It took a few months for it to happen, but the members of the Vermillion-based pop rock band, Paradise Fears, are finally no longer hearing the question, "Where are you going to school this fall?"
The response to that question – "I'm not going to school. I'm going on tour with my rock band instead." or something along those lines –almost always took the questioner by surprise.
But now, three months into their great adventure of trying to get a start in the rough-and-tumble real world of the music business, the Paradise Fears guys are loving life. They've had their downs as well as their ups, but a stunning victory in a 65-band Battle of the Bands in the Twin Cities has made the sacrifices and endless hours of work worth it.
When they perform at the Eagles Club in Vermillion from 6:30 to 9 p.m. this Saturday along with Kerrington Cooper, a band from Kansas City, and More Than Heroes, a Pierre-based band, it will be a homecoming celebration show of sorts.
Persons of all ages are welcome. Admission charge will be $5 for persons 21 and over and $7 for those under 21.
In the past year Paradise Fears has won "battle of the bands" competitions on such campuses as USD, SDSU and Dakota State University, but by far the Rawkzilla Battle of the Bands in suburban Fridley, MN, which concluded Oct. 3, was the biggest. Sixty-five bands started, each of them given two rounds in which to show their stuff. About half of the bands survived the first cut.
The remaining bands played in the third round, and four of those – Paradise Fears was one! – earned a bye directly to the finals. The rest had to go through Round 4 from which four others were picked for the eight-band final round.
"There were eight bands left," said Cole Andre, "and we shared the stage with some very talented acts that last night, and we were so blessed to come away with the top prize."
Jordan Merrigan said everything came together that night. "The night of the finals was probably the most exciting night the band has had," he said. "We put a ton of work into our show prior to that night, and to see it truly pay off was extremely rewarding."
Sam Miller agreed. "There are so many moments in our show that have the potential to be very cool, and at our set that Sunday, everything worked," he explained. "I don't know if it was just the raised stakes, or our enthusiasm, but I felt we were firing on all cylinders."
As if the announcement of the winning band's identity weren't enough, the men of Paradise Fears had another shock a-coming when it came to the prizes. Instead of the first prize of $1,000 cash and a pick from the prize pool, the judges decided to empty the prize pool on the first-place band.
"So we won almost everything in the prize pool," Miller explained, "which totaled about $12,000 worth of equipment, endorsements, merchandise printing and promotion, photo shoots, vinyl wrap – you name it, they gave it to us. It was completely surreal!"
Andre (vocals/guitar), Miller (vocals), Marcus Sand (bass guitar), and Michael Walker (keyboard/vocals) graduated from Vermillion High in May. Merrigan (vocals/guitar) graduated two years earlier. Drummer Lucas Zimmerman is Class of 2012, so because state law demands he go to high school, he has missed the touring since the school year started, and Tyler Cunningham has filled in on the drummer's stool. Taylor Enzminger will be drumming for the next few months.
"I never would have dreamed I would be doing this out of high school," Walker said. "When we first decided to work on the band for a year, it seemed like a long shot, but now it's hard to imagine doing anything else."
The band has been to 20 states since they hit the road in June. Some stops have been great successes; some others have been disappointments. But it's been – in layman's terms – a blast, and every day is a learning experience.
Merrigan says the best thing about being on the road is playing the shows. "I enjoy meeting new bands and establishing long-term relationships with them," he said. "So far we have met some truly incredible musicians and people, and we're very lucky for that."
Andre enjoys the feeling of freedom of being out on their own, but that thought is downright scary, too. "I am able to spend every day with my five best friends, and there is no beating that," he explained, "but the success of the band is completely dependent on our ability to promote ourselves and attract people to shows." Andre added that they are getting better every day at the promotion part of the deal.
There is comfort in numbers, too, as Walker explained. "Even if we have a show that doesn't turn out as big as we were hoping, it's reassuring to know that all six of us are ready to bounce back and keep working at it," he said. "We've gotten to the point where we're such a tight unit that even popping a tire and having to sleep on the side of the road isn't so discouraging."
Sand said one of the most memorable gigs – and most unusual audiences – the band has enjoyed was playing for a group of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students in the Black Hills. "They just loved the fact that we were there to play for them," he said. "They clapped and cheered at all the right times."
But playing at home is fun, too. "Vermillion is always a fun gig," Sand added, "because we get to see the same faces as well as new ones every time we play."
One downside to being out on the road is the difficulty in finding time to work on new music. "It's something we really need to do," Andre said, "but it's definitely easier to work on new music when we are home because we have more time to devote to it."
"Songs always start out as an idea from one of us," said Sand in explaining the process. "We will write the music to it, or we will come up with a tune and write lyrics to that. After we have a song structured, we play it multiple times to see where we can add some spice and color. After so many times of playing a song, we will decide when to break it out at a show, and if it goes over well there, we will continue to place it in the sets or wait to release our next album and play it then."
Putting college on hold is a rather major decision, so when will the boys know if it has been worth it? Merrigan already knows.
"If these first few months have been any indicator as to what experiences the future holds, then it's already been completely worth any sacrifice and effort," he said. "I think our ultimate goal for this year is for the band to completely support itself – for it to be our full-time source of income. Along with that would be establishing a national fan base, being able to have successful tours with good attendance at every show. But I also think the time off from school will be worth it no matter what, even if we end up going back."
Miller said it's like pirates running around searching for treasure, not realizing the real treasure is in the fond memories they're creating. But there's the reality of finance – "To be considered a commercial success," he said, "we need to obtain some form of representation. The ultimate goal is being signed to a label deal, but representation by a manager or booking agent would be almost more beneficial, and we see that as being a completely attainable goal."
Miller said Paradise Fears has to have an Internet profile topped by no other band in the country, has to have plenty of road experience and has to have another release. "If by April, we've accomplished all of those things, I couldn't look back on this year and not be proud of what we've done."
Time is a-wasting, and these Vermillion lads are aware of it. "We get 365 days and if nothing is happening, then we go back to school," Miller said. "But given the places we've come in three months, the hundreds of contacts, the several endorsements, our social networking sites exploding, and most importantly what we've learned – how to book tours, how to self-promote, what needs to be done to succeed – I really can't see that happening."
Three years ago at this time, what now is Paradise Fears was the trio of Miller, Walker and Andre, and they called themselves "Back Alley Pep Rally." In Andre's basement at home, they made three recordings. The Paradise Fears name took hold that December.
By February 2008 they played their first electric show at VHS and continued to record.
Sand joined in October two years ago, and Merrigan took a turn at the drum set. Zimmerman took over on the drums, and the band did a show at the Washington Street Arts Center here. During a recording session in Beresford, Walker got a chance at keyboards, and Merrigan moved into lead guitar.
The first real exposure outside this area came in February 2009 in Lincoln when an old friend of Merrigan's suddenly needed a replacement for a band whose van had broken down. Then from the summer of '09 and into last school year, the band played across the state and Upper Midwest, 28 shows in all, and 23 of them out-of-town.
"Make Them Believe," the band's second album, was recorded in two weeks in Minneapolis earlier this year, and now they've been as far east as Delaware and as far west as Idaho, making music and becoming known.
Maybe these hometown guys will become famous rock musicians; maybe they won't. But now that it's in their blood, chances are good they'll never stop playing and singing.
"Who knows!" said Walker. "Maybe I'll end up being a part-time neurologist and a part-time rock star. It could happen!"