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How Story of the Year went from delivering pizzas to dishing out the rock

Wednesday, Sep 29 2004
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For those creative types facing indifferent audiences in half-filled dives while trying to make it big with their bands, day jobs are a necessary evil. The members of the hard-edged quintet Story of the Year are riding high on the radio charts with the song "Until the Day I Die," but they were once no different from any other struggling artists. While striving to solidify a like-minded lineup and fine-tune their sound, the Orange County-by-way-of-St. Louis upstarts bonded over a Midwest college-frat staple: They sold pizza.

"If you ever need a new guitar player, look at various pizza-delivery places -- you'll find one, definitely," says vocalist Dan Marsala. "Me, Ryan [Phillips, guitarist], and Josh [Wills, drummer], we all worked at Papa John's. Actually, our guitar tech, our drum tech, and our tour manager -- everybody -- we all worked at Papa John's.

"Pizza delivery is the way to go for band members. You can drive around and listen to music all night, or work on music. Like, if we'd write a song, we'd record a crappy version, and then I'd just drive around and deliver all night and sing along to it, try to write stuff. It's a good job to have for band members."

Beginning under the moniker Big Blue Monkey ("The worst name ever," says Marsala), the group released a handful of EPs and evolved into a regional favorite in and around St. Louis. After some personnel changes -- the main shift being that Marsala, originally the band's drummer, became the singer -- the young act eventually settled on a lineup and decided to move to California in pursuit of a record deal. If nothing else, there were pizza jobs here, too.

But the relocation paid off handsomely for Story of the Year. The band adopted its more optimistic name and picked up a deal with the Warner Bros. affiliate Maverick Records. In fact, the label signed the fivesome the same day they played an early morning showcase at the Viper Room. The club sits on the infamous Sunset Strip -- ground zero for hair metal, which Marsala admits was a major influence.

"Early on, I was all about Skid Row and Guns N' Roses," he says. "Skid Row has always been my favorite band from the '80s, definitely. That's what really got me into music. Later on it was Nirvana and Pearl Jam and all that stuff. But then [punk] bands like H2O, Sick of It All, Pennywise, NOFX -- that's the stuff that really got me wanting to be in a band and do things for the right reasons."

Punk's quicksilver tempos and jagged chords certainly can be heard on Story of the Year's major-label debut, Page Avenue -- especially in the furious hardcore lightning-bolt "Falling Down," which features vocals from H2O singer Toby Morse and Youth of Today's Ray Cappo. The album, produced by Goldfinger's John Feldmann, fits in seamlessly with today's prevailing radio trends: "Anthem of Our Dying Day" and "Dive Right In" resemble the moody fretwork of AFI and Thrice, while Marsala's vocal-cord-obliterating interludes on "And the Hero Will Drown" and "In the Shadows" have brought justifiable comparisons to screamo ragamuffins the Used -- although the angst stems from a different place.

"Pretty much every song has something to do with us missing our friends at home, 'cause we wrote a lot of it while we lived in Orange County," Marsala says. "'Sidewalks' is a lot about our friends back home in St. Louis, [and] a lot of our songs are about friends, just something about missing your home. I don't know. We're not too mad about anything. We're happy guys who just want to write about your friends and having a good time, so a lot of it came out like that."

Indeed, despite the new ZIP code, Story of the Year is still very much connected to the Midwest. The Page Avenue in its album title refers to a street in the guys' childhood neighborhood in St. Louis -- a little-big-city, much like Cleveland, in which "there's not much to do ... so pretty much all we did [growing up] was either listen to music, play music, or skateboard," Marsala says. Besides introducing them to crushing boredom, the band members' heartland roots instilled an earthbound, old-fashioned work ethic.

"We'd wake up, we'd practice all day, we'd all go to work at night -- then we'd get off work, we'd go promote the band somewhere, [and] we'd go hand out fliers or CDs at a show," Marsala explains. "It was constantly having two or three jobs, including the band as a job. We always knew to ourselves that's what we wanted to do, and we always just knew in the back of our heads that if we worked hard enough, it was gonna happen. We weren't afraid of hard work, and we just knew to ourselves that we weren't gonna give up."

All the pavement-pounding led to the band's big break. Picked to play at a large St. Louis festival called Pointfest, the group slipped CDs and copies of a demo video onto Goldfinger's tour bus. Its at-the-time ridiculous moniker at first turned off vocalist Feldmann, who supposedly threw away the disc before even giving it a spin. Yet he eventually caught the tape of the group's circus-worthy live exploits -- which involve backflips and other acrobatics -- and was impressed enough to offer an opening slot on a Goldfinger tour.

Earlier this year, Story of the Year foisted these stage antics onto huge crowds while touring with Linkin Park, and its recent stint on the Warped Tour has resulted in even greater exposure. Yet for a band fueled by a sense of destiny and a hard-fought rise to large-scale renown, its philosophy remains refreshingly simple and direct.

"We always try to give the kids something cool," Marsala says. "We have to rock out more than -- or at least as hard as -- the kids are rocking out, or else we're ripping them off, y'know? A lot of bands don't really care enough to put the energy into their show, but we like to. Some of our songs are pretty intense on the recording, but live, it's a whole different everything. We have so much more fun live."

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Annie Zaleski

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