If ever there was a defining moment for Splender, it came at the Zetafest in Miami.

The New York rock quartet, whose Todd Rundgren-produced debut Columbia “Halfway Down the Sky” was released in May 1999, shared the festival bill with Def Leppard, Everclear, Orgy and Shades Apart.

“We went on earlier in the day, and it was in this huge baseball stadium,” lead guitarist Jonathan Svec said recently. “I guess that particular day they thought they’d be smart and lay down tarps all over the field where the kids were so they wouldn’t be throwing mud. But within a few minutes of the band playing, all these kids rolled back the tarps and started going at it, digging to China. The mud was everywhere. I had a little video camera onstage, and you can see these divots of mud flying up onstage.

“It looked like a swamp by the time we were finished. I got hit in the head; (singer) Waymon (Boone) got hit in the head. We had mud in our teeth. And you would think someone would say, ‘Okay, what the fuck are you doing? Stop throwing mud.’ Waymon yelled out to the crowd, ‘Is that all you got?!’ Everyone involved with the festival thought, ‘Oh, man, what’s he doing? He’s lost his mind.’ It turned out to be one of the better performances that day.”

It’s also an example of Splender’s fighting spirit. Most bands would throw up their hands in disgust if their album took more than a year to go anywhere, but Svec and his band mates – Boone, bassist James Cruz and drummer Marc Slutsky – are just happy to still be in the game.

Their first single, “Yeah, Whatever,” charted briefly last year on Billboard’s modern rock tracks chart and the album wasn’t exactly a sales flop, but a piece was definitely missing from the puzzle. Rather than chalk it up to experience, Columbia ordered a video for the follow-up single, “I Think God Can Explain.” Directed by Chris Applebaum (Lit, Semisonic, Mighty Mighty Bosstones), the video landed on VH1 and MTV, and soon the song took off at radio.

“I Think God Can Explain,” a pensive power-pop ballad, was the top debuting single on Billboard’s pop Hot 100 chart at No. 71 the week of June 10. It’s now poised at No. 62.

Svec says they never lost the faith.

“At first, we thought that everything wasn’t clicking with every single section of what we were doing,” he said. “We were doing our part by playing live and touring, and we thought, ‘Well, maybe the record company’s not pushing us enough,’ or maybe it’s just one of those things that’s going to take some time, which is ultimately what it turned out to be. We didn’t have one of those candy-coated songs that took off out of the box; it’s one of those things that took a little growth and caught on to people.

“This is one of those things that creeps up on you, and in a way, I like it when it happens like that for bands. Stuff that creeps up on you has a little bit more longevity and honesty to it. It’s an immediate realization that it’s something that someone’s not really used to. It’s something slightly different but sticks in your mind after it’s been around for a while longer.

“We’re very positive. As a band, we’re very used to being centered on what we want, and I guess we seem to find the hard ways of doing things. But, ultimately, after all the mud that gets thrown on us and all the hurdles we have to jump, we wind up being pretty happy where we are. We work very hard, and we believe in what we’re doing.”

With radio ga-ga over the cut-and-paste pop of Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync, Splender just hoped it could slip through somehow, Svec says.

“We see the people and hear what the fans say at the shows and on the Web site,” he said. “That helps reiterate what you’re doing. It affirms what you’re doing when someone says ‘Oh, my god, that song means the world to me,’ and it’s more than one person.

“It wasn’t such a negative that it wasn’t blowing up right away. Previously, even before we had the record out, we were getting used to that because our record had been delayed by a few months. It had an original August (1998) release date, then it was delayed until October, then November. Then it didn’t come out until May last year. I was like, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ But this is the business, so get used to it.

“We’ve been touring nonstop ever since. Firsthand, that’s how we’ve seen how things have grown and improved. You look at the record sales and the radio adds and that’s factual proof, but it’s great when you go to these shows and you get more fans and more people singing your songs and a lot more hits on the Web site.”

Splender’s popularity surely will spread this summer once it hooks up in early July with Third Eye Blind and Vertical Horizon for a major tour.

Svec is shocked to hear that Entertainment Weekly, in its June 16 issue, asked the musical question: “Who the #@%! are Vertical Horizon?” and gave lead singer Matt Scannell an instant charisma rating of 3 (out of a possible 5).

“Matt’s a totally cool guy, and he’s got the shiny bald to boot,” Svec said. “But when I hear things about ‘faceless bands,’ I guess it intertwines with the whole one-hit wonder thing. You get a group or a song you hear on the radio and everybody knows that song, but you could say you may know what the singer looks like. But ‘do you know who the bass player is?’ ‘No, I don’t, but the song’s great.’ That’s a rut bands can get into when they’re not promoted properly or there’s something image-wise that’s not coming across.

“Maybe one of the reasons why we didn’t propel as fast in the beginning was because we didn’t have a video. We were supposed to do a video for ‘Yeah, Whatever’ originally. We had one slow week at radio and Columbia was like, ‘Maybe we’ll wait a little longer.’ Of course, the following week, we had a great week at radio. Thank goodness we did a video for ‘I Think God Can Explain.’

“Everyone’s so used to watching videos and seeing bands exposed like that. It really does help when you get that kind of promotion; it puts a face with the song and the people can suddenly affiliate the music with the band. We are a band, we are a rock band, so I think it’s important to make that connection rather than a lot of these pop acts that are just singers in front of tracks, where the music is all digital or a plethora of different studio musicians. There’s a lot more organicness and human quality to a band like us and Vertical Horizon.”

THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “The first one given to me was ‘Kiss Alive,’ but then I vaguely remember buying a Queen record at a Woolworths. I love Queen, they’re one of my all-time favorite bands.”

THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “Van Halen for the ‘Diver Down’ record. My friend’s family got us tickets, but the concert was canceled because Eddie (Van Halen) had broken his wrist or sprained it or something and it was put off for four or five months. I was crushed; I thought it would never happen, and when it finally did, it was at the Brendan Byrne Arena, which is now the Continental Arena in New Jersey. It was amazing.”

THE LAST CD I BOUGHT: “A Perfect Circle’s ‘Mer de Noms.’ I love Maynard (James Keenan) and I love Tool. It’s a very cool record. It has a lot of the characteristics of Tool, but the music is a bit more gracious and forgiving and a little more feminine. It has a nice quality that’s needed right now; it’s not just all tear-your-face-apart kind of thing.