Behind the Music


Illustration by Ryan Snook

I’ve been trying for weeks to get an interview but have had no luck—a nightmare of missed connections, conflicting schedules and silence. The nightmare is worsened by the fact that the people I’m trying to interview are teenagers who my teenage sons know very well and who I’ve known since before they could drive.

But their lives changed last spring with the success of a reality show on MTV called Taking the Stage, set at the School for Creative and Performing Arts. Suddenly Mia Carruthers and Aaron Breadon are now talked about by teens from coast to coast. Earlier this year, on blogs and fan forums, people from across the country sounded off about which guy Mia should date—a question that apparently drove some of the show’s dramatic machinations—and offered strategies Aaron could use to convince Mia to choose him. For me, reading those opinions bordered on the surreal.

As does my inability to get them to sit down for an interview. I offer to drive to their house in Price Hill, where Mia, Aaron, Mia’s brother Alex, and Seth Huff—the rest of their music group, Mia Carruthers and the Retros—all live. Even though Mia and Aaron graduated from SCPA, they will still appear in the show’s second season, some of which was filmed last spring. All I want to do is talk to them about life after the show. I wonder if they’ve had their 15 minutes of fame, or if they’re trying to use that moment in the spotlight to grab even more national attention. I’m guessing the latter: The band has already played a few gigs around town. And in August they went to Nashville to record their eponymous EP, set to be released this month.

The fact that they live together in Price Hill makes them all honorary west-siders, though only Aaron was raised over here. (Mia and the other Retros grew up in West Chester and Mt. Lookout.) And how cool is that—being famous and living together as a band at the ripe old age of still-can’t-buy-beer? Who didn’t dream of such a thing at 18—national celebrity, a hip new group, and everyone living under one roof?

My hopes for an interview improve when I run into Aaron at a show where my sons are performing. He’s always been a good guy, a unique blend of mellow and intense. A gifted drummer and pianist, he wears his white-blond hair long now and sports a wispy beard. In my mind he’s still the skinny, buzz-cut kid ripping through flashy fills on a drum set so shabby his tom-toms, held in place by duct tape, would literally fall on the stage during songs.

He apologizes about the delay on the interview.

“No problem,” I say. “You’re busy. So maybe this week we can spend an hour—”

“Thing is,” he says, “you need to talk to our publicist at MTV. Everything has to go through her.”

I’m stunned. And I must look stunned because he adds, “But she’s real cool.”

Seriously? Their publicist? The days of his asking “Hey, can I get a ride home?” were not that long ago. Back then Mia was barely in high school, a cherub-faced waif singing at an all-ages place in Cheviot called The Hat, where teens slumped on lumpy couches and texted their friends. From a musical standpoint, she didn’t especially stand out. She strummed her acoustic guitar and sang her plaintive songs like any other chanteuse-in-training. She did, however, possess a wan, almost ethereal prettiness perched on a foundation of unmistakable poise, as if she were simply waiting for the hand of fate to tap her shoulder. I heard her play several times but don’t recall ever meeting her. I’m beginning to doubt if I ever will, though running into Aaron offers a sliver of hope.

I ask him for the publicist’s contact information. He doesn’t have it with him but he promises to send it right away. And two weeks later, after I call again, he does send it. OK, it’s the wrong number, but it’s enough that I can find her myself. Whatever—he’s 19. And a drummer.

I mostly don’t mind the runaround because my lack of access means that these young musicians have already achieved a modicum of fame. Every city and town likes to name-drop its famous people, and we’re no different on the west side. When your biggest celebs are Pete Rose and Carmen Electra—who collectively drag more baggage than Paris Hilton on a yearlong cruise—that’s not easy to do. Still, we’ll drop those names in an instant, proving that even in a place known for church festivals and moral indignation, fame always supersedes the less savory aspects of the famous person.

We have more than our share of famous athletes, but the music business has proven a much more difficult arena to conquer. We don’t have many pop-star names to drop when guests come to visit. Actually, if we define popular music as songs produced after the start of rock and roll in 1955, we have exactly nada, zippo, not one.

Why is that?

Hard to say. And while I wait for permission to interview Mia and the Retros, I try to find out. It doesn’t take long because, with some notable exceptions, there haven’t been many big successes in all of Greater Cincinnati. You’d think a city this size would have produced more, but even going back 50 or 60 years doesn’t build much of a list. Let’s face it: Hitsville we ain’t. Our musical high-water mark would be the legendary King Records, which launched a number of shining stars after World War II and throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Unfortunately, none of the really shiny ones were from Cincinnati.

At area music fests, we trot out Peter Frampton, though his British accent tends to undercut our claim to his Cincinnati-ness. There’s Bootsy Collins, Adrian Belew, Lonnie Mack, the Isley Brothers, and Midnight Star. The Lemon Pipers had one hit. The Goshorn Brothers, Larry and Tim, stirred some excitement with their bluesy band Sacred Mushroom in the late ’60s and went on to play with Pure Prairie League.

A few promising prospects arose in the ’80s, such as Over the Rhine, but they never quite reached the pinnacle. In the early ’90s we quivered on the brink of the big time with the likes of the Afghan Whigs, Throneberry, and the Ass Ponys. National music magazines speculated that Cincinnati could become the next Seattle. Not quite. A few years later 98 Degrees featured a couple of local lads, though the group was mainly based in Los Angeles. One of those lads, Nick Lachey, produces Taking the Stage. Another, Justin Jeffre, favors white suits and ran for mayor in 2005.

Jason Arbenz was the lead singer in Throneberry and now fronts a band called Goose. He’s been a key player in the local music scene for 20 years and has written about it for several publications. He has also worked as a regional scout for Columbia Records. He says the city’s isolation from the coasts explains, in part, our lack of big-name stars. “It’s almost suspicious how little success Cincinnati has had,” he says. “But we’re so far off the map that bands weren’t careerists. Bands in L.A. were so much more business savvy. Cincinnati bands, refreshingly, just did what they wanted to. They played for their friends.”

He also mentions the lack of support for local bands. “You have to overcome a lot of apathy to get anyone to listen to your original songs,” he says. “Cincinnati largely doesn’t care about the bands in this town.” However, Arbenz thinks the tide may be turning. Technological advances have made it easier for musicians to produce quality recordings themselves, while the Internet allows them to reach an audience from nearly anywhere. “With things like YouTube and MySpace, you can get exposure that you couldn’t get before,” he says. “You don’t have to get L.A.’s attention to get the world’s attention anymore.”

Mia Carruthers and the Retros already had the country’s attention for a while this year, giving them a head start in their climb to the big time. I’d tell you how they feel about that—if I could talk to them.

But after a phone call and several e-mails to MTV, I still can’t get approval. The kids’ “cool” publicist tells me that my request will be “vetted.” They obviously take their vetting seriously at MTV—and take their time doing it. I’m reminded of a good friend who years ago requested an interview with author Salman Rushdie for Esquire when Rushdie was in hiding from Muslim extremists who had issued death threats against him. My friend had an easier time landing that interview than I’m having with teens who live a couple of miles away.

Then the fickle gods of journalism present a gift. It seems that, by coincidence, my sons and I will be in Nashville when Mia and the Retros are recording. Well, our trips overlap for one day, which will have to be enough. We can hang out with the band, and I’ll at least get some colorful details in a unique setting for the article, describing as an eyewitness the band’s first step toward immortality. Still lacking permission from MTV, I don’t plan to interview them, which could put them in an awkward position with their contracts, but the curtain of silence at last will be swept aside.

While we’re there, driving up Music Row, my son texts Aaron, their messages rocketing back and forth at teen thumb speed. The band has just arrived. Later: the band is heading to the studio. Later: the band will be in the studio all day. And maybe into the night. In the end, the band will not have time to meet with us.

I ask my son if we could just go and watch. He says we’d make the band uncomfortable—a bunch of people lurking around. But my deadline is roaring down at me like a cartoon anvil. I’m OK with lurking. I know, though, that he’s right. This is a big moment in the lives of these kids. Still, I give the lurking idea one more pitch before giving up.

The fickle gods giveth—and they taketh away.

If we go way back, west-siders can bring up two big names—Doris Day and Andy Williams. They were huge in their day. True, most of us weren’t alive in that day. Doris retired many years ago and now lives a hermetic life in California, but Andy still packs them in at his Moon River Theater in Branson, Missouri. Not bad for a guy who turns 82 next month.

Neither is a west-sider in the truest sense. Doris Von Kappelhoff was born in 1922 and grew up in Evanston. Her parents split when she was 13, and she lived with her mother and brother. When she was 15, they moved in with her aunt and uncle, who owned a tavern in Price Hill. Doris and her mother lived upstairs, and she graduated from Seton High School. So she did live on this side of town for a while, which is close enough. She was a popular singer in the 1940s and into the ’50s, when she became better known as a movie star. A few of her biggest hits—“Sentimental Journey,” “Secret Love,” and “Que Sera, Sera”—are considered classics.

Andy Williams was born in 1927 and spent his early years in Wall Lake, Iowa, (population 841). H0is family moved to Cheviot when he was 14, and he attended Western Hills High School. So we’ll claim him as a west-sider too. Andy started out singing with his three brothers—think The Jacksons, without the rhythm or profound dysfunction. Like Doris Day, the Williams Brothers were a big hit in the ’40s, breaking up in the early 1950s to launch solo careers. Andy made more hits, and appeared often on national TV shows. He’s most famous for singing “Moon River” and some Christmas classics in a voice so smooth you can slide right down it. He had his own TV show in the 1960s, on which he’d wrap his mink-lush pipes around classic ballads and wear a lot of diabolically comfortable-looking sweaters.

Doris and Andy, however, pre-date popular music for most people, and even their names don’t exactly paint the west side as a hotbed of musical talent. Today our likeliest prospect is a band called the National, five guys from Western Hills now living in Brooklyn. They’ve released four CDs since the early 2000s and have toured the country and the world. Made up of two sets of brothers—Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and Scott and Bryan Devendorf—and singer Matt Berninger, the National gained a bit of mainstream fame when their song “Fake Empire” was used by President Barack Obama’s campaign during the ’08 election. Their alt-rock sound may be too alternative to make them household names, but hip friends from out of town might be impressed if you mention them.

For more perspective on the situation, I talked to Jeff Siereveld, who was one of the original “Garage Kids” when he was in his early teens in the late 1960s. He and his friends worked at the Ludlow Garage in Clifton, sweeping floors, taking tickets, doing whatever needed doing. In return, they saw the amazing national acts that passed through the venue during its heyday. Though raised not far from the Garage, he now lives in Westwood. “It seems like in Cincinnati, by the time the bands get tight enough, get really good, they’re married,” he says. “They don’t want to go on the road anymore. And it’s hard to blame them. That’s a rough life.”

Echoing Jason Arbenz, Siereveld mentions the same handful of near-miss performers from all around Cincinnati who rose and fell like distant comets through the years. He also mentions the changes in technology that allow musicians today to reach their target audience but notes that the targets are shrinking, becoming more specialized. Music fans are less and less aware of performers outside their own tastes. To the alternative/indie audience the National is red hot; for those not in that audience, they’re completely unknown.

As for the west side’s dearth of even near-misses, he speculates that playing music is not a large part of our culture on this side of town. “Maybe music wasn’t stressed as much as it was in the east side’s secular and affluent households,” he says. “We were all brought up to play. I can tell you that I remember kids coming to Clifton School with instruments, but I can’t think of Catholic kids doing that.”

A sobering thought. And so, I ask him, if we were to claim a “West Side Sound,” would it be “Moon River”?

“Could be,” he laughs. “I’ve lived over here long enough to think that might be right.”

I can’t allow myself to believe it. Surely a savior will emerge someday. I’m rooting for Mia and her Retros.

Having given up on hearing from MTV and doing the interview, I learn that the band will perform on Fountain Square. The concert will be filmed as part of the second season of Taking the Stage, meaning that their initial 15 minutes of fame apparently isn’t over quite yet. For our Great West Side Hope, the publicity of playing on the show will be a big boost—far bigger than, say, a magazine article.

Originally published in the November 2009 issue.

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