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Wednesday, July 19, 2006 02:33 pm

Building a better Park

With a new album and a new lineup, Springfield's favorite indie rock band hits the road

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The small makeshift rock club overflows with fans. Kids line the walls, standing on ledges and leaning in to cop a view. The lead singer strikes the first chord on his guitar. The crowd moves and breathes as a single organism. Heads nod in time with the beat; earnest faces mouth the emotional lyrics. Springfield rock quartet Park brings the soaring chorus to a crescendo, and the band’s loyal enthusiasts erupt.

It’s good to be home.

The road warriors never let their instruments rest for long. This week alone, Park treks through New Mexico and stops in Arizona, Nevada, and California on the wings of new album Building a Better _____ .

Released Tuesday, Building is the band’s first record since 2003’s It Won’t Snow Where You’re Going. During those two-and-a-half years, Park shuffled bassists and replaced a longtime guitarist.

With a full lineup and a new album to flaunt, Park is building on solid ground again.

Teenagers and young adults love Park, and no wonder: The band prefers all-ages venues over smoky bars and clubs, and its repertoire is heavy on breakup/make-up music. The band’s current lineup — Ladd Mitchell, 28; Miles Logan (né Parkhill), 24; Alex Haycraft, 20; and Aaron Bickel, 21 — is the fourth incarnation of the Springfield-based band under the Park name. The outfit’s signature soaring guitar lines and tendency toward morose reflection in its lyrics have earned the group a spot on many young emo-rock fans’ top-10 lists, but to pigeonhole Park as strictly emo would be to sell the band short. Park encompasses elements of hardcore, indie rock, and pop, and, with the addition of a penchant for stirring, often dark songcraft, the group’s sound falls somewhere between At the Drive-In and The Get Up Kids.

The original group disbanded in 1999 after recording an EP, Random and Scattered, and shipping it off to Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Lobster Records. With a little finagling, original members Mitchell and Justin Valenti and new recruits Logan and bassist Tim Costello sold the “new Park” to the label. The four-piece signed a record deal in 2000 and released their Lobster debut album, No Signal, in 2001. The boys got a taste for the road, and spent their time touring the country, playing shows from Florida to California. The next few years saw a new bass player and a well-received follow-up in It Won’t Snow. The band hopped in the van behind the album, and, when 2005 rolled around, the members of Park were ready to start writing their last album for Lobster.

But before the process could begin, the band played a round of musical chairs with bass players, trying to find one who could complete the four-piece.

“We went through a couple of people, and we were spending more time trying people out and trying to play a show here or there than we were actually able to write songs,” says Logan. “It’s hard when you’re worrying about ‘Are we going to be able to play this next show?’ or ‘Do we have someone to play?’ ”

In the middle of trying out five or six new bass players, the mop-topped Haycraft, a Springfield native, walked in, got out his bass, and promptly struck the wrong chord. He’d learned the music for the tryout in the keys the song had been recorded in, but the band had changed tunings since then.

“We go to play the first song, and he hits the wrong note right off the bat,” Logan says. “Then he realized exactly what we did, and he was able to translate everything and play the rest of the song completely fine.”

Mitchell says he could tell that Haycraft had listened to the CDs and learned the music. Haycraft says he practiced hard before the tryouts; he’d been in two other bands, but this was the first time he would be going out on a long-distance tour.

The band needs just that kind of dedication from a bassist, and Haycraft made the cut, just in time to record Building.

“It’s been a blast,” Haycraft says. “I’ve already seen half the United States in, like, three months.”

With their new bassist, the band set out to write the next record. Composing Building a Better _____, originally titled Building a Better Pirate, was a different process for Mitchell than the two previous albums, more the result of a collective writing process, had been, but Building found Mitchell penning tunes alone on his acoustic guitar.

“I think the writing process goes a little faster when you have one person doing it. Generally the way we write songs is, I’ll come in with an idea that I’ve recorded,” Mitchell says, “then I say, ‘This is what I hear; let’s make it better,’ and then everyone throws in ideas and it goes from there.”

Mitchell says that the band was more organized with this record, making demos of their work and going back to change elements on songs they had arranged. As a result, the band brought more to the table when the time came to record with Cameron Webb, producer of the two previous Park albums. Mitchell wrote 20 new songs for the album, and the final release was cut down to 10 tunes. The LP includes two music videos, one featuring footage from a live show at St. Louis’ Creepy Crawl.

“A couple of songs weren’t even supposed to be on the album. I was, like, ‘This one’s just for me,’ I’m not going to show it to anyone, and then Miles went on my recorder and was, like, ‘This is awesome,’ ” Mitchell says. “I’m, like, ‘It doesn’t even sound like us.’ ”

Logan wrote the drum parts and Mitchell saw the light when it came to his more personal tunes, which he now counts as some of his favorites on the album. To call the new release a complete departure from Park’s earlier sound is an overstatement, but it is different. The arrangements are simpler, and the lyrics are more upbeat than those of the much darker third LP, It Won’t Snow.

“Being mad sucks,” Mitchell quips.

“[The album] is definitely not as angry. Some people say, ‘Dude, he doesn’t sound mad.’ You can’t always be mad,” Logan says.

Building’s overall tone is mellower than that of Park’s previous releases. The 2003 album boasted tracks with titles such as “This Would Be Easier If You Would Just Die” and “Dear Sweet Impaler.” Mitchell says that the new album is more songwriting and less filler. The band’s signature intricate guitars are still present, but the album is lighter on guitar riffs. Mitchell wrote the album on acoustic guitar; translated to the band’s electric instruments, it became something different than what he had envisioned.

“It was more from a songwriting point of view. It was trying to make the song as a whole as good as it could be,” Mitchell says.

The new album kicks off with “The Trophy Wife,” an ode to lost love that features a fairly new element to the Park sound: backing vocals by Haycraft. The addition fleshes out the song, adding depth and a haunting backing track to the chorus. Logan attributes some of the new elements to Webb’s experience and trying new things with the band.

“Angels and Errors,” part ballad, part anthem, incorporates acoustic and electric guitars. Mitchell’s quiet vocals precede an explosive chorus. The sixth track, “Chica Chica,” retains the distinctive Park sound with elevated vocals and complex guitar arrangements. “Intro,” the oddly titled ninth track, was cut down from a complete song to just over two minutes. The short track crests along on a thick groove and a dragging beat, then culminates in a noisy wave of crashing guitar chords.

Park recorded Building over 11 days in January at the Distillery and Shag studios in Los Angeles. The band members were happy with Building as a finished product, but, with the album wrapped up, a new problem arose: Longtime guitarist Valenti decided to leave the group to pursue medical school.

“When we found out Justin [Valenti] was going to leave, it was pretty stressful because we have a new album and we really wanted to go out and tour on it,” Logan says.

The band had a series of shows lined up. Park wanted to recruit a guitar player whom they knew they could get along with. Personality conflicts had plagued the band in the past, and the players wanted to find someone with whom they would be comfortable on the road.

“We didn’t just want some newbie that had never really done this stuff,” Logan says. “We called up Aaron [Bickel] out of the blue, and I was kind of scared because I didn’t want to get turned down. I thought he was really good.”

Until the band broke up at the end of January, Bickel, of Kansas City, was a member of Too Beautiful to Die, and he says that Park was one of that band’s main influences. The members of Too Beautiful to Die worked together for five years, playing shows and taking a couple two-week tours.

“I had been talking to Miles [Logan] about setting up a show with my old band and Park. I got a message from them one day, and Miles said to call him back, but it wasn’t about shows,” Bickel says by telephone. “They asked me out of the blue, right when my band was breaking up.”

“He wasn’t in on the new album, so we had to try and teach him all the new songs. I’ve been kind of doing that slowly because I didn’t just want to throw a whole chunk of crap at him and be, like, ‘Good luck!’ ” Mitchell says.

When Bickel first joined the crew, the band had a couple of shows on the tour schedule and could only spare a few days for him to learn Park’s repertoire. Bickel learned seven songs before the first series of shows and began practicing the rest of the catalog at his Kansas City home.

The physical distance between Bickel and his Springfield bandmates runs about five hours’ driving time, but that’s nothing — Park’s former bassist lived in California and commuted by plane to the capital city.

“That was not fun, but we made it work,” Mitchell says. “Kansas City isn’t really that far — probably for him it’s a different story.”

Bickel travels to the practice space in Logan’s basement about a week before the band leaves for tour. If things go as planned, he’ll count himself among Illinois’ own in less than a year; Bickel’s wife plans to finish school before the couple makes the move to Springfield.

Cooped up in a 15-passenger van, the members of Park have rolled through sweltering heat and dangerous weather, such as the storm that hit as they were on their way to a gig in Ohio.

The sky was green, but the band members decided that they could push through and make it to their show on time. As they drove, though, tornado sirens sounded and a golf-ball-size hailstone broke the van’s window. Driver Corey Howell couldn’t find an overpass to shelter under and had to quickly backtrack to grab a safe spot beneath a bridge. The van sustained $5,000 worth of damage.

The current tour in support of the new album, which began in St. Louis, moves south and curves around the West Coast. After a stop in Springfield for the CD-release party, the band will take off for the East Coast.

The show, set for Aug. 11, will feature One Way Letter, of Atlanta, and Springfield’s Damwell Betters. The Underground City Tavern presents the show at the Hilton Springfield Ballroom, a venue large enough to accommodate all of Park’s fans, who turn up in numbers ranging from 50 to 250, depending on the venue. Currently without an agent, the band has been booking tour dates DIY-style.

“That’s what we’re hoping to get by doing the shows we’re doing and showing them that we want to tour. We just need help with it,” Logan says. “We’re kind of going out on our own, which is fun because we get to meet kids a lot easier, and we get to hang out with them and play more songs than we would if we were opening for a bigger band.”

For Park, interaction with fans is important. Their spot on Myspace.com, which is flooded with comments from listeners anticipating the new album, hosted 8,479 friends at last count. With that kind of fanbase and the formation of a new street team, Building should have no trouble gaining steam.

Building marks the final release for Park as Lobster Records artists.

“I think we just have to go out and perform and show labels that we can sell records,” Logan says. “Every record we’ve done has gotten better. I think we haven’t even written our best stuff yet.”

Once touring on the 2006 release is over, the members of Park will start working on the next phase of their career.

Logan says, “I think as long we have continued support and the growing support that we’ve had — and I think it’s always getting better — if it continues like that, and we’re able to continue doing this, then we’ll love to do it.”

Building a Better _____ will be released July 25 and can be purchased at Best Buy (3193 S. Veterans Parkway) or online at www.zambooie.com. Park’s Springfield CD-release party, featuring One Way Letter and the Damwell Betters, will be held at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 11 at the Hilton Springfield (700 E. Adams St. 217-789-1530); tickets cost $8 in advance and $10 at the door.

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