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June 23rd, 2010 CASEY JARMAN | Featured Stories
 

The Band That Wouldn’t Die

Critics hate it, radio won’t play it, but thanks to its legion of rural and suburban fans, Floater lives on.

     
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ROCKIN’ THE SUBURBS: Floater’s Rob Wynia, Pete Cornett and Dave Amador (left to right). IMAGE: Darryl James

Not everything from Portland is considered cool.

Floater, a hard-rock band that formed in Eugene 17 years ago and relocated to Portland in 1998, is a fine example. The group’s sparse mentions in local media are as likely to write it off as a grunge leftover with an empty-headed fan base as they are to praise its staying power. More often, there’s stubborn silence: Floater doesn’t get play on popular national music blogs or garner articles in hard-rock magazines, it has never been seriously courted by a major label, and it’s largely ignored by regional press and radio; if you call up a record store south of Chico or east of Boise and ask a clerk if he’s heard of Floater, you’ll probably be greeted with a big fat no. “Floater was a band that played big rooms, and I didn’t understand at all how they filled those rooms. They got no press at all,” remembers Seattle’s City Arts magazine editor Mark Baumgarten, who worked as WW’s own music editor from 2003 to 2006. When badgered to give his own opinion on the band’s music, Baumgarten admits he hasn’t listened much, saying what most critics will only say off the record: “I would talk shit about them all day if I cared.”

Yet here in the Northwest, Floater is famous. The throwback, semi-theatrical rock group has in the past sold out the 1,200-capacity Crystal Ballroom two nights in a row. Its fans get Floater tattoos and buy up each new album and T-shirt design (the group netted around $2,200 at a tour stop two weeks ago). The band’s shows are a rite of passage for young Northwest audiences. Perhaps most impressively, Floater can pull into any town off the beaten touring path from Seattle to Northern California—places like Spokane, Bend and Medford—and draw hundreds of rabid fans from age 5 to 50.


KIND OF LIKE CAMPING: Pete Cornett unpacks gear in Nevada City, Calif. IMAGE: Casey Jarman

Jill Rone, a 23-year-old community college student in Medford, is one of them. She’s followed the band—often literally, throughout Oregon and Northern California—for almost a decade. “My entire growth, mentally, from a teenager to an adult has been spent listening to Floater,” she says via telephone between drags on a cigarette. “There’s an energy that only gets released at a Floater show. Everything that’s pent up—all of that is forgotten and it’s just being immersed…being completely overcome. So what if I’m getting the shit kicked out of me in the mosh pit?”

The Northwest has produced other regionally famous groups over the years, from Paul Revere and the Raiders in the ’60s to Floater contemporaries the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies (pre-“Zoot Suit Riot”) in the ’90s, but in the Internet age, the phenomenon is getting rarer. In 2010, Floater is an anomaly. Even frontman Rob Wynia can’t quite figure out the band’s peculiar place in Northwest music. “We’re completely singular,” he says. “I’ve had show promoters and record-label people tell me they’ve never heard of something like this. Especially after 17 years. It’s a mystery.”

It’s a mystery the band needs to unravel soon. Floater’s new CD, Wake, is its first major self-financed and self-released album. The band took out thousands on credit to pay for the disc and the new merchandise accompanying it. And after years of being self-managed or run (sometimes ineptly) by close friends, Floater hired largely untested Portland PR man/label head Alex Steininger in early 2009 to take it to the next level. Stagnating as a Northwest-only band, Steininger says, isn’t an option: “The band realizes that at a certain point, numbers are going to start dwindling.” With families and mortgages to worry about—the band is a full-time gig for all three of its members—going national is the only way to ensure Floater can stay alive for another 17 years.

But right now, while Steininger tries to swing licensing deals and contracts with national booking agents, Floater is sticking to what it knows: touring the Northwest. I spent three days on the road with the band—a routine tour that hit an outdoor festival in Nevada City, Calif., an ex-bowling alley in Medford and an in-store performance in Eugene—to try to understand the Floater phenomenon.


FANS FOR LIFE: Dizzy Boulant (L) and Trisha Malan show their Floater tats.

A red-and-white Ford Club Wagon XL—’95 or ’96, no one’s quite sure—and its attached stubby, 12-foot-long black trailer waits for its pilots in a puddle-pocked strip of grass in front of Dave Amador’s home just off Southeast 82nd Avenue.

Today the wagon’s passengers are Amador, the group’s olive-skinned, neatly groomed guitarist; frontman Wynia, who just dug a rust-stained white Aussie explorer’s cap from a box in the trailer and said, “Ah, sweet!”; and drummer Pete Cornett, whose ponytail flows out from beneath a gray ballcap. All three men are 40 years old. They communicate with one another in a shorthand composed of technical music talk, inside jokes and quotes from their favorite TV shows. Rounding out the group is tour manager, driver and sound guy Don Lindsey, a self-described asshole who will spend much of the trip talking about cars.

The van, itself a veteran of nine years of touring, features a customized extended roof strung with Christmas lights, two bunks for sleeping, an oft-courted, female-voiced GPS unit named Maggie, a DVD player (the van’s centerpiece, running endless episodes of Tim & Eric Awesome Show and Flight of the Conchords) and a scary number of customized electrical outlets. This is home. The band pulls out of Portland, Cornett fires up a two-disc collection of Will Ferrell’s Saturday Night Live sketches to pass the time, and soon we’re driving through Eugene.

The band’s creation story is fittingly straightforward. Cornett, new to town after following a girlfriend from his home in the Bay Area to Eugene, liked to read musician-wanted ads for kicks. When he saw Wynia’s—which described the singer-bassist’s heady classic-rock influences like the Who and Pink Floyd—something clicked. “That’s the first and only time I’ve ever pulled a tab,” Cornett says of tearing off the phone number to respond to the ad. The pair hit it off so well that Wynia helped Cornett land a “shitty job” at the steel factory where he worked. An empathetic boss let the two store their gear in an unused corner of the factory and jam there at night.

When the new band’s original guitarist got drunk and ruined an early show at Eugene dive bar/venue John Henry’s, Amador—a face in the crowd that night—stepped in. Floater was born. Two years later, it was Eugene’s hottest band, selling out the 400-capacity WOW Hall with regularity and making small trips up and down I-5 to places like Chico, Calif., where a radio programmer for a now-defunct syndicated Dallas radio station would happen upon them and—unbeknownst to the band—get a song called “The Sad Ballad of Danny Boy,” from Floater’s 1995 record, Glyph, in rotation in cities across America. The attention from Chico spread to much of the rest of Northern California, and Floater was embraced there as an honorary local band—a title it enjoys to this day.

The mountainous hills outside Nevada City, Calif., are murder on Floater’s van. A 12-hour drive and a five-hour nap after leaving Portland, and the California sun is beating down as the wagon inches up a hill. It smells like smoke in the cabin, and the brake lights on the trailer have given out for no discernible reason. This is nowhere, but it’s a beautiful sort of nowhere—a skinny, twisting road surrounded by tangles of green and brown underbrush on one side, with ominous walls of rock on the other.

Finally, there’s a flat, straight stretch of road. Lindsey backs the trailer down a dirt driveway and parks behind a clearing just smaller than a baseball field. Home plate is a wooden stage where scruffy locals are running cables, climbing ladders and smoking weed on the job. Just up the hill is a schoolhouse built in 1875 that serves as a VIP lounge for the band and staff. Hanging overhead as you approach the amphitheater is an imposing vinyl banner that reads, “House of Floater.”

All of this may seem like a lot of effort for an evening concert featuring just two bands—Floater and surprisingly good local high-school jam-rock group the Shreds—but promoter Jesse King knows what he’s doing. This is the third annual show he’s done here with Floater; the first two were all-day festival-style engagements. “But everyone just wanted to see Floater,” he says. This year tickets are $20, and the final head count is somewhere near 450. It’s a cavalcade of metalheads, old hippies and longhaired teens. These are Floater’s people. Two giggling teenage girls look a touch out of place, so I ask them how they heard about Floater. “My dad’s a big fan,” says 19-year-old Ashley. “He brought me to it last year, and I was like, ‘Hell, yeah, let’s go again.’”

As the opening band wraps up its set, Wynia is in the makeshift schoolhouse green room talking about a historical novel called The Pillars of the Earth. History and politics are two of Wynia’s favorite subjects (his father was a speechwriter for President Nixon, the junior Wynia tells me later, until the senior Wynia—liberal in his politics—“just couldn’t do it anymore”). Amador comes out of the bathroom with dark eyeliner circles around his eyes, silently handing the eyeliner tube to Wynia, who sets it down and continues his excited rant about the book before offering the tube to Cornett (who declines on the grounds the audience “won’t notice behind my glasses anyway”). The eyeliner thing, Wynia tells me later, is part tribute to the 1979 film adaptation of the Who’s Quadrophenia album. But then Wynia has been wearing eyeliner since high school, when bullies made fun of him for it (as well as his love of Dungeons & Dragons). “From 20 feet away from stage, it actually looks really cool,” he says.


BOY BAND: Wynia, Cornett and Amador hanging backstage at the Senator Theater in Chico, Calif., 2009. IMAGE: Courtesy of Floater

When the band takes the stage at about 10 pm, the crowd—silhouetted by stage lights in the darkness—is packed in tight and chanting. Scattered puffs of white smoke shoot up into moonlight as Wynia—who has smeared the eyeliner onto his cheeks like a heyday Adam Ant—mouths noises into a talkbox for the Rush-esque opening atmospherics of “Concentrate,” the first track on Wake. Cornett starts in on the djembe drum, and it’s clear that things are going to get pretty trippy. But when Amador enters the mix, the song turns to something more akin to a metallic version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Whatever it is, the crowd loves it. “I tried to see the light,” Wynia sings in his low register. “I gloried in the night/ And I can only say that I’m alive.”

Floater goes on to play its new album front to back, which takes an hour. “We’re going to take a quick break and come back,” Wynia then tells the crowd. “We’re not even halfway done with you yet.” The band’s second set features a slew of crowd favorites, and when the stage lights fire at full power, they reveal the thrilled audience: skinny, awkward kids with scraggly goatees; large girls with hemp choke-chains; and crew-cut, thirtysomething muscle-bound jocks with tribal tattoos. They are blissfully unaware that their favorite band is treated like a joke by trendsetters in places like Portland and Seattle. Nor would they care if you told them. The connection between the band and the audience is intense and indivisible—Floater feeds off its crowd, giving as good as it gets. Dancing fans kick up clouds of sweaty dirt and weed smoke as they bounce. After nearly 2½ hours onstage, Floater encores with a convincing, blistering take on the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” and another early favorite, the uncharacteristically chugging “Cinema.”

When Floater comes off the stage, the trio is buzzing, both with excitement and an unidentified home-brew concoction they call “Janis Juice.” Wynia talks with fans, then shuffles off into the darkness behind the band’s equipment trailer. “People make so much of this,” Wynia tells me, wiping dust and sweat from his brow. “But it’s simple. It’s like sex. You just have to let it happen, and hopefully they get off and you get off. It’s just rock ’n’ roll.”

The sun is rising by the time everyone has rolled into the van for a few hours of sleep.

The venue in Medford is a 34,000-square-foot bowling alley-turned-youth-arts center called Main 1. Two days from now, Korn will play in the center’s gymnasium. There’s speculation this could hurt tonight’s ticket sales, even with local screamo/hardcore favorites Dryseason and Tallboy opening the show. The Floater crew doesn’t seem too concerned. Neither do the fans already in the building. When Tallboy’s frontman asks the crowd if it’s ready for Floater, teenage girls in emo-band T-shirts and fortysomething bikers respond with the same enthusiasm: a roar that reverberates over the backroom television hum. These are Floater’s people, too.

While the band’s detractors use words like “butt rock” and “grunge” to describe Floater’s music, it’s actually incredibly hard to pin down the group’s sound.

While its early albums showed stripes of metal and found the band dabbling in the art of the rock opera, it has since grown to include shades of prog rock, shoegaze and radio pop—even traces of funk and reggae show up (Wynia occasionally does his best Bob Marley “Way-ooh, way-ooh-oh-oh,” and the crowd responds appropriately).

Steininger, the band’s manager, thinks of this as a strength. “He tried to pitch us to people by saying that we could open for Rob Zombie or Sheryl Crow,” Wynia says. “That was never perceived as a good thing.”


(Left) IT’S LIKE CHRISTMAS: A Medford fan offers Wynia a bag of weed for his autograph. (Right) HELLO, EUGENE!: Floater plays an in-store at Eugene’s CD World. IMAGES: Casey Jarman

Floater knows how instrumental playing within a genre can be to a band’s success. The trio shared a practice space with the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies when the Eugene band’s swing single “Zoot Suit Riot” became an international hit in 1998. While the Daddies toured worldwide, Floater—whose label, Elemental Records, was more or less a one-man operation—stayed largely in the Northwest. “There’s this perception that we’re really holy and the reason we’re independent is because we refuse to bow down to the Man,” Wynia says. “But, as nice as that sounds, it’s just not true. We never even had a chance to sell out.”

“I’d like to have that problem one day,” Cornett adds. “Just once. Like, ‘Hey, Rush Limbaugh wants you to play his wedding.’”

“The upside to that is…we don’t get paid enough to do things we don’t want to do,” Wynia says. “So we play the shows we want to play; make the records we want to make.”

While Floater’s sound maintains a layer or two of the band’s trademark trippy heaviness, its records have grown increasingly pop-friendly over the years. Wake is the most accessible album to date, a feat accomplished by scaling back the samples and ambient noise that often soak up the space between Floater’s tracks. New songs like “Cannonball,” “Wondering” and “Matadors” flaunt bouncy riffage that’s somewhere between Green Day and the Police. All of these tracks have a heaviness fit for modern-rock radio, and Wynia’s singing—earthy, operatic and containing mysterious trace elements of an Irish accent—is a welcome break from the gravelly growlers of Nickelback or Godsmack. But, so far, no one’s really biting.

So Floater remains, an oddly fitting sidebar to the hip, young Portland music scene. The fact that it found its first success in the mid-’90s, playing heavy music, compounds the problem. It means Floater’s name is perennially tied to metal and grunge, no matter how its style changes. “Do I think they’ll ever get a massive cool factor, like Spoon? No,” Steininger says. “I think [Floater] fits in with the Killers. And while the Killers aren’t Pitchfork cool or Magnet cool, they sell a crapload of records.”

Pitchfork cool or no, Medford is hooked. Again, upward of 450 fans come out to the show—a good showing—and at points it seems as though every member of the audience is jumping up and down. The band has played this town time and time again, and it’s built up a cast of regulars.

Sean Garland, a 38-year-old who drove to Medford from Northern California to catch the show with his wife, Melinda, and another couple, is one of them. He first heard the band on a Chico rock station in the mid-’90s. “They’re kind of a local band that has a national sound,” he says. Melinda used to buy him Floater CDs at record stores in Redding, Calif., and send them to him in Yreka, where he couldn’t find Floater’s music. They bonded over the band, and credit it as a building block of their relationship. “Any time they’re within a couple hundred miles of us, we try to go to the show,” Sean says. “And we buy whatever the new record is and just play the crap out of it.”

After the show, the band and I head out for a drink and accidentally discover Shenanigans, a labyrinthine sports bar featuring a gargantuan patio where every twentysomething in the city seems to be hanging out. Wynia is repeatedly asked to pose for pictures and even sign a couple of autographs. He does so humbly, listening when a goateed bro in a backward baseball cap carries on a bit too long. “I mean it, man,” the bro says. “We really appreciate that you guys keep coming back here after all these years. It’s a really big deal to people around here.” Later in the evening, a pale-skinned girl in her early 20s starts talking Wynia’s ear off. She was at the show earlier. She’s a huge fan. “The lyrics are poetry,” she says. She has a look in her eyes that Wynia, happily married with two kids, either doesn’t notice or chooses to ignore. He gives a rehearsed but heartfelt head bow at the compliments, thanks her and then slowly massages his way back into another conversation before things get awkward.

Wynia is used to the attention. While Amador is probably the coolest of the three and Cornett the friendliest, Wynia is the most engaging and charismatic, and he’s used to this kind of thing. Long after last call, the girl is still there. It takes an elusive maneuver or two to creep slyly away, but eventually we make it back to the motel room. “That girl was after you,” I tell him. “Oh, no,” he assures me. “Our fans mostly just want to talk to me about the music. They can get pretty intense about it, though.”

“I hate in-stores,” Wynia says as we pull up, sleep-deprived, to CD World in Eugene the following day. “The fans are great, but the sound—it’s like a papier-mâché amp on top of a 12-foot stick. How is that good for anybody?” The band forgoes its usual preshow huddle for the four-song set, and spends a half-hour signing autographs afterward.

One of the autograph-seekers is 27-year-old Rowan Ashe, a Floater fan for 10 years who was pressed against the railing mouthing every word of Floater’s in-store set. She estimates she’s seen “almost 300 shows” (Wynia later confirms the number). “Being in the crowd that’s around them is an amazing experience,” she says. “It’s not like being a part of an audience, it’s like being part of a family.”

Autograph-seekers are sure to let Floater know how they feel about the band. “I took my 7-year-old daughter to see you guys on New Year’s,” a fan with a poster to sign tells Amador. “That was her first rock concert. You opened with ‘An Apology,’ and she says, ‘I know this song, Daddy!’” The poster, he says, is for his daughter’s room. Once again, Floater is handed down to the next generation.

If you ask Wynia why his band is so popular in the Northwest, he answers with one word: “Longevity.” And it’s true that Floater has tended to its fan base—both urban and rural—with relentless dedication over the course of its career. But to these fans, Floater is more than just a music-scene fixture or a scaled-down version of their favorite national rock bands. These people just love Floater.

The band’s legacy, of course, has yet to be defined. The coming months will tell if the group is serious about breaking into new national markets (“they know they’d have to eat shit for a while” on a national tour, Steininger says. “And they’re OK with that”), and it remains to be seen whether the new album—Floater’s most appealing to date—can gain any traction. But when the trio’s history is finally written, one can’t help but wonder who will have the final say: the band’s critics or Floater’s fans?

Wynia says his band will keep playing in the face of equal parts adoration and hatred, even if, like Floater’s fans, he doesn’t always understand the backlash. “I’m first and foremost a huge music fan,” the frontman tells me, his eyes wide. “I’ve been listening to music with my eyes closed on the floor with headphones turned up really loud my whole life. And I’ve loved some music I’ve been exposed to, and I’ve not loved some music I’ve been exposed to. And I’ve never felt betrayed or personally angered by a record,” he says, bemused and annoyed. “But we run into that all the time.”


GO: Floater releases Wake on Friday, June 25, at the Crystal Ballroom. 9 pm. $16 advance, $18 day of show. All ages.
 
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