Share a couple of pizzas with the members of Jaded Era, and you get the feeling that Dawson's Creek has overflowed its banks. The four striking 20-year-olds chose to meet in the party room at Rocco's, a family pizzeria in the band's hometown of Cuyahoga Falls where drinks are served in paper cups and the combination of red-and-white-checked tablecloths and vintage video games (Q-Bert!) creates the feel of a perpetual birthday party. Amid the cheerful surroundings, Jaded Era fits in perfectly.
"The last time I was here was the day I dumped Eric. That was the eighth grade," says singer Kira Leyden, a former cheerleader with glasscutter-sharp features, teasing bandmate Eric Ortopan. It's the kind of lighthearted ribbing that defines the members' longtime friendships: They delight in embarrassing one another (we've just learned Jeff Andrea used to strum brooms like guitars, Marty McFly style) and hold fast to their adolescent sass. They look even younger than they are -- "I'll be carded until I'm 35," sighs Andrea, whose slight build and crop of stringy blond hair suggest a pubescent Kurt Cobain -- and they squirm in their seats like schoolkids waiting for recess.
But not a trace of naïveté hangs on the notes of Jaded Era's music. After seven years together, the band is set to drop its sterling second album, Invisible, which was produced by Sponge guitarist Tim Patalan. Driven by helium-filled harmonies and Leyden's breathy, come-hither vocals, the disc is a hit-in-waiting. (Think Lifehouse with ovaries.) At a time when Avril Lavigne's quintuple-platinum success has created a bull market for young, female-fronted rock bands, Jaded Era's in position to score.
"I saw them at the High School Rock Off, and I just became a total fan of theirs," says WMMS's Mark "Munch" Bishop, who first saw Jaded Era when it played the Odeon's young-band showcase in '99. "I started using them for 'MMS events, and they've gotten an unbelievable response."
The band made it to the finals of the High School Rock Off, has since had its music featured on the Cleveland WB affiliate, and recently performed for an upcoming episode of Fox 8's morning show. Their gigs at Jillian's in Akron draw upward of 200 people, and they've opened for Sugar Ray at the mammoth Freedom Hill Amphitheater in Detroit and Natalie Merchant at the Promo West Pavilion in Columbus. (Jaded Era will hold a release party for Invisible at the Odeon this Saturday, with proceeds benefiting Harvest for Hunger.)
Through it all, they remain inseparable, interacting more like siblings than bandmates, constantly finishing one another's sentences and busting each other's chops.
"Eric is the knucklehead," Leyden rightly says, smirking across the table at Ortopan, the band's animated drummer -- a young, athletic version of comedian Jim Breuer. He's the group's id, the guy who once got the band kicked out of a school show when he flipped off the gym teacher.
Ortopan's irreverent streak is palpable in Jaded Era; he imparts an edge that the rest of the group plays off, resulting in a sound that's built around understated guitar strumming punctuated by occasional power-chord lunges. Leyden sings with a pouty purr, something like Gwen Stefani by way of Summit County instead of Orange County. "I'm the straw that broke the camel's back/Semi-sweet with an aftertaste . . . I can take you down/I can take you anywhere," she growls on the storming "Take It," a cut that typifies the impudent, radio-ready tone that's all over Invisible.
"I think they have unlimited potential," says local rocker Mike Farley, who was so impressed with Jaded Era after gigging with them that he's started doing publicity for the band. "It's not just that they have a great sound, great look; it's that they have the songwriting talent to put them in the major leagues."
To be sure, the new album boasts polish that was lacking in Jaded Era's earlier music. Andrea was all of 12 when he began penning tunes on a guitar he got for Christmas, and he formed Jaded Era with Ortopan the following year. The band cut its teeth playing Pearl Jam and Green Day covers at junior high dances and graduation parties, rocking out in front of their friends and grandmas for tips. Their first gig outside of school was opening up for Mushroomhead at a frat party at Mount Union College -- at the age of 14. Since then, the band has continued to build its audience, splitting time between day jobs and college. (Leyden is a musical theater major at Kent State; the rest of the band attends the University of Akron.)
For now, Jaded Era must dream of life as a self-supporting band, though Invisible, it would seem, needs only to fall into the right hands to make that happen. The album's sound is miles removed from the band's somewhat amateur-sounding 2000 debut, Laugh at the World. Credit for that goes largely to Sponge's Patalan, who met Jaded Era through a business acquaintance. At first skeptical about working with the young group, Patalan had a profound impact on the band's sound, tightening arrangements and adding studio sheen to its already energetic crunch. (Scene's phone calls and e-mails to Patalan were not returned.)
"He came down one day, popped our CD in his car, opened the doors, and played it as loud as he could," Leyden says. "As he's pacing, pacing, pacing, he's just saying all these things he wants to change -- like right away -- just listing them off so fast, and I was like 'Oh my God.' I started freaking out. I was so upset."
"We had to let go of our pride a little bit," bassist Marco Hilj says with a weary smile.
It paid off. Invisible is instantly infectious, with upbeat temper tantrums like "Perfect" and the nouveau funk workout "Sacrifice" custom-made for blaring in aerobics classes at Bally's. The album also packs plenty of tender moments, with Kleenex-abetted numbers like "Tender" and "Jump" likely to get Bics a-blazin'.
Of course, with a hot female singer and a palatable sound, Jaded Era will also be seen as disposable by some. And no doubt, comparisons to Avril Lavigne and others like her are forthcoming.
"We were writing these songs when Avril was like eight years old," Andrea says in mock-defense. Jaded Era does share Lavigne's penchant for addictive pop with equally sultry and snotty vocals, but the band distinguishes itself by amping up the guitars more forcefully than Lavigne does, most notably on cuts like "Take It" and "Perfect." And unlike Lavigne, Leyden writes all her lyrics.
"This new CD shows to me that they're a band that is growing up fast and could really make some noise in the industry -- if not right away, then certainly within the next few years," says Farley.
For all its supporters, Jaded Era has also shown a gift for dealing with detractors -- especially in concert, where Leyden routinely earns the evil eye from stone-faced girls and catcalls from leering boys.
"You've got to get the girls to like you, then you've got the guys who are like 'Take off your shirt! Take off your clothes!'" Leyden says with a dismissive giggle. "I'm like 'No and no.' It feels good, because by the end of the show, they're not thinking about that anymore."
Indeed, they're probably not thinking at all. Jaded Era's gigs are among the most overheated around, with the band bounding about the stage -- like toddlers buzzed on pixie sticks. They're having the time of their lives, so why shouldn't audiences too?
"We couldn't imagine life without the band," Leyden sighs. "Even my mom was just saying, 'What are you guys going to do when you don't have a band?'"
"Eric would be in jail," Andrea offers.
"Marco would be fat," Ortopan announces.
And Avril would be breathing a little easier.