It's a scene right out of Spinal Tap, but with less spandex and lots more hair gel.
We're trailing handsome rocker Connor O'Brien and his burly manager, Rick Smith, who are lost in a Cincinnati mega-mall, a sprawling monument where you can grab a taco on one floor, a high colonic on the next. We're trying to find the stage where O'Brien will be performing later that night as part of the inaugural Midpoint Music Festival. It's a good five hours before show time, but with his band nowhere to be found, no equipment checked in, and a labyrinth of lingerie shops and pretzel vendors before him, O'Brien's getting nervous.
"Just sing good and look pretty," Smith consoles with a grin.
That's never difficult for O'Brien. His teeth look as though they were buffed by an industrial floor waxer. Combined with an action figure's sturdy physique and a spiky, Sonic the Hedgehog 'do, he's the kind of guy whose picture was meant to be pulled from the pages of Tiger Beat and pinned above your kid sister's canopy bed.
"It's been labeled the 'stud boy' look," O'Brien sighs. "So many people, just by seeing me, assume that I can't write a good song because, I don't know, maybe I'm a decent-looking guy or something. I take showers. I was reading the Vines interview in Rolling Stone, and the guy's like 'I haven't showered in two weeks.' I was like 'All right, I guess this is cool.'"
O'Brien eventually finds the stage -- it's located between an aquarium and a seafood restaurant. Only a dozen people are watching when he launches his set. Still, he hams it up. His voice is silky and sonorous, and his surprisingly powerful delivery suggests Johnny Mathis after a couple of months on the Soloflex. Complemented by an equally muscular and melodic band, O'Brien begins to slowly lure in passersby. A trio of teen girls start doing a synchronous dance, half Swan Lake, half Clueless. A blonde with kinky hair and kinkier thoughts mouths "You're hot" to O'Brien. A mom bops along with her 10-year-old daughter, who's decked in rainbow socks and plastic rabbit ears. There's scarcely a dude in sight.
"You get so many guys who are so violently offended that I dare try to do what I'm doing," O'Brien says. "I guess real rock musicians now are into the whole backlash against the boy band movement."
And that's the knock. The Ashtabula native's leading-man looks put him on the fast track to stardom two years ago, when 'N Sync was crushing sales records and millions of teen girls were crushing on the band. He made it to the audition finals for Making the Band, the ABC series that documented the formation of the pop group O-Town, which would go on to a platinum debut. He was flown around the country, schmoozed by dozens of Lou Pearlman types for a series of boy bands, and eventually signed a deal with ii Records, the same company that launched Michelle Branch. He talked with virtually every major label, made the rounds at celebrity basketball tournaments in L.A., scored a No. 1 hit in France, and had industry heavy hitters like Jimmy Iovine, head of Interscope Records, declaring him a star-in-waiting.
Then thunderheads began to amass over the teen pop parade. In the past year, 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys have gone from selling out stadiums to playing under-capacity arenas, while solo albums and squabbling imperiled both acts. Britney Spears's latest disc sold less than half as many copies as her previous two albums did, and midlevel groups like 98 Degrees are, like, so last year.
O'Brien was smart enough to see it coming. He began to distance himself from the boy bands almost as quickly as he got caught up with them. He split with ii after it wouldn't let him record his own songs, and he passed on joining a half-dozen 'N Sync doppelgängers.
He has since been busy refashioning himself as a rocker. His slick new album, the self-released Soliloquy, sees O'Brien delving into melodic pop rock à la the Calling and the Goo Goo Dolls. But despite his efforts, the boy band stigma persists, as unbending as his carefully sculpted coif.
Thus, after a brief brush with stardom, O'Brien now faces the daunting task of renovating his career, throwing off the boy band yoke, and proving that he's not a has-been at age 23.
Connor O'Brien loves rebuilding things. In the basement of his rural Ashtabula home, where he lives with his parents, sit a half-dozen dented PCs -- toss-offs that O'Brien repairs and resells. He constantly scours eBay for damaged electronics. He's especially proud of a stack of VCRs and a DVD player that he got for $20 each. They'll be put to use in the studio he's constructing in an old milkhouse on his parents' land.
O'Brien's handiwork within the small, white building is impressive. He's taught himself how to lay down flooring and hang drywall. The skeleton of a studio has been erected. "I go to Lowe's and Home Depot, and I walk around for hours, look at all the cool stuff, and check out all the little pamphlets," he says.
In a nearby shed is a big glass door that will be used for his vocal booth; he found it along a road one day. To save money on monitor stands, he swiped a pair of orange road-construction cones that will hold up speakers.
"I'm pretty resourceful. That's what I like most about me," O'Brien says with a laugh.
The guy laughs a lot. He's good-natured, has never smoked a cigarette or gotten more than halfway through a beer. When he speaks, he sometimes recalls the notoriously overexuberant film director Quentin Tarantino, whose words tend to gush from him like air from a punctured balloon. And he tends to get really excited about little things. Once, after making what he deemed to be a particularly fine omelet, he took a digital photo and e-mailed it to his manager.
"It was the best damn omelet I ever saw," Smith recalls with faux wistfulness.
This being rural Ashtabula, it's hard to imagine O'Brien as anything but the boy next door. His parents, Sandy and Pat, met in high school, where Pat was the captain of the football team and Sandy was head cheerleader. Nowadays, Pat is an optician in South Euclid; Sandy is the Ashtabula County auditor. In the basement of the O'Brien home is an embroidered keepsake that reads "Republican Born, Republican Bred, And When I Die, I'll Be Republican Dead."
Predictably, that vein of conservatism runs through O'Brien. When asked what he does to cut loose, the best he can summon is "I go to the movies." This isn't to suggest that O'Brien is Mary Poppins with more ambitious bangs. It's just that the guy gets his kicks from working on his music. He's as pragmatic as a popster gets.
"Someone once said that I'd be a great homeless guy, because I just find enough cheap ways to live," O'Brien says.
Not that he's ever struggled to get by. The guy's career has been marked by success since kindergarten. He began playing the violin at age five and was headed for a career in the orchestra when a teacher discovered his singing abilities at a junior high Christmas pageant. By age 12, he was singing "Ave Maria" in Latin to packed recital halls. At 16, he was the youngest kid ever to sing the National Anthem at an Indians game.
O'Brien applied to 11 collegiate music conservatories. He was accepted into every one, including one of the finest opera schools in the world, the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Out of more than 2,000 applicants for the Eastman voice department, only 12 were accepted, O'Brien among them.
"The instrument itself is just a very beautiful lyric tenor voice," department chairman Robert McIver says of O'Brien's voice. "It was easy to hear at a very early age with him that the potential for the instrument was really pretty extraordinary."
But O'Brien began to chafe under Eastman's rigid curriculum, which demanded that students learn French, German, Italian, and Russian, and rehearse between four and six hours each day. Besides, O'Brien never intended to be an opera singer. During his sophomore year, he hooked up with the Yellowjackets, an a cappella group affiliated with the University of Rochester. He ended up traveling the country, singing rock and roll, and fell in love with it. So he dropped out of Eastman and embarked on a solo career.
"I'm sending out press kits, I'm putting together web pages, I'm recording songs -- I'm just doing as much as I can, and I started getting some phone calls," O'Brien recalls of the time. "I was so excited. I got calls from lawyers in L.A. I got calls from production companies in Florida. But because the boy band thing was so huge at the time, and because these guys would see a decent-looking young guy who can dance and sing, immediately they just said, 'Boy band, gotta do it.' And I thought, 'Okay, obviously this is what I need to do, so I'll do it and try to get to that next step.' And then came Making the Band."
O'Brien sent a tape to the show's producers. He landed a private audition on the final day of tryouts, bypassing 90 percent of the contestants.
"There were about 350 guys just packed into an upper loft, and the second you walked into that room, they gave you the look-down," O'Brien says of the tryouts, held at the Hard Rock Café in Manhattan. "They're all singing to each other, but purposely trying to make sure that everyone around them hears, you know, to like threaten each other. Everyone's like 'Ooo-ooo yeah!'" he says in an overemotive falsetto. "They're all in their dope, fly outfits."
Then O'Brien got his shot.
"When it got time for your interview, and those doors opened, there were three big cameras on you. It's your first taste of what it's like to be a celebrity, because they're following your every move . . . There's the whole panel, Lou Pearlman, all the MTV VJs, a bunch of other important people, and then all the little people behind them who just look important. I went in there and sang my ass off."
He made the final 10.
"We had to fill out this huge questionnaire, like 20 pages long. About 10 percent of it had to do with music, the rest was 'What are the skeletons in your closet? How do you get along with your family?'
"That's when I realized it was so much more of a TV show than it was a group. Who wants to watch five normal guys, who have normal family lives, sing? I started to get disillusioned with everything that was going on, because it was just so cutthroat and so fake. But I still wanted to try and get as far as I could, so I went back in for a final audition. I had a great one. They ended up taking three guys to be on the show. I was No. 4."
Still, O'Brien was offered a three-year development deal with Pearlman. He turned it down, due to the length and the fact that it essentially kept him on retainer without any promise of a record deal.
O'Brien then made the rounds trying out for other boy bands. In audition after audition, he was continually pegged for the requisite All-American slot. He was now a hot commodity, but he still wasn't keen on the boy band idea. At the same time, it was his "in" with the record industry, and he was reluctant to squander it.
"I thought, 'This must be what paying your dues is,'" O'Brien explains. "I would go down to these places, and I would try to explain to them that I kind of didn't want to do this, but that I didn't want to lose the opportunity. It never worked."
Of course, there were plenty of perks to keep the troops motivated.
"They'd take us out to these ridiculously nice restaurants and pay for anything," O'Brien recalls. "If there was a game room, I'd go and say, 'I want to play some pool' or something. They'd be right behind me: 'I got you a card, it's got a $100 limit on it. If you need more, come back.' It was kind of like they were treating us so well so that we wouldn't backlash against the fact that we were just puppets."
Eventually, O'Brien would sign with ii Records, a San Francisco indie that put him in contact with Peter Rafelson, a Hollywood producer who wrote Madonna's "Open Your Heart" and who has worked with Elton John, the Corrs, and countless others. O'Brien thought ii would provide artistic freedom.
"They tell you, 'We'll listen to your ideas,'" he says. "Of course, as soon as you sign a deal, then, 'Oh no, we'll bring you out here.' They fly me out to L.A., they put me up in the Standard -- Leonardo Di Caprio's hotel -- which is like this kooky, Romper Room-like ritzy hotel. As soon as they get you there, it's like 'Yeah, well, we're just going to try this; let's just try this.' I'm thinking, 'I've been through this before. Don't do this to me.' And the label subsequently kind of let my contract lapse, because I wouldn't play ball with them."
O'Brien was back on his own.
On some levels, O'Brien seems to prefer things this way. "I'm kind of a loner," he says as he drives through the countryside one night in his most prized possession, a tricked-out jet-black Chevy truck, complete with strobe lights and six-foot exhaust pipes. He steps on the gas, and the truck roars like a malnourished grizzly.
Though it's past 11, the evening is just beginning for O'Brien, who never gets to bed before dawn. He works all night, making music, building websites, and fixing computers. When it's time for business, a quiet intensity hangs about him.
This is apparent a week earlier at Dreamstate Studios South in Akron. O'Brien is putting the final touches on songs for the forthcoming Soliloquy. He works for over an hour and a half trying to nail but four lines of a chorus -- singing so hard, his facial contortions make him look kind of like Joe Cocker with gas pain.
O'Brien writes and produces the majority of his material, a rarity for pop artists. He's a perfectionist.
"I think it's good, but it can be better," he says after what sounds like a perfect take.
"That's close. Almost," he says after another.
"Ohh, that's closer," he moans after yet another.
When O'Brien eventually nails the part, it only makes him dislike what he previously laid down.
"That second one was sweet," he beams after finally delivering a satisfactory take. "Now the first one sounds a little weak."
"He's very meticulous," notes engineer Jakob Ward, a thin, nattily dressed producer decked in leather and lip ring. "He has an excellent ear for detail."
The song O'Brien's working on, "Make Ends Meet," is a ribald, funky rocker with enough cowbell to make the drummer from Blue Öyster Cult give up the goat. After he finishes that track, he moves to "So Far No Good," a potential smash that's a near-perfect blend of buoyant pop and acrobatic rock.
Still, as strong as the new songs sound, the cover-all-bases nature of O'Brien's material may make it difficult for him to find an audience in an industry where format is everything. O'Brien's blithe pop rock is likely too radio-friendly for dyed-in-the-wool rock fans. At the same time, the slightly beefed-up guitars make it difficult to get spins next to Christina Aguilera.
But because of his background, his looks, and his way with a hook, O'Brien will likely win over the pop crowd eventually. The bigger question remains: Are rockers ever going to respect this guy, especially with his fan base of Bonne Bell-scented young girls and shiny cheerleader types, whose pores seem to secrete glitter?
"Not at first," says Mike Farley, a Cleveland rocker who's worked with O'Brien. "It will probably take some time, and Connor will have to pay his dues in the rock circles for a while. He needs to keep writing about his own life experiences and let his band, management, and producers give the music a little edge. And if those teenage girls are still salivating, do you think anyone will care about taking him seriously? The concert promoters and MTV will be salivating, too."
Which is what it all boils down to. In the end, the hordes of teens O'Brien pushes to arm's length may prove to be his greatest asset.
"There is always going to be 13- to 17-year-old girls," says Brent Kidwell, music supervisor for Making the Band as well as MTV's Road Rules and The Real World. "People can say, 'Oh yeah, the boy band thing has been big the last five years,' but it hasn't. It's been big since the 1950s, when Elvis and the Beatles were boy bands. There's a lot of pop-type acts, but Connor just seems to have a little bit of everything that you need in order to make it happen. He's got the voice, he's got the charisma, he's a songwriter, and he's a good-looking guy."
Unfortunately, at 23, the pop world starts fitting you for Depends.
"He's not young, which is always an issue," says Rafelson. "There's a group that broke up called Savage Garden. They really captured a market that I think Connor could step into."
Still, O'Brien will be able to step into that role only if he can overcome his rep, which clearly casts a pall over him.
"Most of the people who have heard him at the major labels are associating him with the boy band thing because of the fact that he did Making the Band and stuff," says Chris Carlucci, a former A&R exec at ii who now heads up Collateral Damage Entertainment, a production/ management company whose roster includes OutKast and Wild Orchid. "Let's say a record company does sign Connor. You're talking about $1.5 million that they will just drop right into a bucket that would all be dedicated to Connor in recording him, producing him, getting him ready for marketing campaigns, all that. These days, with the way the music industry is structured and the money that's been lost, people are afraid to spend money."
None of which seems to weigh too heavily on O'Brien. Granted, he wants to succeed as much as anybody, but his definition of success doesn't include the typical rock star trappings. There are no Hollywood mansions or Playboy bunnies in this kid's rock and roll fantasy. As we drive back up his driveway after a trip through the country, he confesses, "My biggest goal in life, besides my music -- and this is serious -- is to be a great dad. I want to have a family. It's very important to me."
Should he ever hit it rich, he wants to buy his parents' property. "I will continue to live out where I do as long as I possibly can," he says. "I'm so proud of where I come from."
He says he has a secret crush on Monica Potter, the bombshell Cleveland actress who starred in Patch Adams and Along Came a Spider. O'Brien admires her because she stayed in town after making a name in Hollywood. He seems to crave a low-profile success. In fact, he seems rather tired of promoting himself.
"I don't really talk about it much anymore," he says of the continued inquiries into his past, before adding with a wink: "It makes for a great story though."