. “But no girlfriend; I just don’t like drama. I’ll wait till I’m older, you know what I mean?”

When pressed, Christian (born Christian Berishaj), who grew up in Eastpointe, says he doesn’t remember much of his childhood, but that he was living with his first stepdad who, he says, “was on drugs” and beat his mother. “So then my mom left him and we were on welfare.”

He got his first guitar from his real dad, Nick Berishaj, in the fourth grade, and plucked along to Third Eye Blind. He spent his spare time writing songs, and later he began recording them on gear purchased by his pop, who had by then re-entered his life. “In the middle of all this stuff, my dad was buying me music and recording stuff,” Christian says. “I got ProTools in seventh grade, I think.”

Mom — now happily remarried, she says — describes her son as a musical wunderkind who, for example, picked up the violin and learned to play it in days. Christian started Snowhite to showcase his songs, and staged neighborhood garage shows. Seven years ago, he taught Anderson how to play his songs on bass, because his band needed a bassist. “I’ve been with him ever since,” Anderson says.

Christian picked up other instruments along the way, including drums, and played bass in his uncle’s band, Lucas Jones. The uncle, Nathaniel Boone, who’s in his mid-20s, is now Snowhite’s keyboardist.

When Christian nailed the Atlantic deal, he agreed with Wimmer that his band wasn’t musically up to snuff. So two of the original Snowhite members, drummer Samuel Anderson and guitarist Tony Slewinski, were shown the door six months later. “They just didn’t get better, so we had to replace ’em,” Christian says.

The decision wasn’t painless: Samuel is Christian’s cousin and Anderson’s brother, and Slewinski is Anderson’s best friend.

“It wasn’t really working out,” Anderson says. “It wasn’t all tight and crisp. I was sad to see them go. They were sad too, but they’ve moved on.”

Enter 22-year-old drummer Dorman Pantfoeder and 20-year-old guitarist Thomas Amason. Atlantic flew the pair to Detroit from Jacksonville, Fla., for an audition. Wimmer had known them from a previous band he was looking at. Christian’s attempts to find musicians around Detroit was fruitless.

“Christian was like, ‘Danny, I need John Bonham to play drums with me,’” Wimmer says. “So I knew these two guys that Christian sort of knew of from MySpace. After the first day, I get a call from Christian going, ‘These are my guys. It was chemistry right off the bat.’”

The new addition happened less than a month ago, and now the band is set. This lineup makes its Detroit debut this week.

Pantfoeder and Amason are holed up near Royal Oak, with a two-seater bike — a gift from Anderson’s pop — for transportation.

“We ride that double bike everywhere. I swear, everybody thinks we’re gay,” guitarist Amason says. “I was on the double bike the other day and had my first run-in with Detroit thugs. I was wearing a pink shirt and checked shoes.”

They left their homes and girlfriends in Florida for the Snowhite gig. And they won’t see any label money until the touring starts. They have no regrets. “We’re living on the power and faith of rock ’n’ roll,” Pantfoeder says.

Christian feels a financial and personal responsibility toward the two guys who left their homes, families and girlfriends to play his songs.

“I’ve got to help them out,” Christian says. “Thomas had to have his wisdom teeth taken out yesterday. I had to go do that. So, there’s certain stuff you’ve got to do and certain stuff you let them take care of. When you gotta help out, you gotta help out. If Atlantic Records paid for it, I’m going to be paying for it in the long run, anyway.”

Later this month, Christian will head to the U.K. to meet with labels to talk about releasing the record overseas, then the band will head over, after which the U.S. touring will start.

Does Christian have concerns about critics and detractors who might carp that he’s not paid his musical dues?

“People that have been touring are evolving,” he says. “I’ve evolved recording. That’s all I do. I’ve done more recording than anybody sitting in their van. I’ve been in my basement recording all the time. Before school, after school; I’d skip school to record. Whenever I would have an idea. That’s all I would do.

“When you have money, you know it’s not about the money,” says the teenager whose luxury home is paid off. “Music is my passion.”

He pauses, considers, then adds, “Some people give me shit. I’m just blessed, I guess. Or lucky.”

What if the record flops?

Without pause, Christian answers slowly, in his wonderfully effete rock ’n’ roll way, “I don’t how it would flop.”

The singer-songwriter is aloof to what’s going on musically in Detroit, or anywhere, for that matter. He likes the White Stripes (“yeah, they’re cool”) and Brendan Benson (“yeah, he’s cool”). The last album he bought was Purple Haze by rapper Cam’ron. He likes Prince, Phil Collins and Madonna. He says Radiohead’s OK Computer is the best record ever made, followed by Magical Mystery Tour. He loves the Beatles, “just ’cause they didn’t have a bad song.”

In the basement studio, the band — without the honeymooning Noone — plugs and rips with bouncy aplomb through a few songs, jettisoning any preconceived notion of sculpted record company snap-together pap.

Pantfoeder has real hand-in-pocket groove quotient — a skill learned after doing time in a Florida industrial band — and plays with an earphoned click track for triggers when the keyboardist is absent. Christian bashes his guitar and shouts accordingly, as do bassist Anderson and guitarist Amason. There are leaps, bends, flyaway arms and sweat. They sound gelled, like they’ve been together much longer than just a few weeks.

All the while, Tony the boy-butler stands back by the pool table and says nothing, his hands crossed below his belt as if he’s receiving communion, as if Christian is his spiritual bellwether.

Snowhite aren’t guys bursting testicles trying to be angsty or depraved. This is loud choruses put to chords and songs about the burbs, about the girls and the shopping, about the frustrations of adolescence and fledging adulthood, about their imminent loss of innocence. Even the name implies innocence. The songs’ themes are no less or more relevant than any other record currently riding the charts. It is what it is. Its weight in value and meaning can only be discerned by a teenaged girl or boy in ways that can never, ever be defined. It’s pop music.

“A good chorus drives me; I live to write choruses,” Christian says later, biting into a Ding Dong. “When I get a good chorus, I splurge my pants.”


Appears Sunday, Sept. 4, at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700) with Paper Street Saints, Cherry Monroe and Free Element.

Brian Smith is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]