A more perfect union

Local band Early States makes changes, gains wisdom

Brandon Lee (left) and Zack Gray, livin’ large.

Brandon Lee (left) and Zack Gray, livin’ large.

Early States performs Saturday, June 11, 6 p.m. with Arden Park Roots, Lonely Kings, Not Your Style, Dogfood and Element of Soul; $10; all ages. Ace of Spades, 1417 R Street; www.aceofspadessac.com.

Ace of Spades

1417 R St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 448-3300


Sitting among thousands of other American Idol competitors and hopefuls—and the rest of everyone just looking for a few seconds of airtime—Zack Gray was moments away from news that would affect his music career and send his band on its way to a record deal. Though, at that moment, the end result wasn’t exactly what he had in mind.

Early States’ tale starts out in 2007, when founding members Gray and Shaun O’Brien, who had been in several bands together, met drummer Brandon Lee. They were introduced to Jay Trammell at Fat Cat Recording Studio by friend Mike Caswell, of the band K Sera, and recorded a demo. Gray claims this was the band’s true beginning.

The sound was pure pop, with roots in power-pop acts such as Coldplay and Muse, and also in indie groups Manchester Orchestra and Copeland. Though the band’s early style was rock-influenced, its more recent work is significantly more electronic.

Early States recorded two songs, and things just fell into place.

Around the time of these first recordings, Gray and his mother took a trip down to Los Angeles, where Gray auditioned for American Idol. Though the experience was bittersweet—he failed to make it past the first round—he says it came with an unintended blessing: While he was waiting, he was contacted by the man who eventually become Early States’ manager, Jake Versluis.

“He said he liked our music,” Gray recalled, “and he said something about connections, or he wants to manage, or something. So I picked up the phone and I called him right there.

“I didn’t want to tell him I was auditioning for American Idol, so I left that part out.”

The boys decided to go to their parents and ask them to help finance their debut EP. The guys recorded five songs in addition to the two they had in the can, and released their Powerlines EP in late 2008. Soon, they were getting love from PureVolume, a popular music site that allows for the uploading and playing of music files, in addition to social networking.

“They asked us if we wanted to be on some compilation,” Gray said, “and it ended up being their top 21 unsigned bands of 2008. So that got us a lot of attention. … A lot of labels started emailing me directly. We did showcases; we even played South by Southwest that year.”

Meanwhile, drummer Lee decided to leave the band. He had graduated from Sacramento State with a degree in sociology and wanted to pursue a career in marriage counseling.

There were other factors as well. Lee explained: “Back in 2009, I was finishing up school at Sac State, and I had a pretty serious girlfriend. And Zack, being the good friend that he is, tried to remind me of our goals and the dream of why we started this thing. I think I was blinded by love. My parents got divorced that year, too, and I was with a serious girlfriend and I thought I was going to marry her.”

Following Lee’s departure in May of last year, Gray and O’Brien thought their dreams had come true. Early States was invited to New York to play a showcase for Wind-up Records. The guys flew out, jammed, met the president of the company and were signed for all intents and purposes.

“There was a little room and barely a stage,” Grey remembered of the showcase, “and it was just all people that worked at the label and the guy who told them about us. … It wasn’t awkward, but it was very interesting.”

After signing, the band contacted Lee and asked him to return to the band. He was more than willing to accept the second chance.

“I’m working here at the state as a student assistant, the most boring job I ever had,” Lee confessed, “and I walk up and down these halls each day and see people on Mondays who can’t wait until it’s Friday, so I was like, ‘This is awesome, I have the opportunity to try to do this again.’”

Unfortunately, the record deal was not the smooth sailing Gray had anticipated. Early States wanted to record a new record. But its style had changed.

Spending too much time glued to an Xbox the band’s manager bought them, along with some friction between the band and certain people at the label, the relationship quickly soured.

Amid the drama of a divorce between the owner of the company and the head of A&R at the label, the band was essentially cut due to financial reasons. Gray says that the label would have had to spend more money on them in order to make anything from them. “It was, in a freakish way, the only way we could get out. So we did end up getting out, and we didn’t owe them any money.”

And then the last straw: Founding member O’Brien quit the band.

Lee and Gray have decided to move on without him. And Gray, being the band’s principle songwriter, accepts the challenge.

The band recently gigged at Harlow’s and will grace Ace of Spades’ stage next week, June 11.

“I don’t want to be an indie band,” Gray explained. “I want to be a huge band one day. I would like to have No. 1 songs and win Grammys and play in front of hundreds of thousands of people and be as big as U2 one day, and maybe be the biggest band in the world one day. That is really my dream.”