Candlebox learns from experience and builds on its successes.
In the life of a rock band, ups and downs are inevitable. High expectations are often placed on a band when it scores a monster hit with its debut. And if subsequent albums don’t measure up, both the business and the listening public can lose interest. Often, that spells the end for a group. But Candlebox endured those peaks and valleys, took some time off to grow up and improve, and returned stronger than ever. With a healthy second wind, the Seattle group has been on a creative winning streak that’s entering its 15th year. Candlebox is currently touring in support of Wolves, its sixth album of new material.
Candlebox came out of the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s, a time when grunge rock was in its ascendancy. Bands like Green River and Alice in Chains were beginning to gain a foothold outside the region, and Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden and others wouldn’t be far behind. But Candlebox would stand somewhat apart from their Northwest compatriots; their sound wasn’t as deeply rooted in the then-trendy grunge style.
“We were younger than the guys in Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden,” says Candlebox lead singer and founding member Kevin Martin. “We didn't grow up in that [musical] community.” He says that from the band’s start, Candlebox drew more influence from blues-based rock ‘n’ roll of groups like The Who, Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin.
But Martin and his bandmates weren’t isolated from alternative rock. He recalls his older sister turning him on to bands like The Clash and Blondie when he was all of six years old. “I grew up in San Antonio,” he says. “There was a great punk movement going on there from 1978 all the way to about ‘86.” When his family moved to Seattle in the mid ‘80s, Martin brought that background with him.
And he was surprised by what he found. He says that the Seattle scene of that time “was so different. It was more inspired by the tuned-down, Black Sabbath dark side of rock ‘n’ roll.” When he and three other musicians formed Candlebox in 1990, they followed a path that was informed by punk but with a firm foundation in the melodic side of things. “We didn’t really connect with Seattle early on,” he admits.
Candlebox self-financed the recording of an EP, The Red Demo Tape.
“It cost us five grand,” Martin recalls. And be believes that the comparatively raw recording is a true document of the band’s sound at that point. “We were firing on all cylinders then,” he says. In the space of a 12-hour “lock-in” session, the band cut eight songs, including vocal overdubs and mixing. “Two of the songs didn’t even have finished lyrics,” he notes. He completed the lyrics during that session.
Things took off quickly for Candlebox when the band was signed by Maverick Records, a brand-new label co-founded by Madonna. “We were the first band they signed,” Martin says. It was a successful alliance. “They got lucky with us, and we with them,” Martin observes. The runaway success of Candlebox’s self-titled debut album in 1993 paved the way for Maverick to sign other up-and-coming artists like Alanis Morissette and The Deftones.
And Maverick took a hands-off approach to the music, allowing Candlebox to make music the way they wanted to. The 4X Platinum-selling album spawned two hit singles, “You” and “Far Behind.” Music videos for those tracks plus “Change” were popular on MTV as well. Martin says that he was thrilled at the band’s success, but admits that he saw it coming. “We knew that if the songs were given the chance and there was an opportunity for people to hear them, they would take us where we wanted to go: to have a career and be a touring band.”
Winter 1993 represented a turning point for Candlebox. “We had already sold 250,000 records,” Martin recalls.
“We came back to Seattle and sold out three nights at the Paramount.” With the creative winds at their backs – and three million copies of the debut sold – the band returned to the studio in 1995 to record a follow-up album. Released in October 1995, Lucy was a comparative commercial disappointment.
The album explored different styles than its predecessor, and fans of the early hit singles weren’t as impressed. “By going the direction we did,” Martin allows, “we alienated a lot of the people who loved us for ‘Far Behind.’” But success is relative: Lucy would eventually go Platinum. “It only sold a million records,” Martin says with a chuckle.
In the wake of the second album’s modest showing, Maverick did what record companies often do: they assigned a producer to work with the band, one with a proven track record of delivering hits.
In this case it was Ron Nevison, best known for his work with both hard rockers (Michael Schenker, Ozzy Osbourne) and mainstream pop acts like Chicago. “We wanted Jeff Lynne or Roger Waters,” Martin says.
Martin acknowledges Nevison’s talents and skill, but in retrospect thinks his approach wasn’t right for Candlebox. “He had a history of taking rock bands and crossing them over into the pop world,” he says. “We were just not interested in that, so it was a bit of a battle.” The resulting album, Happy Pills, repeated a pattern, selling fewer copies than the record before it.
Maverick was going through changes at the top, and the members of Candlebox weren’t fans of the new management. “We broke up the band to get out of the contract,” Martin says. A key-man clause in the group’s contract meant that Martin was forced to remain with the label; he would produce demos under duress. “I was writing songs that I knew they wouldn't accept,” he says with a laugh. In 2002 he finally gained his freedom from Maverick; the label ceased operations a few years thereafter.
By 2006, the Maverick catalog was owned by Warner Brothers Records. When that label decided to compile a Candlebox best-of, the band members were inspired to reunite. “We got in touch and said, ‘Let’s go back on the road and support The Best of Candlebox and maybe make a new record,’” Martin recalls. They did just that, and 2008’s Into the Sun represented a return to form, a new beginning for the group.
Martin ascribes some of that record’s creative success to the time the members spent away from the group. “We had become better songwriters and better friends, getting to know each other,” he says. The creative streak has continued unabated since then. As solid as Candlebox’s early releases are, Into the Sun and 2012’s Love Stories & Other Musings showcase a band that sounds more comfortable in its collective skin.
Disappearing in Airports would follow in 2016. Candlebox’s most recent – and quite possibly best-ever – album, Wolves, was released in September 2021.
Working with producer Dean Dichoso, the band adopted a live-in-the-studio approach that effectively captures the power, energy and passion of the band. “It feels the aggression, it feels the sadness, it feels the tension,” Martin says, explaining that the group took its time to write and refine the songs before going into the studio.
Future plans call for more touring in support of Wolves, and then sessions for a follow-up record to commence in late ‘22. And next year will mark the 30th anniversary of Candlebox’s smash debut. “We’ll probably do something special for that,” Martin teases. “Making records is fun, but it's really about getting out there and playing those songs.”
And with the 1990s receding into the distant past, whatever tenuous connections Candlebox might have had with the grunge movement are largely forgotten now: the band is measured on its own terms. And Martin says that opposed to groups that are built around one prominent member, his band has a different character. “I think people love us because of the whole,” he suggests. “They don’t know us as individuals. The majority of people know and love us because of the songs. That's why we're still here. And we still write some pretty great music.”
Candlebox will be appearing at Harrahs South Shore Showroom
in Stateline, NV - April 2,2022