- The Washington Times - Friday, May 15, 2009

Before canoodling with Nickelodeon alumni, collaborating with Grammy-winning producers and touring the country alongside his burgeoning rock band, Alex Feder was an aspiring songwriter living in Potomac.

“I played drums and guitar throughout middle school and high school,” says the 26-year-old, “and I wrote a bunch of songs as well. I recorded them at the end of my senior year for a class project, with the intention of forming a band once I got to college.”

Following his subsequent enrollment at New York University, Mr. Feder approached several classmates about playing music. The XYZ Affair — formed shortly thereafter, with the band performing its first show toward the end of the group’s freshmen year.

“Three of us were in the school’s music program,” Mr. Feder remembers. “Much to the department’s dismay, we held band practices in the NYU rehearsal spaces. They tried to ban us on numerous occasions, which is funny, because it wasn’t like we were a death-metal band that wrecked the equipment.

“We were music dorks. We probably played more quietly than the NYU big band.”

Although the XYZ Affair took its name from an 18th-century diplomatic mishap, the band proved to be more indebted to vintage pop culture than military history. Mr. Feder handled the bulk of the songwriting duties, spiking his band’s music with references to Buster Poindexter, Michael Jackson and the Altamont Speedway Free Festival. Sunny harmonies and pop-styled flourishes helped complete the package.

Interest in the XYZ Affair’s music swelled upon completion of the band’s first music video, “All My Friends,” in 2007. Featuring cameos by a handful of former Nickelodeon TV stars — including “Double Dare” host Marc Summers — the video culminated in a music-filled house party, replete with the network’s signature green sliming and climactic crowd surfing.

“We got a call from an indie label the day our video was posted to the Internet as well as an e-mail from Columbia Records,” Mr. Feder explains. “Our show the next month had a line around the block. Our debut CD had been out for, literally, eight months already, and nobody even knew it existed until we had some slime thrown on us. It was definitely the smartest marketing trick we’ve ever pulled.”

Two years later, the XYZ Affair continues to release songs that are simultaneously breezy and brainy, combining the time-honored traditions of pop music with nuanced wordplay and unexpected chord changes. Mr. Feder chalks it up to his recent appreciation for hip-hop, particularly the music of Kanye West, as well as his continued obsession with ‘80s pop stars.

“It’s almost as if I should have learned to play keyboards or something,” he jokes.

“We write songs like a pop band, and they’re stuck playing them with rock instruments!”

Two of the XYZ Affair’s newest songs — including “No One That You Love Will Ever Die,” whose layered sound was produced by Animal Collective associate Ben Allen — were recently released as free digital downloads.

The XYZ Affair will perform its new material at the Black Cat on Thursday. Tickets are $8, and doors open at 9 p.m.

Keane observations

Although initially hailed as heirs to the Coldplay throne, Keane’s three members have steadily moved beyond the plaintive piano pop that helped make their debut album, “Hopes and Fears,” the second most popular British release of 2004.

“Under the Iron Sea” arrived in 2006, bearing traces of electronic music and a harder, expansive sound. Even so, few fans predicted the sonic leap that fueled the band’s most recent effort, “Perfect Symmetry.” Released last October, the album found Keane experimenting with guitars — an instrument previously discarded in favor of the piano — along with an array of synthesized keyboard tones and bright, vintage sounds.

Tim Rice-Oxley, who plays piano and handles the bulk of Keane’s songwriting, is enjoying the band’s steady evolution.

“In some ways, we’ve made life great for ourselves,” he says. “I feel like we’ve earned the right to be quite liberated, since each of our albums has been so different from the one before.

“At the same time, I have no idea where we should go or what kind of thing we should be doing next. I think it takes a while to find your way to something that’s fresh and exciting.”

Although currently embarked on an international tour, the band still finds time to experiment with new ideas. While in London, the group collaborated with rapper K’Naan, who helped bolster several new Keane compositions with hip-hop flourishes. According to Mr. Rice-Oxley, Keane also hopes to cover a song by the treasured Japanese ensemble Yellow Magic Orchestra.

“As people get older, their tastes change,” Mr. Rice-Oxley observes. “They go off and discover different things. Sometimes, you bring back ideas and you have to use your powers of persuasion to get everyone else excited and involved in the project.

“I think that’s just the process of being in a band, though,” he adds with a laugh. “Otherwise, your only option is to remain on safe ground.”

Catch Keane Tuesday night at 7:30 at DAR Constitution Hall. Tickets are $44.

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