The black walls of the fraternity house basement answered me with silence. None of the setup crew said anything either. The little lego astronaut in my hand smiled back with his plastic face. He looked so cool and seemed so friendly. I placed him on our merchandise table. Bobby the Lego joined the world of Spoken Groove.
On the wings of our success in England, Paul and I toured and performed with renewed vigor. We didn’t necessarily make more money, but we knew that we had something special that, given the chance, could open the eyes of thousands of people at once. Soul Survivor had already booked us for their 2006 festival at the conclusion of the 2005 festival. If we were going to repeat the successful merchandise sales of the previous year, we needed another CD.
â€œHow much do you want for this Lego?â€
â€œHe’s not for sale,â€ I answered.
â€œC’mon, I’ll give you $10 for him.â€
â€œNo, he’s not for sale.â€
The price kept escalating. It eventually reached $50. I resisted the urge to immediately cash in on my find and took Bobby the Lego on the road with us as our merchandise table mascot. His astronaut suit, surfer tank top underneath and happy disposition told me he needed a life beyond the malaise of a fraternity basement in Corvallis, Oregon. Plus, having a cool little toy made people hang around and buy more CDs and t-shirts. Something told me he was going to be important.
Paul and I had constantly struggled with having too much creativity for our own good. Although we played 95% of our gigs as simply “Peter Nevland and Paul Finley,” and sold more Acoustic Spoken Groove albums than any other, our hope was to one day be able to tour with â€œThe Peter Nevland Band,â€ the rock n’ roll version of Spoken Groove. In addition, Paul had two solo instrumental CDs, I had two of my own Spoken Word CDs, and we had already recorded two full-band CDs. Not choosing a specific style kept us from developing a consistent, recognizable sound. The music industry doesn’t like that kind of creativity. It makes them have to innovate to market you.
Just before our successful invasion of England, a couple of crashed hard drives forced the cancellation of our live full-band recording that was to be our next CD. Combined with the success of that first trip to England, those two events sealed the identity of our next recording. I finally decided that for this next project we needed to focus on our acoustic sound but add in backing vocals and other beats to supply the extra excitement that we normally provided in our onstage theatrics. Our attempts to secure a producer with music industry experience led to a recording time that didn’t fit with our upcoming schedule. Instead, we chose to co-produce our album with Andy Combs, a local Austin friend who had a studio in his house and optimum microphones for recording Paul’s unique guitar sound and my slightly nasal, mostly spoken, singing voice.
By January, 2006 we had finished recording. The raw, unmixed tracks got me more excited than any of our previous attempts to capture Spoken Groove. They summed up our struggles to follow the artistic dreams in our hearts, the pursuit of fame, lust, love, joy, heartache, loss, and simplicity. If only we could figure out what to call that experience . . . .
Back on the road, I was accumulating a growing collection of odd toys. Steve, some sort of action figure construction man with half of one arm missing and odd holes at various places on his backside, washed up at our feet on the Jacksonville beach. The Lego version of Darth Vader and a Lego storm trooper named Cliff joined our merchandise crew as the gift of Bryce McNally, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. People kept asking me why we had Legos and other toys on our table, so I started to make up background stories for each of them. I took a picture of Bobby in his astronaut suit and made him the mascot of our Myspace site. I started dreaming of ways to get him on the cover of our upcoming album, which remained unnamed when we left for our tour of the West Coast in February 2006.
â€œWould Bobby like to meet a nice young lady?â€
â€œShoot, I’d like to meet a nice young lady,â€ I half-jokingly confessed.
â€œWell, I think I have a girl that would be perfect for you,â€ the mother of four replied.
She brought Laura, a Lego girl with a dark ponytail and red necklace to me the next day, and I knew that she and Bobby would hit it off. My brain concocted stories of how they had helped Darth and Cliff learn to help people instead of trying to intimidate them. The addition of â€œShortyâ€â€”a Lego with no legs or handsâ€”formed the story of how Darth had accidentally chopped him in half with his light saber (which I would cause to light up at that moment for effect) while helping him adjust to life on the road. I promise I wasn’t going nuts or turning into a Lego nerd. It was just another fun thing to add to the Spoken Groove experience.
When we returned from the West Coast, I woke up with the phrase, â€œWhen Legos Learn to Love,â€ in my head. â€œMan, that sounds like a cool album name,â€ I mused. â€œAnd it would give me a legitimate reason to put Bobby the Lego on the cover.â€ â€œBut what does it mean??â€
I started dreaming of the cover design with the artistic half of my brain, while the engineering half sought a justification for this weird title. â€œWe do have some songs dealing with the hollow nature of the fantasy world most of us live in and the hardships of bringing dreams to life.â€ â€œWhat if Legos are a metaphor for people really learning how to love in the real world where nothing’s as perfect as a dream?â€ â€œYeah, I think that works!â€ â€œPlus, it’s just a fun title that people will want to buy.â€ I needed to call Paul.
â€œI’ve got a title for our new CD!â€ I told him over the phone. â€œâ€™When Legos Learn to Love.â€™ What do you think?â€
â€œUmmm, I don’t like it,â€ he said abruptly.
My attempts to reason with him had no effect on his position. He remained steadfastly opposed to Legos, with no alternative title of his own. â€œWell, he’s going to learn to like it,â€ I thought as I hung up the phone.
A week later, when we were discussing the schedule for our upcoming mastering session and tour departure, Paul finished up our conversation by saying, â€œOh, and I like the name of the album now. I think it’s great.â€ A burden lifted from my mind as all my preparations for a fight to the death over a title about learning to love became unnecessary. I stayed up all night to complete the album before we headed out on tour and started selling lots of copies.
Whenever someone came to our table, I watched as their eyes would scan our different CDs and then fix on When Legos Learn to Love. Sales from its release in May to December 2006 doubled those of the rest of our CDs, for the whole year. Since that initial year, they equaled the sales of all of our other recordings. It wasn’t too hard to analyze and explain all the reasons why it made sense to choose such a successful and marketable title for an album. I may have recommended it as my favorite album to listen to, but experience proved to me that the sale was mostly influenced by that catchy phrase and cool picture. As long as the substance inside matched the attractive outside, I had no problem with it. Not all marketing causes people to make bad choices.
I don’t know how many times I’ve told the story of all the different Lego figures that have adorned our table. People keep donating new ones, which is good, since occasionally people have gotten a little too excited, kidnapping Darth, Cliff, Steve, Kazai, and Hans from their tight knit Lego community. As of right now, Bobby the astronaut surfer Lego that started it all hasn’t been seen for a few months. Laura prays night and day for her fiancÃ©e’s safe return. Wherever he is, I’m sure that he’s conquering someone’s heart the way he first conquered mine in a dark fraternity house basement with his ever-present plastic smile.
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