- Labors of Lovedrug: Michael Shepard (second from left) and company are touring nonstop through November.
When Michael Shepard sings, even broken legs sound beautiful. His is a boyish lilt that could float on water. At times, the Lovedrug frontman's voice quivers like a toddler's upper lip; at others, it sounds like a daydream becoming a nightmare.
Shepard is the entry point to Lovedrug's pretty, progressive pop. Backed by steel-wool guitar and snarled rhythms, he brings a sense of immediacy to a band prone to artful indulgence and tales of cold hearts and mangled limbs. It helps Lovedrug strike an increasingly elusive balance between commercial sheen and critical acclaim.
"It's almost as if you have to be a pop band and sell your soul to a certain extent, or you have to be this avant-garde indie-rock band on your high horse, saying, 'Down with major labels' and 'Fuck people who don't understand our music, we write it for ourselves anyway,'" Shepard sighs, sitting outside the Rock Hall on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. "I don't understand either of those mentalities, to be honest. I think Lovedrug kind of lies right in the middle somewhere."
That middle ground has been trod before by the likes of Radiohead and Queen, groups that the Canton quartet takes cues from on its recently released album, Pretend You're Alive. From delicate, papier-mâché ballads to sweaty rock exorcisms, it's one of the most promising debuts from these parts since the Black Keys' Big Come-Up.
All this from four thin, photogenic twentysomethings who've been together less than two years. In that time, the band has had its music featured on the Fox series Wonderfalls, toured with such big hitters as Braid, and been courted by several major labels before eventually signing with the Militia Group, the burgeoning indie that's also home to Cleveland's Brandtson.
"We got some offers from a few different major labels, one in particular that was actually very serious. But it really came down to a question of 'What is it that we want to do with this band?'" says Shepard, whose soft features and inquisitive eyes make him the kind of guy whose photo girls cut out of magazines. "The answer to that is we want to have a career in music. For a band like Lovedrug, that's only two years old and is essentially getting our feet wet as far as starting to tour heavily and whatnot, you've got to build a foundation. To us, it was just logical to go with a label like the Militia Group, who have great distribution, good money behind them, and they're all young guys who are going to push the band as if they're in the band."
Shepard is the band's only original member; the others -- guitarist Dave Owen, bassist Adam Ladd, and drummer Matthew Putman -- joined after Pretend was laid down.
"I heard the record a couple months after it was done, and I was just blown away, I couldn't believe it, because it was the perfect mixture of music that I like to listen to," says Owen, an approachable guy with untamed hair and mirrored shades. "As soon as I heard the album, I immediately gravitated toward what it was saying and what it sounded like. They lost their drummer first, and I was practicing like a madman, trying to get an audition. I'm not a very good drummer, but I was trying. But it ended up that I moved in with Michael and their guitar player quit. I just really wanted to be a part of it."
It's easy to hear why. Pretend is an album of pleading melody and nimble hooks that's instantly accessible. But it's also an album of texture and nuance, whose breadth seems to double with headphones on. It has real-world resonance, but is unabashedly capricious at the same time, with odes to angels and songs that equate love with spiderwebs.
"To me, listening to a good record is like going to see a good movie -- you go to a movie to get out of the real world for a couple of hours, but you're still being enthralled by it," Shepard says. "That's what I think appeals to people about this record, because it is very fairy tale-ish in a sense, and I think people can escape to a certain extent by listening to it, but there's something familiar about it that people can identify with, which makes them feel comfortable. It's honest fiction."
If all that sounds somewhat incongruous, so are the many audiences Lovedrug has played before and artists it's shared bills with: everyone from indie darling Cat Power to former teen idols Hanson. "Their crowd is mostly 15-, 16-year-old girls, and they loved it. It was insane," Shepard says of opening for the Mmmboppers at the Canton Palace last spring. "We sold out of all of our merchandise."
With a tour schedule ahead that will keep them on the road until November, Lovedrug is calling some attention back to Canton, which hasn't been much of a presence in regional rock circles of late, other than being known as the place where Marilyn Manson went to school.
"There really isn't much going on in Canton, it's pretty much dead -- but it's easy to be creative and live in a place where there's no creation," Shepard says. "I think it would be much harder to be an artist and live in a big city, like New York or L.A., especially when you're starting out. There's too much input -- it needs to be purer than that. I like being in an environment where there's not much going on.
"I think we probably sound a bit more like Las Vegas," he adds with a chuckle. "Lots of bright lights, just waiting to trap people inside."