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Roses Are Rad

Rose Hill Drive has come a long way...without me.

Three years ago, I was part of what's now one of the hottest, most talked about bands in the country.

"So we're just walking down the street in Lawrence, Kansas," recalls Daniel Sproul, "and some chick comes up to us and says, 'Are you Rose Hill Drive?'" Shocked to be recognized, Daniel responded with this: "Uhh."

I'm in a Chicago pizzeria with the members of Rose Hill Drive, my old band. As soon as the pizza's gone, Daniel leaves to tune up his guitar before the show down the street at the Wise Fools Pub. His brother Jake, the vocalist who mastered the bass after I left, and drummer Nate Barnes stay behind to do the set list and start scribbling song titles. The band's manager, Brian Schwartz, slides toward the table. He's been talking to a Chicago woman who made a bootleg tape of the band's Valentine's Day show here two months ago.

A Rose is a rose: Jake Sproul (from left), Nate Barnes 
and Daniel Sproul are Rose Hill Drive.
Anthony Camera
A Rose is a rose: Jake Sproul (from left), Nate Barnes and Daniel Sproul are Rose Hill Drive.

"Here's something to consider," Schwartz interrupts. "That last show has been circulating like mad. You can't repeat that show."

It''s amazing that Rose Hill Drive has been around long enough to repeat anything, much less have anyone catch the redundancy. Jake and Nate are both just 21. Daniel is 19, but he's been wowing crowds since he was 13. The chick on the street in Kansas recognized them from photos on JamBase.com, a popular website for fans of the type of group my home town usually produces: noodly jam bands. The JamBase reviewer, who caught Rose Hill Drive in San Francisco, raved but made it clear that this wasn't a "dime-a-dozen jam band."

Rose Hill Drive has never been dime-a-dozen.

I met Jake and Daniel at Fairview High School in Boulder, when they were accompanying a friend's musical performance. Jake, a tenor in one of the school choirs, was playing keyboards and singing at the time, and he had to fill in the bass range with an overactive left hand. I mentioned that I'd been playing bass for a few years and asked if they needed a bass player.

Soon after, I was in the basement of the brothers' house on Rose Hill Drive in Boulder's University Hill neighborhood. That's where the band got its name, after brief stints as Flash Flood and worse. I listened to Daniel, still in middle school, play Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Scuttle Buttin" with utter fluency. I was in over my head.

But Jake and Daniel brought me up to speed, and Nate came in to give us backbone. When Daniel finished middle school and moved on to Fairview, we ate lunch together and left school together. We did all the things that moderately affluent teenage boys should do -- there were pranks, videotaped antics, trampolines, video games and speeding tickets. But we also spent hours every day in the basement, earplugs at hand, writing and practicing and scheming. We played music until the Sprouls decided it was too late to make so much noise.

Every Fourth of July, we would haul the Marshall stack to the front porch, crank the knob to seven or eight, and Daniel would fire up his Stratocaster for a Hendrix-at-Woodstock version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." One year Nate and I stood against a parked car in the street, dead center in front of the amp. We lost some hearing as Daniel flooded Rose Hill Drive -- the street's only a block long -- with big-arena roar.

Another time, Jake wanted to ask a girl to a school dance -- prom, perhaps, or something less epic. Jake already had a mind for the minor spectacle and asked us to learn a song, a Black Crowes tune, so that we could treat his would-be date to a front-porch rock serenade. We sat in front of the big speakers and learned our parts in a few minutes; we'd all heard the song a hundred times. We decided we had to adapt our road show for instantaneous setup; there would be no time for staging and soundchecks. Nate devised an abbreviated drum kit, and I tuned one of Daniel's acoustic guitars down and down, just far enough to sound the low end of the bass line. Jake sang his part a couple of times, and then we headed for the van.

It was a process we had refined before, only a few days after Nate had replaced our previous drummer for a middle-school variety show. Now it was load it up, load it out in under a minute, "everybody ready?" and "knock, knock." And there, on Boulder's even-richer edge of town, we played our concert for a high-school girl and her incredulous family. As I remember it, she declined Jake's invitation.

Like other Boulder teenagers, we had our part-time employment. We all worked weekends busing or waiting tables at the same restaurant, together except when one of us would get fired (then usually rehired). We spent all our pay on CDs and music gear. Eventually the owner of our favorite guitar shop set up an informal payment plan for our purchases: We'd come in with a hundred coffee-stained dollar bills each week, and in the meantime, a beautiful new instrument was already getting its loving introduction to basement blaring and couch-side clinking. The couch practicing escalated until Mrs. Sproul instituted a no-guitars-left-on-the-couch rule. So we started leaning them against the armrest instead. We bought a P.A. system and played shows -- parties, dances, the occasional night at the Fox Theatre or Tulagi. We refined makeshift recording techniques to figure out how we sounded. We critiqued ourselves ruthlessly.

At the end of 2000, when I was a junior in high school, we started having discussions about commitment, and I slowly realized I wasn't in it for life. I didn't have the drive that Jake, Daniel and Nate share. I wanted out of Boulder and didn't think we could do that as a band, so I took off. I focused on school and went to college in suburban Chicago.

Now here I am, and they're in town, on tour, for the third time. I can't regret leaving the band. I'm convinced the other members needed me gone to get this far.

"Hey, what band are you guys?" shouts a man walking by on the street, bike-messenger bag bulging yellow on his back.

Just out of the van, Jake's tired after an eight-hour drive from Kansas. "Rose Hill Drive," he tries.

Biker Bag gives a double thumbs-up and keeps walking.

"We're playing at Wise Fools," Jake adds -- thumbs go up again -- and then says, more quietly, "We're signed to...Butthole Records."

Rose Hill isn't signed to Butthole Records. In fact, the guys are not signed at all, despite lots of interest from high-level reps at several major labels. Schwartz says the band has rejected offers from two labels already. "We're just being patient at this point," he explains.

After a second successful appearance at Austin's South by Southwest, the band did a series of shows in California and a three-week run back in the Denver area. Then it was on to an Atlanta studio with Brendan O'Brien, the heavyweight producer and creative consultant who's worked with Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bruce Springsteen and a long list of others (just run his name on allmusic.com). O'Brien signed on to do Rose Hill Drive's first album after he heard a few songs and the band played a private showcase. These musicians might be his youngest project ever. When the album is finished in the next few months, it will be shopped around to labels, in hopes that a high-end finished product will help them land the right deal.

Meanwhile, negotiations are ongoing and secret. Standing outside the van, Daniel starts to tell me some label-search news, and Jake cuts him off: "You can't write any of this," he says. I assure him I'll get the official word from Schwartz, who later says it's all right to reveal that the band has received yet another offer since South by Southwest. At this point, my former bandmates are waiting for an offer that fits the band and its future. Jake's hoping for one that will help Rose Hill Drive lead a wave of authentically fantastic rock bands that are true to the emerging generation.

"The youth is our show," he says. "We haven't signed with two major labels because of that. We could have made some money out of that. I'm fuckin' poor right now."

I remember out loud that someone told me about a teenage Boulder band that supposedly idolizes Rose Hill Drive. Jake says a lot of bands are starting up in Boulder, and many of them are rockers. If these are the seeds of a new scene, they're sprouting at Rose Hill Drive shows.

"There's a lot of kids that are in bands that were right up front," Jake says, describing the last show they played at the Fox. "I think it's good. When we break out, there's gonna be a scene."

There's already a fan community cropping up. The band let a recording of the Fox show float around among friends, and word is that it's multiplied. "It's so cool how nobody else has it but our friends, and they're copying it like hell," Jake says. Yeah, he adds, I can have a copy, but he doesn't have one. I'll have to call some kids in Boulder. What else can you do when the hot new band doesn't have an album to buy or steal?

Outside Rose Hill's shows at the Fox, everyone's smoking. But Chicago's not Boulder, New York or Ireland -- you can still smoke in the bars here. So instead, everyone outside here is on the phone. Brian walks to the corner and back several dozen times as he talks to someone. Brian is constantly on the phone; he's carrying around his Blackberry. The band has a community cell phone, too, and Nate has borrowed one from a girlfriend. Every few days, I've been typing at them from my little college apartment. They're always in some hotel with an Internet connection, and instant messaging keeps up the banter.

All this connectivity makes life on the road far less isolated than it was years ago. These three are in a van for hours each day, but most of the time they're just a phone call away from home, from home girlfriends, from record companies.

Inside the pub are more cell phones. I field a call from a friend who wanted to see the band -- she's sick and won't be coming. Jake and Daniel have missed phone calls from girls in Boulder. Text messages go largely unanswered as everyone spends their time downloading rockin' ringers (AC/DC, the Darkness, Marvin Gaye) and taking ridiculous pictures. Jake's brought some plastic, wind-up chattering teeth from the van. "We gotta get a picture of me with these in," he says, grabbing Nate.

"No, it's too creepy," Nate protests.

Chit-shink. The phone announces that it's captured the scene.

Tonight's sparse crowd is nothing compared to the manic slew of desperate yuppies who crowded the bar on Valentine's Day. Still, there are a few fans waiting as the band sets volumes in the dark music room. Jake takes a candle and puts it at his foot. He's taped the set list to a black velvet curtain behind him and near the Wise Fools Pub logo, an owl perched on a crescent moon, scrutinizing the place like a bouncer eyes a fake ID.

The sound wells up, classic rock tones chiming through -- and Rose Hill Drive bursts into "In the News." I can't stop looking at Nate. He has total command of the drums and creates explosions or click-track mellow rhythms with total purpose. Jake's come into his own vocally. For years his vocal style would morph; he could do a killer Anthony Kiedis or Scott Weiland, but he just wasn't himself. Now he sounds utterly comfortable, authoritative. It's purely him. And with knuckles tattooed "BASS" and "LOVE," his bass tone is sweetly overdriven, fat, confident.

Daniel is across the stage from Jake. Their righty and lefty guitar necks point away from each other, giving the small stage an open feel and drawing eyes to Nate at center. Daniel's reserved tonight; this is not the venue for guitar-behind-the-head stunts, for on-stage humor. They're just rocking casually, almost as if it were a practice and they'd invited a few friends to watch.

Maybe halfway through, out comes the Led Zeppelin. The guys are playing "The Ocean," and for a moment, with his long curls, Daniel is Robert Plant-gone-guitarist. At any of their shows, someone compares them to Zeppelin. But they don't think they're a second coming. They want to bring riotous rock with a soul to the generation of instant messengers, picture-taking cell phones and Google.

Back at dinner, Jake's looking through the day's pictures on his phone.

"Did you delete all your pictures?" Nate asks.

"Yeah."

"Even the naked chicks?" Daniel wonders, neither surprised nor excited.

"Yeah, man. We've got bigger things to do."

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