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Published: 2008/02/24
by David Schultz

Pawnshop Roses: The Life They Lead

The Pawnshop Roses are just about ready to record a four song spot for the late night show Fearless Music TV but lead singer Paul Keen has something else on his mind. With the cameras getting set to roll, he comes forward to the mike and with a slightly sheepish grin confesses, “I think I left the key in the men’s room.” Clearly, the band is not sweating their TV appearance one bit; nor should they. Just one year ago, the Philadelphia based band made a big splash in the nationwide pool when they reaped the rewards of winning the YouTube Underground music video contest and performed on ABC’s Good Morning America. Their appearance produced one of the better Beavis & Butthead moments when Diane Sawyer introduced the Roses and their winning song, “It Gets So Hard.”

In professionally polishing off their four song set, Pawnshop Roses bring a portion of the live show that’s been wowing Philadelphia audiences for some time into the syndicated show’s studio. In fact, it was a live performance video, recorded at the Grape Street Pub by their friend Scooter Landy, which secured them the YouTube award. “Every other band that was on there pretty much entered themselves,” explains lead singer Paul Keen while sitting to a post-taping meal along with guitarist Kevin Bentley, bassist Justin Monteleone and Pepper’s Ghost drummer Zil. Landy posted the video and even though they thought theirs was one of the best out there, were still pleasantly surprised by their victory. “We told our fans a little bit about it but we didn’t go all out promoting it.” The Good Morning America appearance increased their local profile as they noticed an immediate uptick in the attendance of their shows and spread their name outside the Philadelphia area. “We had roughly 2,000 YouTube views before Good Morning America,” says Bentley “After GMA we had more than 200,000.”

Shortly afterwards, the Roses entered the studio to record their debut album. On the resulting Let It Roll, they work the tried-and-true formula of blue-collar roots rock in the same manner as the Black Crowes, The Byrds and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. They try not to give their style of music too much thought. “I don’t think any of us would argue over whether those bands are good influences or not but we tend to play what sounds good to us,” says Keen. “You listen to the radio now and you don’t hear that kind of rock and roll, at least the type on Let It Roll. I’d like us to venture out, nothing crazy; I like a lot of singer-songwriters and I like a lot of indie-music.”

For as much as the Roses like to rock, they get equal pleasure by unplugging everything and stripping the music down to its elements. “When we’re on stage, we’re likely to go more acoustic than to dive into something psychedelic or more indie-sounding,” relates Keen. “On Let It Roll, we went in there rocking,” says Monteleone. “I love the acoustic guitar, though: doing the basics, strum it out acoustic and then go in and rock.” Keen looks to vintage-era Rod Stewart as an ideal example of the sound the Roses are striving for. “On Every Picture Tell A Story,’ you hear that great 12 string acoustic,” he says, illustrating the point by singing the guitar intro. “It’s all based acoustic and it still rocks.”

“We don’t want to make music that sounds like robots. We work on our vocals and our harmonies. We’re more excited about bringing different tones and textures into what we do” explains Bentley. “We’ve accomplished the live vibe on the album but we can get better,” says Keen. “I hope it’s not the best album we ever do.” In discussing Let It Roll, the conversation gets around to the Black Crowes and how the Southern gospel tinged title track and “Seasons Blues” have a distinctly Crowes feel to them. Keen smiles as if internally finding humor in a joke he’s heard many times before and still finds funny. Keen’s stage mannerisms occasionally resemble those of the Crowes hirsute lead singer and with a conciliatory grin, admits that the comparisons aren’t unfair. “When I was a kid I had big problems sounding just like Chris Robinson, doing all the Chris Robinson-isms. They come without thinking.”

The band has found success with the quick-hit marketing opportunities of the Internet and are now looking to build on their achievements. “The kind of music we’re doing right now, we know its going be a long haul,” explains Keen. “We’re not writing songs that sound like we’re 20 years old. We’re tapping into something a little more timeless and that’s the stuff that we love.” Zil, who’s had experience playing for young impressionable listeners, appreciates the power of good music. “A good rock band can be a good education.”

Zil got a chance to educate the youth of America when his other band, Pepper’s Ghost, toured with Ashlee Simpson. “I get laid a lot less,” he says of the difference between opening for a Simpson and gigging with the Roses. “The audience for a band like [Pawnshop Roses] is more into the music. When you’re doing a show as an opening act before a teeny-bopper crowd, you can wiggle you hips and they’ll go yeeeah.’ They don’t care if you’re doing some great guitar solo or four part harmony, all you have to do is fall on the floor and do something out of Rock 101 to get a reaction,” he recalls. “With [the Roses] crowd, you have to be better.”

Right now, the Pawnshop Roses are three musicians in search of a drummer and in Zil, they have their ideal candidate lined up. It’s a pairing the Pepper’s Ghost drummer doesn’t seem averse to. “In all the years we’ve had this band, Zil has been our go-to guy. When we first starting recording with all our other drummers, he recorded with us,” says Monteleone, whose relationship with Zil dates back to high school. “Whenever we had a show and we needed a drummer, Zil was there.”

The drummer is amusingly hard to pin down on the subject. “I’ve always loved their music and I’ve always told them that I’m their biggest fan . . . especially when I’m drunk,” he explains. “It’s kind of like getting into a relationship. I’m still getting laid with these guys, but I don’t need to buy them dinner yet. It’s getting to that point, though,” he admits. “I’m starting to lose money so I feel like I’m part of the band.”

With Zil on board, the Roses recently returned to the studio to follow-up Let It Roll with an EP. However, the band didn’t just go to any studio: they went to the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee where they received an assist from Laneesha Randolph and Jason Crosby of Robert Randolph’s Family Band. The Roses immersed themselves in Sun’s storied history. “Even though kids may not realize it, you can trace it all back to this one room,” marvels Bentley. “We went into the studio with a plan to record two versions of a new song, “Second Hand Love,” one country, the other Motown,” explains Keen. “We thought, how great would it be if we had Robert’s sister back us on the Motown version and had Jason Crosby, who I consider an amazing keyboard and fiddle player, on the country version.’”

Bentley was impressed not only with how Crosby and Randolph came in and picked up on what they were trying to do but also with how quickly they figured out how to best accentuate it. Being a big Johnny Cash fan, Bentley was thrilled to play at Sun Studios. “I got that from my Dad. He was a big Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings fan. I’ve been listening to them my whole life but I didn’t realize it was cool until I turned 19 or 20. I thought of it as redneck stuff,” he says with a self-deprecating laugh. “To go into Sun Studios, that one room with all its history; it took a while to sink in. Once the engineer put on the slapback reverb that they have on the vocals and the guitars and we heard it on our headphones, it was on.” They seemed to be having so much fun that James Lott, Sun’s head engineer jumped in for a cover of Elvis Presley’s “That’s Alright.” “They have bands in there every night and this guy hears bands all the time,” says Zil. “He liked the way the band sounded and said I’ve got to jump in with you guys.’”

Even though the Roses have never thought of themselves as much of a jamband, their brand of roots rock fits the mold. “Can we really be a jamband?” asks Bentley, with a slightly devious tone in his voice. “I don’t play ten minute guitar solos.” This past summer, they got their first real exposure to the energy that a jamband audience can bring when they opened for Robert Randolph & The Family Band in Dewey Beach. Playing before a relatively unfamiliar crowd, the sold-out room latched on to the opening lines of “The Life We Lead,” singing the song’s hook “spent all of my money on cocaine, pills and weed, blame it on the life that we lead” back at the band as if they had known it all their lives. The band’s reaction? “Finally somebody gets it.”

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