As Black Tie Revue kicks back with some Iron City beers in Polish Hill, bassist Matt Hanzes slides a beer cozy shaped like a tiny Steelers jersey over his brew. Over the past few years, Black Tie Revue has become a fixture on the local scene -- perhaps not least due to the band's fierce identification with the region. The power-pop quintet often flies the Pittsburgh flag on stage; Steelers T-shirts (and occasional chants) are embedded in the band's culture. But if BTR's grip on its roots seems a little white-knucked at times, that's because the members are acutely aware that their music is taking them further and further afield. Call it a case of "make new friends, but keep the old."
While the band's full-length Code Fun has sold an estimated 500 copies nationwide since its official Gearhead Records release on April 17, it's only now available in Pittsburgh, just in time for the band's CD release shows at 31st Street Pub on Sat., June 2.
"It had like four release dates," guitarist John-Paul McCormick jokes. "It was late from the distributor, so it didn't really hit stores consistently until the second week of May."
"We felt like assholes," Hanzes adds, "saying 'Hey, it's out on the 17th -- go get it!' Nobody could find it."
If it seems like the Pittsburgh market hasn't been the top priority for BTR's label, perhaps that's because the band itself is frequently on tour, recently as far as Austin, Texas' SXSW festival. "We love playing on the road," says McCormick. "We've been playing these songs in Pittsburgh for so long, that whenever we go on the road, it's the first time everyone hears all these songs, it's just great." Drummer Paul Felty and keyboardist Jesse Ley nod in agreement. "It's totally objective," McCormick adds. "No friends in the room. Well, some, but not usually."
Not that life on the road for a new band is a barrel of laughs. At one show at SXSW, they arrived at the venue to find there was no PA system. "No microphones or anything, or microphone stands," says Hanzes. "We played with our friends in The Subjects, and they went to the thrift store and got a makeshift PA. We used crutches as a microphone stand."
On one of the first forays beyond Pittsburgh, BTR's van literally caught fire just a few miles out of the city. Which is perhaps why McCormick is such an anxious passenger that he insists on driving nearly every mile the band covers. And he's not the only one. Once, while the band did a rare driver switch in the middle of the night, frontman Anthony Badamo started freaking out. "I fell asleep and had a night terror in the front seat," he says, laughing. "I was like, 'Get away! Get away! Don't try to come in here!'"
With all the insanity they put up with, you have to wonder what drives these five men to drive all over creation. "There've always been great groups here, but at least since we've been out, it doesn't seem like many groups have been anxious to tour," says Badamo. "Leave Pittsburgh and play, and see what happens; tell people about your band outside of Pittsburgh. Finally it seems like bands are starting to do that, which is awesome."
Of course, what BTR is telling people about is Code Fun: a 10-song slab of pure power-pop energy. Whether it's the familiar strains of the shout-along "Red Everywhere" or the key-changing romp, "There's Nothing Wrong With Veronica," BTR serves up the songs saturated with fuzz, crackling with distortion, and riddled with hooks. "We think 'pop' like all the old groups in the '60s thought pop was," Badamo says. "Catchy, melodic, guitar-centered rock 'n' roll."
"We could totally pull a Thriller and have like eight singles off this album," Hanzes jokes.
But with popular music -- in the chart-topping sense -- a long ways off from such things as Fender 6-strings, who listens to BTR's particular interpretation of pop? They're not entirely sure themselves. "We've played in places where there will be, like, crust kids in there, and they'll be all about it," Badamo says, "and there's kids that are totally Steve Normalson-type kids, and they're all about it." All agree that older audiences -- "the old power-pop guys" catch the fury BTR is dishing out.
So in that sense, until Code Fun bumps Timberlake down a notch on the Top 40, the band is content with the response it's received from college radio stations, and anticipate finding a new audience in Europe when the gang tours there this fall, supporting the record's overseas release.
As Hanzes acknowledges, "It's not like it happened for anybody overnight."
Black Tie Revue CD release shows. 6 p.m. (with Triggers and Bullet Parade, $3, all ages) and 10 p.m. (with The Subjects and Takeover UK, $7, 21+). Sat., June 2. 31st Street Pub, 3101 Penn Ave., Strip District. 412-391-8334 or www.31stpub.com