Scott Kerr pauses, rests his chin on his hands and ponders for a minute. The clink of glass and burble of conversation overflows from the other booths at Sputnik as the singer/guitarist of Yellow Second composes his thoughts. His bandmates -- guitarist Josh Hemingway, bassist Brett Bowden and drummer Jimmy Coles -- sip their beers in the silence. Finally, Kerr speaks up in a soft, altogether humble voice: "I'd rather not make this interview, if I can have a say in it, about religion."
No problem. In fact, Yellow Second's new disc, Altitude, couldn't have less to do with the touchy subject of religion -- unless, of course, you happen to round out your pantheon with such deities as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Rivers Cuomo and Elliott Smith. Granted, that might actually cover a sizable percentage of the world's population, which is exactly as Kerr would have it. He wants to make music "that can appeal to anyone, whether they understand anything about music or not," he says. "But at the same time, somebody who does know music can listen to it and appreciate how it's put together."
And Altitude, a work of universally infectious pop, certainly owns up to that ideal. The disc casts a reverent look back at the purity and craftsmanship of the Beatles, even as it taps into the urgency and uncertainty of life in an age of indie-rock cynicism. Still, there's no avoiding Kerr's past as a guitarist for the defunct Five Iron Frenzy -- a riotous ska-core outfit, not to mention the most successful Christian act to ever come out of Denver.
"I'm not exactly sure how I want to answer this one," he says when asked about his defection from Five Iron in 1999. "I felt creatively stifled. I didn't really agree with a lot of the direction of the band. But I didn't have an ax to grind with them; I just wanted more autonomy. In Five Iron, I didn't write any of the lyrics. I wanted to be able to express myself, and I also wanted to take a very different musical direction."
So while still a part of Five Iron's roster, and inspired by groups like Nada Surf and Superdrag, Kerr started writing songs and recording demos that veered more toward unadulterated power pop.
"I think that there's still a lot that can be done with pop music," he explains. "I've always been a sucker for a good melody. But at the same time, I like songs that are interesting. There's not enough thoughtful pop music out there. I love the Beatles. There's just something about it that moves people."
Two of Kerr's Five Iron bandmates, Dennis Culp and Andrew Verdecchio, were even moved enough to come on board, and the group began jamming on the side. "We didn't come up with a name or have any shows or anything," Kerr remembers. "Five Iron was still full-throttle, so we couldn't devote any kind of time to it. I just wound up leaving it alone; it was frustrating. When I left Five Iron was when I decided to do this band full-time."
But Kerr didn't just leave Five Iron; he left Colorado. In 1999, looking for a change of pace and new opportunities for his music, he moved to Seattle and rebuilt Yellow Second, filling out the lineup with guitarist Matt Woll and brothers Jason and Joey Sanchez on bass and drums. A year later, the quartet released its debut, June One, and started amassing a local following in the Northwest. Being a former member of a band like Five Iron, with a firm fan network in place across the country, certainly didn't hurt Kerr and his new outfit. But at the same time, he wasn't trying to milk his pedigree.
"I never really told anyone that I was a former member of Five Iron Frenzy," he asserts. "That first record was pretty mellow. I think it was a reaction against all that hyper music we were making in Five Iron. I kind of wanted to distance myself from that. Not that I was ashamed of it or anything. I just didn't really want to be compared to them. But people found out anyway."
In the midst of the interest generated by June One, Yellow Second recorded the followup, Still Small. But even with bright prospects on the horizon, Kerr began to feel a strain within the band. "No one was in the position where they could make the necessary sacrifices to take Yellow Second to the next level," he explains. "They couldn't tour. I also got tired of living in Seattle, and the other guys didn't want to relocate."
So in 2002, before Still Small had even been released, Kerr moved back to Denver. Faced once again with reconstructing Yellow Second, he called on some old friends, including bassist Nathan Marcey of the Risk, Verdecchio on drums and Hemingway, who had been a high school buddy of Kerr's, on guitar When the chance came along to join Yellow Second, Hemingway jumped on it.
"In Five Iron, Scott would give me demo tapes of the songs he was doing," Hemingway recalls. "I appreciate the fact that [he] always puts a lot of thought into everything he writes. I was initially attracted to the fact that the casual listener can hear his songs and be like, ŒWow, that's cool.' But the more you listen to it, the more you can dig into it. There are things there to find. It's interesting on a lot of levels. There's a lot of depth, but it's also catchy."
But for all the hooks and smarts in evidence on Still Small, it's Altitude that rises to the top of Yellow Second's oeuvre. Full of churning tension and pensive reflection, the disc touches on influences as varied as Elliott Smith, Fountains of Wayne and Dear You-era Jawbreaker while preserving Kerr's distinctive voice: ragged yet sugary, intimate yet epic.
"I've often said that the only reason I even started singing was because I couldn't find anyone else to do it," Kerr remarks with a laugh. "I'm not a naturally gifted vocalist. I just try to deal with the limitations of my voice. I mean, I love the Velvet Underground, and Lou Reed can barely stay in tune at all. I kind of rely on the melody to bring out the better characteristics of my voice."
But vocals aren't the only thing Kerr is insecure about. As dipped in syrup as it is, Altitude shivers with doubt and apprehension, a nebulous mass of gloom and numb regret haunted by half-open doors, ticking clocks and straddled fences. "I don't know if it's just this album, but those have definitely been recurring themes in my life," Kerr confesses. "I guess I've just always been trying to find certainty, or some measure of it. I always kind of get a little down on myself."
The record's closer, "Imaginary Friend," best illustrates Kerr's befuddled, if hope-lined, heartache. Over lush riffs and chiseled beats, he implores, "I'm troubled I'll wonder to the very end/Why always I'm followed by my imaginary friend/Just you run along/You haven't heard a word I've said/Back where you belong/Confined within a book I've read."
"That song talks about being undecided and trying to figure out what you can reasonably accept about the world," Kerr reveals. "Again, I don't want to make this a religious thing, but when you consider yourself a reasonable person, you have to come to grips with the whole God thing. You want to form your own opinions about the world you live in, the universe and how you think you got here. You want to ask those kinds of big questions."
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Now, with the addition of Bowden and Coles to the lineup -- not to mention a new deal with the major-affiliated Floodgate imprint -- Kerr has a lot of reasons to place his faith in Yellow Second. As poised for exposure and success as he is, though, the band's leader has trepidations about his unshakable status as an alumnus of the ministry-centered Five Iron Frenzy.
"I always make it very clear to everyone that I have no agenda," he maintains. "I'm not comfortable with my life being a total open book. I can appreciate the fact that people want to be able to apply lyrics to the person who wrote them. That's what pop songwriting, or good songwriting in general, is all about -- people relating, being able to say 'I felt like that once.'
"If I happen to sing about religious stuff in an ambiguous way sometimes," he adds, "it's just a personal thing. We're not trying to make up people's minds for them. Yellow Second is just a band."
Amen to that.