The Motorz will be the first to tell you that they haven't been terribly ambitious during their five-year career. Frankly, playing some of the most infectious guitar-rock around in front of local club audiences was reward enough, says chief tunesmith and frontman Kyle Urban. If a few hardcore pop fans in the crowd compared their odes to girls, cars and the redemptive power of rock 'n' roll to the work of band heroes like the Raspberries, Cheap Trick, the Beatles and Weezer, so much the better.
The Motorz never had a master plan. They never dreamed of world domination. And they still don't. "Basically, we don't think, we just do," laughs the bespectacled Urban, who's currently putting the finishing touches on the two full-length albums the foursome will release in June.
That meat-and-potatoes approach to rocking comes directly from Urban and bass player Dan Bornemann's childhood in Antigo, a small city in northern Wisconsin with few opportunities to catch live bands. Kids interested in the pop-punk bands of the late '90s or anything else "a little bit different" took road trips to the Concert Café in Green Bay.
"It was an event," says Bornemann. "You'd get six, seven kids together and all blast out there for the night. You'd get to see the Donnas and the Queers and MTX."
"You were cool with whatever went through there, as long as it had the same intensity," adds Urban, who traces his love of simple, hooky guitar rock to those youthful road trips.
Bornemann and Urban both ended up in Madison for school, with the former enrolling at the UW and the latter signing on at the Madison Media Institute. In short order they hooked up with rhythm guitarist Aaron Hartman and drummer Josh Labbus, another habitué of the Concert Café back in high school. They played out as much as possible, and in 2004 released Three Chords and a Cloud of Dust, a crafty, relentlessly upbeat blend of arena rock and garage pop that was just retro enough to bring smiles to the lips of aging Cheap Trick fans. (The band gets its name from a family friend named Motor who roadied for both Cheap Trick and REO Speedwagon.)
Three Chords and a Cloud of Dust made the Motorz a recognized commodity in the local music scene. But with indie rock holding sway with legions of college students, Urban et al. found themselves searching for an audience, particularly after the Sin City Injectors and other bands they often shared bills with decided to pick up stakes and move on.
"After a while you were playing for the same people and trying hard to have fun," says Urban, who admits that the indifference of local audiences and challenges in the bandmates' personal lives nearly deep-sixed the Motorz in 2005.
Fortunately, that didn't happen. Because as fun and frothy as the Motorz can be on disc, they're three times as spirited live. Last Saturday at a comfortably crowded King Club was a case in point. Jumping from songs Urban penned way back in his teens to newer tunes that recall the Beatles and Kiss, the foursome were so entertaining it was scary. Thanks to their chiming vocal harmonies and Urban's cagey guitar hooks, every single tune conjured memories of a time not so long ago when Top 40 radio defined the mood of each season at a thousand rock 'n' roll high schools across America.
Were some of the tunes derivative? Sure. But unlike a lot of songwriters who look to the past for inspiration, Urban maxes out the fun factor in every song. Every Beatlesque bridge, every AC/DC-shaded power riff, every peppy sing-along chorus keeps the party going at a fever pitch.
Urban likes to say that the Motorz have no stage show, but in fact his own wide-eyed mugging (think Rick Nielsen without the billed hat and bowtie) and Bornemann's self-deprecating patter between songs have considerable regular-guy appeal, too.
Sometimes maybe too much appeal. At the King Club, a couple of crazed college-age men freaked out some of the smiling Motorz fans near the stage when they mistook Urban's expressions of joie de vivre as a signal to lose all sense of inhibition. To be honest, I also stepped back a little when the taller of the two celebrants let loose with a banshee scream and popped what looked like an air-filled prophylactic on his face.
Not that their antics bothered Urban. Asked after the show what he thought of his new testosterone-fueled fans, he grinned broadly and replied, "Oh, I was entertained!"