Selinsgrove’s most successful rock band returns to Williamsport
The history of The Badlees is a David and Goliath story in which indie music is David and major labels are Goliath.
The Badlees met while studying music at Mansfield University. After graduation, the group began releasing albums through its independent label, Rite Off. The band’s third album, “River Songs,” was inspired by the members’ daily commute along the Susquehanna.
“River Songs” sold 10,000 copies in its first few months. Major labels that had previously rejected The Badlees now began actively pursuing them.
The indie band from Northcentral Pennsylvania signed to A&M Records in 1995.
“A&M had artists like Sheryl Crow, Gin Blossoms and Blues Traveler,” The Badlees lead singer Bret Alexander said.
A&M began promoting “River Songs” and two of The Badlees’ singles, “Angeline Is Coming Home” and “Fear of Falling,” made it to the top of the national charts.
But there was trouble in paradise: A&M’s parent company, PolyGram, twice pushed back the release date for The Badlees’ next album, “Up There, Down Here.”
To make matters worse, PolyGram was bought out and consolidated into Universal Music Group. Universal put the release of “Up There, Down Here” on indefinite hold.
“Everyone that believed in us at A&M had been fired,” Alexander said. “We had no champion at our label anymore.”
The Badlees were in a tough position: Universal owned the rights to their album but wouldn’t support a release.
“Just because Sony or Atlantic or Universal signs you doesn’t mean that they know what to do with you,” The Badlees drummer, Ron Simasek, said.
“Eventually, we asked to be let go,” Alexander said.
The Badlees’ current manger, Chris Fetchko, took the band as a client while they were in the process of leaving Universal. Fetchko fully supported their decision to leave the label.
“Major labels don’t care about the careers of artists; they care about the profitability of specific releases,” Fetchko, formerly of Capitol Records, said. “It wasn’t always that way: labels used to nurture artists from the foundation up.”
Severing ties with Universal Music Group proved to be one of the darker times in The Badlees’ career.
“You finally get a few dollars in your pocket and you come home, get married, buy a house,” Alexander said. “Then the complete floor dropped out and we were worse off then than when we started.”
Rather than give up, The Badlees continued to make music. They independently released two albums in 1999, “Amazing Grace” and the long-delayed “Up There, Down Here.”
In 2000, Brett Alexander opened a recording studio in Danville that would produce the nationally successful Breaking Benjamin. A period of relative inactivity followed while members of The Badlees worked on side-projects or began families.
“It was a challenge to stay afloat during the lean times that followed,” Simasek said. “But we always had a very strong work ethic and came out of the situation stronger and wiser.
In 2009, after a seven-year hiatus, The Badlees released their seventh full-length album, “Love is Rain.” In 2012, they released a greatest hits album, “See Me as a Picture.”
” ‘See Me as a Picture’ is about being true to the original premise of who you are without living in the past,” Alexander said.
Between major success and crushing disappointment, The Badlees have plenty of past to look back on. Despite the challenges, the band has stayed together for 22 years.
“It’s been rough,” Simasek said. “Look at the divorce rate in America – and that only involves two people. Bands have four or five members to keep together.”
For Alexander, the love of music always pulled him back.
“It’s like your songs are your kids,” Alexander said. “I never met a musician who regretted being one.”
“I’ve seen bumper stickers that said, ‘I’d rather be fishing.’ I always thought that was sad,” Simasek said. “If you’d rather be fishing, then try to formulate your life so you can make a living at fishing.”
Although The Badlees no longer rely on music for their bread and butter (for example, vocalist Pete Palladino runs a hotel in Long Beach Island), their well-crafted songs and creative authenticity has won them a solid fan base.
“We’ve never chased any trends or compromised on musical decisions,” Simasek said.
Seattle grunge bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were in vogue when The Badlees formed in 1990. Their label pressured them to change their look and sound to be more marketable.
“They didn’t follow that trend,” Fetchko said. “If you don’t try to ride the waves of a fad, you’ll never go out of style.”
The Badlees are now in the studio producing their first double-album set to release this fall. Alexander describes the record as “working class music.”
“There’s a lot of stories around the home: keeping your home, keeping your livelihood,” Alexander said. “These are songs written by adults, not formula pop songs.”
“I always thought our music was very honest,” Simasek said. “Some people have called it dark but it’s a journey through all aspects of life – the good and the bad.”
Simasek said the new record will explore two sides of The Badlees: “Big, rock performances and subtle, nuanced songs.”
“With the release of The Badlees double-album we hope to plant our flag in the Northeast so we can grow our fan base,” Fetchko said.
After 10 years away, The Badlees are returning to Williamsport to perform at 10 p.m. March 16 at The Joint, 535 E. Third St.
“We’ve always had a great time in Williamsport,” Simasek said.
The Badlees are excited to reunite with existing fans and hope to make new ones.
“The show at The Joint will be great for first-timers because the band is bringing their A-game into town,” Fetchko said.
The band intends to play a mix of unreleased material and 20 years of catalog.
“A lot of great, spontaneous musical interplay happens live,” Simasek said.
Tickets for the March 16 show at The Joint may be bought for $15 online at www.thejointspeakeasy.com or by calling The Joint at 505-1306.
Alexander left some parting words for aspiring musicians: “Keep your calendar full: record a band, teach a lesson, play a gig-just keep active. Find ways to use your talents and abilities and never stop playing.”