From left: Fort Lean manager Talya Elitzer of Mick Management; Fort Lean frontman Keenan Mitchell; Billboard.Biz deputy editor Andy Gensler; Fort Lean keyboardist Will Runge; band publicist Shira Knishkowy of Big Hassle. (Photo: Jem Aswad)
The scene at NYC buzz band Fort Lean's single-release gig at Santos Party House on Tuesday night resembled a sort of inverse mullet: party in the front, business in the back, with an approximately 20-year age gap between the young fans pressed near the venue's low stage and the attorneys, label execs and even a couple of Billboard.biz reporters back by the bar.
The analogy suits the band in more ways than one: With a big stadium-rock sound and a singer Keenan Mitchell's towering, much-commented-upon bleach-blonde mane (both of which contrast with the band's solidly indie backstory), the strong buzz on the still-unsigned band was basically set off by a rave review in the New York Times during last year's CMJ, gained steam as attention grew around the band's self-titled EP and hit a new threshold yesterday with the gig and the arrival of a brand-new 7", "Sunsick," co-released on hot indie labels Neon Gold and Black Bell, along with a hilarious Vulture interview, filled with chatter about Mitchell's hair, nightmare dayjobs and even John Legend's tongue.
Fort Lean on stage at Santos Party House (from left): Keenan Mitchell, Will Runge, Jake Aron, Zach Fried, Sam Ubl. (Photo: Kyle Dean Reinford)
Spawned from the same Wesleyan University scene that brought us Mgmt, Das Racist and Bear Hands, the group has benefited from its associations with those groups but also brings a lot of experience with them: guitarist Zach Friend toured Europe with Bear Hands, bassist Jake Aron toured with Jamie Lidell and has also worked with Yeasayer and Grizzly Bear (and is an accomplished engineer), and drummer Sam Ubl is a third-grade schoolteacher, which should come in handy when dealing with A&R reps. In short, the band took the stage -- Mitchell is so rock he walked on shirtless -- before an audience that had all kinds of reasons to love them.
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Yet along with the attorneys, major-label execs and indie luminaries spotted in the crowd -- including Warner Bros.' Adam Herzog; Mom+Pop Music's Michael Goldstone; Neon Gold's Lizzy Plapinger; Passion Pit's Ayad Al Adhamy (who co-produced the new single); Andrew Keller of Columbia (who brought Neon Gold to the label); Syd Butler, Paul Hanly and Francesca Stabile of French Kiss Records; Will Griggs from Cantora Records; Fresh Management's Russell Rubin (in town from L.A. for his band Saint Motel); and the band's attorneys Gillian Bar and Elliot Groffman of Carroll, Guido & Groffman ( Glassnote's Daniel Glass was rocking out in front of the stage, not surprisingly) -- were members of Fort Lean's tight-knit support team, many of whom have known the band and each other for a large percentage of the years they've been professionals. Chief among them were manager Talya Elitzer of Mick Management and publicist/Wesleyan alum Shira Knishkowy of Big Hassle, who started their professional careers in just about the most traditional ground-floor-of-the-entertainment-business way possible: in the mailroom of William Morris Endeavor.
From the right of Billboard.Biz Editor Jem Awad's Ear: Neon Gold's Lizzy Plapinger; Billboard's Emily Lichtenberg. The duo also co-promote FUZZ, a monthly punk rock night in NYC's Chinatown where Fort Lean has performed. (Photo: Andy Gensler)
After three years there, Elitzer began working at Mick last April and began managing the band just before last year's CMJ (she also works with the Walkmen and Sarah McLachlan); Knishkowy joined Big Hassle last April and began working with them right away (she also works with Dawes, Deer Tick, Heartless Bastards, and Say Anything).
"They're really smart guys," Knishkowy says. "It's interesting working with them because some of the bandmembers already knew so much about the business that it's not like Talya and I had to teach them or really fill them in about much, they're seriously so tuned in about the industry."
Passion Pit's Ayad Al Adhamy (left), whose band Team Spirit opened Tuesday night's show, with Billboard.biz's Jem Aswad. Adhamy also gave away yellow vinyl copies of his Black Bell label compilation album. (Photo: Andy Gensler)
"They've all played in other bands and this is sort of the project that they've been waiting years to work on," Elitzer added.
Not surprisingly, the band's got a full dance card over the next few weeks: they're touring their way to South by Southwest with longtime friends and fellow Brooklynites Suckers and have an April-May tour lined up with We Were Promised Jetpacks (Fort Lean are booked by Andrew Morgan at Billions); they're also working on their synch game with John Biondolillo of Above and Biond, who's worked with Dawes and others.
And while the band has an album's worth of songs written and ready to record, they're likely to wait until the label situation is settled before doing so -- something that, judging by Elitzer's impressively neutral answers to a certain pushy Billboard.biz reporter's persistent questions, is very much still in play.
( Additional reporting by Andy Gensler and Emily Lichtenberg)
ROCK! Keenan Mitchell in full-on bended-knee rock mode. (Photo: Kyle Dean Reinford)
Two of Fort Lean's bigger Scottie fans (Photo: Jem Aswad)