People who haunt New York City rock clubs love to cheer for bands from places they scorn. There's always the chance of being the first to discover the next Ohio (Devo, the Dead Boys) or Georgia (the B-52's, REM). Now they're at it again. At one of two sold-out concerts last month by Omaha band the Faint, young urbanites were chanting "Ne-bras-ka! Ne-bras-ka!" like mascots at the Cornhuskers' stadium--and only half kidding.
That's because Omaha is earning a rep as a hot spot for cutting-edge rock. One reason for that is the Faint, a band whose latest album, Danse Macabre, sounds like a cocktail of such slick Reagan-era synthesizer bands as New Order and the Cure, with a shot of alternative-rock grit tossed in. Singer and keyboardist Todd Baechle, 28; his brother Clark, 21, on drums; keyboardist Jacob Thiele, 22; guitarist Dapose (just Dapose), 22; and bassist Joel Petersen, 27, plan to embark this week on an arena and theater tour with the hugely popular No Doubt, so the MTV audience is in their sights.
Singer-songwriter Conor Oberst, 22, an accidental heartthrob with a tremulous voice and a knack for heart-on-sleeve ballads, is the other Omahan on the radar. Last month his new group, Desaparecidos, released its first album, Read Music/Speak Spanish, but he had already garnered a legion of teenage and college fans with his other band, Bright Eyes. He started playing in Omaha bands as a bespectacled Harry Potter look-alike and gradually came into the date-worthiness that has helped land his picture in Seventeen and Jane. Like the Faint, who mix effete dance rhythms with heavy guitars, he offers an alternative to hard rock by going semisoft: he balances orchestral arrangements and acoustic guitar with raw, wailing vocals.
Both the Faint and Oberst have spurned offers from major record labels that could put marketing machines behind their music, and stayed with Saddle Creek, the tiny Omaha label that nurtured them. Will this fraternity hold? Young bands need the support of a local label in the early years but can quickly outgrow it. Danse Macabre is five-year-old Saddle Creek's current cash cow, but the label couldn't have promoted it so well had it not been for the earlier success of Bright Eyes. "Each group has had a period of carrying all of us," says Oberst. "If one person splits, the whole thing crumbles." But growing together is an awkward business. "We'd like to keep Saddle Creek going," says the Faint's Baechle. "At the same time, financial security is hard to pass up."
The Faint and Oberst both have moving, hummable songs and a flair for performance (the Faint's light show deserves a Tony). Whether that will be enough to let them continue to work with Saddle Creek instead of the likes of RCA remains to be seen. But they've already proved that the best up-and-coming rock groups don't always germinate in big coastal cities and college towns and seep into the heartland. Sometimes it goes the other way around.
--By Benjamin Nugent/Omaha