CLASSY SHIT: The Billionaires aren’t trying to be all loud and aggressive.
Unbusted. If that name rings a bell, chances are you were around Boston three years ago, when out of the blue there was a big buzz about this band from the Vineyard who’d managed to get a handful of their songs into the Farrelly Brothers film Stuck on You. They had the support of Juliana Hatfield, who was then dating their frontman, Joe Keefe; Fort Apache vet Paul Kolderie was working with them on a debut album; and they’d been signed by former Geffen A&R bigwig Mark Kates to his local Fenway Recordings label. Everything seemed to be going their way.
And then: nothing. The album they’d been recording with Kolderie for Fenway just sort of disappeared. And so did the band.
“Things had started to go pretty good for us in Boston,” Keefe recalls over his cell on his way to buy cigarettes in Silver Lake, his new home on the West Coast. “And it was the classic example of everyone . . . well, I thought I was pretty fucking awesome. We thought we really had it made and we’d be able to do whatever we wanted — go on the road and, you know, get management. Not big-time or anything like that, but we were excited about the future. But me and my best friend when I was growing up, Jackson Sandland, we ended up struggling for our say in what was happening in the band. And it got pretty ugly pretty quick. We went through some personnel changes. So we went and finished the album we’d started as a five-piece as a three-piece. Everything was really starting to lose its coherence. And then Fenway stumbled. It was like they didn’t know what to do with the record. We were playing in New York and Boston, but something just wasn’t clicking. It got really frustrating for us.”
Keefe, who’d drafted his brother Seb to play drums, was already working on another project, something he and his friend Tim Laursen had discussed while driving around one day in the summer of 2005. With Unbusted, Keefe had been fortunate enough to spend a winter recording with famed producer Danny Kortchmar, a veteran of the ’70s California singer-songwriter scene who’d worked on albums by David Crosby, Carole King, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, and Don Henley. “He moved to the Vineyard for one winter,” Keefe explains, “and he was looking for a project. So a friend’s father told him about us, and we spent a whole winter working on this elaborate fricking EP with him. It was like spending six years at rock-and-roll college over one winter.”
Keefe and Laursen figured it was time to put some of that knowledge to work in a new band, the Billionaires. “Unbusted was our shot at being one of those rock bands that guys are in when they’re in their 20s. [Even now, Keefe is only 26.] Tim and I wanted to do something that wasn’t trying to be loud and aggressive. We wanted to write some nice music — music we’d want our friends to listen to. So we sat around with no pressure and started writing using keyboards and acoustic guitars with things like pedal steel and Rhodes piano in mind. I don’t know a lot of music, but what I do is a lot from listening to Danny Kortchmar’s music, like James Taylor and Jackson Browne and all that classy shit.”