At first glance, Transition's show is an ordinary, if above-average, rock concert. The stage is awash in glowing color, strobes and cameras flash, and video-camera booms sweep out over the crowd, then in for close-ups of the five-piece band. The miniscule bass player is a flying mop of long blond hair, whipping around an oversize Fender jazz bass while executing some limber kicks and jumps. The singer climbs the monitors, slapping hands, as the rest of the band ... two guitarists and a drummer ... keep the energy high, with most of them kicking in vocal harmonies on the choruses. One song could be an anthem, or a hometown ultimatum:
Don't fail to mention
We speak in foreign words and melody
We'll set them straight in this city
Stand at attention that's right
The band is loud, catchy, and impossibly tight: During the 40-minute set, it bounces between upbeat pop-punk sing-alongs and occasionally darker, sophisticated textures more reminiscent of The Cure.
The crowd seems typical as well: Packs of Hot Topic-outfitted teen-age boys with lip rings and wristbands and a few bleach-blonde groupie wannabes flood the merch table; some stand outside the doors, smoking cigarettes, passing out flyers and showing off their new tattoos.
But something's a little odd about this scene. In the audience there's a group of 12-year-old classmates, while plenty of others in the crowd are in their 20s, 30s and older ... and they're enjoying themselves too much to be chaperones.
There's also no tobacco smoke in the air, no smell of stale beer. Instead, a small refreshment stand operated by wholesome-looking teens sits to one side, offering soft drinks and water. In the lobby, a bulletin board supports posters for outreach programs and small group meetings. And across the overflowing parking lot outside is an illuminated sign that reads "Orchard Hill Church."
Tonight, the multipurpose space on this sprawling Wexford campus has hosted a band that's as comfortable plying its power chords in churches as in seedy rock clubs. And shortly, Transition will load the van and drive all night to play the Cornerstone Festival in Florida the next day. While that event, one of the newer high-profile Christian rock festivals, last year drew more than 10,000 attendees, it's just one more stop on a tour to promote the band's second full-length album, which hit national record stores just two days earlier.
Welcome to the unstable, peculiar nexus of conviction and commercialism, faith and fun, the sacred and the profane, inhabited by Pittsburgh's pop-punk hopefuls, Transition.
Offstage, the members of Transition don't exactly radiate star power. They come across as five pretty average guys from the Pittsburgh suburbs.
When he's not performing, charismatic front man Dan Smyers, 19, can be aloof, nearly mute. Harrison Wargo, the 15-year-old bassist, looks like a missing Hanson brother. Both seem to take their cues from the three older members: the muscular, tattooed guitarist Matt Colussy, 21; sharp-eyed guitarist Steve Biringer, 21; and drummer Jim (James Joseph) Caligiuri, 22 (known as the "dispute police" for his role arguing over parking tickets and insurance claims).
Despite differences in age, they're a close-knit unit ... they don't even want to be interviewed separately. And the band's roster has been remarkably stable: Caligiuri, Colussy, and Biringer formed the group's core eight years ago, while in seventh grade.
Originally, the idea was just to play occasionally for friends.
"We just started off very humbly, with nothing in mind but to play music and have fun," Biringer says. The group's early material was largely inspired by bands such as Green Day, Blink 182 and MxPx. Transition gradually honed its material, and when Colussy's father, who owns part of a Chevrolet dealership in Bridgeville, sold the bandmates a 15-passenger van, they began hitting the road most weekends. They also began financing and releasing their own records. Both their 2004 album Sunset Wakeup and their follow-up EP were recorded at AAM Studios, in the North Side.
For Sunset Wakeup, Transition put in 30- and 40-hour weeks of work over six months. During that time the band's professionalism made quite an impression on the band's friend and recording engineer, Carl Bochek III: "What's really amazing is watching Steve delegate," says 27-year-old Bochek, who has worked with Transition for nearly three years. "He seems to be a little bit of the leader of the pack." Unlike the chaos that attends many recording sessions, he says, "They actually have a decision-making process. I don't know if they're conscious of it or aware of it, but it's completely more mature than almost any other band I've seen."
Indeed, the band members share a maturity and calm that's slightly eerie, given the fact that they recently signed a contract with a national label. This is a rock band that gets along with its parents ... and for that reason can get away from them, enjoying a freedom its teenage fans can only envy.
And yet the group members never stray too far. Late last year, when they wrote the songs that would become their new record, Get There, they holed up in a Carnegie rental house owned by Biringer's grandmother.
"We'll make it out alive, we'll be all right," Smyers sings on Get There. "Here we are by ourselves, the story we could tell ..." It seems to sum up the band's youthful independence.
Consider this incident, which took place just after the band finished a show at a sketchy bar in Arkansas:
"This hick starts messing with this dude from one of the bands we were on tour with," recounts Wargo. "Then finally he sexually harassed this girl that had been following a couple of shows on the tour ... a friend of ours." Members of the bands confronted the man at his truck. "'Dude, just say you're sorry.' 'Is that all you want?' 'Yeah.' So this dude jumps out of his truck with a knife and starts chasing us. ... One guitarist from one of the bands got cornered, and Matt jumped on the dude with the knife and took him down."
"By the time they got the knife out of his hand," Biringer sums up, "the guy had only one pant leg on."
What responsible parents would allow their teen-age son to be exposed to such scenes?
That's what Harry and Lynda Wargo were asking themselves last summer, when their 14-year-old son got a call from L.A. Transition's then-bassist, Dustin Hook, had left the band halfway through the tour. Transition wanted to know if Harrison could, well, come out to play.
"We said some prayers," acknowledges Harry Wargo, who smiles and runs a hand through his steel-gray hair.
He was with his son when the band called. He was chaperoning a church group, as he has for several years, at the Creation Christian rock festival ... a festival that drew approximately 75,000 last year.
"Music was gonna happen whether we wanted it to or not," Lynda Wargo says, with a laugh. By that point, Harrison had already been playing drums and other instruments with a church group, a rock band and his middle-school jazz band.
"[W]e called the band and talked to Steve for a long time on the phone, talked to his parents," says Lynda Wargo. "We already knew a couple of the other guys in the band. ... But we took an enormous leap of faith. You don't know what to think as parents, you know? Here he is taking off with a rock 'n' roll band, and he's just turned 15!"
Three days later, though, Harrison Wargo was on a flight west. After finishing the summer tour, he signed on for the longer haul. While on tour today, he uses text-messaging, cell phones and a laptop with wireless Internet to stay in touch with his parents, who live in Marshall Township.
"People do look at us funny," Lynda Wargo concedes. "The people who know us really well ... understand. ... But even telling my parents a year ago that we were letting him do this, I was a little nervous!"
Biringer says such parental trust is par for the course with Transition. "I don't think any of us ever really got in trouble as kids or anything. We did stupid stuff, but our parents always trusted us, so as we started playing music, they supported it."
Still ... you're 15. No parents around. You have a record deal and you gig all over the country with a kick-ass rock band, cute girls at every stop. Sounds like the ultimate rock 'n' roll fantasy, right?
Except for the homework.
Harrison "attends" an online charter high school, where he just finished his sophomore year. While on tour, he logs in to a Web site to read assignments, to take tests and quizzes, and for some subjects, online virtual classes. "It's pretty hard," he says. "It's really completely self-discipline."
But he has a role model in Smyers, his former schoolmate at North Allegheny High School, who finished up his senior year just this spring. "The teachers would give me the work in advance ... a whole week's work or a whole month's ... and I'd do it on the road or when I got back," Smyers says. "I'd turn it in via e-mail or drop it off at school whenever I was done with it." He found the school's principal and teachers supportive, but schoolwork is a challenge the whole band must share. As Colussy jokes, "At times we have to plan our day around 'Well, Harrison has class at 3 ...'"
Not many bands have to juggle such everyday teen-age concerns. Then again, not many bands met their big-name producers in the shopping-mall food court, either.
Whatever MxPx singer and bassist Mike Herrera was doing last summer in a mall in Las Cruces, N.M., has been forgotten. But the heavily-tattooed, half-Mexican Christian punk-rocker and record producer certainly wasn't scouting for new talent. The members of Transition, who'd been hawking their CD to food-court denizens, approached him anyway.
"They gave me a CD," says Herrera by e-mail from Maui, where he is vacationing. "I didn't listen to it right away."
As it turned out, though, the band had been talking to a California-based label, Floodgate Records, about a contract. And as an enticement, the label suggested that it might be able to hire on Herrera as a producer.
To see whether Floodgate had been walking the talk, Biringer asked Herrera, "'So, did you actually talk to Floodgate?' And it took him a while to remember, but he was like 'Yeah, yeah.' He might have been lying actually!" Biringer laughs. "But regardless, we caught his attention, and he saw us play the next day at Warped Tour. We weren't supposed to be on that date, but he got us on that morning."
Says Herrera, "I was really impressed. I had pretty much decided that if the opportunity came up, I would record the record."
That little encounter resulted in Herrera producing Transition's Get There album for Floodgate, and landed them a spot on this summer's MxPx and Reel Big Fish tour ... a dream come true for a band that started out covering MxPx songs.
Understand that while Herrera and MxPx pioneered Christian pop-punk, they have nothing to do with your aunt's Amy Grant tapes. In the late '80s and early '90s, Christian musicians ... especially those in the cred-driven genres of punk and ska ... began distancing themselves from the extreme cheese factor of early "Contemporary Christian Music," such as hokey '80s metal bands Stryper and Petra, and the saccharine adult pop of Grant and Michael W. Smith.
Like other Christian bands, Herrera and MxPx recognized that they still had to compete with secular groups for coolness and sales. And it worked: MxPx scored a cross-over mainstream hit with the 1997 album Life in General; it even garnered some MTV time with the hilarious video for the song "Chick Magnet."
MxPx delivered a California skate-punk sound with lyrics not overtly Christian, but compatible with that lifestyle. (The lyrics to "Chick Magnet," for example, extol "smooth shoes and cool tattoos," but add "He's gotta settle down / If he meets that special girl soon.") The music was safe enough to be promoted on youth-group bulletin boards, but didn't make its fans feel like dorks.
Christian labels became savvier as well. Transition's label, Floodgate Records, began as a strict Christian-music label ... worship music and all. Since then, Biringer explains, "They split into Found records, which is now their worship label, and we're on Floodgate, which is their secular rock, straight-ahead label." Band members, he says, "weren't forced to write songs about religion and stuff, but I'm sure if you wrote a song about doing heroin, they'd probably have a problem with it."
As a result, it's a perfect label for a band that, like Transition, wants to have a presence in both mainstream and Christian music. Floodgate gets Transition membership in the Christian club and all the benefits enjoyed there: church-sponsored bus trips to concerts, the endorsement of youth groups, and so on. But Floodgate is also distributed by mainstream industry heavyweights East West and Warner, as well as by Word (a major Christian label). In either case, it's connected to big business ... on both sides of the steeple.
And, of course, it's also connected to Herrera, one of the band's early inspirations.
In January, Herrera and the band holed up in Seattle's London Bridge Studio ... where Pearl Jam, Blind Melon, Alice in Chains and Nickelback have recorded ... laying down bass and drums, and later mixing the album.
Get There won't rock the world with major innovations, but it's a fresh, high-quality disc that will sit comfortably on the shelf beside CDs from the Get Up Kids, Saves the Day and the Ataris.
"These guys came up with some really smart ideas and they had a wide-eyed way of approaching the whole band thing," says Herrera, who himself contributed vocals on "Winter," the fourth song. "I really loved getting to hang out with a band so young and new. It made me think back to when we started out, the world was huge and the possibilities were endless. Fortunately it still is, and they still are."
Transition may sound like a troop of Eagle Scouts, but its members are shrewd showmen, and they know how to proselytize.
Even before signing their record deal, they hustled 4,000 copies of Sunset Wakeup, their 2004 self-released album. They sold 3,000 copies of their follow-up EP in just two months. A decent chunk of those numbers came from a sales technique the band developed and mastered ... one that occasionally landed them in hot water.
Bochek, who produced the album, remembers the band's distinctly evangelical distribution technique: "They had a backpack full of their CDs and a boombox with the CD. ... And they walked around Disney World playing it and just chatted people up and said, 'Hey, do you like this? Wanna buy it?' And they sold like 150 in a day."
Group members generally downplay this practice, but they've used it at Myrtle Beach and in malls ... including the Las Cruces mall where they met their future producer. Primarily, though, they've used it while shadowing the Vans Warped Tour, a traveling road show of punk bands. In the process, these nice kids essentially out-punked a punk festival.
Here's how it works:
1) Book a tour that tracks the route of the Warped Tour.
2) If you have a lousy show, or no show at all, in a given city, head to the Warped Tour, backpacks bulging with your own CDs.
3) Once inside the venue, approach groups of kids and introduce yourself.
4) Ask them to check out your band ... which you happen to have cued up on your iPod.
5) Play them the music, make friends and sell CDs.
6) Leave the festival with empty backpacks and full pockets.
It's an ingenious way to meet potential fans, create a buzz and circulate your music ... all while earning gas money.
It's also totally prohibited ... the equivalent of selling moonshine at a bar. Promoters of events like the Warped Tour usually take a significant chunk of merchandise sales, and tend to frown on entrepreneurs. In more than a few cities, the band has had run-ins with festival security, and was even booted from one Warped Tour date.
"They realize they have to do all they can to stack the cards in their favor," says Bochek of the band's guerrilla tactics. "They're not dummies, and you see that!"
But they're changing their approach with the release of their new CD, Get There.
Two days before the Orchard Hill show, Transition played an in-store acoustic set at the McKnight Road Best Buy. Under soulless fluorescent lights, tucked into a corner behind shelf after shelf of digital commodities, the band played acoustic guitars, bongos and bass in front of a garish Best Buy banner. But the sparse accompaniment, at least, showed off the group's melodies, songwriting and tight vocal harmonies ... and after a couple songs, Smyers asked the crowd to sit on the floor so more people could see. Suddenly the event took on a weird intimacy ... like a youth-group sing-along involving 150 people. Most were high school girls, all sunglasses and heavy eyeliner and tans too early in the spring to be real. In the background hovered a Clear Channel rep who'd arranged radio ads for the event, and middle-aged Best Buy managers wearing company polo shirts and snapping photos.
Biringer says they sold about 100 copies of the new record at the event ... not bad for a Tuesday night in Pittsburgh. Still, he adds, "I think the best description for everybody is 'awkward.' Usually we'll just play a show, and after the show's over we'll just jump off stage and start talking to people and hanging out. ... They had it set up so funny, with the ropes. They formed a line and sit you down at a nice table with Sharpies. It was so weird." For a band more accustomed to guerrilla salesmanship, the corporate model is still a little scary.
So is the danger of being pigeonholed. After all, is there a convenient category that describes Christian dudes playing in a regular rock group?
"I would think," Herrera says, that would be "rock band."
Yet, as Wargo puts it, "It kinda makes me mad when we're playing a show, and a kid comes up afterwards and he or she really digs the music, then asks 'Are you guys a Christian band?'
"I tell them, 'No, but we're Christian guys,' and they're like, 'Oh...' That probably decreased their interest in us a little bit. And it really kinda aggravates all of us, I think."
In an odd way, the band's personal beliefs and lifestyle seem to have made aspects of the group's current success possible. It's allowed the group an enviable amount of freedom. (How many 15-year-olds have their parents' permission to travel the country with a rock band?) It's also attracted a built-in fan-base, and some surprising breaks. So why not embrace an explicitly Christian music scene?
"We didn't want to get tagged as a Christian band," Colussy explains. "'Cause that obviously limits you to things."
"We're not afraid to say we're Christians," Biringer adds. "We're proud of it. ... But we were never like, 'Let's tour every church in the nation!' That wasn't our goal. We just wanted to touch the general market with a positive message. And you can't do that if you paint yourself into that corner.
"And we've gotten warned, I think that's another reason why. Just a lot of bands who've said, 'Whoa, don't do this!' Because we want to be on the Warped Tour, we want to do the MxPx tour this summer."
The danger is that a punk-rock tour ... and punk-rock fans ... can be every bit as dogmatic, discriminatory and insular as organized religion is accused of being. Bochek notes the irony: "If they were in a pop-punk band and they were Buddhist and vegan, people wouldn't really care, because that's a cool thing to do now."
"I think it is a valid concern," says Herrera, looking back on his own experiences. "Because no matter how many times you hear, 'Don't judge a book by its cover,' it still happens all the time. ... But you can't go around worried about what other people think all the time and you can't please everyone."
In some ways, though, that's exactly what Transition hopes to do. "We can kinda do both markets," Caligiuri says. "Sometimes on tour we play churches, sometimes we play regular clubs. We can get our music out to more people. I think our music is very accessible to Christians, and to people who aren't Christians. To anyone, because it's such a general positive message."
And what is that positive message? "There's always growing pains and stuff growing up," says Caligiuri. But "in the end, it's not worth just sulking and fueling the problem and digging yourself deeper. You can pull yourself out of this and be stronger and better in the long run."
Not that the band sees itself as missionaries.
"I feel like we're sitting here trying to say, 'Oh, we're trying to save the world with our music.'" Colussy says. "We're not trying to do that at all."
Still, says Bochek, "They take that mature outlook and positivity and keep that naiveté to it, that youthfulness to it. They definitely don't have that 'kids from the suburbs, my-parents-have-money-but-I-still-hate-everything' vibe." He ponders. "There's just some exuberance to it, you know?"
Perhaps for good reason. Because maybe ... just maybe ... somebody up there is a Transition fan too.