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All right, let's get this out of the way right from the start: Candlebox is from Seattle. But vocalist Kevin Martin insists that Candlebox isn't a typical Seattle band. In fact, the group--whose music critics describe as grunge, metal and alternative, while Martin calls it "real, honest rock"--got very little mileage out of the current popularity of its hometown. According to Martin, the band had to head south to Los Angeles to get club dates and label recognition because their stomping ground was so clogged with good, well-known bands.

"It was like being an outcast in a society that doesn't want you," notes Martin, his voice rough after opening a sold-out, 18,000-seat date for Rush in Anaheim, California. "Nobody [in Seattle] wanted us to play their club, because they didn't know who we were, and if you didn't have a draw, they would lose money. Everything was happening so quickly in Seattle, and we were a new band--nobody had heard of us--and there are only three clubs that are worth playing."
This was the situation in December 1991, when Martin formed Candlebox with bassist Bardi Martin (no relation), guitarist Peter Klett and drummer Scott Mercado. The singer and Mercado had been members of another group, the four-month-old Uncle Duke, but after meeting Klett they realized that they were on to something unique.

"When Pete walked into our studio, it was an entirely different feel immediately," Martin says. "I don't know what he does for the band. I've tried to figure it out, but he's very confusing personally. I think he brings a lot of the mystique to the Candlebox sound. The way he plays, the chords he plays--his style of writing is different from most writers."
To symbolize these changes, the musicians felt the need for a new name--and the phrase "boxed in like candles," heard in the Midnight Oil song "Tin Legs and Tin Mines," provided one. Without local club dates or money to tour, however, the players in Candlebox decided to figuratively sell their souls to record an eight-song demo tape with producer and friend Kelly Gray, whose introduction brought Klett into the band. The result was a blend of rock and blues (plus a smidgen of jazz) influenced by Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Rush and the Cult.

After selling several hundred copies of the demo in less than two months and playing a pair of showcases in Los Angeles, Candlebox began to attract the attention of major labels. Among those impressed was Guy Oseary, an A&R rep from Maverick, the fledgling imprint founded and supervised by Madonna. Almost a year to the day the group came together, it was signed to a contract for two albums, with an option for seven more.

Since then, the bandmembers have met Ms. Ciccone--she's nice, Martin insists--and recorded their impressive self-titled debut at Seattle's now-famous London Bridge Studio. Although Maverick is a division of the powerful Warner Bros. family, Martin says the band was allowed all the freedom it needed: "Another label would have tried to control us. Maverick doesn't do that."

The company didn't interfere when Candlebox opted to work once more with Gray, who Martin says was the band's first and only choice as producer. "Kelly brings a lot of security to us. He's very open and honest and doesn't put pressure on the band," he notes. "He doesn't do anything negative, and he's very supportive and diplomatic about the things he says to us."

Diplomacy is important given Candlebox's unusual writing style. "Peter will sit at home at night and just play and play and play," Martin explains. "And all of a sudden, he's got this song done. Pete, Bardi and Scott will jam on the melody, and I'll sort of improvise the lyrics to it. I'll let the music affect me lyrically, and it just brings certain things out--memories or whatever. It's more like the music creates a feeling for the band and in me, and that's what I sing about."

Martin's almost stream-of-consciousness style seems to flow into the music. Emotions, rather than rhymes, are the priority. That's appropriate, since most of the songs on Candlebox (which is nearing gold status thanks to sales of 200,000 units since December) deal with the fragility and complexity of relationships. For example, the band's first single, "Change," navigates through a wide range of themes, including tenderness, love, rage and indecisiveness. "To me, it takes you through the changes you go through in a day, how a day in my life goes up and down all the time," Martin says. "It talks about being prepared for what comes your way. It's like the decisions that you make, you better be able to back them up, because there's no changing what you've already done."

As for "You," the group's second single, Martin says it's a "personal therapy thing for me. It's just a way for me to talk about being kicked out of my house and other things to people I don't know. I just started spitting the words out in the studio when we recorded that, because I was just thinking about things. That's how Pete's playing affects me. I never thought I would meet someone that I could just draw on like that. He would play a chord, and I would just start thinking about things. It's really weird." Although Martin concedes that he's buoyed by the band's success--"It's what I've wanted since I was a little kid"--he says he can't write lyrics unless he's feeling down. "You've got nothing playing on your emotions when you're happy," he says. "Happy feelings don't make good songs. I need a little turmoil in my life to write a good song. And people want to know they're feeling what everyone else is feeling."

Candlebox is relatively young and green (both Martins are 24, Klett is 25 and Mercado is 29), yet the quartet is thus far surviving the stress of constant touring. Martin occasionally rebels against the relentless demand for interviews--rather than keeping one telephone rendezvous for this article, for instance, he nominated Mercado to stand in for him while he took off with his girlfriend. What he's most worried about, though, is the toll that life on the road is taking on his throat. The son of a trained opera-singer mother and a multi-instrumentalist father, Martin has been singing since he was six, but he's only had a handful of voice lessons. He claims that will change soon, because he now realizes how important it is to protect his most valuable asset. "Look at Ian Asbury," he says about the singer for the Cult, who's had chronic voice problems. "The poor guy can't tour anymore."

By contrast, Candlebox has been doing little else lately. In addition to its stint with Rush and its current headlining trek, the band has also traveled with Living Colour and Greta. This scenario is likely to continue over the next year, with recording sessions scheduled for a few months from now standing as the only interruptions.

Still, Martin doesn't mind. After the indifference of those early Seattle club owners, he says, "It feels so good to go into a show and have people cheer when you go on stage."

Candlebox, with Eleven. 8 p.m. Thursday, February 17, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $12, 290-TIXS or 830-2525.

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Ellie Rodgers

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