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Business as Usual 

Youngstown's Sinomatic tries to kick the Rust Belt blues with its major label debut.

Sinomatic: Rock with a capital R.
  • Sinomatic: Rock with a capital R.

Being the singularly self-conscious town that it is, Cleveland has always had a chip on its rock and roll shoulder about bands from the area "breaking out" or "making it." This is, after all, the self-anointed Rock and Roll Capital, and it seems only appropriate that someday someone would slip out of the Rust Belt shackles of this town and ascend to the rock and roll heavens. But year after year, record upon record, show after show, dreams get dashed and battered in this town like so much murky whitewash on Lake Erie's shores. There would seem to be an implied promise of success in a burg that rests in the shadow of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but those dreams are often as misguided as they are dead-on-arrival in an atmosphere that has settled into a corporate classic rock radio rut -- leaving nary an ounce of earnest interest in the regional rock scene. "Cleveland Rocks," it seems, has become the worst sort of invalid clich´.

But "scenes" are a big part of what catapults regional sounds to national obsession. And when a local scene catches on (usually all it takes is just one decent band), it tends to set off a sort of music industry wildfire. A band gets signed, gets hot, and then record label hounds pour through the city like marbles spilled from a box, signing anyone who so much as owns a guitar. It's just that someone has to get the snowball rolling.

Ken Cooper, lead singer in the Youngstown-via-Cleveland-by-way-of-Pittsburgh band Sinomatic, thinks his group, which was originally called Vertigogo, might just be the right band at the right time.

"We've had some pretty good success so far," Cooper says. "We took the time and put together some good songs, put out a disc on our own label, and had a pretty good college music radio run that got us noticed and signed to Atlantic. We also had some real interest from other aspects of the business and got a good publishing deal, and ultimately, were fortunate enough to get Eric [Valentine, producer of Smash Mouth and Third Eye Blind] to produce our record."

Cooper's comments come off as the humble look-at-me-Ma musings of someone who is amazed at his good fortune; yet while Cooper's humility feels genuine, he's not naive. This is a guy who has as good an understanding of the business of music as he does of what it takes to craft a solid pop/rock tune. Sensing all along that the lack of a "proper" rock scene in what Cooper affectionately calls the Rust Belt would force him to be smarter about music than, for example, a Seattle band at the height of that scene's unnerving explosion, Cooper set his own course in controlling Sinomatic's future.

"I felt I had to know how it all worked," he says. "I wanted to know the business and use that knowledge to stay ahead of the game. I had some business background and understand that the best way to succeed in a business is to know the business. So I read everything I could about how the process -- recording demos, getting college radio play, getting a product out -- works. I knew what step was next every step of the way and felt that was the best way to get us noticed within the industry."

To rock and roll daydreamers and hopeless romantics, this probably sounds like a dispassionate approach, but it is, without a doubt, a reality in blockbuster rock's hegemony. The music industry, seemingly having closed ranks with the motion picture industry's mega-market and saturation approach, is a treacherous battleground that makes even politics look like playground fun. Every band signed nowadays is a roll of the high-stakes dice, and you'd have to imagine that understanding that sort of business is the one real key to succeeding at the game.

Cooper, who attended Youngstown State University, left college after two years sometime in 1993 to work for a couple of brokerage firms and then start up his own record label, dubbed Rust Records (the label is a key part of the deal the band has with Atlantic; all prospective future Sinomatic releases will be imprinted with the Atlantic/Rust label, and Cooper has the ability to sign and develop bands). Cooper is obviously well-versed in the business side of things and seems to thrive in the environment.

"Hey, I'm proud of what we've been able to do so far," he says.

But business is still just business, and talking label deals, airplay, and industry politics has never gotten a kid up off of his ass during a concert or pried the 15 bucks a CD costs out of a wallet. Cooper knows this too, and for all of his acumen and for all of the need-to-know he has about the dealings of his band, his eyes don't light up a bit until you talk to him about the music. Because when it comes right down to it, Cooper is still just another Midwest kid with a wicked bent for rock and roll dreams.

"Man, I can't wait," he smiles as he talks about the band's self-titled debut, slated for release in April on Atlantic. "I think this record is pretty damn good, and it's definitely a record that brings the rock and roll. We wanted to make the kind of record that presents rock as the star again, you know? Capital R! That's the way we wanted it to sound. Big and loud, yet pop at the same time. Guitars, leather, girls -- all of the great rock and roll clich´s. Because that's what it is really all about."

If good rock and roll makes the clich´s valid, the songs on Sinomatic's debut are pure rock and roll revivalism. The record's a surprise in its welcome yet odd blending of fashionable alternative rock undertones with the neo-romantic new-wave edge of the Psychedelic Furs, the post-goth groove and vocals of Peter Murphy's solo work, the bright guitar antics of Echo & the Bunnymen, and the high manic strut of the Cult's Ian Astbury aping Jim Morrison. Sinomatic takes a mass of rock influences and laces its defiantly pop-infused songs with hints from a host of eras and a range of appreciations.

The band's first single, "Bloom," has a distinct contemporary feel, but manages to slyly embroider short bursts of musical homage throughout. It's in that sort of styling that Sinomatic stakes a claim for rock and roll's return, as well as giving the band a shot at crossing the well-defined boundaries of the typical pop and alternative crowd.

"That's the music we grew up on," Cooper says, "and we wanted to make rock and roll music. Even if it's got a pop sort of slant to it, we wanted to make sure it stayed completely rock and roll, because, to us, that's what it's really, ultimately all about."

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