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Eat, drink and hear Mary (& The Giant)

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 9, 2012 - Plenty of awful content runs rampant through the online music universe. Any gems are found and forgotten for the next band with a shiny track or catchy cover. Mary & The Giant, a five-man group from Columbia, Mo., is opting for a slow burn instead of the quick flip. A meeting last March with band manager Matthew Kohler was strategic: Could an unknown band survive in an era of Internet-fueled flash fame?

Violinist Michael Schembre planned to stash extra money in a box to pay for the upcoming tour. "My cash plan is to steal your box," said guitarist Jason Koch. Laughter was rampant.

"The lack of communication lately has been f---ing appalling," interrupted bassist John Marino in a move to refocus the conversation. Even the energetic Justin Mayfield lacked a rebuttal for Marino's criticism. Koch avoided eye contact and played with the string pegs on his guitar.

A blank pad awaited a plan.

It was an uncommon sight. This is a group for whom quiet is foreign language.

High school friends Koch and Marino met vocalist Zac Fiddes in Stafford Hall at the University of Missouri in 2007. Schembre, a violinist since age 5, joined the trio two years later. Mayfield completed the current lineup last January. Fiddes hails from central Illinois and the other four are natives of the St. Louis area.

Rhythm and noise later filled Kohler's low-ceilinged attic. Schembre, the violinist, riffed on guitar while Mayfield beatboxed, Koch shook a half-full water bottle for percussion and Fiddes conjured lyrics about Marino.

"I'm the least listened to yet most talked about member of this band," Marino said. Mayfield pulled Marino into the action and drummed his back like a bongo. This is Mary & The Giant.

Pinning down a firm description of the band's music is like twisting a radio dial on a station escaping range. Just barely or not enough, then too far. The band blends bluegrass, folk, pop and rock for a style its members have branded "colonial pop."

Saying No to School

Upcoming tour stops are marked by black Xs on a Cracker Barrel map tacked to the wall in the apartment shared by Marino, Fiddes and Koch. For day jobs, Fiddes works at a grocery store and the other two (plus Schembre) work at the restaurant. Mayfield pays the bills with freelance photography. The jobs are a visible contrast to the early days, the reckless days, like when Marino fell asleep pumping gas. He thudded into the car after he, Koch and Fiddes left campus the Sunday prior to finals week in 2007, spent five hours on the beach in Pensacola, Fla., and drove home. Priorities were different then, and academics were low on the list.

Music became more important than school for Mayfield, who stopped three credits short of a psychology degree. Fiddes was fed up with political science. Koch walked away from English education. Schembre left philosophy. Freshman year was enough for Marino, who'd wanted to be a musician since a 2004 David Bowie concert. Mizzou couldn't match "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide."

The decision to leave school got Fiddes a Chili's dinner date with his dad. "I'm eating my chicken crispers, and he's pulling out every check he paid, photocopied." He says his dad lobbied for a deadline on "this band thing."

Koch reassured his parents each time one of these friends shredded school for music: "I don't think at the time I was lying to them."

Music wasn't a job. It was an exit strategy. But school? Well, nowhere is it etched in wet cement that school is the golden-bricked path to success anymore. Recent economic troubles have exposed that long-held belief. The guys were passionate about music, but early on, they hadn't developed the discipline to keep a regimen of practices and performances. Music wasn't a job. It was an exit strategy from school.

In their initial forays as music majors without a school, Fiddes, Koch and Marino stayed in Columbia. Marino lost 17 pounds when his meals consisted almost solely of Orville Redenbacher popcorn for more than six weeks as he searched for employment. Fiddes remembers cold showers in December in the dark. Electricity and water bills went unpaid. When he returned from a 2008 tour, Marino's bank account registered less than meager.

Negative $237.22.

No television or computers meant no distractions, and Koch says the attitude was, "We'll worry about tomorrow, tomorrow."

"More often than not," Marino says, "we scrounged up enough money to get a bottle of whiskey and candles. I miss that a lot sometimes."

"This isn't anything like college is it?" Fiddes asked when Kholer's writing pad was blank. "Homework wasn't the bad part. It was the people I had to sit next to." Chemistry, however, isn't something the band worries about, even with diverse personalities.

Forming the Band

The cajon is one of Mayfield's instruments. He sits on the Ikea-look-alike ottoman producing a rat-a-tat wooden beat similar to a snare drum. It fits his rambunctious personality. He tells three stories to answer one question, then jumps on you and pleads for a piggyback ride.

Comments from Koch rarely pass without good-natured ridicule. Without him, though, the others might wake up to find they've taken themselves too seriously. As the youngest member, Koch is wrong, even when he's right. For example, the band's name is borrowed from a Phillip K. Dick novel, but the other option was Going to Antarctica.

"I thought that was a great name," Marino says.

"I hated that name so bad," Fiddes says.

"You came up with it."

"No, I didn't. That was Jason."

Koch feeds off Mayfield's provocations, and Fiddes is content to cede peacekeeping duties to Marino, who keeps the quintet grounded like his thumping notes in the songs. Marino is subdued on stage as he keeps the beat with his cowboy boots.

Finally, there is the singer, whose body belies his voice. Fiddes is lanky in the mold of Shaggy from Scooby Doo with a better beard than his cartoon counterpart. On stage, the frontman sings so that the words grab you by the shirt collar and beg you to listen. He is the most confident type of leader: He always speaks in "we."

Making the Internet Work

The "we" of Mary & The Giant is a case study for the Internet's effect on music. Hardware and people still reside in Los Angeles, New York and Nashville, but a strong Internet presence can give a band the reason to relocate, says Pete Szkolka, a musician who owns an eponymous recording studio in Columbia. The idea, he says, is to build a fan base online first.

Phil Costello, founder of TBD Records, says, "We could talk for hours on how the Internet has changed the music business." The intermediary used to be the industry, says Kevin Walsh, host of "The So-Called Good Life" at Columbia's KOPN. Record labels were once bastions of distribution and marketing clout. Now bands can bootstrap with online management outlets such as ReverbNation and distribution tools such as CDBaby, MadeLoud or iTunes.

Online technology is music these days. Fiddes keys lyrics into his Blackberry. Mary & The Giant promotes shows on Facebook, not with fliers. Songs are posted on MySpace, not mixtapes. Artists can reach each other and their fan bases with one click on blogs, podcasts and apps.

Fan empowerment is the biggest change the Internet has wrought. Costello worked with Radiohead on its 2007 release of "In Rainbows," when the group allowed fans to name their own price. Online conduits such as Kickstarter and My Major Company employ web-based crowdsourcing to gather fans as investors for new albums or, in the case of Kim Boekbinder, pre-sell concerts in prospective tour cities.

Musicians were radio-dependent 25 years ago, says Richard King, owner of The Blue Note, a Columbia venue he founded in 1980. The one-to-many model has been replaced with customized experiences from online radio outlets like Last.fm, Spotify, MOG and Pandora. A&R reps (artists and repertoire) used to find talented acts and nurture them, a role King says is now extinct. Worldwide, music companies spent just 16 percent of 2010 revenues on artist discovery.

"Everything has to be so cookie-cutter ready," King says, "and that's where the music business went way off." King calls it greed; Costello calls it shortsightedness.

Take Lonny Breaux. The hip-hop artist signed with Def Jam Recordings, languished, then adopted the name Frank Ocean and self-released an album on his Tumblr blog.

No charge.

His relation with Def Jam and his reputation have strengthened since he released his own work.

Today, musicians use the same online, entry-level tools, but that democratization represents a new freedom. One band's basement is now yesterday's New York. No record deal? No big deal. A digital revolution is here, and the old guard missed the email.

Still, the B-side of the Internet looms.

When a clean version of its new CD was leaked last April, the Beastie Boys streamed the explicit version online. It's difficult to ignore that the Internet created this problem. Shared music can be stolen music. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, more than 400 legitimate online music sources exist, but illegal file sharing and streaming continue to outpace legal outlets.

For an emerging band, ripped off songs are minor worries. Clamor is the enemy. Bands compete against games, TV shows, movies and other distractions the Internet harbors. Praise in the form of tweets and comments zips around, as does bad publicity. "When you show up for a show," Costello warns, "you'd better be on."

A few Facebook "likes" cannot lift a band from obscurity, so the first step is the product. Mary & The Giant issued its first EP, "Music for a Nervous Breakdown," in January 2010. "We Tend to Grow Older" was a more focuses EP released that December.

To talk about the group is to speak in terms of negation. The group is less pop than The Script and less rock than The Forecast. It's not as polished as the Benjy Davis Project and not as expansive as Mumford & Sons.

At its best, Mary & The Giant harnesses the capability for complexity, an asset in a band with five members. The group excels when it embraces intricate arrangements paired with Fiddes' lyrics, which alternate between aching and acerbic, as in "Happy For You," from the first album. "Was it worth all you lost? Have you even come that far? / And all these accolades hang silent in an empty room, but I would never blame you."

Getting the Act Together

Shows and tours have replaced wild midnight trips, and a renewed work ethic coexists with the imagination and lust for life that allowed the guys to believe it was prudent to cruise from the Show-Me State to the Sunshine State a day before final exams. Practices are regularly scheduled. It's cigarettes and Milwaukee's Best on a Monday night. The band completed a tour in June and returned to campus in October to open for Guster. March 27 is the scheduled release for the next album, "Welcome Back to Now."

"We never had that ideal of being rock stars," Fiddes says, "We just loved music more than anything else."

A set is 45 minutes, maybe an hour, "then you're waiting tables," Koch says. "You're almost there, but not quite, and rent is due."

Rent is a still paper check.

At the March regroup, the blank pad filled with marker scribblings: register with ASCAP, band logo, tour dates scheduled, tour dates open, merchandise.

"Clicky pens?" Koch asked.

"Nobody uses pens," Marino insisted.

"Quills, calligraphy?"

None of those either. Online is king, queen and court. Every band that thrives on money gained through Internet-planned gigs, fan interaction and online connections further mars the belief that a group must transplant to the coasts to find success.

"A lot of people still think that," Costello, of TBD records, says. "I don't." Columbia rests in the heart of the Midwest, but a Missouri college town "looks like any other town when you're on the Internet."

Mary & The Giant exists in an era of YouTube sensations and reality TV cheerocracy. The kid down the street warbling a Gaga cover into a webcam is as likely to sign a lucrative contract as any band. Yet the idea of success via the Great and Powerful Record Label fades each day only by bits and bytes.

Dustin Renwick is a freelance writer.