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Fighting Gravity: The Frat Trap

After a decade as a big college band, the rockers are ready to move off campus

Fraternities, Fighting Gravity

Beer Pong

-Oxford-

OK, class, pop quiz. Question: Assume there is a crowd-pleasing seven-piece ska-influenced group from Richmond, Va. Let them be called Fighting Gravity. Take as a given that every year, Fighting Gravity travel tens of thousands of miles up and down the Eastern seaboard playing both on and around college campuses for varying fees. Factor in that the band has done so ever since its founding at Virginia Polytechnic Institute approximately one decade ago. Now calculate exactly what Fighting Gravity have learned after all that up-close experience with higher education.

Answer: That they’re ready to graduate. Now.

Tonight, a Thursday in December just a week before exams, the band is heading down Interstate 64 west from Richmond to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville to play a fraternity party at Chi Phi. Tomorrow evening is a student-union gig at Washington College, a small school on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Saturday night will find the band providing entertainment at the Tower Club, one of Princeton University’s coeducational eating clubs basically a frat with less beer and more attitude.

It’s another grueling road trip for the tireless and industrious Fighting Gravity, who play 150 to 200 dates a year while somehow keeping their day jobs in Richmond. Four of them guitarist David “Tree” Triano, bassist Dave Peterson, keyboardist Eric Lawson and trombonist Chris Leitch work for the Dalkon Shield Claimants Trust. Lead singer Schiavone McGee is a care analyst assisting uninsured patients at a Richmond hospital, while drummer Mike Boyd teaches music. Only the most recent recruit, saxophonist Karl vonKlein, doesn’t work another gig he feels that Fighting Gravity is his job. During the week most of their college and club gigs are within three or four hours from home. On the weekend the band members who range in age from 23 to 30 cover much of the East Coast, from Florida to Vermont, in an ongoing struggle to at long last become a full-time national touring and recording band instead of local heroes and campus darlings.

Over the years members have come and gone, and even the band’s name has changed. It was only last year that it switched from Boy O Boy to Fighting Gravity because of trademark problems. “It’s fitting,” says McGee, “because, believe me, it’s been a fuckin’ fight the whole way.”

In recent years a number of bands playing the same lively Eastern circuit of campus gigs and college-town club dates have graduated to major-label deals and the big time. One of them is a little band by the name of Hootie and the Blowfish. Then there’s Better Than Ezra, From Good Homes, Edwin McCain, Seven Mary Three and, of course, the band’s Virginia homeboys, Dave Matthews Band. For the guys in Fighting Gravity, the success of these one-time colleagues is both exciting and, though they are loath to say so, a tad worrisome. It can’t be easy for Fighting Gravity and other unsigned bands like Spider Monkey, the Gibb Droll Band, Too Skinnee J’s and Egypt to await their shot patiently. As gracious as these fellows are, a big question hangs over them: When does our turn finally come? Then there’s a tougher question: Does our turn ever come?

“We feel a mix of excitement, jealousy and anxiety,” says McGee. “You’re happy for any brother band that signs on the dotted line, but it gets you thinking.” “About two years ago we were supposed to play a show with Hootie in Chapel Hill [N.C.],” says Peterson, “but we both got punted from the bill for a cover band, the Stegmans, who did, like, ‘Amie,’ by Pure Prairie League.”

More than most bands playing college campuses, Fighting Gravity seem a professional operation. Virtually everything they make playing these shows and selling their CDs and merchandise goes right back into the band. While the band’s touring life is by no means glamorous, it’s a cut above the usual college act. They eat regularly and mount a serious production with two crew members who travel ahead of the band with the equipment and do damage control.

Last fall the band invested $16,000 in a 1973 GMC buffalo bus, a comfy if precarious-looking vehicle that once carried Lew DeWitt, a longtime Statler Brother, on his country tours of duty. It also formerly served as a charter bus around the Pittsburgh area; the destination sign still reads Slippery Rock. After years of traveling in a cramped van especially uncomfortable during the tenure of a former trumpet player with a drooling problem achieving this lifestyle upgrade feels like a victory. “This is the same bus that Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight travel on in Midnight Cowboy,” Peterson says happily.

Movie buffs will recall that Hoffman’s character, Ratso, dies at the end of that tragic journey. Fighting Gravity are looking for a somewhat happier ending.

The hardest thing about college gigs is not knowing if anyone’s going to show up,” Peterson says as Triano squeezes Fighting Gravity’s bus onto the Chi Phi parking lot. “Without getting a promotional push like a good name national would get, it’s a total crap shoot. If Phish or the Gin Blossoms are in town, you can walk into an empty frat party. There’s a hierarchy of things exams, rush week, a bigger band that can kill your night. You make concessions every time you walk in the door.”

Charlottesville is a very good market for Fighting Gravity, although, as Peterson explains, “it’s Dave Matthews’ briar patch.” But as Fighting Gravity enter the Chi Phi house on the picturesque University of Virginia campus, things don’t look entirely promising. The crew has set up Fighting Gravity’s gear in a small living room with a 1995 portrait of the frat brotherhood hanging behind their Mesa Boogie amps. The band’s dressing area is the dining room, which is piled full of battered furniture. Two cold pizzas are perched on a windowsill. Fortunately the band grabbed dinner at an Arby’s on the way. There’s no time for a sound check.

“These rooms are made for everything but acoustics,” says Peterson, “and the power requirements for a show like ours make frat shows a nightmare, logistically.” The band confers with soundman Dave Bell and lighting director and all-around roadie Bobby Alderman. “We walk into a lot of these situations and scratch our heads,” says Alderman. “Then we try to make it work.”

The only black member of this 2-Tone-inspired outfit, lead singer McGee tends to lie low before shows. “When I walk in,” he says, “I usually don’t tell anyone what role I play in the band. They usually think I’m either the drummer or part of the road crew. So I just lie back until show time, and when we hit the stage, they’re stunned.”

Post-Hootie, the element of surprise is perhaps somewhat muted. McGee recalls very few examples of harassment by good ol’ boys. Boyd, however, reminds him of a time at Bucknell another good school for the band when five black students in the crowd gave the frontman a fair amount of shit. “They were like ‘Sing some rap!'” says McGee. “I was like ‘Look around you, friend. Does this look like a rap outfit?'”

Jay Silverman Chi Phi’s gung-ho social chair greets the band. “Fighting Gravity are a great party band,” he says. “They’re crowd pleasers because of the dance aspect.” Silverman has booked the band through Cellar Door Entertainment, which dominates regional bookings. The frat books a band about every three weeks, not uncommon around UVa. “We don’t have the luxury of a tremendous social budget. Our dues are lower than some of the larger Southern schools. We don’t like to pay more than $1,000 for a band. Acoustic acts get $200 to $300.” Fighting Gravity are getting around $500 for tonight’s two-set weeknight gig.

At the high end the band can make more than $6,000 for a night. And the low end? “The low end would be nothing,” says Peterson.

According to a few of the young women at the party, Chi Phi has the cutest men at UVa. “People say we get good grades but also that we have the best parties,” says Silverman. Last year, Chi Phi tapped out some 30 kegs at one party. Tonight, Silverman predicts that the house which has 80 brothers and pledges will draw about 500 people and empty 14 kegs.

The show kicks off at 10:30 p.m., and by the first chorus of “Mash It Up,” a ska-powered rave-up, much of the smallish crowd is jumping up and down with the band. Up front there are a number of comely women as well as some more boisterous khaki-clad faux rude boys. As the first set progresses, the room gets increasingly full, and the preppy moshing becomes intense, the speakers nearly toppling over countless times. A few couples head up the Chi Phi staircase to the brothers’ bedrooms for alternative entertainment. As another partygoer explains, the band at a frat party is “a form of lubrication,” a funky part of the collegiate mating dance.

Whatever their effectiveness as an aphrodisiac, Fighting Gravity are putting on a remarkably tight show. McGee whose velvety, soulful vocals at times recall George Michael and former English Beat singer Dave Wakeling is a pro frontman and one not above some local ass kissing. “This is the coolest place we play,” McGee tells the crowd. The group’s songs are infectious and upbeat a plus in this context, where only the bathroom is grungy. The crowd reacts well to “Ted’s River Song” and “One Day,” two songs from the group’s fifth album, Forever = 1 Day, which was produced by John Alagia, who did Dave Matthews Band’s Remember Two Things. It will be released by Fighting Gravity’s own label, BOB Records, just in time for Christmas.

The first set ends around 12:15. During the 20-minute break, soundman Bell moves a few feet over from the mixing board and sets up the merchandise T-shirts and hats are $15, CDs $10. Dozens of kids sign up to add their name to the band’s mailing list. An attractive pair of twins flirts with Hall, betting him that he couldn’t handle them both.

The $500 or more that the merchandise can bring in buys a lot of fast-food meals on the road. “It makes all the difference,” says Peterson. “And the CDs are great exposure; having them laying around dorms is like free advertising. Bands at our level have to promote themselves at every chance because no one else is doing it. Our whole operation is kind of bottom-line payroll. What you tend to do is spend your money to keep the operation floating.” The only ones getting paid tonight are the crew and saxophonist vonKlein.

“I think, at first, our families were pretty skeptical,” says Boyd. “Now we’ve proven ourselves to a certain extent. But we’ve never really seen any money it’s all reinvested in the band. The funny thing is, our friends think we must be getting rich, and we’d make more money working at Wendy’s.”

During the second set the intense moshing continues stage left, and a few of the less sobriety-challenged guys up front hold up pitchers of beer in tribute to the band. According to the band members, you can pretty much assume that by this point at a frat show, most of the crowd is seriously buzzed. Fights are no surprise. “It can be pretty primal,” says Peterson. Most of the women stay up front and look on appreciatively, but hops input has rid many of their male counterparts of any self-consciousness, leading to shocking displays of spontaneous Caucasian funkiness. The band loosens up as well and even throws in a few covers, including its hilarious ska take on Blue Oyster Cult’s monster hit “Godzilla.” After wrapping things up with “Holiday” their “Free Bird” Fighting Gravity finish at 1:35 a.m. Afterward the band talks with stragglers, sells some merchandise and gets the check.

“At the frat gigs, getting paid can be the hardest part,” says Triano. “The guy in charge is drunk or asleep, or nobody can find the checkbook.” Having been burned in the past, the band now gets contracts as well as deposits on most gigs.

College dates offer alternative perks as well. Tonight a young sorority sister offers the band a place to stay. The band members, four of whom are married, politely decline.

Asked how common it has been over the years for someone in Fighting Gravity to spend the night with someone in the audience, Peterson says, “It depends on what era of the band’s development. Obviously, before we got significant others, it was a lot more free-form. I’d be lying if I said girls weren’t part of the reason I started playing, and even on this level there were times when it was a fringe benefit.”

“A night didn’t go by,” Triano says, cutting to the chase.

“Dude, it’s amazing,” Peterson says. “Every year they make new 18-year-olds to replace the old ones. In fact, the past few years have been banner model years.”

Rather than doing any test driving, the band members mingle, finally heading off toward the bus well after 2 in the morning. “Don’t you guys have homework or something to do?” an exhausted McGee asks a few admirers.

“Finals will always be here,” says one enthusiastic first-year. “Fighting Gravity won’t.”

The next morning the band wakes up at about 10. Most of the members have stayed on the bus, which sleeps eight with some measure of comfort there are six small bunks and two couches up front. Last night they splurged a little and, after the show, found a modest hotel room for a couple of band members to share. “The trick is to pull up to a hotel and explain that you only want one room for the driver,” says Triano. “You park in the hotel lot, and as the night goes on, more and more guys slip in. Then in the morning everyone takes showers. Some of our biggest fights have been about who gets a towel.” The bus engine is left running all night for fear that it won’t start up again in the morning.

Over a late breakfast at Italia Villa an Italian restaurant and pancake house next to the hotel parking lot the band members discuss the fact that their good-time style puts them slightly at odds with the darker alternative tenor of rock today. “I’m sorry, but I think music should be about having a good time,” says Triano. “I guess we’re not cool enough, basically.” “But clearly people are getting it,” says Peterson. “How can you argue with a night like last night? I’m not afraid of going against the grain. I’d hate to have to wallow in my own self-pity nightly.”

“Right now some label will say we’re not angst-filled or guitar-driven enough,” adds Triano, “but at some point it’ll be our strength.”

In November 1994, Fighting Gravity confronted the ultimate in unhipness when they taped an appearance on Star Search. They never met Ed McMahon but did get to spend time with the hostess, ’80s MTV heartthrob Martha Quinn. “We knew it was going to be pretty cheesy,” says Triano, “but it was two weeks’ paid vacation in Orlando [Fla.] for the guys.”

Sticking to their guns, Fighting Gravity insisted on playing their original tunes on the show. They beat the band that did a Hendrix tune with a kazoo but lost to Ebony, who did a Boyz II Men cover.

“We would have tied Ebony, except Ivana Trump scored us lower,” Mike Boyd says with a laugh.

Fueled by pancakes and grits, the band members take the morning to wander the UVa campus. Then it’s time to begin the four-hour drive to Washington College. Before leaving, they assess the state of the bus. There is a new dent in the door, and the air governor is near death. That’s not to mention the noisy clutch or the lack of a fuel gauge. Triano calls the service company for help and is advised to “just hit it harder.”

There’s considerable discussion about the best route to Washington College. Clearly someone makes the wrong choice, and the band gets stuck for more than an hour behind a Christmas parade somewhere in rural Maryland. This allows Fighting Gravity more time to talk and even fight a little about their career. Triano and Peterson who formed the band together back in college and who write many of the songs get into a rare tiff over Triano’s comment that “95 percent of the gigs suck and the other 5 percent you talk about.”

Along the way, Fighting Gravity have opened for or played with Dave Matthews Band, the Kinks, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, A Tribe Called Quest and Juliana Hatfield. For Fighting Gravity, these current college dates are somewhat of a flashback. “Lately we’re hitting more colleges again,” Triano says. “For a while, it was more clubs, but we realized we had to hit the colleges and even the student-activities centers because it was a whole fan base we missed.”

Student-activities-center shows tend to pay well but can be problematic. “Sometimes they’re dry shows,” says Triano, “and sometimes the people you’re dealing with are bureaucratic types that don’t exactly get what you do. They’ll sometimes dock you for being a minute late.”

Tonight, Fighting Gravity finally arrive just before they’re due onstage. Things are running late at Washington College’s modern-looking Hodson Hall Student Center, and an alterna-sounding young band is playing “Sympathy for the Devil.” Fighting Gravity are given coupons for dinner at the snack bar and take full advantage of the free grub. Tonight’s gig is one of many that are about breaking new territory.

The school has only 1,000 students, so drawing a big crowd seems an uphill battle. Fighting Gravity were here once before, but that was an Earth Day benefit, and they were rained out after a few songs.

There’s no stage tonight. It’s easy to feel at one with your audience when you’re all on the same level. Seeing the small crowd, the band decides just before going on to switch to a concert set any intermission would only give some of them a chance to leave.

Despite the unpromising scene, Fighting Gravity again play their hearts out. The smaller the crowd, the harder the band must work to keep things going. There are perhaps 100 people in this antiseptic venue, but right away the band gets 75 of them dancing, creating the illusion of a bigger scene. It helps, too, that a number of women have crowded up front, including one in a Fighting Gravity T-shirt the ultimate turn-on for a struggling musician.

It’s inspiring to see a band working this hard to keep alive a dream that doesn’t even pay the rent it’s the opposite of seeing some cynical band going through the motions in a stadium. McGee exclaims, “Washington College!” as passionately as he would “Madison Square Garden!” Unfortunately he must deal with things that your average arena frontman doesn’t. The oddest moment tonight comes when a trashed-looking fellow pushes to the front and bizarrely tries to confront the singer. It’s unclear if he wants to fight McGee or hug him, perhaps both. Maybe he’s jealous of the interest the women in the crowd take in the singer. Whatever his motivation, he eventually backs off, and the show goes on.

Afterward, more names are added to the band’s 7,000-plus-member mailing list, while Peterson sits down to meet the press. Raven Prettyman, a critic from the school paper, is joined by two associates for the interview, one of whom seems to be a ska purist not entirely thrilled with Fighting Gravity’s pop-rock fusion. Peterson lightheartedly answers their queries about what kind of video he would like to make and what kind of beer he prefers. When asked where he would like to be in five years, Peterson answers quickly, “Rehab.” One unanswerable query, however, stumps him for a moment. “How do you feel about being described as a funky Hootie?”

This is my grandfather’s kilt, actually.”

Welcome to Princeton. Inside the stately-looking Tower Club, a young man in black tie is explaining the proud family history of his skirt to his charmed date. Behind them are exquisite ice sculptures towering over an impressive spread of appetizers and sushi. The club’s winter formal is about to begin, and formally clad, bookish young couples are streaming through the door. For the band, the whole scene which suggests Revenge of the Nerds: The Ivy Years — is a little chilling. Generally speaking, these are the sort of serious-minded intellectuals you want guiding your foreign policy, not filling your dance floor. Fighting Gravity themselves are looking a tad tired, possibly because a few members of the band smoked too much of a well-known ska sacramental herb after last night’s show with the members of one of the opening acts.

Past history does not bode well for them here. “We’ve played Princeton, like, 10 times,” Triano says, “and the money’s good, but you’re definitely the hired help there. It’s not usually a hanging-out situation. It’s different when everyone’s a valedictorian.”

“Our worst college show ever was at an eating club at Princeton,” Boyd says with a grimace. “They have computer labs in these places, and there were more people in the lab than watching us. I mean, this was Saturday night.”

Tonight things don’t start off promisingly. First, the band members have trouble getting into the club because they don’t have proper PUID Princeton University identification. Once that’s straightened out, they hang out in the small living room where the crew sets up their equipment. Again there’s no stage and just a couple of aging pizzas for dinner. Fortunately the coolest-looking club member heads back and kindly tells the hungry musicians to help themselves to the sushi.

“Do you guys feel like you’re in a Rob Lowe movie?” Triano asks.

Fortunately the band has some support. Shawn from Trenton State who started one of the three Fighting Gravity home pages has driven here, as have some friends and fans from New York and Washington, D.C. So, too, has the band’s new manager, Frank Weber. Turned on to the band by his son, Weber a participant in some famous legal battles with his former client and brother-in-law, Billy Joel is trying to get them the deal they have so long desired. There was an offer from EMI last February, but things didn’t pan out. All together, this crowd of supporters nearly outnumbers the club members drifting in after their formal dinner.

Fighting Gravity start playing, and there’s not much dancing at first. Apparently these folks were still studying for the SATs when the folks at UVa were learning how to move rhythmically.

“Now I know how Bill Gates would dance,” Weber says, shaking his head.

The first set is tough going. During the break the band members look a bit defeated. As they take the stage for the second set, Triano tells the crowd, “Hello, we’re Hootie and the Blowfish!” But just then something remarkable happens it’s as if someone has downloaded some software on how to dance in the computer lab. The crowd grows to a respectable mass, and the joint actually starts jumping. Black ties loosen, tuxedo jackets fly off, and the world music works its magic.

Things go so well that even when the room lights blow during “Julula,” the show keeps right on hopping. Thinking quickly, Bell points his flashlight toward the stage until the problem can be fixed, and the band plays on.

Paid in full, the band members talk afterward to some of the Tower gang. They sell a modest amount of merchandise, flirting shamelessly with one female customer, then head back to the bus. Ahead lies more work both onstage and at the office. New Year’s Eve will bring a big show with Too Skinnee J’s that Triano and Peterson are promoting in Richmond; they’ll sell 2,000 tickets and have a huge payday. Unfortunately that will be trombonist Chris Leitch’s last show with the band another member moving on to a more normal life. In January, the band will head up to Vermont, where it’ll play places called the Pickle Barrel and the Wobbly Barn for college kids on ski vacations. The new album comes out for the holidays, and a live album titled Hello, Cleveland is in the pipeline.

The band sold 20,000 copies of its 1994 album, No Stopping, No Standing as many on its own as through its distributor, Caroline. Fighting Gravity clearly have got their act together, but just as clearly they could use some major-label bucks to take them to the next level. “We’re self-contained, up and running, with our own following,” says Peterson. “To me we’re a no-brainer for some smart record company.”

“We’ve been a no-brainer for five years now,” Triano adds.

Now, sometime after 2 in the morning, it’s time to hit the road again. Remarkably, McGee after a three-hour show gets behind the wheel for the all-night, six-hour drive home.

“I want to see the country, and this is the way I want to do it,” he says, keeping his eyes on the highway. “It gets schizophrenic when you roll in at 6 in the morning and have to be at the desk at 8. I happen to love my job, and the places we all work are really understanding. We’re lucky guys in that sense. So you take a shower, drink more coffee and get through the day. And it helps knowing you’re not the only one doing it. The other guys in the band are doing the exact same thing. And then you meet the next night and do it all again.”

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