Monday, October 18, 2004

Hope for the Masses - thoughts on Radiant*

Pillars and concrete walls,
How they’re weighing down on me.
All that I wished for, all that I love
Seems so far away…
I’ll seize the day.

It’s early on a Thursday evening in Dallas and these words run through my head. It’s an anthem of sorts, urging me to go on, keep moving forward. This is good, because I could use some encouragement to calm my nerves. The lyrics are from “Do Not Delay” by Radiant*, the latest unsigned band to break on the local music scene. Words of inspiration and a damn fine tune to go with them, the song is acoustic and powerful with a classic U2-inspired guitar break. When I got their CD, The Sound of Splitting Atoms, I put this song on endless repeat.
Deep Ellum is in the heart Dallas, just beyond downtown, surrounded by industrial buildings and freight yards. In years past, the clubs that now rock to local kids and national headliners were blues clubs. A bit of New Orleans-style seediness still hangs on the low-slung buildings and wide streets. Standing outside the silver garage doors of Last Beat studios, holding a 12-pack of Shiner that I’m not even sure the band inside will drink, I’m waiting to meet the guys behind the words. The very suburban family walking toward me doesn’t yet look out of place, but give it an hour or so and Elm Street will fill with twenty-somethings in search of tattoos and cheap beer. I try to hide the golden box behind my knees, and at the same time, smile into the sphere of the security camera as I ring the bell. I feel like a total idiot. Lead singer Levi Smith opens the door and rescues me. I grin and forget to introduce myself. I’m a bit starstruck, because Smith is a blonde Julian Casablancas, minus the New York attitude. In his black suit jacket, jeans, and brown suede Wallabies he looks exactly as you’d expect an indie rocker would. He takes the beer and leads me down the hall past bitty cellblocks of recording stuff to the nuevo-retro lounge. He promptly sticks the case of beer in the fridge, but doesn’t take one. Hmm. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do? passes through my mind, but I know what these guys do. They make incredible music.
I first saw Radiant* this past July when friends and I arrived at local alternative radio station KDGE’s anniversary concert way, way too early. Whatever possessed us to get there at seven o’clock could only have been called divine intervention because otherwise, we would have missed the spiritual experience that is a Radiant* set. Smith and his band were the opening act for The Killers at Trees, a venue that holds a thousand people, uncomfortably. The hundred or so music buffs there with us got something we didn’t expect: quality rock. Radiant* was the first band on the bill, but it didn’t matter. They were 100% there for the listeners who came for more than MTV’s latest conquest. Radiant* sold to us; they got up there and put themselves out, almost naked in their passion. They knew that, at the end of the set, it didn’t matter if a hundred or a thousand people were listening. They played to that one person out on the floor whose heart was open to their music. On a bill that was packed with diverse acts, from solo guitars to Linkin-Park-alikes, Radiant* was up there with confidence and got the crowd behind the music. Levi Smith, Daniel Hopkins, Dragan Jakovljevic, and Jon Schoemaker follow illustrious indie rockers who have risen in the heat of Texas; Ben Kweller, The Secret Machines, Tripping Daisy, Polyphonic Spree, just to name a few.
Local music reviewer Zac Crain [Dallas Observer, April 2004] has labeled their sophomore release, 2003’s The Sound of Splitting Atoms, as ‘Texas’ answer to Coldplay’, but it’s much more than that. Rock with a melodic sound, it’s is a tribute to the depth of the band member’s souls. Striving for hope in changing times, Radiant*’s message has particular relevance today. Four guys from Grand Prairie never sounded so good.
Back at the studio, Smith’s cellular rings and he excuses himself, leaving me with Serbian transplant Dragan (pronounced dragon) Jakovljevic, lead guitar for the band, and Daniel Hopkins, their drummer. Dragan takes a break from his dinner to say hello to me and I’m completely at a loss as to whom he is. Somehow, in the four days since I met them at their latest gig, he’s shaved his beard and lost his Bosnian inflection. He says he’s been practicing sounding like an American. I wish he wouldn’t. Lanky and dark, Dragan is a bit shy, maybe because of his now nearly non-existent accent. Hopkins immediately makes me feel welcome; with his shaggy blonde hair and giant blue eyes, he’s the puppy dog of the group, so adorable you just want to take him home. Other than Smith, he’s the one who fills in all the details. Bassist Jon Schoemaker isn’t here, or maybe he is, just hiding out. Apparently interviews aren’t his thing. We make ourselves comfortable on Last Beat’s patio, one of those tiny urban oases you wouldn’t expect in the middle of a recording studio, especially one this small. Just a strip of brick and greenery and a few modern chairs much more suited for kicking back than serious conversation, and we’re braving the mosquitoes on one of the last of North Texas’ muggy summer nights. Jakovljevic finished his burger and the interview began.
“Hey guys, want to go to Oklahoma this weekend?” Smith interrupts our small talk. Dragan and Daniel confer and decide that, yeah, it’s possible. “We don’t do covers. Make sure they know we don’t do covers,” Smith repeats to the phone. That decided, he joins us. “So, you’re Kate?” Oops. With his slight drawl, Levi is gracious and smiling and very relaxed, as if nosy interviewers just went with the territory of being the hottest new act in town. Which they are. It’s verified. Observer readers voted Radiant* the Best New Act of 2004. Their single, “Way You Make Me Feel” was also in the running for Best New Song, but got trumped by “Beautiful Night” by the Burden Brothers. Not bad, considering the competition. Hopkins bursts in to fill me in about the band; with his enthusiasm and surfer-dude voice, he’s a great spokesperson for the group. He’s the one you usually find manning the t-shirt table after their set. Being with the members of Radiant* is like hanging out with your brothers’ best college buddies. The guys are relaxed, fun and genuinely good friends. The vibe is easy, just like their concerts. Jakovljevic was the last member to join Radiant*.
“I basically came [to Dallas] for school,” he says, “I chose between going to London or here, but they had a better music program here. I mean it was a bible institute, so in England they didn’t have anything. I always wanted to come to America because, you know, England is so close to Bosnia.”
Smith adds, “Jon was going Christ for the Nations at the time, too, so that’s how we all met. Anyway, we had to drive across town and pick up Dragan every day for every rehearsal, every show for a year, and all of us lived like Midcities, like Bedford, Arlington, and so it was pretty far.”
The guitar player tips his head. “Thanks for coming, dude.”
No longer in school, Jakovljevic stayed on in Dallas after meeting his wife. All the other guys are married, too, except Hopkins who chuckles at the suggestion he might get all the female fans’ attention. “We’re not a crazy party band or anything like that, we’re just good guys. It’s not like I go around looking to hook up with chicks or anything like that so… I guess being the only single guy in the band doesn’t really benefit me that much. If I was a little crazier, or wasn’t a Christian guy, I’d have fun.” Daniel shrugs, a bit embarrassed. “We’re real serious about making music and disciplined.”
Levi and Dragan can’t help but laugh.

Formed in the new millennium, Radiant* began by rocking Peru. Hopkin’s dad was on a mission to Lima and Smith, Schoemaker, and a cousin tagged along. Wherever his dad set up shop around the capital, they played. “I guess we were Peruvian rock stars for a while. We had this terrible four song EP and we sold all of them there. We played every day, and all our gear was borrowed,” remembers Smith. The university even closed the city streets for one of their concerts. “About 3500 people were there. It was the most amazing energy. It was a mess –even the bass cabinet fell over– but so fun.” When asked if he thinks if that CD would ever find its way back to the U.S., Smith shudders. “I hope not! It had this seven-minute song on it that should have been a three-minute song. It was awful; verse one, then a two-minute music break, then a bad chorus, then verse two and a long music break, the chorus and another music break and a two minute end. It just went on… No, there’s no chance of it coming back.”
Another Radiant* album that has faded away is 2001’s A Year of Holidays. “It’s out of print now. We worked on that just weeks after Dragan joined the band and our idea was to make the best record we could, but we were unsure of what we wanted to do. We’ve progressed now. That’s not really us anymore. It’s way far from what we’re doing now, but we sold 1500 of them, so there’s a few copies floating around,” says Smith.
Hopkins adds, “Levi’s working on a solo project, a gospel album that has a song from Year of Holidays, ‘Come and Save’.”
“Yeah, but that’s not with the band,” says Smith.
“Yeah, not Radiant*,” they agree.
Songwriting is a group effort. “We all get in a room and start playing,” says Smith, “and then me and Dan solidify the lyrics. We’ve got this cool studio out in the woods in De Soto and we lock ourselves in.”
Jakovljevic chimes in, “Then it all has to be translated into Bosnian to work.”
Taking it into the studio later, they’ll nitpick the details. That’s where I found them today: hard at work –and not drinking my beer- on their new as-yet-untitled album. The guys discuss names such as “The Man Who Couldn’t Save Himself” (too much like the Travis album, Smith says), “Do Not Delay” (even though that song’s not on the EP), and “We Hope You Win.” A little creative friction pops up and they exchange looks. Oh well, not everything is sunshine and light with these guys, but they’ll figure it out.
“The new EP is a dedication to the band,” says frontsman Smith.
Hopkins looks at his hands, his eagerness turned down a notch. “Levi’s parents got divorced, Jon’s brother, in Dragan’s family, too. We had divorces in three families.” Dragan shrugs his shoulders, but smiles at Daniel. Smith continues on, “The band was going through hardships. This album is about identifying hurts and sending a message of hope.”
“Our last album had a lot of acoustic-driven songs, very similar melodies and stuff. Our next album is more rock-and-roll, more electric, it’s a little faster at times. I don’t think we’ll get the Coldplay comparison that much this time around,” says Hopkins. “Right now we’re not limited at all. We were recording it in a smaller studio, with less access. [The new] album will have a gospel choir on it. It’ll have a string quartet playing orchestra parts on it, where as last time we had to do that on keyboards and go without the choir. We’ve also had a lot more time also to really work on these songs, to fine tune it.” The planned release wouldn’t be until spring and the guys were upbeat; just a few more months in the studio and they could have the album they really wanted to make out to the public. Their goal for the next five years is clear for Smith, “We want to support our families on music.” How hard is that on family life? “It’s tough. I’ve seen my wife a handful of times in two months because we’ve been recording. I think it’s almost harder to be working and then playing on weekends and trying to balance both those out. If we were touring, one, maybe my wife could come with us sometimes and two, when I wasn’t touring I’d be home. I’d be like home home. Every time we leave and I’m working during the week and playing on the weekends…” Levi pauses and sighs, “that definitely takes a special person to be able to take that.”

People want to talk about Radiant*. Waiting for them to arrive at a concert, I got to chatting about their spiritualism with the manager of progressive rock band Halto Bravo, who are musically quite different. “They’re able to write incredible music and someone like myself who doesn’t go to church on a regular basis, I don’t walk in there going ‘Oh this is a Christian based background band’, I go in there going, ‘this is awesome music.’ You’ve got a lot of bands out there who say ‘this is who we are’,” says Chance Wimberly, a local music promoter. “Lyrically, they’re sharing what they believe in, and it’s a pretty strong message. These guys are passionate when they play. As soon as they hit the stage, they’re into what they’re trying to convey to people. I don’t see them as a specific belief or focus; I listen to them because I love how it moves me. It’s sharing what the artist is really feeling, not what you or I expect to hear.”
When asked about the influence of their Christianity in their music, Hopkins reluctantly discusses it. “There’s a Kanye West album, he’s a hip-hop rapper. One of the lyrics talks about you can’t put Jesus in a song, it takes away from your record sales, it takes away from your money. But I don’t know, I don’t necessarily agree with that. We don’t play where Christian bands always play. It gets you stuck in certain markets.”
Smith goes on, “We’ve made a conscious effort not to play the Christian market. Just because we feel like being part of that will limit us in the mainstream world in our ability, in who would hear us.”
“We’re all Christians, we’re all really solid believers, really spiritual people,” says Hopkins.
When asked if they think being believers would limit them commercially, Smith defers, “It won’t limit us any more than anything else will, the way we play guitar or whatever.” Hopkins finishes the thought, “We’re not looking to use our Christianity as a marketing tool. It’s just who we are.”
Scott Headstream, lead singer of Halto Bravo, talked about playing with Radiant*, “They change the quality of room when they play. It kind of lifts everyone up.” When asked about this, Smith scoffs, but then says, “Yeah, I wanted to do that. The strangest, coolest compliment we’ve gotten was from Carter Albrecht of Sorta. He said, ‘You guys make people want to go home. Not to go out and get smashed, but be at peace.’ I want to bring hope, give a word of encouragement. That’s our message.” There’s plenty of room on the charts for a band whose message isn’t dark, and there’s a few of them out there. While Switchfoot rails against what’s dark in our hearts, Radiant* lifts us up and celebrates the good: redemption, friendship, faith.
I asked about The Killers’ show. “That was cool, man. Yeah,” says Smith. “We had a lot of fun. And it was kind of weird because I had never heard them before. I wish I would have already had the record before we played with them, but it was definitely cool.”
Hopkins smiles at Dragan and laughs. “Dragan ate all their chips and hot sauce back stage. He was like, no dude, it’s for everyone.”
“That’s what they told me, for everybody. There was upstairs chips and dip and there was downstairs chips and dip, so I took those from downstairs, brought it up, thinking we could be like up, but not really,” sighed Jakovljevic, shaking his head. Stealing treats from a better-known band may not have been the best idea, but at least he didn’t take their alcohol. So, if The Killers were good for a snack, who are Radiant*’s most seminal influences?
“The Verve, that’s one of them,” says Hopkins nodding at the music playing in the background. However, Jakovljevic has a better idea: “U2 has probably been our longest running influence, since the very beginning. We’ve always been influenced by them.” Smith opens his suit jacket, shows me his Walkmen t-shirt, and grins. “A lot of eurorock, so many eurobands like Kent, The Walkmen.” Coldplay wasn’t mentioned.
The interview nearly over, someone suggests the beers in the fridge. Whew- I wasn’t crass for bringing them. We get into a debate on the relative merits of any beer other than Shiner. Jakovljevic looks thoughtful then says, “I like Miller Lite, it’s better than Bud Lite.”
Hopkins enthuses, “Me too, for sure. It’s got half the carbs, that’s what the commercial says.”
Smith gives him that big brother, you’re so out-of-it look. “Dude- he’s eating chips.”

You can find Radiant*’s The Sound of Splitting Atoms at and sample it on their website Their upcoming album, We Hope You Win, is due to be released in March 2005. And if you’re in Peru and have a copy of their first four songs, you might want to hold onto them.

Originally written for Relevant Magazine

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