Music News

Risky Business

With all of the effort that's put toward indoctrinating middle-class youth into the cult of suburbia, it's not surprising to see the rate at which bohemian leanings are traded for button-down collars. It's something that usually takes place just after college commencement. Most likely, it's that familiar notion -- that one must immediately get a career and settle down -- at work. Of course, how one chooses to define "career" is a matter of wide individual interpretation, a fact beautifully exploited by the members of Boulder's Fairlanes: A couple of months ago, they, too, decided to take the grown-up path and focus on their future. It's just that their choice involved quitting day jobs, spending lots of time on the road, and playing more punk-rock music than they ever had before.

Before that, however, they braved a (quickly aborted) digression into the nine-to-five world.

"We had student loans to pay off -- the usual -- and when you finish college, that's what you're supposed to do, I guess," says singer/ guitarist Jason Zumbrunnen. "We were still doing music and just figured that was the way to do what we needed to do. After just a little while, we were writing the music and going, 'Wow. We'd much rather be doing that than just working the typical job.'"

After three years of juggling the responsibilities of maintaining a punk band while working toward their bachelor's degrees at the University of Colorado, the Fairlanes have graduated to the status of a full-time band. Zumbrunnen, guitarist Robbie Kalinowski, bassist Scott Weigel and recently recruited drummer Andy Baldwin are setting their own schedules and defining their own job descriptions. Both the band's latest album (Welcome to Nowhere, released on the local punk indie label Suburban Home Recordings) and its goals to tour for two-thirds of the year -- an undertaking simplified by the purchase of a 27-foot RV -- are the act's first steps in liberating itself from traditional employment.

But even champions of the follow-your-dream mentality may question the Fairlanes' decision to ditch the day jobs to pursue a career in the always-risky entertainment industry. After all, the bandmembers had "respectable" vocations: Zumbrunnen was a chemical engineer, Weigel was a network administrator, and Kalinowski put his electrical-engineering degree to use designing superconductors. Each had invested more than his fair share of time, not to mention tuition dollars, earning the credentials necessary to land such gigs -- points that would be raised by even the most negligent parents. So it came as no surprise that the guys' mothers and fathers weren't immediately comfortable with their plan.

"When we first proposed the idea that we were going to go full-time and quit our jobs, there was definitely concern and a bit of disbelief," Zumbrunnen says. "We had jobs that we could do. I think that's where the disbelief came in -- like, 'Hey, you guys have a decent job. What are you doing?' I think they understood once we talked to them about how it was not making us happy. I think that's when they realized and became supportive of that."

The Fairlanes have always been good at breaking away from expectations. Though the band's melody-tinged punk rock bears traces of such classic acts as the Ramones and Jawbreaker and, therefore, isn't a radical assault on punk traditions of any sort, it was a style that had fallen out of favor in the metro scene when the band made its debut in 1995. Bands like Cavity and Four dominated the local landscape; fans in Denver and Boulder were more accustomed to raw punk rock than the Fairlanes' melodic tunes. Strangely enough, though, the band's poppier leanings didn't alienate it from the hard-assed punk audience of the day. Though punk fans are sometimes known for inflexibility when it comes to any sort of change in their scene, the Fairlanes felt welcomed at even their earliest gigs.

"I think that's one of the best things about playing in the Colorado scene," Zumbrunnen says. "Playing with bands that were different than us, we were accepted right away, which helped a lot to a really young band. We were pretty lucky in that sense."

And although their music wasn't always aligned with the tastes of the day, the Fairlanes weren't the sole standard-bearers for melodic punk in the Rocky Mountain region. Bands like Denver's Gamits, Golden's Pinhead Circus and Fort Collins's Armchair Martian also brought melody back to Colorado's punk venues at the same time the Fairlanes were cutting their teeth in the live arena. Though Denver's bar scene continued to be a haven for hard-rocking punk and garage bands, the Fairlanes and their counterparts quickly carved a niche for themselves by stressing all-ages shows as well as finding some common ground with the bar crowd. And considering all of the new forms that three-chord rock was twisted into during the '90s, when punk rock continued to split into finer and finer subgenres from mall punk to hard-rocking emo-core, it was only logical that the Denver scene would follow suit, Zumbrunnen says.

"There's so much branching these days. Punk has become such a big genre that there's the emo punk side, and then there's the hard emo side that's coming out now," he says. "I think maybe the definitions are becoming slimmer and more narrow. You have to find your own niche in there of what you like to do and play it."

It was a niche the Fairlanes found remarkably easy to slip into. As its members earned more and more credits toward their degrees, the Fairlanes honed their chops and became local fixtures. Along the way, they helped found Suburban Home Records with Virgil Dickerson; by 1998, the band had racked up a handful of seven-inch releases, compilation tracks and the full-length album, Songs for Cruising. By then, however, the Fairlanes' members had also put enough work in on their studies to leave the halls of academia and put their hard-earned degrees to good use.

That's the sort of move that usually starts off the final chapter in the tale of college bands. As if the pressures of the real world and the loss of leisure time that's synonymous with the college lifestyle weren't enough, Zumbrunnen relocated to Houston while his fellow Fairlanes stayed put in Colorado. By all conventional logic, the Fairlanes were doomed -- at least as anything more than a part-time recreational band. Chalk it up as proof of the band's commitment to its music that the career years didn't kill it off. Trips between Houston and Colorado allowed new songs to be developed even as the band existed in a state of limbo between dead and active, and the gigs were sporadic at best. After two years of giving the career path the old post-college try, it was clear that the players' hearts didn't lie with their day jobs.

"I think it's not even a matter of all of us being completely unhappy with our jobs, but of wanting to try a different direction," Zumbrunnen says. "It wasn't that we hated our jobs, but it just wasn't fulfilling or what we wanted to do."

That struggle -- the pressure of the ready-made American dream, the uncertainty of more passionate pursuits -- played a major role in shaping the songs that ended up on Welcome to Nowhere. The album is full of songs with titles like "Never Looking Back" and "Lesson Learned," tunes that reflect a more contemplative, soul-searching variation on the Fairlanes' two-three-punch sound.

"It's a very introspective album about finding a direction in life and doing what we want to do and maybe [making] some changes," Zumbrunnen explains. "You'll see that definitely as an influence on the album, that we wanted to make a change in our lives. There's a lot of autobiographical 'What are we doing with our lives?' and 'Let's try to find a direction that will make us happy.'"

By the time the Fairlanes had enough material to make another record, they'd accepted the fact that the band was going to become the keystone of their existence for the next few years. With school loans paid off and the tedium of office life behind them, the call of the tour bus was one the bandmembers -- at least most of them -- couldn't resist. The band's original bassist, Jeff Merkel, decided to remain in the cube farm while the other three moved on. Weigel, then the act's drummer, graduated to bass, and Baldwin was quickly recruited to fill the gap in the band's rhythm section.

The band has nothing but praise for its departed drummer and his decision to remain on the payroll after graduation. After all, switching gears to become one of those bands -- the kind that tour eight months of the year -- isn't exactly a comforting thought. In fact, the band's three ex-professionals still struggle with it.

"It's a huge jump," Zumbrunnen says. "When you think about it, you go down a path that's just kind of steady and have a job, and then all of a sudden you say, 'Whoop, let's stop it right there and try something that's a complete risk.' You know, that's part of the excitement of it all."