All rock, no ego: Absentstar’s modest rise to a record deal

Chicago-based Absentstar is not your father’s rock ‘n’ roll band. They’re not another group of hyper radio-friendly pop rockers either. They don’t write bubble gum choruses and they don’t think they are “that interesting.” Non-conformist by complete accident, Absentstar is an ideal rarely seen in the mainstream music community: just five guys making music they want to, and having a hell of a good time doing it.

Traveling from college to college blasting their brand of trippy, haunting alt-rock, the boys of Absentstar are an energetic, humble and driven local band slouching toward a bountiful future. In the midst of a two-month East Coast tour with Third Eye Blind that coincides with the release of the group’s Canvasback Music/Columbia Records debut “Sea Trials,” it would be easy to get swept up in the rush of success, form an ego and fall into the “wannabe rock star” trap. Hell, some would say it’s impossible not to.

Vocalist Derek Ingersoll didn’t think it was that hard at all.

“In all honesty I think we perform our music to the best of our ability every night,” Ingersoll said. “We don’t rely on people knowing our songs. We’re just really thankful that people will give us the chance in our first couple of songs. If people don’t stick with us we still have fun.”

The packed crowd at Saturday’s Third Eye Blind certainly gave them that chance. After ripping through the driving, pulsating “For God Sakes,” the crowd of friends asking me “Who are these guys?” quickly redirected their line of questioning and started searching for the band’s merchandise outpost in the back of the room.

With flashes of Muse and Mute Math infused in their songs, Absentstar writes relatable rock that belongs on the radio, despite the fact that the tracks off “Sea Trials” don’t sound much like the pop-rock dominating the airwaves. Guitarists Andy Dixon and Marshall Hanbury Jr. tend to switch styles periodically on the album. On some tracks they tinker with thick distortions that give tracks like “If You Like It” a space-rock feel during the verses, while other times they take a simpler guitar-rock approach, leaving room for drummer Heath Hamilton and bassist Noel Arnim to take center stage with Ingersoll.

Absentstar has found a way to sound catchy without becoming musically trite, something partially owed to Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Dan Wilson, formerly of Semisonic, who made frequent cameos in the studio during Absentstar’s recording process.

“We had some time off and we were between producers. So we kinda hung out (with Wilson). We went there with no M.O. We went out to eat, talk, listen to some music . just picked his brain and hung out,” Ingersoll said. “The last day we just threw some songs together for fun. Both the songs that came out of that day made the record.”

Wilson was a big reason the band decided to record “Sea Trials” live in the studio, rather than recording individual tracks for a majority of the instruments and vocals.

“We wanted the feel of it to be a live performance. We added some guitars, background vocals, overdubs, but Dan’s biggest thing is he hears a lot of bands not conveying what they really do live,” Ingersoll said. “Why not do that if that’s really what your good at?”

Ingersoll stressed that while Wilson’s influence was greatly appreciated, the band’s sound is still very much its own.

“It’s not how he wants us to sound or how our A and R guy wants us to sound,” Ingersoll said.

While the band takes the ownership of its music seriously, Ingersoll’s lyrics, especially on tracks like “If You Like It” and “If What You Mean Is Harm,” are both his and the listener’s. The laid-back vocalist said he likes to stay away from his own problems when he’s working on new material.

“I like to keep it a little bit open and let people make what they want out of it. I’m not particularly that interested in myself,” Ingersoll said. “I’m not going to get up there and go ‘here are my current social issues for the next 12 songs.'”

The band members said they learned some of the humility from current tour mates Third Eye Blind.

“The thing that’s weird to me is that they’re all really nice. That’s what’s most eye-opening. I asked them why they were so accommodating to us, (why) they let us walk around like it’s our show,” Ingersoll said. “(I said) ‘you got your own space but you’re beyond being nice.’ They said ‘We learned hospitality from U2.'”

“You hear so many war stories . but we found that the people we enjoy and the people we chose to work with are just good human beings,” Ingersoll continued. “We want to be great people and we want to be able to relate to other people.”

They’re on the way. Even while hundreds of screaming, semi-intoxicated College kids were shouting the words to Third Eye Blind’s “Jumper” late into Saturday night, Ingersoll and Dixon were hanging around the Absentstar merchandise table, talking to anyone who came by, immersing themselves in the fans they’d hooked in from the night’s performance.

As if that weren’t enough, when it was all said and done, and I introduced myself as “the guy from the interview yesterday,” Ingersoll actually reached across the table and gave me a hug.