Chalk FarM lead singer-guitarist Michael Duff has seen the horrors of the music industry, and now he’s finally cultivating a dream.
Duff and bassist Orlando Sims formed the Los Angeles-based pop-rock quartet two years ago after a disastrous stint in another band. Duff trembles over the mere mention of what he and Sims endured.
“It was a real nightmare. That’s the easiest way to describe it,” Duff said recently. “It was with a very egotistical, control-freak producer and the whole thing was geared toward getting ‘the deal.’ He kind of forgot it was supposed to be fun and that there was music involved.”
Fed up with the situation, Duff and Sims left the group and forged ahead with their own project.
“The whole premise was just to do what we wanted,” Duff said. “We just figured if we were 50 years old and playing for 10 of our good friends in some little dive, then we’d be happy as long as we were doing what we wanted, because the previous couple of years we hated what we were doing.”
Duff, Sims and Chalk FarM bandmates Trace Ritter (guitar) and Toby Scarbrough (drums) are doing it their way with their Columbia Records debut album, “notwithstanding,” and are seeing the light of a radio day with the AOR hit “Lie On Lie.” They also have opened for the Goo Goo Dolls, toured with Dishwalla and the Refreshments and are in the midst of a tour with Better Than Ezra.
It doesn’t get any better than this.
Duff laughs when recalling the lean years after he and Sims broke away from the pre-Chalk FarM band.
“We were doing just coffeehouse stuff, acoustic-based, and we were borrowing a drummer from a friend’s band called Moonpools and Caterpillars, who are now on Elektra,” he said. “We were playing some shows and he broke his wrist snowboarding a couple days before a show we had, so we had to scramble.
“I remembered seeing Toby playing at a party at a friend’s house, so I called my friend and it turned out that Toby was living there at the house. He came out and played that night, and he was amazing and he’s been with us ever since.”
After a year together, the trio felt there was something missing from equation.
“We realized what we were writing was like demanding more sonically,” Duff said, “so we decided to get another guitar player. We heard Trace playing with this band, and we got to talking between sets. He’s like, ‘Well, here’s my number.’ We started playing right away.
“It’s that cliche, it really did click. It was a weird, magical thing.”
It was so magical that Chalk FarM developed a word-of-mouth following on the nightclub circuit, and the record companies came swooping in. One fan who became a friend was Dave Weiderman of Guitar Center; he handed a copy of their demo to producer Matt Hyde (Porno For Pyros), and it eventually moved on to even higher stakes with Columbia’s involvement.
“It’s interesting, this is an industry that’s so really based on fear,” Duff said, “where people are afraid to do something, but then if somebody else does it, then they’re afraid not to do something.
“There were, apparently, a whole bunch of people interested, according to our attorney, but they were all just waiting. Along came Benjie Gordon, our A&R at Columbia, and they flew us out to New York. They were all so passionate about what they do. Our attorney said we could go back to L.A. and start the bidding thing or just start the ball rolling.
“It didn’t make any sense for us to wait. It’s Columbia Records, for god’s sake, not Ned’s Records. If anybody could do something, Columbia could.”
Patience is a virtue when marketing a tidy guitar pop band. That’s why Columbia is taking its time with Chalk FarM, Duff said.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, the song ‘Lie On Lie’ is so strong,’ but it would always come up, ‘What about the band? There’s a whole record here,’ ” Duff said. “What I think they were afraid of is that if it went too fast, it would be just a song, that people wouldn’t know anything about the band, so they’re expecting this to be a slow builder.
“We’re really in it for the long run. We’re not in it to make a couple of bucks and fade away. We want to be doing this for quite a while.”