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Rock Sound Classic Features: Madina Lake

Andrew Kelham
Andrew Kelham 23 June 2011 at 12.17

A cover story from the archive as Rock Sound celebrates 150 issues!

As we hit our 150th issue we are looking back at some of the classic stories we have locked in the Rock Sound vault (and we do have an actual vault too...promise).

Madina Lake have been through hell in the last year but, as this feature from Christmas 2007 shows, the band were well used to battling for what they believe in even before Matthew Leone's horrific attack last Summer. Scroll past the cover to read the piece, click here to see where the band are playing on their headline tour this November and make sure you pick up a copy of Rock Sound Issue 150 with Biffy Clyro on the cover. It's ace, and we're not just saying that either!

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Common courtesy dictates that when you are having your car stolen at gunpoint you do not try to exit the vehicle with the keys still in your possession. It is rude, unhelpful and obstructive to the weapon wielder and should not be considered as a normal course of action; one should just quickly and quietly get out of the motor without obstruction or complaint. A strange lesson, one that Madina Lake frontman Nathan Leone learnt the hard way.

“I was in a library parking lot at college,” remembers the singer. “I had got to class early so I was just sat in my car listening to music. These two dudes came up to my window and one asked what the time was, I looked at my watch and before I could tell him it was two minutes past noon the other one had jammed a gun in the window and told me to get the fuck out of the car. I didn’t know what I was doing so I instinctively reached for my keys as I got out of the car and I got hit pretty hard for that. They ripped me out of the car and drove off with two more of their friends who jumped in.”

These individuals had the potentially deadly mix of extensive firepower and limited cognitive function. After their crime they were obviously pleased with themselves so they drove straight to a mall, mugged a lady in the parking lot, and then went shopping. This gave the lady ample time to collect herself, call the police, for them to turn up, for her to identify the vehicle they emerged from, and for the police to hide and wait for their return to apprehend them successfully. This incident illustrates a simple yet uncomfortable truth: the four individuals of Madina Lake are idiot magnets, and for a time it seemed like that would forever be their story.

Roll back the clock a few years. Guitarist Mateo Camargo and drummer Dan Torelli are playing together in a band called Reforma, the product of time shared at a music engineering and production school in Orlando. After a stint in New Jersey where the band played shows to unappreciative crowds in the forgettable boroughs surrounding Manhattan, they were seduced by a manager in Chicago. They quit their jobs and moved to the Midwest for the promise of sold out shows and label showcases.
“Our first show in Chicago was at the Metro and it was sold out,” recalls Torelli. “We thought this guy was the real deal initially, then we proceeded to move into an apartment, live miserably with no money and go nowhere with that band for two years.”

Reforma were so financially poor they could not even afford to rent rehearsal spaces for label showcases, but somehow their manager kept finding money to book spaces and make it happen. How was he doing it? By taking the advance that a record label paid to another band he managed and spending it on Reforma. Who was that other group? The Blank Theory, a band containing brothers Nathan and Matthew Leone. However, this was by no means his best move. He saved that for The Blank Theory’s biggest chance of their career.

“We got flown out to New York to showcase for J Records and Columbia,” remembers Nathan. “The two labels swore they were going to outbid each other to sign us and we thought it was really going to happen, but then the companies started making cuts and everyone was getting fired. One thing leads to another, which leads to nothing. During this our manager, behind our backs, told the A&R guy at J Records that The Blank Theory was no longer functioning and Reforma was where it was at and that he should really sign them instead. He sabotaged the whole thing. When we all found out he did that we all got rid of him and in the same swipe the two bands lost a few members each. We cleared the decks.”

The members of Madina Lake attracted idiots, but remarkably they never became jaded by them.

“I think we were lucky in the fact that we met such assholes in the beginning,” says Camargo with surprising optimism. “Especially since we saw how bands that achieved a level of fame changed so drastically. I remember analysing that situation and promising myself if I ever got in their place it would be so different for me.”
It is clearly a sentiment the band agree on and unite behind.

“It was good to be let down so many times,” continues Torelli. “We did 20 showcases as Reforma and each time the mountain of gold turned to shit. It broke us down so much that it got us to the point where we no longer gave a fuck about anything other than writing music and having fun. Maybe earlier on our motives were infiltrated with other reasoning and it was releasing to get to the point where all our dreams had been crushed. Sure enough, when we got to that point things started to happen for us.”

And happen it did. The four casualties of music nursing broken dreams and battered egos continued the day jobs they hoped to quit and met up most nights in a rehearsal room in Chicago to write music they loved. At this point there was nothing – no gigs, no interest, and no real incentive since most labels had passed on either or both of their previous groups. To their families it seemed futile to carry on, to the band it seemed entirely necessary. In the rehearsal room they talked about shared ideals, common goals and principles. Their love for hooky and heavy rock music was discussed and dissected. A concept was eventually born.

“The idea we started out with was a frustration at American pop culture and its value shift,” recalls Matthew. “A shift from valuing things like family, love and connections to now only valuing yourself, narcissism, wealth, and acquiring material goods. Everyone feels a sense of entitlement these days, everyone thinks they should be famous, and we live in an immediate gratification culture. It was disgusting to us and did not seem like the founding principles of this country.”

This concept was articulated through a story of a fictional character in a fictional town. The band placed this tale in America of the 1950s when post-war jubilation began to turn to complacency, when the seeds were sown for what we see today. It made perfect sense back then, when no one was watching them, when no one cared who the band were. Things are somewhat different now, especially for Camargo, who finds himself at a strange juxtaposition to the band’s message.

“I already have my first casualty,” he admits. “I am going through a divorce right now because I chose this and I love doing this band. I am a 24-year-old divorcee. That is the kind of stuff that can happen when you tour as much as we have.”

A band travelling around the world to give a message of love, relationship and family at the expense of one member’s marriage is somewhat discordant and Madina Lake are increasingly finding that the world they wrote about in rehearsal feels a lot different from the inside. In fact, the bubble is somewhat suffocating when you increasingly find yourself trapped inside it.

“The world has become ironically smaller,” agrees Matthew. “You are travelling across the world, meeting loads of new people, but it is ironic because your world becomes small in the way that you are travelling everywhere in a box with the same group of people. You have to learn a whole new way of living to accommodate that.”

And learn Madina Lake have had to do – quickly. In the space of months the band have grown quickly from support act to headliner, from back pages to front cover, and it has been anything but easy. The quartet are struggling against gimmicky coverage and critics of their rapid ascent, in essence they are fighting to not become what they wrote a record about. They grace magazine covers presenting them as pre-teen playthings with pretty faces and a penchant for pop-rock; they see themselves as something entirely different.

“Our whole first stint of press was Fear Factor questions,” recalls Matthew, referring to the brothers’ much-publicised victory on the extreme television gameshow. “Then it was all about us being twins and it was so far off as this band is about four people who came together to create music; four people who have ideas, who have social commentary, who read a lot and put so much work into creating this art. When you finally go to deliver it and people pick two things out that were never even supposed to figure anywhere, it is definitely disappointing.”

A lesson the band are learning perhaps too late is to be selective about what they hold back. Callous treatment of the Leone brothers’ personal tragedy has shocked and upset the band.

“It cheapens it and I hated it to be honest,” remarks Matthew on the coverage of his mother’s death in a car crash when the brothers were aged just 12. “It is a very personal experience and I do not feel obligated to share that stuff. It was approached initially by a magazine with a self-help article on the subject and I was asked if I could help out with advice; I was more than happy to do that. But I don’t want that sort of stuff to be in an article where I am holding a bowling ball and making a face. I felt a weird guilt for it being out there and it being known and asked about. I then started to question whether I was exploiting it and that is my worst fear in the world.”
Accessibility and disposability are two attributes that are closely linked. Make something too easy, too obvious, and it can be replaced without too much care or concern. Madina Lake currently walk that line between band and brand; are they a genuine group capable of a musical career of evolution and innovation, or are they a passing fashion that rose last year, will peak this year, and will be a joke by 2009?

“From the onset one of my ultimate fears was fame or attention based on an image or someone not seeing the real art behind what we do,” admits Matthew. “It actually stresses me out when people migrate towards you for the wrong reasons. I think people that don’t know our music or have not come to our live shows have an inaccurate perception of what this band is. If you were to come to a show you would be surprised at what you would find.”

However, the band now find themselves facing down 08 wondering what will happen to them next; despite the challenges to their credibility they feel a quiet confidence.
“The problem is we are all new at this,” admits Camargo. “We have no idea what we are doing. We are glad people are paying attention and are only now learning how to handle ourselves. But I think we are in a good position, we have been allowed to grow into this band and now we find ourselves in our mid-20s, which is a great age to be doing this, because there are bands that are so young and just not able to deal with the avalanche that comes when people show interest in you.”

Matthew continues the thought: “A lot of bands these days are really young and they are singing about really amateurish things – high school flings that didn’t work out in their favour and that kind of thing. It is fine for a certain audience but it definitely has its limits.”

Confident in themselves and their position, Madina Lake are sure they have worth as musicians. The fans at their shows would almost certainly agree with them. But what about you, dear jaded Rock Sound reader who sees the pictures of the band and laughs? You who picked up this magazine pissed off that we chose them for the front cover. Can Madina Lake do it? Can they prove to people their music is worth investing in emotionally? Are they more than favourable faces for a magazine cover? Will people let them be the type of band they want to be? All these questions and more need answering in 2008 and people like you will be the ones to answer them. The band and their fans need no persuading. It’s up to you.

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