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Sunday, August 3, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Local musicians: Buzz, Beatles comparisons build for Dear John Letters

Seattle Times staff reporter

When Robb Benson arrived in Seattle in the early 1990s, he came with aspirations to infiltrate the local music scene and maybe, just maybe, land a record deal.

It was, after all, a time when label bigwigs descended on the city, scouring for any band or musician with a Seattle zip code and a flannel shirt.

But by the time Benson made the rounds, playing with a few bands here and there and establishing connections, the spotlight had shifted away from the city, and the grunge movement had become passé.

Still, Benson has remained a constant in Seattle's often-changing scene, making music first with the Nevada Bachelors and now with the Dear John Letters. His ability to craft sweetly infectious pop songs has brought him a fan base that stretches well beyond our borders.

The Dear John Letters, featuring Benson on lead vocals, guitarist Johnny Sangster, bassist Richard Davidson and drummer Cassady Laton, has already generated much buzz.

That will surely grow with the release of the group's third album, "Stories of Our Lives" on Foodchain Records. Since its release two weeks ago, the album has cracked the top 10 on college radio playlists.

Not bad for a band that started as Benson's solo project after the dissolution of the Nevada Bachelors.

It's been a long road to this point, and Benson takes us along for the ride:

Q. What was it like when you first came to Seattle in 1991, with the objective to make music?

I was fortunate enough to know a lot of people who were doing well here, and it opened up a lot of things for me.

The part that was hard was getting really immersed in the scene a year or two too late. All the labels were moving out of town (after the grunge frenzy died down). I think I missed it by hitting in the tail end.

Q. The Nevada Bachelors had quite a following. Why did you guys break up?

The scene is really open in that people have two or three projects going at a time. It just seemed like the focus was lacking. As the singer-songwriter, I got frustrated and I thought, 'I just don't think I can go on with the focus being what it is.' It was tough to make it work with so many people in different projects.

Q. What was the period like after the group dissolved?

It was a learning process, for sure. I thought our big club draw would translate into my solo acoustic shows. I had to go back and play for 15 to 20 people and build up a new draw, based on the acoustic material. I put out an EP on a new label, Roam Records, and started working from the ground up. I built my solo career into a band.

Q. Why did you decide to form another band?

I talked with my producer (and Dear John Letters guitarist) Johnny Sangster a few times about forming something new, so it was in the back of my mind. I thought people would catch onto something if it had a name. I started building a record myself and we started playing some shows out as the Dear John Letters, and then it turned into a full-on band.

Q. What was the chemistry like when you started playing as a band?

It was great. I couldn't ask for anything better. Cass (drummer Cassady Laton) had never been in any other group and our first show we opened for the Posies. I thought he would be a nervous wreck, but he wasn't. That's when I knew things were going to be all right.

Q. What do you think about the Beatles comparisons people have made with the Dear John Letters?

I guess some of it makes sense. People are always trying to describe music. I grew up listening to a lot of my parents' records, a lot of Beatles stuff, the Kinks, the Who and the Doors. I was raised on that '60s pop.

A lot of the underground groups that I listen to today probably grew up listening to the same stuff, like the Beatles.

Q. Compare the music scene today to what it was when you first arrived in Seattle.

Everything is DIY (do-it-yourself) for the most part. There are a lot of labels out there now, but they give you the basics. You have to take control and do it yourself, whereas in the early 1990s it seemed like everybody and their brother were getting a record deal. It weeds out those who are doing it for the wrong reasons. I think it's made the groups and the scene in town better, because you have people doing it for the right reason and the cream is sort of rising to the top.

Q. Who are some of your favorite bands in Seattle today?

The Long Winters, the Divorce, the Pale. There are great bands in this area that people should look out for.

Q. The release of "Stories of Our Lives" marks the first national distribution of a Dear John Letters record, right?

Yes. It's the first national distribution and national radio push we've ever had.

Q. What do you hope this increased exposure will mean for the group?

This week we went to radio and it was the fifth-most added CD in the nation on college radio. Hopefully, we'll do some charting on the CMJ (College Media Journal) chart and some tours, and build it into a situation where we can actually make a living doing this. (But) none of us have delusions of selling a billion records.

Q. Does "Stories of Our Lives" mark a departure in any way from your previous work?

It's much different than the first two, in the sense that I was writing (music) for a lot of other people's stuff, poetry-wise, and I've just become more true to myself.

In doing that, I tend to write more like when I was in the Nevada Bachelors. It tends to be a little more upbeat and rock 'n' roll. "Stories of Our Lives" is a better balance of the ups and downs.

Q. Is it a full-time gig, or do you have a day job?

While the music is definitely supplemental, I do office support work in healthcare.

Q. What's the best part about working with the band you've assembled?

It feels like a scene on the verge of having some cool explosion that's different from last time, and I get to be part of group, playing with my best friends.

I think the reason we are working out so well as a team is that on a personal level, we have the same hobbies and a lot of the same ideas of where we want to go with our music.

Q. How would you describe the Dear John Letters sound in one sentence?

Somebody used a quote one day. It was very simple: "Sweet but not saccharin." I like that quote. I forget who even said it. I like that, because we definitely have that sweet-pop-songs-of-the-'60s sound, but with the lyrics and the content it's not so sugary that it's going to make you gag.

Tina Potterf: 206-464-8214 or tpotterf@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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