The first time I saw Mike Droho play he was co-fronting the Profits, a Madison pop band all the rage among Wisconsin coeds until they broke up in 2006.
Granted, the Profits could be a bit juvenile. Their stage antics included blowing up condoms and poking each other with them. Then they'd sing songs about having sex at six in the morning.
Still, female fans were smitten with their shtick, and Droho was an object of their affection.
The last time I saw Mike Droho play, he was fronting the Compass Rose. He performed for a room half-filled with high-minded student volunteers from UW-Madison's Morgridge Center for Public Service.
The band played chamber rock incorporating four-part harmonies, with a rhythm section built around a unique style of vocal percussion. Compass Rose songs are emotionally complex, not fodder for an adrenaline rush at a Langdon Street sorority party.
Droho may be a sex god no more, but he's a happy man. "All I really want to be is an artist," he says.
"I'm not trying to diss the Profits thing," he adds. "I'm proud of what we did. But we kept defaulting to the same kind of songs, like 'Sex at Six,' that had more to do with our image than the music. Now I get to do songs I could never have done with the Profits."
Droho is a native of Baraboo who moved to Madison in the fall of 1999 to attend the UW. Here, he met another Baraboo kid he never befriended back home, John Paul Roney. The two shared an interest in guitars and started busking together on State Street. They soon formed the Profits.
"We built a huge following by playing a ton of free shows all over campus," says Droho. "We would hand out a free CD to just about anyone we met."
There's one thing the Profits and Compass Rose have in common. The band members met through UW-Madison connections.
"I was hosting the open mike at the Terrace last summer and Anthony [LaMarr] was in the audience," says Droho. "He would come up and do his voice beats, and someone finally prodded us to do a song together.
"We improvised something without any rehearsal and people really liked it. So we decided to keep working together."
Compass Rose violinist Ida Pajunen is a UW music major. Bassist Scott Lamps is also formerly of the Profits and attended the UW during the same years Roney and Droho were enrolled.
The Compass Rose recently released their debut CD. It's fittingly titled These Parts Unknown, reflecting Droho's instinct for casting aside musical success in order to break new ground.
"This is really a live record," says Droho. "We went to E Labs and recorded it in two days. The albums I did with the Profits would take three months to record."
Droho points to two tracks to illustrate his new musical direction.
"In my mind the song 'Should Have Known' shows you everything this band is about. It's got the four-part harmony, the violin and strings, and by the end it's full-throttle rock 'n' roll."
By contrast, on "Equilibrium" Droho employs a loop sampler to keep time with his raps. "That song points us more in the direction of hip-hop," he says.
Droho feels more creative in his new setting. "I'm glad I'm here and not back where I was with the Profits. This is far more challenging and has far more integrity."