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Journey to bigger things?

Fair to Midland's incessant touring leads to a major-label deal

By MIKE DANIEL / The Dallas Morning News

NOTES FROM HOME Darroh Sudderth is a bundle of nerves.

But it's not because his progressive rock band, Dallas' Fair to Midland, is on the cusp of the big time. Well, OK, maybe that's a little bit of it. But the edgy, writhing energy he and his band discharge onstage is the reason it's in that position in the first place.

"He's pretty nervous about the interview," said Ken Phillips, the band's PR agent. "It's his first major one, and with his hometown paper to boot."

But Mr. Sudderth loses most of his apprehension rapidly while on the phone from Toronto, where Fair to Midland is laying down tracks for its big-label debut with producer David Bottrill (Tool, Muse, Peter Gabriel). In fact, he's affable, easygoing and even a bit shy.

"It's the scariest place to be," Mr. Sudderth says about the band's multi-album deal with Serjical Strike Records. In short, he's a little intimidated. "I'll hope for the best and expect the worst."

The band's recent good fortune (including the recording contract, which has distribution through Universal Republic Records) came about through incessant regional and West Coast touring and a little luck.

Serjical Strike was founded and is run by Serj Tankian, the singer for genre-hopping pop-metal band System of a Down. He signs bands with similar approaches to rock (arty, forward-thinking and uncategorizable), and he pursued Fair to Midland after his cousin slipped him a copy of the band's self-released 2004 CD, Inter.Funda.Stifle, late in 2005.

"We'd been touring the West Coast about every other month, making friends and stuff," Mr. Sudderth says. In April, "Serj came out during a showcase that we played for all of the major labels" in Los Angeles. "But we all felt that it was an off night, and we were all disappointed."

But Mr. Tankian showed up again at a gig the next night in Malibu "and pretty much made us an offer that night," Mr. Sudderth says, "and he made it pretty clear that he wanted to be involved with the making of the next album."

So Mr. Tankian is serving as executive producer of the CD, which is slated for a March release. In the meantime, The Drawn and Quartered EP, which contains two demo tracks and two live cuts as well as some video footage, dropped on Nov. 7.

"It's not often that one comes across bands that are truly original, poetic, progressive, artsy and memorable, compounded by a killer live performance," the press-wary Mr. Tankian says in a prepared statement. "Fair to Midland is such a band."

Originally a duo (Mr. Sudderth and guitarist Cliff Campbell), the band formed in the northeast Texas town of Sulphur Springs in 1998 and migrated to Dallas, where it recruited drummer Brett Stowers, bassist Jon Dicken and keyboardist Matt Langley to round itself
out. (Despite the name, it has no ties to Midland.)

The act's sound draws from a host of influences: metal, psychedelic rock, jazz and even country and funk. Perhaps it's best to call it a cross between the Mars Volta, King Diamond and Blue October. It's a function of the disparate musical interests of each member: Mr. Langley (techno and piano rock), Mr. Stowers (stoner rock such as Clutch and Queens of the Stone Age), Mr. Dicken (traditional country such as Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings), Mr. Campbell (no evident preference; he listens to little recorded music) and Mr. Sudderth (eclectic, from bluegrass and blues to heartland rock and gangsta rap).

"We want to be left-of-center, with some commercial appeal," Mr. Sudderth says. "We've never had much faith in our recordings, and that's why we've toured so much and relied on our do-it-yourself approach to gain fans."

And it is Fair to Midland's live show, during which Mr. Sudderth convulses and bounds around like a caged leopard, that catapults the band above other hyper-experimental rock acts.

"We draw a blue-collar crowd, which we like," Mr. Sudderth says, "and that's different from someone like the Mars Volta. We're interpreted as art rock, but that's not necessarily correct because of our fans. For some reason, we draw the classic-rock guys just as
much as the art-rock guys.

"We do whatever it takes to capture the people and keep them coming back. I'm sure each person that comes takes something different away from one of our shows. They have almost a pretty chaos to them; that's the best way I can think of to put it."

Because of the Toronto sessions, Dallas fans will have to wait until after Christmas to see the band again locally. A pair of homecoming shows are already booked for the Curtain Club on Dec. 29 and 30. It'll be "exciting to be home again," Mr. Sudderth says, though
a bit bittersweet because of Dallas' subdued reputation as a music town.

"The Dallas scene has huge potential, but it's definitely twice as hard as most other places" if a band is trying to get some exposure, he says. "I think there are a lot of good bands who aren't really given much of a shelf life there. There's not a whole lot of label reps that come to Dallas; it gets overlooked.

"The only reason we got signed was because we were going to California and doing those tours."