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A Whiter Shade of Funk

Maroon 5 hit it big by putting a heavy backbeat behind their heartbreak

Maroon 5

Maroon 5 poses for a photo backstage during 'TRL BreakOut Stars Week' on MTV's Total Request Live at the MTV Times Square Studios in New York City, January 13th, 2004.

Scott Gries/Getty

I‘D LIKE TO APOLOGIZE TO THE GIRLS’ softball team,” says Adam Levine. The Maroon 5 frontman is standing onstage in the field house at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, perched roughly where one of the basketball hoops would normally hang. Moments earlier, while the opening act was onstage, Levine found that the locker room where the band had showered and set up its laptops had been invaded by the softball team, just back from a trip to Yale. Never mind that 2,000 fans had turned up for the school’s only big-time rock concert of the semester — the girls did their best to evict the group. “If the president came in there,” Levine jokes, “they’d be like, ‘Get the fuck out.'”

Such are the travails of one of America’s hardest-working young bands, who have spent most of the past two years on a tour bus, giving one another haircuts and stopping occasionally to drain the urine from the bus toilet. But, as Levine puts it, “to not be able to be happy where we’re at now, that would be insane.” Songs About Jane, Maroon 5’s funky, sexy rock ‘n’ soul debut, is on its way to selling 2 million copies, and a few hours after the Dartmouth show, their manager called to tell them that “This Love,” the album’s unavoidably catchy, Stevie Wonder-influenced second single, is now the most played song in the land.

When the band hears it has a Number One hit, the only discernible reaction, other than approving nods, comes when Mickey Madden — the thoughtful bassist who looks eerily like Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour circa Dark Side of the Moon — launches into an acoustic parody of Levine’s sleek white-soul crooning on “This Love.”

If the group is taking success in stride, that’s mostly because it has been so long in coming. Four of the five band members — guitarist James Valentine joined in 2001 — grew up in Los Angeles together and have been playing together for more than a decade. Madden, Levine and keyboardist Jesse Carmichael, all 25, met in middle school; eventually they began playing with drummer Ryan Dusick, 26, an ex-jock turned UCLA English major who treats his rampant tendinitis with giant ice packs after every gig.

At times they seem less like a band on tour than old buddies getting together for a laid-back good time. Over beers, they work their way through a pornographic connect-the-dots book, and Levine recalls getting drunk for the first time at a party he threw at his parents’ house when he was fifteen. “I drank sixteen beers, and I think I weighed eighty-four pounds,” he says. “I was grounded all summer — no phone, couldn’t go anywhere. Which sucked, because I wanted to go to this really cool performance-arts summer camp. Jesse went, and I, like, wrote him letters from jail, like, ‘How’s it going, man?'”

Among old friends, potentially embarrassing memories like this produce only laughter. “Oh, yeah,” Madden adds, turning to Carmichael. “I think you confessed your love for my girlfriend that night.”

Onstage, Maroon 5 tear through their set with a sleekness and charisma befitting their L.A. roots, but offstage the band’s demeanor is a mix of music-geek chatter and sly humor. At the end of another college gig — this time at Frostburg State University, in western Maryland — Levine lets the fans pick an encore: Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer to God” or AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” When the crowd selects the latter, Levine jumps behind the drum kit and Dusick jumps up front to deliver a spot-on Bon Scott imitation. The next day, when Dusick sports the same vintage Hall and Oates T-shirt he wore the day before, Levine says, “We’re the Hall and Oates of the new millennium.”

The Hall and Oates tag isn’t totally off the mark: Maroon 5 play hip-hop-influenced white soul, though with a lot more rock-guitar crunch than “This Love” lets on. “Maroon 5 are the rare rock band to appeal across modern rock, Top Forty and adult-contemporary radio,” says James Diener, who signed them to Octone Records in 2001.

“This is music I would listen to,” says Levine’s mom, Patsy Noah. “Whether these were my kids or not.”

Maroon 5’s current sound is a colossal leap from where they started: as the alternative-rock band Kara’s Flowers. That group named for a girl the band had a collective crush on – came together in high school and included all of Maroon 5 save Valentine. Their sound, says Carmichael, started out heavy (“Fugazi and System of a Down meets Sesame Street — the Sesame Street part was in our lyrics, which were nonsense”), but by the time of their 1997 debut, The Fourth World, it had grown into Sixtiesinfluenced guitar pop. The record fizzled, and the band nearly broke up in late 1998.

“They really started to change around the time of that Aaliyah song,” says Phantom Planet bassist Sam Farrar, who roomed with Levine and Valentine in L.A. for two years. That Aaliyah song was “Are You That Somebody?” which provided inspiration for the beat of Maroon 5’s “Not Coming Home.” “I was in the crowd when they played ‘Not Coming Home’ for the first time,” says Valentine. “People thought they were joking, ’cause the beats was really cut up. It was like Timbaland, but by a rock band.” The group took inspiration from Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock and Missy Elliott. With the new sound came a new name: Maroon 5.

“They came around at the right time,” Farrar says. “With so much hip-hop and R&B going on it’s oversaturated. To see a white kid sing better than any black gospel singer I’ve ever seen that’s pretty impressive.”

RELEASED IN THE SUMMER OF 2002, Songs About Jane began its long, slow climb up the charts by initially selling a few hundred copies on its way to 70,000-per-week sales this spring. John Mayer was one of the record’s earliest fans. “I went to Berklee music school with James Valentine in 1996,” Mayer says. “We had this connection of just wanting to improvise and come up with tunes. When I first started to make it happen, I went to this radio station to do an acoustic performance, and he was there. He said he was in Maroon 5, and when I found their CD I put it in, and I was like, ‘Oh, boy.’ Once I heard ‘This Love,’ it was a light-fuse/stand-back kind of situation. It’s one of those perfect songs you always hope to write.” Mayer gave the band opening slots on his tours in early 2003. “They took their opening slot and made it their bitch,” Mayer says, adding that M5 had the same screaming girl contingent he drew as a headliner. “I remember looking out and thinking, ‘This band has the crowd in their seats.’ It got to the point the house was almost full before they came on.”

Still, Maroon 5’s pop appeal — coupled with Levine’s charisma and the screaming girl thing — has led some critics to compare them to certain boy bands. “They’re incredibly musical, but they are one part boy band,” Mayer says. “But I like that! You can’t help the fact that the singer looks like Jason Patric.”

BEFORE THE FROSTBURG STATE GIG, the band shares a laugh as Levine reads an editorial from the school paper:” ‘If you are a rock star, you are guaranteed sex,'” he intones.” ‘With the debut of Maroon 5 approaching, many Frostburg State University students are trying to figure out ways to meet the band, especially young women….'”

Nary a young female crashes the band’s dressing room at Frostburg — which this time is located in a business-ed classroom — but it is true that Levine has become a sex symbol of sorts, starring in the very hot video for “This Love” opposite his current girlfriend, model Kelly McKee. (To make it more TRL-ready, MTV has edited the sex play out of the lyrics, so Levine doesn’t get to promise to “keep her coming every night.”)

Levine’s metamorphosis into a powerhouse frontman was a long time coming. His parents divorced when he was five, and though he handled the separation well, he began his teenage years as a shy kid “with horrible acne,” as Dusick notes. “He has a tremendous rapport with the audience, but it took him eight years to develop,” says his mom. “At his first performances, he performed with his back to the audience.”

After the acne and the self-consciousness began to subside, Levine became a popular, music-obsessed slacker who built a shrine to Eddie Vedder in his bedroom and made friends with the jocks as well as the arty kids. “I was kind of like Ferris Bueller,” he says. “I had high school wrapped around my finger. I had horrible grades. I even cheated and didn’t get caught.”

Then he met Jane – the off-and-on girlfriend who helped him mature as a songwriter and became the inspiration for Songs About Jane. He prefers not to talk about her, and when he does he avoids concrete details, speaking of her in almost mythic tones. “I saw this girl at a gas station, and I fell in love with her,” he says. “I wrote a song about her and played it in the store where she worked. It was an awful song. But she found out about this relatively psychotic boy. She was my muse for years… . And then it kind of faded away.” The story of their relationship is told in song titles such as “Harder to Breathe” and in lyrics charged with anger, regret and sexual longing, including, “You chew me up and spit me out/Enjoy the taste I leave in your mouth.”

Sitting in a Dartmouth pub, Levine is a weird combination of mature reflection and fast-talking, youthful energy. He’s distractedly watching his beloved Los Angeles Lakers defeat the Houston Rockets in the NBA playoffs, all the while musing about the past in his charmingly stream-of-consciousness way. “It’s been such a fucking weird, twisty, windy, bizarre road,” he says. “I don’t think I could have ever predicted that we sound the way we do. Whether it’s a college or a club or an arena or I’m going to get food or whatever, I feel very welcomed. People like us, and there’s no tabloid bullshit. Honestly, I’m still saying this in a very pure way.”

In This Article: Adam Levine, Coverwall, Maroon 5

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