At the turn of the millennium, Ultimate Fakebook was poised to become a household name. The Manhattan, Kansas, trio's addictive power pop and constant touring landed it a major-label deal, a dedicated fan club and the adoration of its peers. But one thousand shows and one dissolved contract with Epic Records later, the band called it a day after its 2003 swan-song EP, Before We Spark. Now casually reunited, Ultimate Fakebook is taking a rare field trip across Missouri to play the Firebird on December 19. Drummer Eric Melin spoke with B-Sides about the band's recent streak of activity, its complicated relationship with emo and the brotherhood of early '00s power-pop bands.
B-Sides: Why did Ultimate Fakebook break up back in 2004?
Eric Melin: Why? Fucking label pressure. What always breaks up bands, right? It sucks because we wished we could just play music and be happy, but when you get to a certain plateau it's hard to stay there and not go any further up. We signed to a major label too early. At the time we signed, we were on tour with At the Drive-In and the Get Up Kids. We were offered a deal with [TGUK's Vagrant Records imprint] Heroes & Villains, but this guy from Epic Records was really cool and persuasive, and he signed us. The Get Up Kids were hesitant and said it was too early for us to sign to a major and we should wait, but we did it anyway. Epic dropped us within a year. [Laughs]
Do you wish you would have signed with Heroes & Villains?
In my opinion, yes, but I can't speak for the other two guys. We made the same artistic decisions we would have on any label, but did we make good business decisions? Probably not. We were really conscious about not having a particular image and letting our music speak for itself, but being on the road and seeing how connected people are was really eye opening. If you're lucky enough to have talent, people will appreciate you, but that's only 10 percent of what it takes. I really believe we had more fun than any other band on tour, but it caught up with us.
So, in 2010, why is Ultimate Fakebook playing shows again?
All these reunions happen because Bill [McShane, UFB singer] comes home for Christmas. We started a few years ago when a friend of ours was turning 40. He's this guy who had literally seen a thousand Ultimate Fakebook shows. He was always blogging about it before people knew what blogging was. He said, "I'm having a birthday party and I want you to play a few songs." Then other people offered us shows, and it's like, "We aren't really back together; we played five songs yesterday." [Laughs] So we just play when we want to, just for fun.
Didn't you say playing just for fun was the band's ideal goal?
Exactly. I mean, we were already there. People could tell we really enjoyed ourselves live, and that's why we were doing it. That's what set us apart from other bands. But from a personal standpoint, fun is hard to sustain. When we hit the wall we just said, "OK, that's it." We probably should have tried harder. We never looked for labels or anything, we just took what came to us. We were so lame on the business end; we let our domain expire when we broke up. [Laughs]
It seems like the band had a bit of a rough time overall.
Yeah, but we broke up before we lost our idealism. Well, one song called "Rotting on the Vine" on our last EP [Before We Spark] is written from the perspective of a band that is sort of giving up. But the rest of our songs were about how life is good and rock & roll is awesome.
Do you still believe that rock & roll is awesome?
Oh, fuck yeah! Rock & roll is still the thing that keeps me going even though I don't try to make a living by playing. Nick [Colby, UFB bassist] and I also play in a band called Dead Girls — we're opening the show at the Firebird — and we don't try to make a living out of that either, but somehow we opened for KISS at the Sprint Center!
So what was more important to you: opening for KISS or touring with At the Drive-In and the Get Up Kids?
For me, no question: KISS. When I was six years old, I saw KISS and knew I wanted to play an instrument and be in a rock band. And even though I'm older and I've come to despise things Gene Simmons has said in public, it still meant a lot. As lame as it sounds, opening for them was literally a dream come true. Gene complimented me as a drummer, which was really a highlight of my life. I know he's not the most valid musician, but wow, it was powerful. Ultimate Fakebook also got to open for Wilco and Cheap Trick, but KISS was a goal I never thought I could reach. I still think I could die tomorrow and be satisfied just because of that.
In hindsight, the scene Ultimate Fakebook was involved in along with bands such as Ashtray Babyhead and Ozma looks like an underground power-pop movement that came and went.
It never caught on, that's why it seems like it came and went. It was a mutual appreciation society between bands, but we were all struggling. When we were touring, emo was taking off. We got lumped in with [emo], and every show that wasn't with the underground pop artists we loved, we played with emo bands. We got piegonholed, and I know it was from touring with the Get Up Kids.
The bands in that power-pop circle seemed to fill the void that existed in those few years when Weezer was inactive between Pinkerton and The Green Album. Did you ever play with Weezer after the band reunited?
You know what? I swear no band in the country [had sound guys play Weezer before it played more than] Ultimate Fakebook. So we never played together, but Weezer opened for us every single night!