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This Is Our Day Job
Pop darlings Sirsy work tirelessly to make music, promote themselves, and run the business that is their band. And at the end of the day, they might just play for you

Workin’ hard for the money: (l-r) Rich Libutti, Greg Nash, Melanie Krahmer and Andre Jatombliansky of Sirsy.

By Bill Ketzer

The music business has been called many things: high-interest banking, the snake-oil trade, the low-but-sweet embrace, the labor of the unloved. Even locally, it is rife with pitfalls, con artists and built-in self-destruction mechanisms, and many solid original acts never grow beyond a few years of local dates, having been whipped by capitalism’s cruel, acidic swipe.

But growth has never been a problem for Sirsy, nor has the business itself. The band—comprising singer Melanie Krahmer, bassist Rich Libutti, guitarist Andres Jatombliansky and drummer Greg Nash—know all about it, about sweat equity, late nights and long miles. About how all the old adages are true, that there really is no substitute for hard work; that the harder one works the harder it is to surrender; that it’s all about working like hell, advertising and endurance. And they welcome it with pleasure. When the band members arrive at John Delehanty’s Scarlet East Recording Studio for the interview, their relaxed demeanor is contradicted only by Krahmer’s incessantly bouncing heel, as if her knee-high pleather boots are just barely preventing her feet from kicking out the back door and hitting the road.

“We’re playing back down in North Carolina tomorrow,” she says. “We like to leave the night before so we can take our time. We’re leaving right after this [interview]. . . . You never know what’s going to happen.”

Much has already happened for Sirsy since their formation in 1999. Initially viewed as primarily a pop cover band with a “girl singer,” the quartet since have completed three original studio albums (not including a live CD), and they perform about 250 shows a year across the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. They appeared in TV promotional campaigns for both Boston and the Capital Region for Tribune-owned WB45, and played themselves in the award-winning independent film Dorian Blues. The band also won sponsorship from Molson last year, their product is nationally distributed through Transworld Entertainment, and more than 5,000 people subscribe to their mailing list. It is safe to say that Sirsy are not afraid of success. Or hard work.

“I don’t even have time for a day job anymore,” says Krahmer with the wave of a hand. “The time that we actually spend performing, that’s actually like the dessert for us. It’s such a small percentage of the work that we do. We are nonstop.”

“It’s pretty intense,” adds Nash, who fits the Sirsy mold perfectly with his reputation for juggling three or four bands on his plate at once. “There’s always something going on.”

“So much of what has happened for us is because of the ‘machine,’” Libutti says, a term he uses to describe the almost obsessive-compulsive manner in which they work. “We spend at least $4,000 a year just doing mailings. Most people don’t have that kind of dedication to either do the work or believe in the project enough. We put every dime we have into this band. When we do our taxes at the end of the year, the accountant says, ‘There’s no way you spend this amount of money on the band. What the heck did you live on?’ I mean, I don’t remember the last thing I bought that wasn’t for the band. Everything we buy, we have three computers including a laptop for when we travel, one for music and one for business. That’s for the band. We have a van and a station wagon. That’s for the band.”

“We rent a house so we can live and practice at the same spot, that way we don’t have to pay for rehearsal space,” Krahmer adds. “It’s every free moment that we have. The Web site, writing songs, keeping the business afloat. We have a few people helping us. Ed Sweet who handles our radio stuff, he’s like the liaison who gets people organized to call the radio stations to request our music and stuff.”

The group members are smart and know how to get results, whether it be assembling an Internet street team to get the word out for shows or upgrading press packets. One of the most innovative strategies Sirsy employed to finance recordings is a multitiered kind of “Park Playhouse” approach to fund-raising that has raised more than $15,000 to date. Taking a page from the nonprofit handbook, they list contributors in categories according to their level of financial interest.

“We financed our first CD, Baggage, ourselves, and we got a really good response from it, but there were a lot of people who came to us and said, ‘I want to help you guys,’ but they didn’t know what to do,” Libutti explains. “So for our second CD, our answer was, ‘Well, you could always give us money!’ So we did a presale thing, where we said that if you give us $25, you’ll get your name in the CD and a copy of it before anyone else, and that was marginally successful. We raised about $4,000, so when we were gearing up to do [Ruby] we said, ‘Well that program was pretty good, how can we make it even better?’ So we kind of left it open-ended as far as how much money they wanted to give, and it wasn’t like you got something more valuable in return. You still got the advance CD and T-shirt regardless of what level you gave at, but people still gave larger amounts just because they wanted to help. The end result was like $11,000. People gave from 24 states and three countries. Nobody does it better.”

“We were so blown away by the response,” Krahmer says, still wide-eyed at such support. “Especially when we said, ‘Thank you so much,’ and the replies were always like, ‘No, thank you, we believe in you guys and we want to help.’ That’s the ultimate compliment, to touch people in a way where they want to literally, personally invest in you. It’s amazing.”

Released this May, Ruby explores the depth of human vulnerability, unusual personal strength, the delicately thin and murky lines between good and bad relationships. On several occasions, it has outsold acts like OutKast and Aerosmith in local and regional markets, based on Neilsen/Soundscan data. In fact, Sirsy are the only unsigned act in the United States to ever make Soundscan’s Top 10, having independently sold almost 10,000 albums to date.

Krahmer shrugs when asked about Sirsy’s popularity.

“I just draw on events in my life, and people tend to identify. . . . It’s important to me to be sincere,” she says. “The part that I work really hard at is trying to avoid clichés and trying to have some layers and some depth. I think people can tell if you’re not doing that.”

Maintaining that goal while trying to make a deliberate pop splash is no small task, but Libutti says it comes naturally. “We’re definitely trying to be in the pop genre, but we’re fans of that anyway,” he says, listing Maroon 5 and Nikki Costa as some of his favorite new bands. “It’s not like we’d rather be doing something else. It’s kind of a natural trip.”

“My favorite band of all time is the Beatles, and they wrote great pop music,” Krahmer adds. “It’s the way you look at pop, I guess. To me, that’s what pop is—catchy melodies.”

“We’re all coming from different corners in respect to influences,” says Nash. “I like anything from Slayer to the Stones. Whatever one of us listens to gets put into the music—it helps us diversify.”

Indeed, the heroes are many: Prince, the Police, Nina Simone, Aimee Mann, Living Color, Kiss, Miles Davis, Alice Cooper and Jeff Buckley are all in heavy rotation at Sirsy headquarters. Yet what is it, confluence of influences aside, that buoys their well-established chemistry, that fills the ski lodges and packs the dance halls full of such drinking, whirling anthropology?

All pause for a second, then look over at Krahmer, who exhibits a diffident smile. “I think it’s the girl, here,” Libutti says. “Either that or it’s Andres’ chest hair.”

According to Sirsy manager Scott Ryder, while a pretty face with a dynamic voice doesn’t hurt, the secret also lies in their accessibility as a unit. “People aren’t dumb,” he says. “They can tell if a band is up there going through the motions for the $400 at the end of the night. You go out and see [Sirsy], and every break, they are out in the crowd. They acknowledge your birthday, your anniversary. It’s four friends amongst a roomful of friends.”

Because the band’s popularity continues to increase under their own guidance, it would be easy to imagine a scenario where Sirsy would start their own label and take it from there, calling the shots themselves while delegating more and more responsibility to employees. Libutti makes it clear, however, that as much as they love their fans and enjoy playing regionally, they still need the financial might of the industry to bring the quartet to the next level.

“We need someone with the wherewithal to get us where we need to be,” he explains. “We want to be signed because we simply don’t have the funds. I mean, if we were sitting on $100,000 it would be different.”

“We’re definitely control freaks, but we know that there are certain things that we can’t do,” Krahmer adds. “We don’t view a label deal as the answer to our prayers. We’re more realistic than that. It’s more a means to an end, something that will get us on the road, get more airplay. We’d love to tour nationally. We go as far as North Carolina on the East Coast, but we can’t figure out how to finance, for example, a tour in California.”

Although they retain management and legal counsel, a great degree of control over the everyday workings of the band remains with its members. Are they concerned that getting to the next level would mean relinquishing that control?

“Peter [Thrall, the band’s attorney] looked over the money we’re making, the product we’re putting out, and he said that we are actually doing better now than we would be as a signed band,” Libutti exclaims. “He said, ‘Are you sure [getting signed] is what you want to do? You’re actually grossing a lot more than a signed band.’ But it’s not just about money, you want that acceptance, you know? You want to feel successful. For us, it’s been a goal just to be able to make a living playing music, and we’ve done that more or less for a couple of years. It’s not enough. I wish it was, but it’s not.”

So what’s the next step?

“I thought maybe you would tell us,” Libutti quips. “But really, we’re focused on getting signed and getting more airplay right now. We meet a lot of label people, and the worst thing you hear is that, ‘Yeah, these guys are awesome,’ but the industry is so crappy right now. No one has the budget to develop a new band.”

“We are getting some play from WEQX and the Point daily, sometimes several times daily, and there’s some stations in other areas that we’re working on. So we’re looking to expand those relationships. And we’ll keep approaching labels. We’ve had a lot of middle management out to see us, and they like the band, but we have yet to get senior executives out to the New York City shows.”

Until that time comes, the foursome vow to keep the lights on, the tank full and the motor running. After a quick photo session following the interview, Libutti looks at his watch. “We’ve got to get moving, guys,” he says, and runs behind his van to change into his driving clothes in broad daylight as Krahmer rolls her eyes.

“Yep. Nobody does it better.”

Sirsy will perform at the Big House (90 N. Pearl Street) tonight (Thursday, July 29) after Alive at Five. Admission for the 8 PM show is free. For more information, call 445-2739. Also, the band will open for Blues Traveler at Northern Lights (1208 Route 146, Clifton Park) on Aug. 17. Doors for the show are at 7:30 PM; for more information, call 371-0012.

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