Low-key rock

Chico’s Surrogate prepares (sort of) for bigger things with Popular Mechanics

DON’T CALL THEM EMO<br> Chico’s Surrogate released their second album, <i>Popular Mechanics</i>, June 14 on Tooth & Nail Records.

Chico’s Surrogate released their second album, Popular Mechanics, June 14 on Tooth & Nail Records.

Photo courtesy of surrogate

Preview: Surrogate CD-release show: Fri., June 24, at Duffy’s Tavern. Zach Zeller and The Shimmies open. $5 admission gets you a free CD.

Like many Chico bands, Surrogate embraces the comfortable, laid-back lifestyle of its hometown. It’s not exactly what you’d expect from a band on an established label with a large, built-in audience.

Then again, Surrogate is not like most of the bands on Tooth & Nail, the godly label synonymous with the evil words “emo” and “Christian rock.”

If anything, Surrogate ringleader Chris Keene’s easy-going-down songs have brought the band an entirely different audience. Surrogate isn’t necessarily reinventing the wheel with its latest record, Popular Mechanics, but the band again squashed any preconceived ideas of what a Tooth & Nail band is supposed to sound like.

“It’s sort of a double-edged sword,” says Keene of being on the label. “Screamo kids don’t like us. And people who don’t know us tend to write us off because we’re on Tooth & Nail.”

Popular Mechanics might just be the breakthrough that exposes Surrogate to a much larger audience. It’s more cohesive than the band’s first release, 2007’s Love Is for the Rich, while still managing to blend Keene’s influences into the wash of his own pretty pop songs. The band’s guerilla promotion shouldn’t hurt either. New songs have steadily been popping up on the Surrogate MySpace page, music blogs, local public radio station KZFR, and the entire album is currently streaming at Spinner.com.

The Surrogate that appears on wax is, for the most part, the two-man operation of Keene and fellow former Number One Gunner Jordan Mallory on drums. The basic tracks were recorded in three months at Chico’s Heirloom Studios, with Keene adding vocals, secondary guitar parts and bass over the course of a year in his secluded practice space north of town.

Keene penned 10 of Popular Mechanics’ 11 tracks (“Surprise” was co-written with Mallory), adding to an impressive early body of work. The title track is the standout—trudging along at the pace of Lennon’s “I’m So Tired,” while Keene’s vocals slide in and out of falsetto. In the more upbeat “State of Jefferson,” Keene sings “I like the way California smells before a natural disaster”—a tongue-in-cheek response to stereotypes of the Golden State as a mecca for fake, plastic people and beach bums.

The first Surrogate album was essentially a bedroom project for Keene. And although he played most of the instruments on Popular Mechanics, this album was more of a group effort with longtime collaborator Daniel Martin playing keys, glockenspiel and xylophone. There are also a few guest musicians lending trumpets, violins and backing vocals—all of which comfortably find a place on the recording. Keene likes the idea.

“This will probably be the last time I do everything,” he says with a laugh. “It’s time to move on to a more democratic system.”

One thing that hasn’t changed for Surrogate—which rounds out its performing roster with Martin and bassist Daniel Taylor—is that the band members have enjoyed a certain amount of control, from recording and producing everything themselves to keeping performances near home (a decision based mostly on the fact that Mallory has a family).

But even without embarking on extensive tours, Surrogate’s music has still managed to make its way out there. It was just over a year ago that the song “15” from the band’s debut was featured on NPR as its “Song of the Day.”

That said, the coming year in the life of Surrogate certainly leaves a lot to the imagination.

“It’s definitely in the back of my mind,” says Keene. “But from past experience I try not to put too much into the idea of being commercially successful.” He pauses for a moment. “But I’d be thrilled to make it my full-time job.”