By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Drummer Colby Mancasola and his mates in the band Knapsack discovered a surefire way to pick a record company. "Basically," he says, "we just looked at our record collections and said, `Okay, we own these four or five albums on Alias.' And then we looked at label B and went, `How many records do we have on label B? Zero.' So we went with Alias, because it just seemed like the most comfortable place."
Granted, this particular system may sound a tad lax to the average pack of starry-eyed greedheads. But for the Knapsackers--Mancasola, guitarist/vocalist Blair Shehan, guitarist Jason Bokros and bassist Rod Meyer--it makes perfect sense. After all, few people love music as much as these Davis, California-based rockers. In addition to being avid album collectors, Mancasola and Shehan are proud alums of UC-Davis's cutting-edge radio station, KDVS. At one point, the former acted as the station's music director, while the latter served as its director of publicity. According to Mancasola, the experience did little to curb his music addiction. "I still spend too much money on records," he says, laughing. "We all do."
Fortunately, the Knapsack crew also finds time to write a song or two of its own, several of which can be found on Silver Sweepstakes, the group's debut effort on Alias. Crackling with punchy guitar chops and pragmatic pop smarts, Sweepstakes reveals that Mancasola and company are capable of fashioning crafty rock songs with the best of them. "Cellophane," the record's opener, starts things off with a bold chorus straight out of Superchunk's collective unconscious (it alternates between whispery power pop and unfettered aggression), while "Effortless," the disc's upcoming single, exudes enough pseudo-Top 40 charisma to charm the briefs off even the densest alternative-radio programmer.
Many of Sweepstakes' accomplishments can be attributed to the musical restraint practiced by Knapsack's players. Rather than getting bogged down in a quagmire of self-serving drum fills and guitar solos, they prefer to stick to fundamentals. As a result, each tune on the platter is immediately accessible. Mancasola says keeping things simple has always been a priority for the band.
"Our music is really song-oriented," he explains. "Blair usually comes in with guitar parts he's written on his acoustic guitar at home, and then we fill it in from there. But it's always more like, `Hey, I've got this great chorus' instead of, `Whoa, let's have a big hippie jam on this part.' The great pop song: That's always going to be my favorite part of music. It's neat that after all these years, people are still trying to outdo each other by trying to write the great pop song."
Of course, that's not to say that Knapsack's songs are merely radio-friendly fodder. On the contrary, Sweepstakes' heavier moments have more kick than a Steven Seagal flick. One might even go so far as to describe works like "Makeshift" and "Symmetry" as "punky." Tell this to Mancasola, however, and you're likely to get a different interpretation altogether. "I don't know. I'm not really comfortable with any sort of punk-rock term," he stresses. "I mean, there's varying degrees of punk rock in our record collections. But as far as the band is concerned, I don't think that punk is that great of a reference point. We just set out to be a really great rock-and-roll band more than anything else."
If that's the case, they're off to a pretty good start. After six months of nonstop touring, the band has developed a sizable following all over the country. It's also managed to crack the MTV airwaves: The video for "Cellophane" is in modest rotation on 120 Minutes, and portions of the song have been used as soundbites for The Week in Rock and House of Style. "It's a blessing in disguise, I guess," Mancasola jokes.
More important, the boys in Knapsack are having a good time. After spending their formative years acquiring records by their favorite performers, they're getting a taste of what it's like to be on the other side of the fence. Part of the fun of signing with an operation like Alias, admits Mancasola, is having the opportunity to contribute to the imprint's already impressive legacy; over the years, the firm has been home to influential acts such as Yo La Tengo and Archers of Loaf. Mancasola confirms that he feels honored to be working with the same label that once catered to luminaries like Mark Eitzel, leader of the American Music Club.
"When we first signed with Alias, I used to ask a bunch of questions about Mark," he reveals. "He's definitely one of my favorites. It was one of those, `Well, what's Mark Eitzel really like?' sort of things. Once I got the information on him, I was okay, though."
Mancasola also enjoys being part of what has become a formidable, no-longer-so-far-underground modern-rock scene, despite the mounting competition and increasing pressures that go along with it. "It probably would have been a whole different story if we'd been around seven years ago," he emphasizes. "Back in the Eighties, we would have showed up at a club and it would have been like, `What kind of music do you boys play?' Now it's just like, `Oh, another indie-rock band. Okey-dokey.'