The Envy Corps used to be Luke Pettipoole.
The bespectacled troubadour remains the singer, songwriter and primary creative force for the The Envy Corps. But when he started the band as a teenager 10 years ago last month, The Envy Corps featured a completely different lineup. It was Pettipoole’s band. He called the shots.
A decade later, The Envy Corps lineup includes Pettipoole, Brandon Darner, Scott Yoshimura and Micah Natera, and the band says they are (and seem) better for it. Five years ago, the indie rockers seemed poised to break out of Iowa after signing a contract with the Universal imprint Vertigo, touring with The Killers, and spending a year living in England. But a major-label release was delayed, over and over, and the band eventually got out of its contract with Vertigo.
Now they’ve returned to the indie scene, and to the Midwest. After a decade of ups and downs, of stints in rehab and medical issues and band turnover, The Envy Corps is gearing up to tour again in support of an album (“It Culls You,” released in September) they poured tens of thousands of dollars of their own money into.
‘It Culls You’
Creating “It Culls You” was a much more democratic process, Pettipoole, 29, said. “We did a lot of arranging together, where before I would come in with a finished idea. There are things that were just a product of us goofing around during rehearsal.”
Pettipoole also started writing the album differently. Rather than beginning with guitar or piano, he used the bass as his primary instrument. The result moved the band in a more rhythmic direction. Pettipoole hoped to shift The Envy Corps away from being a “guitar band.” On much of the album, Darner played a Moog guitar that sounds more like a cello, letting the band work in sweeping string sounds.
“Every time we get together, I want to start over and throw out what came before,” Pettipoole said. “I wanted to tweak the formula and make it interesting for us.”
The bass-driven sound puts a spotlight on The Envy Corps’s newest member, Micah Natera, 33. Natera joined the band to fill the void left by David Yoshimura’s departure in 2008, but his role quickly expanded beyond the bass to include the synthesizer, as well as some engineering duties. (“If we didn’t have Micah, we would need two guys to fill his place,” drummer Scott Yoshimura said.)
Natera was never in a band before The Envy Corps. In fact, he hadn’t really even played much bass. He is more technically oriented, and would record albums for bands in his hometown of Ottumwa. Natera is the kind of guy more at home behind a studio console.
“I can kind of multitask, I guess,” Natera said. “I just kind of do what needs to be done to pull these things off. I’ve got a kind of analytical, technical view of how to achieve sounds.”
The band also found a kindred spirit in A.J. Mogis, an engineer at ARC Studios in Omaha. The Envy Corps recorded “It Culls You” at the studio, and Mogis provided additional knowledge and support to the band. The Envy Corps returned to ARC earlier this month for a three-day marathon, recording a live video performance of the album’s 12 songs as a reward to fans.
“We feel like A.J. was born to be our engineer,” Darner said. “He’s very meticulous about the sound being right. He doesn’t have any boundaries as far as what he’ll use to make a good sound. At this point I don’t see a scenario where we do a project that he’s not involved in.”
Music as a ‘small business’
When The Envy Corps made “Dwell,” Vertigo invested more than $100,000 into the project. “It Culls You” was completely self-financed by the band, with the budget scaled back to the $20,000 range. That’s a big cut, but still a large pile of cash for an independent album.
After two independent releases, the members of The Envy Corps started thinking about the band not just as a creative outlet, but as a small business. What did they stand to gain or lose if they let someone else handle their music? Would signing to another label mean giving up things like publishing rights? Would they be better off on their own?
“A lot of times, corporate backing can work to create buzz, but it can also lend itself to people getting things they haven’t worked for yet,” drummer Scott Yoshimura, 27, said. “I think in the long run our operations now are far better than they were five years ago. It’s a good small business model: Instead of ‘How can we make money quick?’ it’s more ‘How can we make more great music?’ Because that’s the goal.”
The Envy Corps has picked up a strong following in Omaha of late, playing a slot on last summer’s Maha Music Festival. Their growth in that city is partly due to the fact that Pettipoole is living there now.
The move was partly for a job and to be closer to his wife’s family, but there was another important reason: Getting sober. Pettipoole did a stint in rehab for drinking back in 2006, then relapsed. He thinks the drinking may have influenced the direction of “It Culls You.”
“I kind of ran out of steam and got deeper into alcoholism, which made me apathetic for a while,” Pettipoole said. “Maybe that’s why the record doesn’t have a lot of guitars on it. I wasn’t sure I could write songs as good as before.
“At the same time the other guys were focusing their efforts on different projects, which allowed us all to tread water where we were. It was always like ‘When Scott gets done with Canby we’ll do this,’ or ‘When Brandon and Micah are done with the Cashes Rivers album we’ll get started.’ Around the summer of 2010 everyone was finished with what they were doing and I realized I was in a better place. Those guys, maybe they were waiting on me to get it together.”
The band dealt with Pettipoole’s drinking for years. Darner remembers fights resulting from Pettipoole getting drunk before shows in England. He recalls not being sure if the band would survive.
“I wasn’t going to quit as long as I knew he was fighting,” Darner said. “But you don’t always win fights. There were times we could tell he was losing, but we knew he wanted to be sober.”
Today, Pettipoole is a different man than he was during the “Dwell” days. After six months sober, he changed his eating habits and started exercising. Darner is a talkative fellow, and when he calls to talk music, Pettipoole throws on his headphones and walks while they chat. He dropped 70 pounds, from 265 pounds to 195. The result is more energy, physically and creatively, and greater confidence in himself.
The band has grown from catchy, Radiohead- and Modest Mouse- influenced radio-friendly singles like “Story Problem” and “Rhinemaidens” to longer, more elaborate and complicated tunes, like the two part, 14-minute “Fools” that closes out “It Culls You.”
While The Envy Corps started as Pettipoole’s band, Darner joining in 2004 kicked off a partnership between the two musicians. Pettipoole describes himself as a “glass half-empty” person. Darner is of the half-full variety. They balance each other out, but for a time they also butted heads.
“It took a few years to find that rhythm. We were finding it during ‘Dwell’ and it resulted in lots of arguments,” Pettipoole said. “Now everyone knows where they fit, and the most fun I have is writing and recording with these guys. Brandon pulls me up when I need pulled up, and I bring him down to reality sometimes.”
In 2012, The Envy Corps plans to hit the road in support of “It Culls You.” “Ms. Hospital Corners” is getting airplay on Chicago and Minneapolis radio, so the band expects to head out on tour and not be greeting audiences as an unknown quantity, or as The “Story Problem” guys.
“I’m really excited about the fact that we have an album that’s been out for a few months without any shows booked. Now we’re playing shows and the people are singing and requesting songs off the new album,” Darner said. “Everyone wants to build hype for their album, but I think that will continue to matter less and less. This has been much more interesting.”
Five years from now, both Pettipoole and Darner are sure The Envy Corps will still be around. In what form, they don’t know. And whether they’re touring to packed houses of dedicated fans or just playing for fun, they’ll be doing it because of the choices they’ve made the last decade.
“Luke is my musical collaborator, and I could never replace that. It’s not possible,” Darner said. “I can’t be in a band with someone I want to see on drums more than Scott, and Micah, Micah’s a genius. We’ll fight for The Envy Corps because it’s better than anything else we’re ever going to do.”
The Envy Corps
When: 6 p.m. Dec. 8
Where: People’s Court, 216 Court Ave.
Cost: $12 in advance, $14 at the door