Welcome back stage to an interview with “The Best Unsigned Band in America” as labeled by Dick Clark and the American Music Awards. Richmond, Virginia-based Carbon Leaf have been quietly growing in popularity and prominence up and down the East Coast. Now, on the brink of national stardom, Nighttimes.com spends a few minutes backstage before a show at one of Carbon Leaf’s humble beginnings – Whitlow’s on Wilson.
[writer’s note: I saw this rock band with Celtic influences eight months ago at Whitlows as they energized a small crowd of no more than 100 people. Tonight, there would be a line more than 2 blocks long of eager DC-20-somethings hoping to get into a show that was long sold out. As the fans waited in vain outside in the cold, they all realized the days to see Carbon Leaf in small clubs had quickly vanished with the announcement that Carbon Leaf is the “Best Unsigned Band in America”.]
Carbon Leaf are…
Barry Privett – Lead vocals, Tin whistle, Penny Flute, bagpipe (yes, bagpipe)
Carter Gravatt – mandolin, electric and acoustic guitars, vocals and bouzouki
Jordan Medas – Electric bass, bowed and double bass, vocals
Scott Milstead – drums and percussion, vocals
Terry Clark – Electric and acoustic guitars, vocals, cook
NT: What is the impact of the AMA [American Music Awards]?
Jordan – We’ve had so many emails and phone calls. We want to return them all and uncover every stone before we make the next step.
Barry - If was a big leap landing AMA, but there is a huge “what’s next” factor. It is a great opportunity, but it is our responsibility to do something with it and move to the next level. It has definitely brought our band to the attention of a lot of people. Now we need to make the right decisions.
NT: So what is the next step?
Jordan – We want to assemble the right management team, hire a good entertainment lawyer. We’ve been fielding inquiries from record labels. We need to find out whether a good label deal is in our future, or whether we should go independent or what.
NT: Rumor has it that you’ve had lots of offers, but you’ve been holding out until the right offer comes your way.
Barry – That’s right. We’ve been supporting ourselves all these years. So now, just signing with the first label that is interested doesn’t make much sense to us. It’s got to be the right deal, there has to be good tour support, a promise that there will be a push for radio play and things like that.
Carter - At this point we’ve hired our own publicist, distributor, and have booking agents. We’re doing everything that a label would be doing for us. We’re spending a lot of money out of pocket, but hopefully we can turn something out of this. We want to get a lot of exposure and get a bigger name for ourselves.
Jordan - Michelle Clark, Independent Radio promoter, has brought us into her stable. She’s one of the top people in the industry. We’re the only unsigned band that she has been pushing. She’s really helped “The Boxer” get air play on a number of stations. We’re also the only unsigned band in Big Hassle Publicity, and they have Dave Matthews, Stone Temple Pilots, a lot of big people, so it is great to be in the unique station we’re in.
NT: As far as I can tell, you’re right at the cusp of “Do I quit my day job?” How close are you to ‘Let’s do this full time, ‘here we go’”?
Carter: Its more a question of what do we want to put into the band. We could afford for everyone to quit their jobs now, but we would have to cut corners in other places. Right now we’re putting all the money into publicity, promotions, and expanding the band instead of living comfortably without a job. I think that part is right around the corner. It’s just a matter of when are we willing to let go.
Barry: I think in 6 months we should pretty much be full time, but we’re holding out as long as we can so that, like Carter said, we can put as much money back into the band as possible.
NT: You’ve recently added a lot of cities and dates to your tour schedule. Are there some places that have already become ‘favorites’?
Barry: ‘Whitlows’ will always be in our heart. Our Virginia markets have really expanded in the past few months. Northern Virginia, Richmond, Tide Water markets are our biggest. NY is starting to get really big, Pittsburgh is always a lot of fun. Everywhere we’ve been going has been a lot of fun. The key is getting back soon enough to build some momentum. If we play as much as it looks likes we’re going to be we should see rapid expansion up and down the East Coast.
NT: Your chemistry actually appears to be good. Is it really as good as it appears to be or is this just the publicity façade?
Barry: We all have been doing this so long, we’re like brothers. We fight a lot, but we fight like brothers. We have an argument, we fight, it’s over, we move on. So the chemistry is great between us. That’s why we’ve endured, and that is why we will endure is because the bond we’ve got is surviving the hardships that we have.
NT: Carbon Leaf really creates energy with its crowd. What do you consciously do to connect with your crowds?
Carter: We’re really lucky to be doing exactly what we want to do. The fact that people pay to see us is a huge bonus.
Terry: I’m pretty sure that Carter is telepathic, too, so that helps with crowd interaction.
Barry: We don’t act like rock stars. We’re just 5 ordinary guys. The only difference between us and the crowd is we’re two feet higher on the stage. No matter how big or small the crowd is, we try to give them our energy, they give us theirs, and we make it a personalized show. They are the ones that pay our bills.
NT: ‘The Boxer’ has been the most requested song on DC101 for several weeks. Do you see any other tracks from your newest CD, Echo Echo, hitting the airwaves soon?
Terry: "Shine" has started to get calls. But we are an unsigned band, so we don’t want to get greedy.
Barry: "The Boxer" is airing in 9 major markets in the U.S. right now which is unheard of for an unsigned band. So that’s cool, but I’m hoping "The Boxer" gets more airplay before another song makes it to the radio waves.
NT: Barry, you write the lyrics. If you picture a continuum that at one end is ‘experiential’ and on the other is ‘make stuff up’, where do your songs fall?
Barry: I make stuff up! (LOL). No, lyrically, I try to take in what’s happening in and around my life, but instead of orating something like “I went to the store, I bought eggs, I came back, it was a great day” I try to elevate it to an artistic platform.
NT: Any other comments to your fans and Nighttimes.com readers?
Jordan: We’re excited about the Great Big Sea tour [editor’s note: GBS is a Celtic rock band from New Foundland currently on its US tour]. That will keep us busy for the next few months. Be sure to check out our website at www.carbonleaf.com for dates. We’ll be hitting cities where nighttimes.com has good readership.
Barry: We fully invite everyone to check out our music, download it for free, share it with their friends. Our goal right now is to get our music out there. We think the music speaks for itself and the rest should follow.
Terry: Stay in school and don’t take drugs
Success is ‘theirs to lose’. Carbon Leaf seems to have all the ingredients top bands possess – a charismatic frontman, catchy sing-along-lyrics, an un-dieing loyalty to their fans. Our prediction at nighttimes.com is if you haven’t heard of Carbon Leaf yet… you will!