Mixing full-throttle rock with dollops of blue-eyed soul, vintage R&B and melodic pop radio anthems in-the-making, Parachute has arrived.
The band's debut Mercury/Island Def Jam Music Group album takes off from the individual members' shared histories, from "She Is Love," the ballad torch song and first single, with its Van Morrison-like scatting by lead singer/songwriter/guitarist and piano player Will Anderson, to Nate McFarland's chiming, The Edge-styled chunks of guitar laced through "Back Again," "Under Control," "Ghost," "Words Meet Heartbeats" and "All That I Am."
Will has been playing with drummer Johnny Stubblefield, bassist Alex Hargrave and saxophone/keyboardist Kit French since they were high school classmates in Charlottesville almost five years ago. Will met Nate while attending University of Virginia together, and the guitarist joined the band two years ago.
"I remember seeing them at Starr Hill, which is the big venue in town, and they came on to the ‘Mortal Kombat' theme," he remembers. "I never would've imagined myself playing with them, let alone becoming a member of the band."
"It's really gone downhill since then," teases Will.
With a diverse selection of influences ranging from old-school legends like Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Paul Simon and Journey to newer acts like U2, Coldplay, Weezer, Ben Folds, Maroon 5, John Mayer, Jay-Z, Kanye West, The Fray and the Arcade Fire, the group began to attract a rabid local following under the name Sparky's Flaw.
"It's a cool music scene," says Will about Charlottesville. "There are so many different types of bands. There's just such an incredibly eclectic group of people there."
"While we were still in high school, we used to see a lot of different groups at local venues that inspired us to want to play," adds Johnny.
That range is reflected in the songs on the band's debut album, largely produced by Grammy winner John Shanks (Bon Jovi, Liz Phair, Sheryl Crow, Jane's Addiction, Stevie Nicks). With songs like "Back Again," one of several tracks fueled by Anderson's chill-inducing falsetto, and the revved-up "The New Year," interspersed with more introspective numbers like the single "She Is Love" which was used as part of a national TV advertising campaign for Nivea.
With an eye towards creating music for the radio, Parachute is unapologetic about aiming for popular appeal.
"If no one's going to listen, why even play?" asks Will. "For us, melody is king."
Anderson's songs are unabashedly emotional affairs that try to work out the difference between romantic ideals and the frustration of reality ("Words Meet Heartbeats"), dealing with love lost ("For Liz (She)"), longing ("Under Control"), regret ("Mess I Made"), guilt ("Blame It on Me") and obsession (the creepy "Every Breath You Take" stalking of "Ghost"), questioning what went wrong ("All That I Am") and trying to put the pieces together for the future ("The New Year").
"I tend to write about things I know, that are happening to me," says Will. "If it's not really true to us, it doesn't make sense. We try to make music that people can relate to, that they're going to want to hear. We question things, try to get to the bottom of it all."
"Will's always been good at writing radio-friendly pop songs," adds Johnny, a self-proclaimed "pocket drummer" who adds his own industrial solo to "All That I Am," citing DMB's Carter Beauford, the Police's Stewart Copeland, The Roots' ?uestlove and session veteran Matt Chamberlain as his personal favorites.
"We want to create music people like" nods guitarist Nate, who counts U2's The Edge and Coldplay's Jonny Buckland among his own influences. "I'm a very compositional guitarist. I try to make every note count in the service of the song, with a bunch of suspendeds and seventh notes to give it a little edge. We call it Tele-rock because I play the Telecaster a lot."
For those who question the group's motives in licensing a song for commercial use, Will comments, "It's simply a new paradigm," he insists. "Everybody's doing what they can to get their music out there. We considered it an opportunity. We're not going to give our songs to just anybody. Nivea approached us with the spot, showed it to us, and we felt it was tasteful."
As part of the campaign, the band played before more than one million people New Year's Eve at Times Square in bone-chilling sub-zero temperatures at the Nivea Countdown Stage on 46th Street.
"I could barely hold on to my drumsticks," laughs Johnny. "The guys were struggling with their fingertips, but it was so worth it."
"By the end, I looked down and had three strings left on my guitar," says Will. "My fingers were bloody, but I was happy as happy can be. That night, we realized exactly why we do this in the first place."
"We're doing a lot of new things we've never done before," enthuses Kit, the band's sax player and keyboardist. "Every day we're checking new boxes. Yesterday, we did this amazing photo shoot, with a production so elaborate I had to keep pinching myself."
In fact, the band prides itself on its live show, having toured with the likes of Jon McLaughlin, O.A.R., Switchfoot, Duffy and Matt Nathanson. Parachute's fan base is starting to swell on their Facebook and MySpace pages, while the distance they've traveled, how far they've come and still have to go, is beginning to register.
"I feel really blessed being around these guys," says bassist Alex. "It all started out loading our equipment in the back of two pick-up trucks, playing to family and friends. This has definitely been a very surreal and humbling experience for all of us. We've had a lot of help along the way, and we appreciate everyone for what they've done for us."
"We have our goals and they're pretty lofty," chimes in Will. "We're an ambitious bunch. It's a lot of fun to get to do this full-time now, but we're always fighting to get to the next rung, grab the golden ring on the merry-go-round. When we were in high school, we just wanted to play better venues. Attending college, we tried to attract label interest. And now, we're at the next step, building a national fan base. The joy for us is in winning people over with our music by getting in front of them any way possible. And have them spread the word to their friends."
In fact, the only down note has been their old friend Sparky's disappointment, when the band decided it needed a more mature name to reflect their own growth as musicians.
"Unfortunately, he used to pick up girls by telling them he had a band named after him," reveals Will. "I had to break the news to him when we decided to change it to Parachute."
"The name just clicked," says Will. "I think it fits our style of music. It's like my only hope is sitting right there on my back."
Make no mistake about it. Parachute is headed for a happy landing.