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Pop projects
Emergency Music hook up with managers Mary Lou Lord and Kevin Patey

Last December, Mary Lou Lord threw a tribute show at T.T. the Bear’s Place for her late friend Elliott Smith. The show became something of a rallying point for a new generation of sensitive pop types — instead of booking big names, Lord was hoping to attract some of the fledgling bands who’d been inspired by him. Some of those were fans who got on stage at T.T.’s for the first and maybe last time, but most were bands who’d listened to Smith’s music, heard the sweet pop melody and the underlying melancholia, and found something they could take to heart.

No one was more determined to get on that show than a recently formed quartet called Emergency Music. "We were all huge fans, so it was important to us to play it," singer/guitarist Jesse Duquette explains over beers at the Abbey Lounge. "He was the guy who got me into recording on a four-track. Until I heard his first couple of albums, I had no idea that you could do that kind of thing at home." So there’s some poetic justice in the fact that Emergency Music not only played the tribute show but wound up being managed by Lord and her husband, Raging Teens frontman Kevin Patey. Their debut CD, Kiss the Culprit (on the local Man With a Gun label), came out last week, and they’ll celebrate with a T.T. the Bear’s Place show this Saturday featuring like-minded up-and-coming popsters the Cignal, the Good North, and the Mittens.

This collection of bands represents yet another revival of melodic guitar-driven songwriting, a regular enough occurrence in Boston. But Emergency Music are more traditionally minded than the rest, with influences that go back much farther than Elliott Smith. That much is clear at the Abbey, where our conversation turns into a long exchange of Brian Wilson trivia. ("I probably managed to mention the Smile album in every paper I wrote in college," guitarist John Beck points out.) And it’s evident on the disc, whose opening track, "Up for Hours," is keyed to that most definitive of pop sounds: a pair of guitars chiming in tandem to approximate a 12-string. Yet Duquette’s voice is also deadpan enough to honor another favorite influence, the Velvet Underground, whose "What’s Goin’ On" is the source of Emergency’s album title.

"I probably don’t listen to any music that isn’t more than a few decades old," Duquette admits. "In fact," adds Beck, "I don’t like the power-pop tag because we’re consciously not aggressive — I kind of like the subtlety of what we do. I’m always attracted to bands who can pull off an emotive, non-wimpy set with harmonies being used and an acoustic guitar being played."

Pulling another classic pop trick, the band set their catchiest tune, "So Long to the Subtle," to their most bitter lyric. "It’s about a girl," Duquette admits a little sheepishly. "Not the one I got dumped by but the one after that." Yet his lyrics usually go beyond their ’60s models, adducing references that are both personal and recognizable. "Aim Low Young Man" includes some witty observations about the types of day jobs someone in his early 20s might be stuck with; "Behave Yourself" has a romantic bit about strolling down Newbury Street in the middle of the night. Duquette notes that he writes most of the songs in seclusion, then hands the demos over to the band. "I only know a song is good when Beck says he likes it. But yeah, I am proud of the lyrics I write, more than I am of the chord structures. I have to put in a lot of words in there to make up for the way I play guitar."

Back at T.T. the Bear’s for a listening party two weeks ago, the band played an acoustic set while Patey worked the room, handing out CDs and Tremont drafts. But Lord had to stay home for a reason far removed from rock and roll: the couple’s daughter, Annabelle, was due to start kindergarten the next day. And that’s as good an explanation as any for why they’ve begun to move away from performance and into band management. Neither has any immediate plans to go back on the road: the Raging Teens — a mighty hot punkabilly outfit who were all the rage a few years back — are on indefinite hiatus while guitarist Amy Griffin tours with Avoid One Thing (though there is likely to be a Christmas-themed Teens show in December). As for Lord, she just got back from a four-month European tour and is swearing, "Never again."

As a management team, the pair seem well-matched: Patey is naturally fast-talking and outgoing whereas the more introverted Lord has a natural bent for behind-the-scenes work. And both have demonstrated their ability to promote the music they love, even when they’re not getting paid for it. Lord’s tendency to talk up her latest musical discoveries has been legendary since the late ’80s, when she was enthusing to anyone who’d listen about Nick (Bevis Frond) Saloman, Shawn Colvin, and a Seattle misfit named Kurt Cobain. "She’s known for having great ears, and that opens a lot of doors," Patey says. "She is the cheerleader of sorts — she can help with publicity and press and I can follow up with it. She’s still a musician at heart, but I’m good at following up with the nuts and bolts."

In fact, Patey took over Lord’s management around the time they were married, at which point Lord was getting out of a major-label deal and knee-deep in contracts. "Mary Lou used to hate having anything to do with business, but she’s coming around to the error of her ways. Even when she had a manager, I usually wound up being the liaison between the manager and her." It was his idea to form the management company; so far their roster includes Emergency Music, songwriter Denise Hradecky, Patey’s side-project band Jittery Jack, and an Amy Griffin solo project that’s yet to take shape. And when it comes to selecting bands, Patey again tends to be the more pragmatic one. "You know Mary Lou, she’s got really high standards — she always has five things that she thinks are the be-all and end-all. So when she first heard Emergency Music, she liked them but was saying, ‘They’re not the Beatles or Elliott Smith.’ And I’m saying, ‘Yeah, but who is? Everybody wants to be Brian Epstein and manage something as good as the Beatles, but you also have to take the snob hat off and realize when a band has the potential to maybe become that.’ "

When I reach Lord, she admits that she’d been looking for a new outlet, especially after she had to close Retro Vixen, the vintage-clothes store she operated in Beverly last year. "It’s just too much to be raising a child and going on the road at the same time. And going on the road is getting too costly. The store closed because the economy is still down the tubes, no matter what anybody says. So I thought it would be good to get into management, maybe a little bit of publishing, and sort of learn as we go. Kevin and I were both knocked out when we saw Emergency Music do the Elliott show — they had the pop connection and the Beatle thing happening. But mostly Kevin has been doing a lot of the work. I’ve been helping a little with the press and watching from the wings."

It’s only when the subject turns to the actual business of running a band that Lord’s tougher side comes out, and it becomes evident that she didn’t spend 10 years in the indie-gone-major world for nothing. "If bands like Emergency Music look up to me, it’s not because I’m a rock god — they just know I’m someone who’s had a little success and seen the dregs of what the industry can spit out at you." Ask her what kind of knowledge she can impart to a young band and she’s off on a tear: "For one thing, don’t sign anything without a lawyer. Don’t get into business situations right off the bat with people you think are your friends. Don’t mix business with pleasure. Don’t work with your family unless you’re Billy Joel. [He was managed by his cousin. And yes, spouses, or at least her own spouse, would seem to be a big exception here.] Don’t underestimate yourself; don’t ever sell yourself short. Wait, keep waiting. Develop your audience from the ground up; do as much business as you can before you’re with a label. And when you do sign, make sure you get all the swag and all the free dinners that you can grab."

Emergency Music celebrate the release of their new CD with Cignal, the Good North, and the Mittens this Saturday, September 18, at T.T. the Bear’s Place, 10 Brookline Street in Central Square; call (617) 492-BEAR.

Issue Date: September 17 - 23, 2004
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