Just because Rock Sugar is on its way to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world does not mean they need a record company.
Not in this day and age.
The new rock sensations with San Fernando Valley roots are succeeding on their own terms with more than a million YouTube views, tons of worldwide publicity, a hot self-produced CD titled "Reimaginator" that's selling like crazy, plus some high-profile concerts planned, including an appearance at the massive Download Festival in England next month with AC/DC, Aerosmith and Stone Temple Pilots plus an expected crowd of 120,000.
How is Rock Sugar doing it? A great idea of "mashing" together classic rock covers and classic pop covers within the same songs, lots of undiscovered
talent and an overwhelming passion to succeed, as founders Jess Harnell and Chuck Duran have put their life savings into a project that's paying off against all odds.
Rock Sugar performs Monday, May 24, 2010, at House of Blues, Sunset Strip. Find out what all the fuss is about on the band's MySpace and YouTube pages.
Harnell and Duran formed the idea of mashing together metal and pop covers like Metallica's "Enter Sandman" with Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" into one song — the opening track, "Don't Stop the Sandman" — and you've got to hear it to believe it; the 13-song CD with a total of 34 classics mashed together has been recorded to the highest standards — Harnell once tried out to be Journey's new singer — and the result is absolutely mesmerizing from start to finish.
Rock Sugar has already played several large concerts, and the crowds have gone crazy. The band makes its Los Angeles debut at 9:30 p.m. Monday, May 24, at House of Blues in West Hollywood, and it's best to arrive early because the event is expected to sell out.
Harnell can't believe he is the first to think of this idea, but it's not like he and guitarist Duran are overnight successes. They've been playing together for nearly 30 years since they were classmates at Birmingham High in Van Nuys, first earning distinction on the Sunset Strip with a band called Loud & Clear that managed to pack clubs like the Roxy and the Whisky but never got the brass ring.
"I remember when we were recording the Rock Sugar CD, I was nervous, thinking any day now someone is going to come out with the same record," said Harnell, sitting for breakfast Tuesday morning at Sportsman's Lodge in Studio City. "I mean, the concept of mashing is not new — DJs have been doing it for years — but now comes an organized band doing it in a live context with the theme of '80s pop meets '80s metal. That's never been done.
"It's one of those ideas like the little tips on the ends of shoelaces. Once it's around, you wonder why no one had ever done it before."
The timing could not be more perfect.
"Rock has been missing a sense of fun for a long time," Harnell said. "I feel like we've come up with something that's inventive and original and at the same time fun and familiar that a lot of people will want to come and see — the coolest metal riffs combined with the coolest pop songs of the '80s that make people want to sing along to. It's two things that have never gone together, but somehow now they do. This record is fun. You put Rock Sugar on at a party, and everyone wants to know what the hell it is."
Eventually Rock Sugar probably will sign with a major record company like Sony or Universal — the band is so popular and rising so fast that it's impossible to ignore them — but it will have to be on Harnell's terms.
"I remember in the 1980s, Michael Jackson had the highest royalty rate at any record company — I think he was making 25 percent off every record that probably wholesaled for $10," Harnell said. "So that means, for every $25 Michael Jackson made, the record company made $75, and I always thought there was something inherently wrong about that."
The Internet has changed everything.
Once the public first started to click on Rock Sugar, the band's popularity exploded. In some cities like Memphis, Rock Sugar's songs are among the most popular on radio — unheard of for an unsigned band that's been together for only a few months.
"There have been some amazing things, just some fairy-tale stuff, and it's because of the power of the Internet," Harnell said.
A friend volunteered her professional services to make a video for "Don't Stop the Sandman," and it was an instant YouTube hit. That's when an editor from Pollstar discovered the band and began writing a series of online stories proclaiming Rock Sugar to be the next big thing. Then top booking agency Paradigm read the Pollstar stories and signed Rock Sugar — the only band in the history of the agency to get a deal without anyone seeing them play live — and that led to some big shows in front of large crowds, and here we are today.
"It's kind of like, all your life you've always been excluded from the real VIP parties, and out of nowhere now you know what it's like," Duran said. "You're used to playing in front of 100 people, and all of sudden you're playing in front of 5,000, and they're all there to see you. It's like, holy crap. It feels great. It feels amazing."
There are big plans.
Rock Sugar is playing June 5 at the Santa Fe Station Casino in Las Vegas, and if it goes well the band is expected to be offered a residency. And because there are so many hits attached to Rock Sugar's music, but in an all-original format, the band is popular in a lot of countries, and that probably will translate into a world tour.
In the meantime, the Rock Sugar online buzz is getting louder by the moment.
Harnell and Duran can only shake their heads, and they're enjoying every minute of it.
"I guess we're the ultimate attention-deficit-disorder band because every 30 seconds it's a new song," Harnell said.
Through the years, Harnell has carved out a side career doing voiceover work for TV shows like "South Park," but he has wanted to be a rock star since the day he was born, and it's happening in his mid-40s — just before it would have been too late. He has still has a great look, a wild-and-crazy rock attitude (even though he has never taken a drink or a drug in his life) and a fantastic voice that is versatile enough to pull it all off because of his voiceover training.
Harnell admits he has come a long way from his high school days when he wore out his welcome at Birmingham and was placed in an alternative program.
"I was not what you would call a merit scholar," Harnell said. "It wasn't that I achieved poor grades, I just wasn't interested in algebra and world history. Some people at the end of high school receive their diploma. My diploma was all the stories everyone talked about — "did you hear Jess did this," or "did you hear Jess did that."
But there was something special about Jess Harnell from the very beginning, said Duran.
"The minute I met him, I knew Jess was going to be a star," Duran said. "My friends told me to stay away from him because they thought he was on speed or something, and that he was crazy, but what a voice and what a personality. There isn't a singer in the world out there that's anything like him. He's a class act."