Stroke 9’s three original members met in a high-school class actually titled “How to Be in a Rock Band.” From those auspicious beginnings they recruited a drummer friend and started Stroke 9. They remained committed through college and, after graduating, decided to pursue a major-label recording deal full-time. They started making demos and playing clubs, dives, frat parties, beach towns, colleges, and football games up and down the coast of California.
Their early performances attracted the attention of a fan, Tim O’Brien, who was booking small shows and bands while attending Cal-Berkeley. Tim joined Stroke 9 as manager, and the band increased their gigs and made new demos. After college, Tim went to work for Bill Graham Presents, but not in management. Armed with his business degree, he worked his way up from a slub producing corporate parties to artist relations (working with touring acts like the Rolling Stones) before moving into amphitheater development. But in the environment of Bill Graham Presents, he watched, listened, and learned. Tim approached me about S/9 playing the BMI showcase with Train in early 1997 but I declined, thinking they weren’t ready for the majors at that time.
Stroke 9 continued on the artist development path in determined fashion, changing drummers (which made a huge musical and credibility difference) and eventually putting out their own independent record, Bumper to Bumper. They bought an attention-getting old ambulance as their touring vehicle and contacted press in every market, showing a knack for working every angle. Their efforts paid off as they developed an unusually large fan base in several regional markets and sold 10,000 copies of their self-released debut.
In 1998, I was showcasing a collection of San Francisco bands at the Viper Room in Los Angeles for BMI. Stroke 9’s agent at the time, Yavette Holts, called and pestered me to put them on the bill. They had made a new $15,000 demo I had yet to hear. After listening to her, talking to Tim, and hearing the record, I knew things were popping for them, so I put them in my best slot, playing first.
Possibly due to the talent lineup or possibly due to the free drinks, the club was packed to the rafters that night. There was a broad mix of Los Angeles music industry scenesters, including promotions and publicity people amongst the normal contingent of lawyers and A&R reps. Several attorneys were jockeying for position to represent S/9 and there was a healthy buzz in the room.
I’ll never forget Luke Esterkyn’s striking presence onstage that night. People were really seeing him and the band for the first time, and everything clicked. Their good looks combined with a great selection of potential hit songs made for a captivating performance. I knew they were on their way when two industry people not in A&R wanted to call their bosses (heads of labels) immediately about the band. But it was really all those years of constant writing, playing, working, publicizing, and recording that gave Stroke 9 the confidence to handle that moment in the Viper Room.
And that moment started a chain of events that culminated in their record deal with Cherry Entertainment/Universal Records a few months later. Spurred by the single “Little Black Backpack,” their major label debut album went on to sell over 600,000 copies and enabled them to tour worldwide.