Can a rock band from the Pacific Northwest land in the heart of Blues country and be a success?-Apparently so. Wideawake fronted by vocalist singer-songwriter Scott Leger and fused by the great guitar work of Eddie Willis moved from Seattle to Austin in 2002. In the past two years the band has swept eight Austin Music Awards handed out in conjunction with the world famous SXSW Music Festival.
Wideawake's music has found its way to both the big screen and television. The band's song "Hey John" from their second CD Bigger Than Ourselves was selected for the movie The Ring. As if to add an exclamation mark to just how good Wideawake's music is "Hey John" was chosen over a tune by Smashing Pumpkins. The producers of Dawson's Creek invited submissions for a new theme song a few years ago and although they decided to retain the song they had been using they were so impressed with Wideawake's music they assured the band they would find a home for their songs. The in your face song "Bigger Than Ourselves" which contrasts a myopic view of life with self discovery was featured during the 100th episode of Dawson's Creek. The tune "So Simple" also found a home in a made for television movie.
In late June the band released their single "Maybe Tonight Maybe Tomorrow" through iTunes. "Back in '04 Scott wrote the song after he found out one of our friends had been diagnosed with cancer," says Willis. Through a mutual friend the band members came to Lance Armstrong and the work of the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
All proceeds from the download go directly to the Lance Armstrong Foundation. "From the moment of diagnosis the Lance Armstrong Foundation provides the practical information and tools people with cancer need to live life on their own terms," says the LAF website.
The inspiration for the song came from hearing the stories of numerous cancer survivors. Willis says, We were just floored by some of these stories and Scott penned this tune. The band got around it and made it into a song. We took it to the Lance Armstrong Foundation and they just loved it."
"Everyday Rockstar" from the Bigger Than Ourselves CD pokes fun at the struggles of a rock band's career. The words provide insight to the hearts of Wideawake's members who seem genuinely grateful for the modest success they have enjoyed to date. In some ways the tune chronicles the band's growing maturity. The original group came together in Seattle and was known as Threads. In January 2002 they had their CD release party and two months later they headed for Austin.
Willis explains the reasons behind the band's move, "It was actually a pretty practical choice (coming to Austin). We do a lot of touring and it just never seemed practical to tour from Seattle. You would have to drive four to six hours just to get to another piece of civilization or another major city. It was three hours to Vancouver (Canada), three or four hours to Portland and a six hour drive to Spokane. It just wasn't very cost effective. Our (former) manager lived in Austin. He encouraged us to move here so we could be more centrally located. Within a two hour radius (of Austin) you can play all month long without ever leaving this area. Some of the major cities in the US are right here, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. Not to mention this is just a music town. There is an overall love for the arts."
Leger's vocals for the song "Mariposa", "It's hard to say goodbye to the memory of the way it used to be," seem almost reflective as shortly after the five rockers moved to Austin the bass player and drummer left the band and returned to Seattle. The band could easily have folded their tent and dispersed but the remaining members Leger, Willis and rhythm guitarist Nate Navarro hung in there. In 2003 they picked up the Incubator Award from the Austin Music Foundation. The financial and people resources that accompanied the award provided stability for the group.
The Incubator Award is what Willis refers to as an eighteen month boot camp for emerging musicians. Wideawake had entered a battle of the bands competition and were selected for the award based on their performance. Willis refers to the Music Foundation as "the mother hen taking you under her wing and helping you grow up." He goes on to explain some of the ways Wideawake benefited from the experience. "They help you with the marketing side so you can take that creative side of what you do and get it out to more people."
Willis still extolling the merits of the Austin Music Foundation says, "We were at a weak time when our bass player and drummer left. We were trying to decide whether we were going to be a band. We had new songs that we were writing and we demoed. They helped nurse us along. We had already made two records before that. They were full length records that we sold thousands of copies of. We were in a place where we knew how to do that. Now we were in a weak state. They nurtured us back to health. When we began our term at the Foundation all we had were a few demo songs but by the end of our term we finally had a couple of new members that we believed in. The band was healthy again."
Those new members turned out to be bassist Chris Heerlein and drummer Matt Fletcher. Of the new additions Willis says, "We picked up a couple of guys that added some muscle to the band. We feel the band started all over again here in Austin." With the new birth of the band came a new name, Wideawake.
Wideawake has garnered no less than eight prestigious Austin Music Awards during the past two years. Earlier this year the Austin Chronicle Music Awards named Willis as Austin's top electric guitarist. "It was a very select group of people. You are talking about Eric Johnson, Monty Montgomery and some other major players here in town. Great guitar players are everywhere here. I was very overwhelmed to be honored with that award amongst such great, great talent. It really was an honor," says Willis. With smoking tunes such as "Misunderstood" which discusses life's journey it was inevitable that sooner or later Leger's songwriting abilities would be acknowledged. Leger picked up two awards as Austin's top songwriter and top male vocalist.
Despite the accolades heaped upon Wideawake and upon Willis he remains modest. He also continues to strive to bend better licks from his Fender Telecaster. "I am still a music lover. When I listen to music I listen to guitars and how guitars make a song better. What they do and how they are doing it. I still love listening to that. All that helps you grow."
"You always (need to) grow as musicians if you want to keep doing what you are doing. You always evolve. You listen to different things throughout the years and that changes the way you think about music, the way you write music. I know that when we first started as a band we could barely play our instruments. So there was an evolution," he says laughing.
When contacted Nikki Rowling the Co-founder and Executive Director of the Austin Music Foundation of the Austin Music Foundation had these glowing remarks to make concerning the members of the band, "Wideawake is one of the hardest working bands I've come across. After moving here to Austin to hone and develop their craft, they quickly emerged as a band committed to hard work and dedication. This commitment has been evident in everything they do and create."
"I picked up the instrument late in life. This is an instrument that anybody can learn. In a month's time you can learn a few chords and play half the pop songs that were ever written if you practice thirty five or forty-five minutes a day. The thing that is cool about a guitar is you can take it anywhere. You can't slap a piano on your back and go out to a campfire. It's funny I always wanted to play the piano while I was growing up but we were so poor we never had a piano. There was never that opportunity. I was always in love with music and when the time came to pursue an instrument the guitar was handy."
On July 19th Wideawake embarked on a tour in which they crisscrossed the United States.
Writer: Joe Montague