I finally get a hold of Howie Payne as his band, The Stands, is en route to a gig in Cleveland. This is only the second time the Liverpool natives have played in America, but Payne is cautiously optimistic. “We played a week of gigs in New York last year, and they went really well. There were maybe 25 people the first night, 50 the second, and then we sold out the rest,” he says proudly, “But New York isn’t really representative of the whole United States, is it? I guess we’ll find out tonight.” Payne, along with drummer Steve Pilgrim, guitarist Luke Thomson, and bassist Dean Ravera, will be playing with Brendan Benson on April 14th at the TLA in Philadelphia and April 15th at the Bowery Ballroom in New York.

It’s strange that The Stands should arrive in America with so little fanfare; they’re not exactly a small band in their native England. Their debut album, “All Years Leaving,” cracked the Top 40 almost immediately after its release. It was finally issued stateside in February, but Payne says the band purposely decided to do a string of low key shows. “I didn’t want to come over [to America] with bells on, like a big British band with hype. It made more sense to me to play like we’re a band from New York starting out. If you can impress people and get them to get off their asses and come to the show, that’s what’s important,” Payne says. “It might be naïve of me, but it’s just what I wanted to do.”

Music journalists have been quick to label The Stands, along with their peers The Zutons, The Coral, and The Bandits (among others), as part of the Scouse movement, a scene of up and coming Liverpool bands. “The press loves that kinda stuff, making a link between things. But it’s weird, because we don’t call ourselves a scene and there aren’t that many musical similarities,” Payne says, puzzled. “The one thing we all had in common,” he admits, “was the fact that we weren’t part of the (mainstream) scene in Liverpool. We could never get gigs in the regular places, so bands would start their own nights in bars, and that’s what grouped us all together. We were the anti-scene.”

Coming out of such a small community, Payne says, the members of the Scouse bands all knew each other and had played together in other bands in the past. Indeed, Payne has previously played with members of what would become The Zutons, and his yonger brother, Sean, is the band’s drummer. “It’s cool because we’re really close, we look out for each other a lot,” Payne says fondly, “We both want to do well, but I don’t think either of us would enjoy being successful if the other isn’t. We’re fans of each other’s stuff.”

Despite the incestuous nature of the “Scouse scene,” The Stands have a sound quite different than the rest. They’ve often been called an amalgamation of classic Liverpool and California pop rock, but Payne is skeptical of the label. In fact, he’s skeptical of genres in general. “There’s a certain Liverpool sound, just like there is from any city; Detroit, Barcelona, Buenos Aires,” he says, “But music is a vehicle to express human emotion, that’s all it is. You can use it to make money or you can use it to start a riot or you can use it to seduce a woman, if that’s what you want, but basically all it is is somebody somewhere sat down and wrote the song. Everyone has those emotions, but only you can write like you.”

And it is obvious that the songwriting craft is a key part of The Stands. “It’s just something you do without thinking about it, it’s like breathing. If I don’t do it I’ll drop dead,” says Payne, the band’s principle songwriter. “But when you write songs you want them to be good,” he adds, “We take being a good band with good songs very, very seriously, There’s no point being a band if you don’t want to be a good band.” While The Stands’ material is technically complex, it doesn’t sound that way, a testament to Payne’s songwriting abilities. “A song doesn’t have to have a tangible subject. It doesn’t have to have a chorus or a lead break or an intro,” Payne says, “There’s a lot of misconception about what the classic pop structure is, because there are so many structures that are ‘classic pop.’ There isn’t a standard way of doing it, that’s the point. Music really only comes in two flavors: good and bad.”

But while Payne’s music shows the obvious influence of legends such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, and Bob Dylan, he cites other older and unexpected influences. “There’ve been a lot of great singers, but Frank Sinatra’s my all time favorite,” he says, “Guitar-wise, two of my biggest influences have been Robert Johnson and Django Reinhardt.” Payne’s knowledge and love of older music is astounding. He compares The Band’s musical meritocracy to that of a Duke Ellington-esque big band, and he discusses Gershwin and Cole Porter with as much familiarity as he does Nirvana and The Kinks. Such awareness of the music history lexicon is, suffice to say, uncommon in pop bands today. “We don’t really see ourselves as pop anyway,” Payne responds, “We don’t try to fit into anyone’s connotation of what we should be or what we are.”

Yet the themes of Payne’s songs are quintessential pop. “The songs on ‘All Years Leaving’ are a six month period of my life. You’re either in love or you’re not in love, you’re happy or you’re sad, you’ve got money or you don’t,” he says, laughing, “I mean, obviously people deal with things differently, but I think there are basic human emotions. If you get your heart broken, it feels the same way, if you win the lottery or lose your job.” But there is a noticeably wistful uncertainty permeating the album. “When I wrote most of the songs, I didn’t know whether I was going to record them,” Payne explains, “We didn’t know if the album was going to be released, so that changes things.”

The Stands have come a long way since then, recording in Noel Gallagher’s Buckinghamshire studio at the Oasis songwriter’s insistence and touring Australia with Jet, consistently selling out 2000-seat theaters (“After that we needed three months off, maybe even a year,” Payne laughs). But no matter who they tour with, the band always picks up new and diverse fans. “You get a lot of chicks in the front with Jet or Libertines t-shirts flirting with makeup on, and as you go further back you get the Oasis shirts and at the very very back are Creedence Clearwater Revival and Pink Floyd ones. It’s a good cross section of people, and they all seem to see something in us,” Payne says, “It’s cool, musically speaking, but the press don’t know where to put you. They don’t know if you’re part of this revolution or that. But I don’t really care.”

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