It's difficult to find a band today whose image isn't calculated. Sure, the ones slathered in eyeliner, hair dye and dress shirts are obviously going for a punkish, Green Day-cum-My Chemical Romance look. But even many non-image bands -- you know, the ones with carefully mussed hair and nondescript jeans and T-shirts -- are cultivating a non-look as their "look."
It's rather refreshing, then, to hang out with Team Tomato, a St. Louis-born-and-bred band that fits in with neither of these stereotypes. In fact, the quartet is so down-to-earth, they might as well be earthworms. Sitting at Blueberry Hill chatting over a pitcher of beer and some dinner grub, the quartet talks about their day jobs -- quiet bassist Jordan Ross, for instance, is a newly minted MBA degree-holder, and jovial, long-haired drummer Luis Actis teaches seventh-grade math -- and jokes about the bands they formed during and after they all attended Parkway North High School.
First there was the Sparkles, a rock band featuring facial hair-sporting guitarist Eric Clay and singer/guitarist Brian Wiegert. Actis joined the duo and formed another outfit, Pandelo (Clay terms it a "fusion-rock funk band"). The Knights Who Say Ni (a Monty Python reference, natch) and Bipolar (a punk group) followed; Wiegert currently has a rap group with Ross and a bluegrass band with Clay on his plate.
And what does Team Tomato sound like? Well, nothing like any of those bands: Take the grungy garage rock of Guided by Voices, then throw in the twisted pop melodies and burnt-sugar twang of 1980s R.E.M. and some ragged bar-band bluster.
It was such no-frills tunes on their sophomore CD, Words and Skin and Bone, that helped Team Tomato win the 2005 "DIY Album of the Year" at February's DIY Music Convention in Los Angeles. The band entered the contest on a lark, via a posting on garageband.com, and forgot about it -- until they received an invitation to play a showcase in LA.
"I never really thought anything else of it until I got a call about it, like, two weeks before the show was supposed to be," Actis says. "I got a call, and some guy's like, 'Hey, you guys won this [DIY] thing.' And I was like, 'What are you talking about? I don't even know what you're talking about.' Finally, he told me the whole situation."
Despite the short notice, the group flew to LA to claim the honor. And although the bandmates had their fair share of celebrity spottings while out west (Cypress Hill, Judd Nelson), one of the actual performances wasn't quite as glamorous.
"It's what looks to be like a barn, [or] this small little old Mexican dance parlor underneath the Echo Lounge," Clay says. "It's called the Echoplex. It was weird: You had to go through the Echo Lounge, out the back door, around the back, into the alleyway, down underneath it. There's no lights; there's no signs."
Plus, all of the band's gear was stolen from its vehicle in the midst of the convention (pictorial evidence of this exists, of Actis peering into the broken car window with a bemused expression on his face). But if things went smoothly for Team Tomato, they wouldn't know what to do. Heck, the mastering was almost botched on their third and newest album, Lie Down with Dogs -- which meant they nearly didn't receive the finished copies in time for this weekend's CD-release show.
These hardships haven't affected Dog's sound, though. Like Bone, the disc's chorus hooks are gnarled and memorable. But ask Wiegert about his songwriting, and it's clear that there's nothing painstaking about his process.
"It's mostly just whatever phonetically goes," he says. "I'll just start, 'Blah blah blah, hm hm huh huh.' It ends up taking shape after you do it enough times. [At] one of our last shows at Off Broadway, I tried to go into the parking lot and write some lyrics real fast or just get them down, 'cause I didn't know what the hell I was going to say, but it didn't work.
"Eventually they'll get finished, but I feel like I have to cram for a test; I still have homework to do. It's such an ordeal."
Clay is quick to note, however, that Wiegert's method doesn't produce half-assed words. "There's something to 'em," he says of Team Tomato's lyrics. "You can read 'em, and even if they are just thrown together, there's some type of form that you can find out of them. Being a poetry major, it's nice seeing that. I really trust Brian's lyrics most of the time. They're very nostalgic-sounding lyrics, too. The songs are very...they speak for themselves, being this nostalgic rock sound that draws from a lot of places."
The word "nostalgic," in many instances, is just a euphemism for "rehash." But in Team Tomato's case, the word is synonymous with "timeless." Wiegert cops to being a fan of both R.E.M. and the Grateful Dead, two groups whose catalogs remain relevant owing to their focus on the emotional whole rather than individual, tangible statements -- something Team Tomato also does extremely well.
"What's been real cool about this newest album is that it draws from stuff that goes back from 1997 or 1996, all the way to stuff that was written last year," Wiegert says. "Prior to this they only existed as shitty four-track recordings of me as an eighteen-year-old who couldn't sing or play. [But] I feel like it covers, for me anyway, a really big span of time, which is kind of cool to hear these songs fully realized with an awesome band and an awesome recording."