- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2001

The Red Telephones success seemed to be over when Warner Bros. Records dumped the quirky Boston-based group from its label. Three years later, though, the band continues to have a strong underground following, and its latest album, "Cellar Songs," is climbing up the college music charts.
The quartet play their first Washington-area gigs this weekend, with a show tonight at the Galaxy Hut in Arlington and one tomorrow night at the Metro Cafe.
The Red Telephone formed in 1996 in Boston after Vermont transplants Matt Hutton (vocals, guitar) and Sean Toohey (guitar) moved to the city for its vibrant music scene. Mr. Huttons cousin Mark Britton became the bands drummer, and his roommate, Pat MacDonald, joined the group as a bass player.
"There was no question that this was the city we had to come to," Mr. Hutton says from his home in Boston. "Its always had such a consistent music scene. Theres probably more bands per capita in Boston than anywhere else in the country."
The bands early demo recordings brought the group to Warner Bros. attention, but in the studio, its sound became overproduced, and the resulting record failed to gain any attention.
"We had the classic nightmare of being underrepresented and underpromoted," Mr. Hutton says. "We got out of that contract, and we sort of came back with a vengeance, knowing what we didnt want to do and what mistakes we didnt want to make."
Realizing that their demo recordings were stronger than their Warner Bros. release, the men of Red Telephone self-released their first EP, "Aviation," last year. The five-song disc sold more than the groups full-length major-label debut, which only strengthened the bands resolve.
"Weve actually been much happier being on our own," Mr. Hutton says. "When youre on a major label, everything is mentioned as a failure, whereas when youre on your own, everything is measured as a success."
The music industrys focus on hit singles and radio airplay tends to have an impact on artists creativity, he says. The great freedom of not being on a major label allows the band to experiment with musical styles and even song length.
"The first song on 'Cellar Songs is nine minutes long, but it seemed to be the best way to start the album thematically," he says. That track, "Pennsylvania," about the dreams of young people growing up in small towns everywhere to escape to something better, also is one of the strongest tracks on the album.
"Pennsylvania is just sort of used as an adjective for Middle America," Mr. Hutton says. "We all grew up in what might be considered Middle America and no offense to anybody from Pennsylvania, but it seemed like a good illustration of that idea."
Mr. Hutton lays the groundwork for most of the groups songs by coming up with the lyrics and basic melody before testing them on the rest of the band. If the other members take to a song, it becomes transformed into a Red Telephone song, Mr. Hutton says.
"Its very much influenced by how the band interprets it," Mr. Hutton says. "I get credit for writing the songs, but it would probably be completely different if they were for another group."
The band owes a great debt musically to the British pop movement best represented by Blur, Manic Street Preachers and Oasis. Yet Mr. Hutton lists early pop greats such as the Byrds and the Beatles as well as the atmospheric distortion of groups such as Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine as the bands primary influences.
The Red Telephone does a few tour dates at a time before heading back home avoiding the constant touring and recording it would face with a major label.
"Well continue to do that as long as it feels fruitful," Mr. Hutton says.
The band likely will record a new album this summer and has the goal of releasing about an album a year. The band members dont see their lack of mainstream success as a stumbling block.
"In the days when we were starting, rock was still a big mainstream thing," Mr. Hutton says. "Now its definitely like youre working in this underground network of people but they really like the music, not just because its trendy."

WHAT: The Red Telephone
WHERE: The Galaxy Hut, 2711 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, and the Metro Cafe, 1522 14th St. NW.
WHEN: 9:30 tonight at Galaxy Hut and 10 p.m. tomorrow at Metro Cafe
TICKETS: No cover for Galaxy Hut, $7 for Metro Cafe
PHONE: 703/525-8646 for Galaxy Hut, 202/588-9118 for Metro


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