January 25, 2002
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
Though he's generally looking ahead toward goals his group has yet to fulfill, Mest songwriter Tony Lovado remembers the moment when he realized just how much his band has already accomplished.
"It was weird: I was doing an interview with somebody else in Chicago, and she was like, 'How does it feel to be one of the main influences on all of the new Chicago bands coming up?' " Lovado recalls. "I'd never even thought about that, but she was like, 'Every band that I interview names you guys as one of their influences!' To me, that's really freaky."
Though the guitarist-vocalist only recently reached the legal drinking age, he has already spent a third of his life as a member of Mest. He started playing music at age 7, after picking up the instruments his dad left laying in the basement. (The elder Lovado played in cover bands in their South Side neighborhood of Blue Island.)
Mest first came together in 1995. Other members came and went, including Tony's brother, but the lineup eventually solidified around his cousin, bassist Matt Lovado, and friends Nick Gigler on drums and Jeremiah Rangel on second guitar.
"I'm only 21 years old, and when people ask us how long we've been together and I tell them six and a half years, I almost think they don't believe me," Tony says. "So many bands don't last that long, and we're like, 'We're still just starting!' Me and Matt live across the street from each other, and Nick lives like two blocks away from me. When we get together to tour, it's like, 'Let's all go on vacation for two months!' "
But the band hardly treats music as a lark. In fact, Lovado is well versed in the intricacies of the music business circa 2002. He is frustrated by the current state of radio and the major labels--it's been two steps forward, one step back through much of Mest's career--but he is nonetheless determined to succeed.
Mest made its first big impact on the local scene three years ago when it opened a sold-out show at the House of Blues for ska-punk heroes Goldfinger. That band's singer, John Feldmann, became something of a mentor, securing a demo deal with Maverick Records (Madonna's company) and eventually producing Mest's major-label debut.
The group had already released one D.I.Y. recording, "Mo' Money, Mo' '40s," but it now considers 2000's "Wasting Time" to be its first "real" album. It spawned a minor hit with the charming dancehall ditty, "What's the Dillio?"
"We got signed and Q101 picked up our first single and it did good," Lovado says. "Then when we played our record release show, it sold out, and ever since, Chicago seems to have supported us."
Unfortunately, the bottom dropped out of the so-called "third-wave ska revival" shortly thereafter. This was never the only ingredient in Mest's musical stew--the group's high-octane pop-punk also includes hints of hip-hop and Midwestern hair-metal ("Richard Marxism" is the cheeky title of one tune)--but "ska" is now a dirty word.
"I don't really like to use the word 'ska,' " Lovado says. "I like to say 'reggae.' I mean, I like the Specials and Madness, but we're definitely more of a punk band than anything--a punk band with melodies." (Read: Blink-182 and Sum-41, both of whom Mest has toured with.)
"I'm a melody junkie," he continues. "If I hear a rad Incubus song, I may not like the band, but I'm like, 'Wow, the melody's cool!' The next time I write a song, that song might influence me, because I'm into songwriting and melodies more than, 'I've got to play fast, I've got to play hard.' I'm more about songwriting, and I just happen to like punk music because I'm 21 years old and I'm hyper as [heck], just like my fans. I'm sure as I get older the music might slow down. That seems to happen with every band."
Released late last year, the group's second Maverick effort, "Destination Unknown," is even better than the first. Thought the lyrics are full of the usual adolescent angst ("Frustrated with what's going on/I feel lost and I don't feel right," Lovado sings in the disc's opening seconds), the upbeat optimism of the music is a welcome alternative to the sturm und drang of nu-metal. But once again, the band seems out of step with the prevailing trends.
"We're not selling millions of records," Lovado says. "We have no radio play, and we're not on MTV. We've never done these big arena tours, and our record label doesn't have a lot of money any more because of all of the [corporate consolidation]. But we sold over 6,000 records our first week, and we've been maintaining sales of over 3,000 records a week since, and for a band of our standing to have sold over 17,000 records in a month is unheard of.
"Because we're on a major label, all the [record-store] buyers look at is radio play, and they see no radio play and say, 'Well, they're not gonna sell records.' But we've been touring our [butts] off, earning fans that way, and we have kids going into the stores requesting it. For us, this is what I've always wanted to do. That's how all the bands I look up to have earned what they've gotten."
Given Mest's position of influence among local bands, what advice does Lovado offer other up-and-comers?
"When you go to a major label, the truth is, it's strictly a business," he says. "You're just a business proposition--you're a product to them, and if you look good and you sell, then they kiss your [butt]. If nothing happens, then they move on to the next product. That's really the way it is. When you're on a major label, people think you have a million dollars behind you, but we've never had that, and anything we've accomplished, we've earned by doing it ourselves."
So where does he see Mest going in 2002?
"You know the title of our record? That's pretty much it," he says, referring to "Destination Unknown." "With our first record, we got the most adds out of any new band the first week we came out. We were on over half the radio stations, and it just bombed. Now things are going good--the new single ["Cadillac"] didn't do bad, though it wasn't huge--but we're selling records and we're touring and it's looking like we're gonna tour now through the summer and get either all or some of the next Warped tour.
"If we get dropped tomorrow, we'll just keep touring until we're done touring, record our own record, and then go back out and tour some more."
No wonder the kids find Mest inspirational.
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Other rock happenings of note on a sleepy January weekend: Chicago's doom/stoner-rock progenitors Trouble are reuniting for the first time in five years at 9 p.m. Saturday at Night Cap, 5007 W. Irving Park. Also on the bill: Lungbrush (performing it's last show), Smoke, Stonehenge and Yakuza. The occasion: A birthday celebration for Scott Davidson of Rebel Radiio, which may broadcast the show live. Call (773) 794-1317.
And showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, is a new 35mm print of Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell's controversial 1970 film "Performance." Mick Jagger stars as a faded rock superstar (what a stretch!) all wrapped up in a sex-magick fantasy inspired by Cammell's notorious godfather, Aleister Crowley. It screens at 6:15 and 8:15 p.m. tonight and 4:15, 6:15 and 8:15 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $8; $4 for Film Center members. For more information, call 312-846-2800.