The way 24-year-old Aaron Thompson tells the story, it could very well be the beginning of a bad joke. Five tattooed white boys walk into Universal Records at 7 a.m. on a weekday. Half an hour later, they all walk out.
Why? Because it was Universal Motown, which is more interested in the next R. Kelly than the next Rancid.
Thompson, the frontman for San Diego punk band The Stranger's Six, fleshes out the story a bit later in a Mexican restaurant in El Cajon.
"We had a meeting with this guy named Big Paul," he says. "But when we got there, they said to send one person up. After all of us had driven up there early for the meeting, only one of us was going in."
Dejected, Thompson walked through the halls looking for Big Paul. Platinum Ja Rule records lined the walls. When Thompson finally found him, Big Paul talked on the phone for a few minutes before looking up. They ended the conversation with "Keep in touch" and that was that.
"I think that experience made us realize we're not so desperate to sign a deal if it means dealing with that."
So The Stranger's Six, named after the way strangers in old Western movies carried six-shooters on their hips, got to work. The band got advice and management from As I Lay Dying frontman Tim Lambesis. They recorded with Sean O'Donnell of Reeve Oliver ("He tells us what not to do and not what to do"). They booked shows and spread their music using MySpace and word-of-mouth.
Soon the band-Thompson, bassist Evan Ehrich, guitarist Thomas Garcia, guitarist Luke Johnson and drummer Garrett Eland-was playing 91X Fest, shooting a reality TV show for MTV2 called On the Rise, making a video for MTV and fielding compliments from The All-American Rejects.
"They posted a MySpace bulletin about us that said they had discovered the next breed of punk rock in America," Garcia says with a smile.
The mention drew thousands of people to their MySpace page to listen to the band's dark pop-punk. The stainless harmonies and big choruses of songs like "Back to the Start" and "Echo" caught on.
Now people are coming to them. Their album, A Date with Daylight, is nominated for "Best Punk Album" at the San Diego Music Awards. They're playing the Southern Comfort Music Fest with Mudhoney, The Roots and Spank Rock in September. And they're in talks with a label right now.
"We never thought we'd get anything from an indie label," Garcia says. "So we said we'd write up a list of stuff and if they gave it to us, great! Fuck-and they ended up giving it to us! So we can't believe it."
Garcia is a thoughtful, quiet partner to the animated Thompson. While Thompson laughs about his pink seahorse tattoo (he enjoys asking girls at parties if they "want to see my pink seahorse"), Garcia sits stiffly upright, playing with the fork in his nachos. His face is shadowed by a fedora, but on his outstretched arm is a tattoo that says "One Chance," drawn from an H2O song with the lyrics, "One life, one chance, you gotta do it right."
With The Stranger's Six, all five of these East County boys do have a chance.
"We have a bit of a Peter Pan complex," Garcia says. "Not that we have a fear of growing up, but why would you want to if you can play music all the time instead?"
The Stranger's Six play at The Casbah Aug. 30 for the "Rock the Walk" AIDS benefit with Irradio, The Kneehighs and Curtis Peoples. $10. 619-232-HELL.