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From Zero To Platinum
By Marc Shapiro
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 Marc Shapiro
All rights reserved.
WE GOT LUCKY
Orlando, Florida, is the perfect place to hang. When not dodging the often destructive forces of nature, the sun bathes the coastline with an even, perfect tan. The surf, pushed by a slow, steady, and warm breeze blowing up from the Bahamas, rises and falls with an easy consistency, offering the surfers and boogie-boarders smooth and glassy waves on which to test their mettle. And the beach babes? Well, southern California does not have a lock on beautiful women. The vibe is definitely mellow. Even when you're working in Orlando, you're not working too hard.
Unless you're Creed guitarist Mark Tremonti and you're doing something you absolutely hate to do. "I hate doing videos," Mark complains, as he stumbles off the Hard Rock Cafe Orlando stage after yet another take for the video for the band's current single, "Higher." The guitarist is tired after a long day of shoots, reshoots, and dealing with grumpy extras who are having a hard time feigning excitement as the band spends the day shooting endless takes.
For Creed, it is the typical video shoot: Long conferences with the director. Lots of ideas that the band feels would work. And the inevitable disappointment when the reality of video as a promotional tool rather than a creative effort, hits home. The band has gone through this so many times before, they just roll their eyes and say, "Whatever," when they are approached by the director with suggestions that might make the video more "MTV-friendly."
Mark is particularly upset with the changes. The guitarist has spent years defending this song. Now, after hearing it played back for the umpteenth time, he admits he's beginning to lose his love for "Higher." And Mark is not the only member of Creed wilting under the inherent boredom of the videomaking process.
As the video's director, Ramaa Mosley, scampers around the cramped, sauna-hot club positioning cameras, adjusting lighting, coordinating the sound playback of the music and vocals—doing all the mundane things that go into turning out an MTV-quality video—drummer Scott Phillips sits slumped and bleary-eyed behind his drum kit, smiling at the good-looking women who have been screaming and dancing sexy during each run-through of the song. Bassist Brian Marshall leans for a moment against his ax before wandering off to collapse in a chair where he sucks down some bottled water.
Scott Stapp, Creed's enigmatic, brooding lead singer, with the long, slightly curly hair and dark, piercing eyes—who has adopted a nineties-style Jim Morrison persona complete with moodiness and penetrating soulful look—has wandered away from the stage, stopping briefly to chat up the fans playing fans, and now is nowhere to be found. Scott is admittedly torn by the video process. But no matter what take the band is on, he lights up when he gets behind the mike and mouths the words. But he has joined the chorus of the boredom that surrounds the band during downtime. Occasionally the band members wander outside the club and stare out at the passing parade of people, wishing, this day, they were part of it rather than a slave to the star-making machinery.
"I wish they [videos] never existed and the music business was just records and live shows" Tremonti bitches, as he scans the club with unfocused and uninterested eyes. "I hate doing videos. I hate doing photo sessions. I hate dressing up in something that I would never normally wear. For me all that stuff ruins the integrity of the music. We're spending so much time waiting for the director, waiting for the crew. It's just waiting and more waiting."
And waiting is tough, especially when you're a band that has playing in its blood and the only playing they get to do this day is to a prerecorded tape. With time to kill as they brace for yet another agonizing run at "Higher," the memories come flooding back to the individual members of Creed, memories that rock hard. Especially for Mark.
Mark can only smile and laugh at the memory of the days when they would crank out four-hour sets at local Tallahassee clubs like Floyd's Music Store; doing the requisite Top 40 stuff but smiling to themselves when their occasionally slipped-in originals would go down just as well. Mark laughingly recalls that they were virgins back then—just starting out and learning how to play the rock-and-roll game.
There was the excitement of laying down nasty guitar licks and passionate vocals on a do-it-yourself CD that they were convinced would end up in the hands of only a few hundred fans but, in true fairy-tale fashion, would ultimately end up selling in the millions. When Van Halen gave them the opening slot on a couple of shows during their critically lambasted 1998 tour, Mark remembered the hot nights when Creed made the most of a short set and limited stage space to give the headliners a run for their money.
Those are the memories keeping them going now, as director Mosley, who has done enough videos with the band to recognize their quirks, temperaments, and occasional lack of enthusiasm for the process, walks over to the individual members of Creed and attempts to get them up and rocking with bits of encouragement. But rather than rousing them with, "That last one was good and this one should be even better," he is greeted with obscenities and upraised middle fingers. Director Mosley, who at this moment is in the running for Asshole of the Year in the eyes of the band, calls them back to the stage for yet another run-through.
Creating fodder for MTV is just one of the realities of star-making machinèry Creed has had to adjust to as the millennium begins. The Tallahassee, Florida, band burst onto the music scene in 1997 on the strength of an independently-produced album, My Own Prison, that sold an unbelievable four million copies. Their follow-up album, Human Clay, is already making platinum noises. The band has earned just about every recording-industry award on the planet and is headlining massive sold-out tours. It's all been good.
But the band's refreshing everyman attitude in the face of this success story has been tested at every turn. Scott Stapp and his ex-wife, Hillaree, managed to produce one positive in their short-lived, often tumultuous marriage; a baby boy named Jagger Thomas Stapp, whom the singer-songwriter would just as soon be hanging with on this bright summer day. Mark, Scott Phillips, and Brian are sharing dreams of sunning themselves at the beach, hanging at a nearby strip club called the Friction Room (a favorite hangout in the band's scuffling days), relaxing with their girlfriends, or jamming in some dusty basement. Simple dreams. Rock-and-roll dreams.
But they are smart enough to realize that those days of being laidback and independent, to a large extent, are gone forever. Now that Creed has arrived at stardom, hiding out is not as easy as it once was—because Creed now belongs to the masses.
Easily one of the more low-key members of Creed, Brian Marshall has been constantly surprised by the band's rapid rise. Less than three years ago, he was playing in relative obscurity in a Top 40 band in nearby Tallahassee. Going from playing to a hundred people to playing in front of twenty thousand or more has been a rush, and he continues to marvel at the growing legion of fans. He laughingly recalls how, embarking on their first tour outside of Florida, they had a total fan base of maybe a hundred fans. He was downright amazed when that one hundred became five hundred and then a thousand. Now he is pretty cool, calm, and collected when Creed steps off an airplane and has television cameras thrust into their faces.
Scott Phillips, who admits he was only a passable drummer when he joined Creed, agrees with the irony of their swift flight to the top: "Everything that's happened to us has happened pretty much for a reason. It's all kind of happened in a hocus-pocus, fate kind of way."
And in the process, Mark insists, the band has avoided the pitfalls found by many bands who get too much, too soon. Creed has avoided the lethargy that comes with too much touring, too much time in the recording studio, and too much time in the media spotlight, and consequently the music has maintained its edge. "We've always been underestimated, which is good because it's kept us going," Mark says.
However it happened, Creed's success has not been a bed of roses.
Scott Stapp, who as lead singer tends to absorb the lion's share of the attention, good and bad, has admitted to often being cynical and distrustful as he is constantly forced to address the band's "overnight sensation" status. He has realized that six months earlier, he was considered the loser, the consummate outsider whose very existence seemed to rub a lot of people the wrong way. And he chuckles at the notion that now he's everybody's best friend.
Tremonti, whose lighthearted banter is often mixed with a dose of reality, has also found, in those rare contemplative moments, that celebrity is a tough cross to bear. "It changes other people's [perception] of you. And, when everyone changes around you, then you live in a distorted world. You want someone to say, 'You're an asshole, shut up.' You want people around who are going to keep you in reality. It's kind of hard to deal with that sometimes."
As is the perception of many of Creed's legions of followers that the band is on loan from God. The group's lyrics have, from the beginning, postulated a perception of religious zeal and deep philosophical insights which have made Creed, despite its hard-rocking, guitar-heavy approach which owes its lineage more to Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam than anything godlike, the focal point of a large Christian following which the band has spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with. Once again, singer Scott is the target for all the religious posturing targeted at the band. Depending on his mood, when the question is inevitably broached, you will either get a by-the-numbers defense of the band's musical stance, a scowl, and a rolling of the eyes, or a view of his back as he turns and walks away.
And, for a successful act, Creed has been light-years removed from being critical darlings. For every positive review the group has received, Creed has had to dodge the brickbats of numerous highbrow types who have dismissed the band as everything from "unoriginal," to "a bad clone of Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots." The members of Creed have developed pretty thick hides about their detractors, especially when it comes to the numerous reviews comparing them to other successful groups.
"It could be worse," chuckles Scott Stapp, fielding the inevitable comparisons. "They could be comparing us to some shitty band that no one has ever heard of. I consider it a kind of compliment to be compared to two of the biggest bands of the decade."
Creed has been the perfect foil for the 1990s' rock-and-roll business. Even though the rise of alternative rock, hip-hop, and pop has produced more than its share of good music, the scene has been pretty much devoid of believable and even interesting personalities. So, in a very large sense, fans have been craving that rare combination of good music and real, down-to-earth personalities. In essence, Creed is the perfect fit.
But being good-old-boy rock-and-rollers is not just an image resurrected by Creed in a mercenary attempt to sell records and influence people. It is not a cloak of personality the band puts on each morning. It's real to them, and because of that it has made them occasionally submissive to the demands of the music business. They do put their foot down when something absolutely does not feel right and they are quick to express their opinion. However, because they admit to being babes in the woods when it comes to anything except writing and playing their music, they usually give in when they perceive that somebody else knows better.
Recently Creed put their foot down and lost a particularly personal battle. The band has not been thrilled that their often confusing image was further compromised when "Higher," the lightest song on their on their very dark and heavy latest album, Human Clay, was chosen as the first single.
Mark, who seems to spend half his waking hours butting heads with the powers-that-be in the music business, complains that the song is more of a commercial concession than a true measure of the creative worth of the album, but that when radio stations and the record label insisted that "Higher" be the first single, the band basically bowed to their wishes.
Scott Stapp looked at the concession in terms of the big picture, mixed with a healthy dose of reality, when he acknowledged that, while they were definitely in control of the songs and the lyrics, ultimately they were not in control of their own destiny which, he felt, belonged in the hands of radio programmers and managers.
Differing perceptions of what the band is or is not, is nothing new for Creed. The band's heavy rock sound, featuring big guitars, tense vocals, and contemplative lyrics, is startlingly old school, hearkening back to the late seventies—early eighties heyday of Led Zeppelin/Def Leppard—style hard rock, and has made Creed a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Much like another popular hard-rock band of years gone by, Grand Funk Railroad, Creed has parlayed a totally unfashionable, unhip populist stance and a good old rock-and-roll attitude into million-selling albums, Top Ten singles, and sold-out concerts.
"We fill a void," Mark reflected on the band's unorthodox formula for success. "People have apparently missed the singer-guitar-bass-drum approach to American rock and roll. We're sincere and we play like we're in our basement. Only, our basement keeps getting bigger."
And the sincerity does not stop with the music. There is, quite simply, nothing fake about this band. Scott Stapp has often pointed out that Creed are not typical rock and rollers: "We're normal kids from normal families with pretty much normal lives. We're just regular guys who drank beer behind the house when we were fifteen, or smoked some pot when we still smoked pot. There's no crazy rock-and-roll story here. I mean, we still party and have a good time, but it's like normal stuff. It's not like we're in the bus shooting fucking heroin."
Scott Stapp has warmed to the idea of the band's normalcy, often citing the band's Tallahassee roots and their love for good music and good songs as their reason for being. He has also often recited Creed's no-bullshit mantra of, "We're sincere. We're not fake."
Mark also is a proponent of the clean rock lifestyle. "Bands have done shit for years and they've ended up dying, catching AIDS, or having a cocaine addiction. I'd rather just have a clear head. I've got a girlfriend who I love. I've got my health. What more could I want?"
What the members of Creed definitely don't want is to be basking in the glare of celebrity. Despite a sophomore album, Human Clay, that debuted at number one on the Billboard charts—over the latest releases of such superstar artists as Garth Brooks and Rage Against the Machine, and seeing more record sales over the past two years than U2, R.E.M., and Smashing Pumpkins during the same period—the members of Creed can literally walk down any street in America and not be recognized. Rolling Stone magazine, in a 1999 article, offered that "Creed's ordinariness, in fact, is the very key to their success."
"We've always resisted the glitter machine," Scott Stapp once explained of the faceless status they covet. "Anonymous ... Yeah, we hear that a lot and it's not such a bad thing. We've sold millions of records and nobody knows what we look like."
Mark is happy with the idea of being invisible. But he has legitimate concerns about the inevitable price of stardom and a higher public profile that is sure to come. He has said that there is a real fear of what will happen when the band's faces are on every magazine cover and on everyone's lips. However, in the same breath, he feels that Creed are up to the task of being superstars. "We really like to do this," he once said. "I can't fall asleep at night unless I've put on a rock show. For me it's a release. When I have time off [from playing] I feel like a worthless piece of crap."
Industry types are also aware of Creed's low profile and often have a good laugh at the irony of a superstar act with no face. Bob Feteri, a manager for the Tower Records chain in southern California, remarked in 1999 that "I couldn't name a guy in the band. But more power to them if they can make it work." Sky Daniels, general manager of Radio and Records magazine, is likewise amused. "The songs may be memorable, but what about the band itself?" chuckled Daniels. "I couldn't name two guys in the band, no way." Rick Schmidt, former program director of Tallahassee radio station WXSR, laughingly remarked, "These guys couldn't get picked out of a lineup, but they've sold four million records."
Lest anybody dismiss the members of Creed as a moderately talented group of backwoods bumpkins who just got lucky, the members of Creed have been conspicuous in their ability to demonstrate a very businesslike, street-smart climb to the top. They were quick to utilize the burgeoning Internet technology to gather and hold a core group of fans with their Web site early in their career. When they were weighing the offers of big-league record companies, they deliberately went with a lesser-known label, Wind Up Records, rather than be low act on the totem pole at a major label.
Excerpted from CREED by Marc Shapiro. Copyright © 2000 Marc Shapiro. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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