It’s jarring at first to meet members of the Birmingham, Ala., rock quintet Virgos Merlot eye to eye, face to face, one by one.
Did one of them break into Marilyn Manson’s toiletry bag and run off with his lifetime supply of zombie contact lenses? Did they get their hands on a bad bottle of Visine? Did an experiment with Wite-Out go horribly wrong? Or were they extras in the teen fright flick “Disturbing Behavior”?
All fears of a vampire invasion fly out the window after hearing them, in their polite Southern drawls, discuss their Atlantic Records debut album, “Signs of a Vacant Soul” (due March 2), their unbridled potential and the overwhelming fan reaction up to now.
“(Atlantic) needed a big rock band,” lead singer-guitarist Brett Hestla said. “Rush has its audience, but kids pretty much don’t listen to them, so they needed somebody new, and STP (Stone Temple Pilots) has been having problems for a while. They’re looking for us to come and step up to the plate. I think we can do it.
“It’s scary that so much is riding on this, but I feel really good about it. The way people are reacting at shows, it’s very scary.”
Drummer J.D. Charlton, in particular, was taken aback by fans at a recent New York show opening for Fuel.
“Girls were actually crying,” he said, “and they don’t even have our album yet. They were screaming and yelling the minute we walked onto the stage. We just stood there and stared at them, and they were going crazy, just nuts.”
Back home in Birmingham, where Remy Zero and Brother Cane rule, Virgos Merlot – Hestla, Charlton, guitarist Deacon Ted Ledbetter, guitarist Jason Marchant and bassist Chris Dickerson – initially had a tough time.
“Birmingham’s a great town, a nice place to live and there’s some really great people there,” Hestla said, “but it’s a weird music scene. It’s kind of like you have to leave for the town to really embrace you. They don’t accept you as a real thing until you go after it and move somewhere else, get signed or whatever, but after that, the town goes, ‘Yeah, they’re from here.’ ”
The band was a veteran of the club circuit by the time it ventured to South Carolina last year for a gig that changed things dramatically.
“We did a show there and Creed ended up opening up for us because their show got rained out,” Charlton said. “We met their manager, Jeff Hanson, gave him a CD; he brought us down for a few shows with them. He told us, ‘Go do me a demo,’ and we did a 10-song demo that’s basically our record. Then we went back and added a couple more songs.
“He signed us to his management company and we were there for like one month, and in that time, we did one showcase at the House of Blues in Orlando and, four songs in, we got signed to Atlantic.”
The 12 tracks on “Signs of a Vacant Soul” are straight-and-to-the-point rock ‘n’ roll. At 3 to 4 minutes apiece, they’re lean and mean and ready for radio, particularly “Kiss My Disease,” “The Cycle” and “Gain.”
“We’ve been writing songs for a long time,” Hestla said. “Instead of waiting on them to be edited for radio, we just went ahead and did it ourselves. Then you’re not disappointed when they cut your favorite part of the song to get on the radio.
“We were really torn. There were a lot of songs that didn’t make the record that we really thought should’ve, so it was a tough decision of what songs should be on there. We had so much left over, our next record’s just about ready.”
Aside from the obvious visual impact, Virgos Merlot wants to leave its musical imprint.
“Everybody we work with, everyone who worked on the album, we’re all young and hungry. We are really excited about bringing rock back,” Hestla said. “You get a feeling, you hear so many horror stories about big labels and how much trouble it is, but Atlantic’s really gone out of their way to make sure that we know that we’re on top of their list.
“It took years and years for us to get as seasoned as we are, to meet the right people, and finally it paid off. We were involved in situations before where we were closed to being signed, but I look back now and I’m so glad that it’s now instead of then because the record’s so good, the material’s a lot better.”
BWF (before we forget): Prepare to toast Virgos Merlot on the Web @ www.virgosmerlot.com.