When a band opts to dub itself The Successful Failures, it tends to offer the name up for interpretation — never mind the fact that the handle has a literary connotation as the title of a Jack London short story.
Likewise, when two songs on the band’s new album “Saratoga” boast the word Knoxville in their titles, it’s pretty obvious there are some connections to that city as well.
In truth, the Chesterfield, New Jersey-based band does have some ties to this part of the world in particular. The group traveled to Knoxville 12 years ago to perform and record one of its initial offerings, an EP titled “Bridges Over the Delaware.” While here, the group had an opportunity to get to know various local luminaries, among them guitarist Tim Lee, singer-songwriter Mic Harrison and drummer/producer Don Coffey.
By the band’s guitarist, singer and songwriter Mick Chorba’s estimation, it’s been five or six years since The Successful Failures last played Knoxville, although it has made several visits to the nearby Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion festival in the interim. Chorba said that at first, the group wan’t sure that it fit the festival format, one that offers a more Americana menu than the indie pop genre that the band is typically identified with. Nevertheless, he said the band makes it a point to intersperse Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Mississippi John Hurt covers in its live sets from time to time.
“I recall us asking the organizer if we belonged there, because of the fact we’re a rock band,” Chorba said. “And they said, ‘Well rock is roots. Just do your thing.’”
The problem of perception isn’t uncommon as far as this particular band is concerned. Given its emphasis on easily accessible melodies and a crisp, clean delivery, any attempt at absolute definition can be difficult. Nevertheless, the group has maintained a clear consistency since the beginning, with a core lineup — one consisting of Chorba, drummer Rob Martin and bassist Ron Bechamps — contributing to each of the band’s seven albums and various EPs.
“I just read a blog that said the term ‘power pop’ gets less response than the phrase ‘indie pop,’” Chorba said. “Apparently power pop has a narrower audience. The power pop audience was very supportive of us, but I never felt like we really fit in. We’re more of a loose rock ‘n’ roll band. We have melodic songs and we play guitars, so I thought that maybe we had some ties to power pop, although I never felt it was a label that really worked for us. To me, it’s all about the songs.”
Chorba is indeed a prolific songwriter, and he said that new ideas always come to him, especially when he’s simply running his everyday errands.
“A lot of the songs are lyrical ideas that I match up with melodies,” he said. “So the lyrics and the melodies always seem to coincide. I have notebooks filled with lyrical ideas, so when I’m running or I’m driving or doing whatever I’m doing, I jot down lyrics and then later I pull out my guitar and match them up with melodies before bringing them to the band. They’re mostly based on an attitude or point of view — observational stuff that conveys a certain sense of emotion.”
That was the case with at least one of the songs on the “Saratoga” album that references Knoxville.
“When I put this band together, we discovered we were all fans of the Knoxville band Superdrag,” Chorba said. “That’s what instigated our initial visit there. It’s always been a kind of fun place for us to go. However the song ‘No White Knight In Knoxville’ was inspired by a newspaper clipping. It was a Dear Abby article my wife had cut out for me about a guy from Knoxville who had a fling with an older woman.
“The headline was ‘No white knight in Knoxville,’ so I put it in my songwriting book, and the song fell around that lyrical hook in the chorus. It’s not really about Knoxville, but more about being honest with who you are. Still, it was the alliteration between the words ‘knight’ and ‘Knoxville’ that attracted me.”
Chorba said that its affection for East Tennessee aside, the band is also interested in being a good representative of New Jersey, and that the group takes a certain amount of pride in being from a state that offers a wide variety of different sounds, styles and cultures. That said, he doesn’t believe The Successful Failures conform to the anthemic approach that’s often associated with Garden State icons such as Bruce Springsteen or Jon Bon Jovi.
“We don’t necessarily fit in a niche, even in our home state,” Chorba said. “We specialize in a musical subtext that crosses into several different areas.”