It’s close to midnight on a Saturday at the Troubador, a rock club near the famed Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. My ears are throbbing as music blasts from massive amplifiers. I’m standing front-row dead-center to the stage for four-and-a-half hours. My legs are numb, my throat is sore, someone to my right just spilled a beer all over my new shirt, and I’m having the time of my life.
"Do I need to tell you guys," jokes the lead singer, who sports a blonde mod haircut, a vintage outfit, and a big smile, "that we are AM Radio, from Los Angeles, California!" The audience responds with overwhelming cheers.
The alternative rock quintet AM Radio breaks into their usual encore, the hook-packed song "Take Time." Tonight, during the breakdown of the song, we’re getting wailing jams from guitarists Jason Moore and Rowan Roberston, and an intense range of vocals from lead singer Kevin Ridel. There are also various dips into well-known songs such as Nirvana‘s "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and as always, a little bit of tongue-in-cheek rapping to Missy Elliott‘s "Work It" — all while time and rhythm are impeccably kept by bassist Bryce Soderberg and drummer Joe Higgins.
Soon the song picks up again and the crowd continues to sing and pogo along. After the last song is over, people start to stream out the door, but some loyal fans — myself included — begin to chant "A-M-R!, A-M-R!", until finally the line out the door reverses as the band reemerges on the stage. As the opening chords of the fan-favorite "You Saved My Life Last Night" are struck, all the fans look joyously at each other, since this older tune rarely gets played live. My throat is raw, but I yell out all the words anyway.
Although AM Radio has only been around since September 2001, they have just finished recording their major-label debut Radioactive, scheduled for release July 1. With solid rock songs and a diverse style backed by powerful lyrics about relationships, rejection and life’s hurdles, AM Radio has already won over many a devoted fan. Whether by their high-energy live shows or by mp3s downloaded and swapped on their Web site, AM Radio and its fans have formed such a bond that there have been band vs. fans soccer and bowling games, as well as open rehearsals.
Signed to Elektra via Weezer lead singer Rivers Cuomo’s label Blue Records, they’ve already been on several tours supporting Weezer. Rolling Stone and SpinSmallville. In February, I interviewed AM Radio’s lead singer/songwriter Kevin Ridel. I asked Ridel to share his thoughts about what it’s like to be on the verge and what it took to get there.
Andrea Domanick: So how are you hoping [the future] will go down?
Kevin Ridel: God, I’m just hoping for a song on the radio. That would blow my mind. ’cause I’ve already had a big album [with former band Ridel High] on A&M Records, and it just didn’t take off ever.
AD: Was that a huge let down for you?
KR: I just felt like the label didn’t really get behind it. When they had signed us, the president of the label was telling us, ‘Oh yeah, this song, this song, this song, and he was singing songs back to me, saying that there were gonna be like five singles on this record’ and I was just like ‘cool!’
AD: So you got all hyped up and nothing really happened?
KR: Well, no– we did a lot of cool stuff. We did a quarter of a million dollar video, and they took us out [to promotions]. It was just the whole thing to set up the record. It’s just that, when they sent the record out to radio, and it didn’t take off, they just pulled the plug on the entire album.
AD: So actually, how many bands have you been in before AM Radio?
KR: [pauses to think] Probably like 20-30. I’ve been playing in bands since I was like 14.
AD: What feelings have changed since you’ve been in your first band to where you are right now?
KR: When I was a kid, like a teenager, it was an exciting thing. I never actually knew to what extent I could take it, realistically. You know, I was living in Connecticut, and there’s nothing really going on over there. So when I moved out here in ’89, I was like ‘Wow, maybe we [the other band members he moved out with] could do this.’ My thoughts for the last 10 years have been like ‘I’m doing this. I’m a guy with a guitar in my hand and I’m gonna do this.’
AD: Has there ever been any point where you’ve just given up hope?
KR: I was actually giving up hope the summer of 2001. Right before Rivers [Rivers Cuomo, lead singer of Weezer and close friend since they were teens] called me.
AD: How much of a help has he been in the past year or so after he helped you get AM Radio started?
KR: Oh he’s done everything. He’s our manager, he’s our record label. He’s pretty much guided us through everything we’ve had to do.
AD: So you really think a major part of you success thus far is credited to him?
KR: Yeah, I’d definitely give him the credit. He’s taking care of all the business needs that we could possibly have. He’s also supplied a lot of inspiration. He’s always hanging around is just like ‘Yeah! You guys rule!’ and saying just really cool things that keep us going.
AD: Has it been intimidating at all that he’s in this really big band Weezer and you guys are just starting to get big, or has it been more of an inspiration?
KR: Yeah, for me, it has bee like [an inspiration]. I think it was in 1994, when I moved back to Connecticut for a year, he just got a deal with Geffen. And he kept coming back to Connecticut and he’s like ‘Dude, you gotta come back out, I just got a deal. You know, the scene is really happening. I’ll totally help you and everything.’ … So I moved back out and we were roommates, and he was totally helping me back then. And we didn’t know that Weezer was gonna become a big thing … So that was kind of cool Weezer took off. It was like ‘Oh my god, if a friend of mine can make it, then this is kind of real–‘ The thing with him, he did a little bit more work than I did. Him happening first makes all the sense in the world to me. Where as I was kind of screwing around with some crappy bands, he was just putting his thing together and getting really focused. When we were in a band together, he was like the business mind in the band. And when that band, Avant Garde, broke up, I was just lost. I got with crappy bands that played around town. I was just hoping that they could formulate something.
AD: What first inspired you to want to become a musician? When did you first realize that this is what you wanted to do?
KR: I think I was like 13. I was on the soccer team at my high school, and I went over to one of the guys’ houses, and he had a drumset in his bedroom, and I was just overwhelmed by that. I just thought ‘I wanna be a part of this, any way I can.’
AD: Is yours or the band’s attitude different from when you started out on the Dusty West Tour [supporting Weezer, winter/spring ’02] to how it is now?
KR: Yeah, I think we’re just more comfortable and carefree. Because we’ve been on tour for awhile, and we know what to expect now. You gotta also consider it. I mean we’ve been on three Weezer tours. Most of their support over the past few years has either got booed off stage or just completely railed. So the fact that that didn’t happen, that’s a great thing, I think.
AD: Are you guys more excited now that there’s gonna be more AM Radio fans, as opposed to just Weezer fans that are checking out AM Radio, as there were in the past?
KR: Yeah. It’s cool because we’re also more comfortable with who we are, ’cause we just recorded the record. And when we did that first one [the debut record only available online or at shows], we recorded it only a couple months after we were a band. I listened to some of the rough mixes from this record we just recorded, and it’s a completely different band than on the other recordings.
AD: What inspires your song and music writing?
KR: Just real life experiences. Whatever happens that’s–really intense. I kind of use it as therapy sometimes. If I have something that’s just really on my chest, writing a song about it will ease the pain. Drinking will, too. [laughs]
AD: What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?
KR: Don’t follow around other bands, trying to be them … Oh, and never do a speculation or demo deal with a record company. Play a lot of shows, get your name out there. Just be honest with yourself as an artist. Because when you are, you could have the whole audience going ‘You guys suck, get out of here!’, but you’re just like ‘You know what, I’m into this, so screw you!’. As long as you believe in what you’re doing, everything else is going to work out. Anytime people try and contrive things to get into a scene, and say like ‘All right, I’m gonna be-emo!’, then it’s not gonna work, ’cause you’re not being yourself. That’s true with anything in life. You have to be yourself. And then everything else, it just makes sense.
AD: So how would you describe your new album Radioactive?
KR: It’s really fun. I think that we touched on a lot of different sounds on this album. It doesn’t sound uniform. We have a couple fast songs, a couple slow songs, a couple dreamy songs, a couple, you know, desperate songs. A little bit of everything on this record.
AD: So you’re definitely really happy with it?
KR: I’m SO stoked! This guy [album producer Howard Benson] does the best vocals I’ve ever worked with. I’ve never been happier with my vocals. I’ve always been supercritical on the way they come out, and I have a hard time listening to them sometimes, but I don’t have a hard time at all with listening to this album. have recently profiled AM Radio and one of the band’s songs has been featured soundtrack for the TV hit