May 8th, 2023
The Next Step was supposed to be a boy band.
I mean this in no uncertain terms.
I have loved a lot of music over the years, but at that point in my life, high school in the late 90’s/early 00’s, I was obsessed with two flavors: emo/indie rock, and boy bands.
And I was never going to be cool enough to front a rock band.
I grew up in a paradox of a musical household; my parents were deaf, but there was music everywhere. They taught me that music isn’t something you hear, but feel. And music made me feel all the feelings, including guilt and an inexhaustible yearning.
I must have been 16 when I got my first guitar, a red electric Epiphone from Eastman Music in downtown Faribault. I felt I was late to the party, but I now realize most people don’t learn how to play anything at all, so I got there when I got there.
I never took any formal lessons; instead, I did what I always do, and picked up any book and magazine that seemed relevant to the music education I wanted. I am an expert in no instrument, but over the years I’ve learned and can adequately play guitar, bass, keyboard, drums, harmonica, ukulele, tambourine, triangle and several other shapes.
Most importantly, though: I learned how to write songs. And learning to play many things adequately was like getting a universal license to drive the vehicles that brought my songs to life.
Sometime in ’01 or ’02, I got the idea for a boy band, and later brought it to the attention of my friends Nate and Kenny. Like every idea I get, I was obsessed immediately and started planning a live show before I had even written a song.
But before even that, we needed a name.
This notebook photo is the actual list of names I came up when I was 17. To say it’s fascinating to me is right on, if only because some of these names are breathtakingly bad, and yet I wonder about the worlds where these other bands came to be.
The names with the stars next to them were the frontrunners: Column, Entras (which, thanks to my note there, we know is short for “Entrepreneur”?), Burn Artists, Broken Pedal, Next Step, Plain of Existence, and Anti-talent. (Eagled-eyed fans might notice that one of the names is Weirdos, which became the name of my superhero team years later and I was unaware was on this list until I found it this morning.)
How Velcro wasn’t the name I picked is a travesty and I just know that, somewhere in the multiverse, Velcro is a Grammy-winning boy band who is currently in a legal battle with George de Mestral’s family.
Next Step was picked (and a The was added to the name, which I know I did to reflect my love of rock bands, like The Strokes and The White Stripes), and I got to work writing music.
I was a theater kid (a massive shock to you, I’m sure), and whenever there was a piano around, I would sit down and play this thing I wrote. I’d do it all the time. It didn’t have words or structure, but it was a segment I was proud of and sounded cool.
That segment eventually became my first song, Awake. Awake itself was about my fragility and suspicion and heartbreak and it accurately sums up who I was then (and who I am constantly trying to fight being).
I decided to debut it at a school choir concert. The proof of my boy band concept is here; this wasn’t just me playing a song. This was a PERFORMANCE. There was an opening scene, with me sitting under a spotlight, at a piano; I vividly remember smashing the keys in frustration, and hearing laughter, and being upset by that.
I had a reputation of being the funny guy, but I wanted this to be taken seriously.
The fact that this scene morphed into a fully-choreographed dance with my friends Kenny and Andy did not improve my dramatic credibility.
But I remember it being fairly well-received, and I was already doing something most of my peers were not (and took the Glee cast several seasons to do): original work.
My next step — pun absolutely intended — was to take Awake and a handful of other songs I was working on to the next level.
I was going to make a record.