"A few hundred thin slices of black tape are cluttering Erik Berg's apartment like the pubic hairs of Plastic Man. Each curled slice is punched with the same protruding block letters that, in a time less advanced, schoolteachers used to label things. They read:
R O C H E L L E - R O C H E L L E
All by hand," confirms the pale 23-year-old, lifting his eyebrows at the thought of such mandatory tediousness. "While I'm watching TV late at night, I'll just sit here and punch 'em out."
Plastic Man's pubes aren't the only things strewn across the hardwood floor of Berg's Hillcrest studio. There are also CD labels, CD label wrappers, dirty t-shirts, unopened Hostess cupcakes (apple cinnamon), five acoustic guitars, an electric bass-the place is just a mess.
When Berg explains in his new song, "Subtlety," that "you don't forget to say goodbye/ you don't forget to let me go," it's easy to see why. If the gal in question were even casually fond of cleanliness, she would dump the musician who has turned the place he eats and sleeps and screws into an OSHA-violating CD factory.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. By now, a record label should have been taking care of such minutiae.
You see, despite their short existence (two and a half years as a full-time band that makes records), Rochelle, Rochelle has been the rumor of one major-label signing after another. This is partially due to the man who believes in them most-their manager, Lou Niles. Niles, who has served as a 91X deejay, an A&R rep and band manager, among other things, is well connected and eager to stoke his bands' buzz.
The ink was still wet when Niles spread the news via mass e-mail that CMJ ranked Rochelle, Rochelle among the "Top 50 Unsigned Bands" in the U.S. Few San Diego music regulars were surprised: RR's craggy lozenge-rock was undeniably intense and darn pretty.
That was nearly two years ago.
The press reviews of their live shows were doting. At last year's South-by-Southwest Music Festival, label reps nearly mugged Niles for a copy of RR's self-released, debut EP. Some predicted Vagrant Records. Others suggested RCA. Almost all predicted a deal, and they predicted it ASAP.
Then the long-ignored effects of Napster and its peer-to-peer ilk began to, well, freak labels out. Executives who thought this small, college-based nuisance would go away or be squashed awoke to find their sales down 10 percent and the file-sharing portals multiplying like the nasty gremlins in that '80s flick. The whole record industry sounded like a giant Gizmo: "Uh-oh."
"The whole industry just took a shit," explains Berg, revealing that his band had been trading contract proposals back and forth with RCA at that point. "People at labels didn't know if they were going to have a job the next day. And we don't really fit anywhere. We're not really hard. We're not soft. We're just rock."
The Santee native isn't necessarily comfortable talking about it all. About to release their second EP, Secondary, major labels are sniffing again. Sitting on his unmade bed, he routinely, intensely, rubs his forehead as he struggles for answers to questions that, until now, he's resigned not to think about.
He can't sit still for very long, due to a small strain of Marfan Syndrome, a rare disorder of connective tissue that causes his joints to ache.
He points to the centerpiece of his curio-a small, orange and cheaply made statuette of Abraham Lincoln. "I have a sort of cosmic connection to Lincoln," he says, explaining that Marfan Syndrome was the reason the former president was so extremely tall and lanky (Abe was, indeed, Marfan's original poster child). "I feel we're related somehow."
Berg's soft, blue eyes betray the uninviting aspects of the rest of him-like his long, dye-black rock hair, or his dull skin and bony, aggressive cheekbones. His soft-hard appearance is a perfect analogy for Rochelle, Rochelle.
Duplicity, while making for a clumsy band name, is their charm. Few local bands in recent memory have possessed such a talent for The Delicate Scream.
After the deep guitar notes repetitively drill the opening melody of "I Do, I Don't," the first track on Secondary, Berg callously issues romantic caution: "I don't wanna be the only one for you/ and I don't wanna say the only words you say."
Yet when the chorus comes around, the egocentric cynicism of such a statement is tempered by an admission that, "I don't wanna be that far from you/ when it goes away."
Recently, careful 91X listeners could hear Berg's tender toughness. The station began playing "Gone for Good" off the new EP. As nearly every guitar and bass note bottoms out with a low, resonant rumble like the sound of water draining from your ears, Berg screams, "You'll see me laughing when you start to cry!"
And it's there-in the middle of the extended note that carries the word "cryyyyyy"-that Berg loses it. His voice slightly gives out, deteriorates and falls away like sand through fingers. He even takes some of the blame: "I was caught between your lies and my ideas of hope."
It's in a hollowed-out closet-now filled with a computer desk and rudimentary recording equipment-that Berg marries his two Rochelles. The apostles-John, Paul, George and Ringo-glance thoughtfully off into the distance above him (it's one of two Beatles posters in his room). As they did in their day, Berg obsesses over his songs.
"I'm totally obsessive," he says. "I write constantly, and I'll record a lot of parts. But if I don't hear something and go, "Wow, that's a good song,' I won't present it to the band. They've got to be really, really good or it's not worth doing. So while some bands in two and a half years would have 30 songs, I've only got 12.
"But I think they're 12 really good songs."
"I started singing when I was four. My mother, my sister and I actually had a traveling gospel trio. We'd play around San Diego and go up to L.A. and Orange County."
Like most kids, Berg didn't storm out of the womb with bottle-black goth locks and a penchant for caustic rock songs about love. By all accounts, he was, and is, a pretty good kid. He doesn't do drugs. Hell, he doesn't even drink. If it weren't for his apparently fucked relationships, you'd be hard pressed to find a dysfunctional thing about him (although the Honest Abe obsession is kind of freaky).
"I don't drink and I don't do drugs, but I'm not "straight edge,'" he says, the slight preemptive defensiveness suggesting past harrassment for being sober. "It just seems like alcohol is the cause of a lot of bad things in the world-child abuse, drunk driving accidents.... So I'd really like to try and not be part of that.
"Plus, I'm pretty self-amused," he adds, which is apparent by the art adorning his walls. He and his girlfriend painted two pieces together: a geometric, Kandinsky interpretation and a rough-edged work of concentric rectangles.
The orange Abe-which is actually a cheesy, ultra-American designer container for cologne-is part of his "orange" series, which includes a huge Christmas ornament that he's painted to resemble Jupiter and a construction cone filled with dead flowers.
"That was actually a cone I hit driving home one night. Six months later, I realized that it had gotten lodged under my car," he says. Now apparently, he's got a cosmic tie to the cone as well.
Under the eyes of the four pop apostles, Berg hits "burn" and in minutes yet another homemade copy of Secondary is transferred to a disk. The disk is unusual in that it's black like vinyl. Berg has hand-made the sleeves for the EP out of red and orange file folders that his girlfriend's work was throwing out, and he's made rubber stamps to label the albums with song titles. It will all be contained in maroon, glossy bags. A spool of flat, rainbow computer wires-the sort used by technological dinosaurs like ENIAC-lay unused on the floor.
"I was going to wrap them all in a bow with that," he says, stooping down to apply pressure to a plastic contraption that pastes the labels to the CD.
"But it just looked stupid, and it would have taken forever," he muses, exasperated, handing over the finished copy of Secondary, which reads "For Promo Use Only." One more CD label wrapper falls to the floor and into the mess.
Later, as I'm listening to the singer hammer the great line, "I'll sing the song that you can't sing," I receive an e-mail. It's from Berg.
I have a request. Due to the fact that we're still negotiating with [a record label], I'd appreciate it if you didn't write too many specifics about our conversation regarding [the record label]. I don't want anyone from the label reading it and thinking we "leaked" too much info or whatever. Feel free to mention the label name, but maybe just... shit, I'm not gonna tell you how to write. You're the damn journalist. I'm just a damn guitar player.
I scroll up to an e-mail I had received earlier. It's from a former Sony Records employee, who was let go in a massive downsizing the company enacted a week prior. And Secondary burns its way into my head, like a snowball sticking it out in hell. ©