by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & J & lt;/span & eremy Reynolds needs a bigger stage. At Empyrean, gigging for a room half-full of Central Valley High teachers, Hockey's bassist has already knocked his mic stand over twice. The first time, it was caught by someone in the front row and set right. The second, Reynolds sent it headlong into Ben Grubin's Rhodes piano. The way Reynolds flits and stomps around, despite being encircled by drums, synths, the Rhodes and a close-pressed crowd, he's clearly used to more spacious settings. He and Grubin, though, have found themselves in strange circumstances. Hockey hasn't played live in over five months. They've never played with this many people.
The band's last show, on September 5, was at Los Angeles' famed Viper Room. At that point there was no drummer and no synth. The duo had been living in L.A. since the previous February, playing sporadic gigs and trying to set down some tracks that pleased their A & amp;R. That night at the Viper Room it was just Reynolds and Grubin onstage with iPod accompaniment doinking out canned beats to a hundred or so Angelinos. "[That] was a pretty well-received show," recalls Reynolds, who goes by Jerm.
The majority of L.A. shows, though, hadn't gone well. Whether it was the presence of the iPod or the lack of a drummer, audiences weren't accepting of their style. By the time they played the Viper Room with Blue Scholars and Braille, Reynolds says they'd soured on being a two-piece. "I remember asking Braille's DJ to stay on stage to just make some noises behind us," he recalls. "I was so desperate to have something else going on in the background."
That something else would eventually lead the band to ask songwriter [and Inlander staff writer] Joel Smith, a friend from college, to join the band. Financial question marks led Smith to suggest the band come to Spokane. Within a couple weeks, they had decided to move from L.A.
Of course, somewhere at the back of their minds during all this was the band's uncertain contract status with Epic Records.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & O & lt;/span & n February 7, 2006, Hockey played a showcase for labels at the Lava Lounge in Hollywood attended by Epic A & amp;R rep Ben Goldman and his retinue. By the end of the set, Reynolds recalls, Goldman's clique was on their Blackberries working up marketing plans. Hockey's management told them Goldman's power was such that he could sign bands on sight. That would have been true in the past, but the belt-tightening found industry-wide meant Goldman had to appeal to higher authorities.
The rigmarole lasted weeks and ended not with a full contract, but with a development deal, essentially meaning Epic would take the band for a test drive, putting them in the studio with a producer and see if they could write a hit sight unseen. Talk of smash hits, of course, led to artistic trepidation. "How do they want us to compromise to appeal to the lowest common denominator?" Reynolds wonders. "They basically ask, 'Can every 16-year-old in America get this chorus?'"
Three producers and two development extensions later, those worries haven't subsided. The fact that the development deal keeps getting extended suggests Goldman still believes in the band's potential. That they haven't been signed to a full deal states flatly that, at least in the eyes of the label, they haven't realized their potential by penning a hit song.
It would be wrong to say Hockey isn't interested in penning a hit; they just want to do it their way. Though they haven't stated it explicitly, the decision to move to a full band -- and thus the choice to move to Spokane -- is an effort to take more control of the songwriting. "We realized that if we don't want our albums to get messed with as much," says Reynolds, "we just need to go into the studio with stuff as complete as possible."
In the month since they've hit the lower South Hill, Hockey has made big strides. The four-piece has taken the original sound, what Reynolds described as "a dance-y soul," taken elements of the synth-heavy recordings the duo made with Talking Heads keyboardist-turned-producer Jerry Harrison, added [Inlander contributor] Anthony Stassi's steady but inventive drum work and Joel Smith's eclectic influences -- everything from Bob Wills to Amadou and Mariam. "I'm really trying to work some Afro-pop in," Smith says deviously.
"It just rocks harder," says Reynolds of the full-band experience. For sheer fullness of sound, it's hard to disagree.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & hough Reynolds' controlled seizure activity is the live set's focal point, Grubin is pretty captivating as well. For much of the Empyrean set, he remains cloistered behind his Rhodes, tasked with banging out the instrument's singular, jangly sound. It's clear, though, his hands don't like being shackled to the keys. Especially on more oratorical cuts, like "Five Times a Day" his hands gravitate to about head level, gesturing to the beat like Evita (the Madonna version).
The gig goes off well, despite the teachers leaving with a song or two to go, their spouses and children in tow. The biggest problem, the members decide, is that Smith, manning five instruments, needs to sort his pedal situation. The transitions are too long and there's the problem of Reynolds killing people with his bass. The band seems glad to be able to hem and haw over such logistical flotsam. It means the larger obstacles -- questions of artistic direction, freedom and ownership -- have disappeared, for a while, below the horizon. Grubin and Reynolds are happy with the control they feel they've recovered. They've got a drummer, they've got a banjo player who's studying synths like they were the MCATs, and they're rediscovering what they forgot they loved about their music.
In November, Goldman moved from Epic to Columbia Records, taking Hockey with him. Their latest development extension is set to expire on Feb. 28. The label could conceivably offer the band a full deal, linking Hockey to Harrison for an album and to Columbia for six. The band themselves are worried they might be signed to a deal and then kept in the wings, writing songs but not releasing albums on the off chance that, as Reynolds puts it, "we write a smash hit like Gnarls Barkley."
Regardless of what the label settles on, and regardless of how the band decides to play it, they've resolved to stick around Spokane a bit to explore being a four-piece. After a year of uncertainty, development extensions and revolving producers, the idea of a stable environment to evolve as a band is a welcome one. In Reynolds' words, "I kinda want to just work at a deli and hang out with Joel, you know?"
Hockey with Seaweed Jack, Megasapien and Paper Genius at the Blvd. on Friday, Feb. 23 at 9 pm. $5. Call 455-7826.