Updated: Feb 14, 2020
*This story was updated on Feb. 10 to include new interviews with the band members, and photographs, following the NAMM show.
Despite all the emphasis on chart numbers, record sales and ticket purchases, music isn’t really a competition. Art isn’t about being better or worse than anyone. That said, competition can certainly fuel creativity and help hone a craft.
Salem rock group Wild Ire knows this first-hand. They’ve been performing under the pressure of prize-winnings and industry access since 2014, and it’s paid off tremendously for the group, which started locally in Oregon’s capital.
In 2017 alone, Wild Ire won two local Battle of the Bands competitions: one at Shotskis in Salem in which the grand prize was $1,000, and another up in Portland put on by the Headbang for the Highway Alumni Fest, for which the band claimed a free lyrics video for one song, produced by a local publicity firm. The band chose its most popular track, "Ragtime Gal" off of its debut album Antisocial Butterfly (2017).
“We’re more competition-based,” said drummer Nick Turner. “We haven’t really done any straight touring … it’s more we find one or two shows that might really work to show off a certain song.”
This kind of spotlight has garnered the band a large following both in Oregon and outside of the state. It translates to over 11,000 monthly listeners on the group’s Spotify page, and “Ragtime Gal,” has more than 300,000 plays on the streaming service.
The band uses this targeted approach -- dueling around with their songs -- as a way to not only generate buzz but to perfect their performances.
“We did that at first as a way to kind of get a feel for our songs,” Turner said. “As a band it honed us (by) kind of being under pressure.”
The more they’ve risen to challenges, the more new opportunities get presented to the band members.
The group recently returned from the biggest show of its career: a performance on the main stage of the National Association of Music Merchants festival in Anaheim, CA on Jan. 16. The annual show is the largest showcase for music industry merchandise in the world. Wild Ire was selected as one of 100 local acts, out of a pool of 1,000 from all over the country.
The show is a big deal, a pilgrimage for producers and musicians who want to behold the latest shiny industry toys. Everything from instruments to sound and lighting systems is on hand for live demonstrations and listening sessions. While there’s a lineup of musicians throughout the weekend, some big names have been known to make surprise drop-in appearances at NAMM.
Wild Ire, consisting of vocalist and guitarist Jacob Mayes, lead guitarist Jesse Palmer, bassist Taner Jones and Turner on drums, opened the first day of the festival on the main Yamaha stage, welcoming attendees with their progressive rock sound as more than 100,000 people entered the venue for the weekend-long festival.
"We were set up right in front of the convention center, so our sound just pushed out," Turner said. "Everyone who was walking past -- some of them had their phones up and were watching us."
A performance there worked well for exposure, since the band got its name superimposed on huge LED banners and screens lining the stage, with cameras displaying the performance on jumbotrons.
"People didn't exactly want to stop, because you want to get into the venue and see everything else," added Palmer, the guitarist, "But at least we got to play for them for 30 seconds or so on their way in."
The fancy lighting and displays weren't the only professional-grade equipment the band got to work with. The members described its most legit sound check ever, with venue technicians coordinating cameras with the displays and checking prototypes of new lighting and sound equipment. The band used prototype microphones and got free swag from engineers and merchants after the set. Turner didn't even need to bring his drums to the gig, as he used a brand new Yamaha drum kit onstage.
"It was like, 'Woah, this is way more than I expected,'" Palmer said. "We got to be up on the big screens. I've never done that before,"
Wild Ire played a mixture of new and old songs, pieces that they felt would be "pretty hard-hitting there," and that showcased the skills the band has honed through various competitions and album cycles.
Wild Ire is a project that isn’t afraid to lean into new or different sounds.
Early tracks, like “Ragtime Gal” and “Kaleidadope” off the group’s first full album, Antisocial Butterfly (2017), have pop-punk verses and transition into heavier choruses with hard breakdowns. The songs tend to have grooving, bouncy beginnings and loud, explosive endings.
While Palmer is the principle lyricist and songwriter, the entire band shapes tracks into a blend of sounds and structures. Turner said that the group’s territory changes depending on what members are listening to.
“We’re still in the rock genre but playing more with different ideas of it,” Turner said.
Earlier tracks, while still featuring the clean vocals of Mayes, were written during a heavier listening phase of Dillinger Escape Plan and Rage Against The Machine. Songs off of their 2019 album, Misery Machine, embrace poppier sounds and a more “math rock” influence.
Turner said that a big step forward in the songwriting process was learning how to write for Mayes’ voice and not restrict it to a purely hard rock sound. New vocal techniques are certainly a feature of Misery Machine, which sees Mayes utilize everything from spoken-word rapping and trilling to high, choral overtures.
It’s clear how the need to be technically masterful -- a main component of music competitions -- has fueled each member of the band’s abilities. Songs are written with highlights for each sound, allowing for masterful solos and fills that lead into the next segment of the music.
“Bubble Tea,” one of the singles off of the latest album, showcases hooky choruses of “I just want to give you, more, more, more,” with fast-picking stringwork by Palmer leading in and out of the verses. Turner’s impressive battery on the kit punctuates the heavy bass lines by Jones, and the whole song caps off with an impressively high chorus line from Mayes.
Songs like “Freaky Business” off the latest album and “Dirty Hands,” the group’s latest single -- written about an incident where a girl defecated in Mayes' bedroom (no joke) -- embrace grooving, funky riffs a la Maroon 5, with big, blended choruses and harder rock outros. “Dirty Hands,” specifically, feels very Muse-like with its rising crescendos and big cymbals and drums.
“It’s never intentional,” Turner said of Wild Ire’s sonic catalog. “We never sat down and said, ‘OK, we’re going to be changing our sound.’”
The band's varied influences have impacted the changing sound, and many of the prog rock and metal guitarists who formed Wild Ire's tastes were at the NAMM Show. Animals As Leaders, a progressive metal act from Washington, D.C., for example, played on the same stage as Wild Ire later in the day.
"We technically opened for them, if you base it on the logistics for that day," Turner said with a smirk.
Following their performance, members of the Salem band got to explore NAMM with all-access passes, gawking at musical equipment and meeting their heroes.
"Basically if you find any of us on Instagram and you see, like my feed is full of all these guitarists," Palmer said. "I basically saw them all in person that day."
Since the NAMM show, Wild Ire has recorded a new single with Wavelength Records in Salem, which they collaborated with to release their previous album. The new single, "Weirdo", is a rare one to see live, the band said, since it's "pretty hard to play." The band is aiming for a summer release for that next album.
Once new music is out, Wild Ire will “pick the right shows to kinda promote that record,” Turner said. With so many songs to build a setlist around, a full tour isn’t out of the question, either, but fans can be sure to catch the group at local venues like The Space in West Salem, where the band just last weekend played the same setlist it took to NAMM.
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