The next big thing in rock n’ roll just might be a Fort Wayne five-piece famous for dominating the local bar scene before any of the members could drive, let alone be served beer.Downstait, whose average age is a grizzled 20, just inked a deal with Universal Records that will not only send these guys on a national tour, but could end up making vocalist Daren Zack Call, lead guitarist Justin Call, rhythm guitarist Isaiah Zwick, bassist Sean Arata and drummer Jethro McConnell household names.
“All of a sudden it’s gotten really real,” said Arata when I caught up with him between classes at Indiana University. (It’s gotten so real, in fact, that Arata and McConnell have decided to drop out of college when the fall term ends this December to pursue music full-time.) “I think everybody’s drawn to that whole rock star persona, but there’s a lot more to it than just playing music and having a good time. There’s a lot of phone calls and e-mails and faxing people. Fax this, fax that. I’m just trying to get a handle on it all.”
Arata is currently Downstait’s acting business manager while, in the glow of their newfound success – much of it due to their recording of the theme song to MTV’s reality-based festival o’ fisticuffs, “Bully Beatdown” – they search for someone a little more seasoned in the biz to take care of all those faxes.
In the meantime they’re finishing up work on their first full-length album – as yet untitled and produced by friend of the band and Ra frontman Sahaj Ticotin – and hoping that their deal with Universal pans out.
“It’s really, really intense,” Arata said. “Basically we’ve signed a single contract with Universal, which means they’ll put ‘Beat You Down’ on the radio and see how it does, and what comes after really depends on if the song takes off or not.”
Downstait came together gradually, starting when best friends Justin Call and Isaiah Zwick decided that they were a band.
“I was the guitar player and he was the other guitar player,” Call said. “I think we were maybe 12 at the time.”
Later, their buddy Andy Balasz, joined them on the bass, along with Justin’s brother Zack (also known as Daren or “Dare Bear”) taking over the vocals.
The Call brothers grew up around music. Their father, Doug, worked for years as the lighting director for Piere’s, and Justin remembers a number of family dinners taking place upstairs while bands like Queensrÿche and Collective Soul set up below.
“I got to meet a lot of people and I lugged a lot of equipment,” Justin said. (In fact, when I interviewed him he was taking a break from lugging GWAR’s equipment into Piere’s for their November 5 show with Lamb of God.) “I always knew I wanted to be a musician, and Dad really encouraged us and helped us get some of our first gigs.”
Back then they called themselves Label Kills and spent much of their time jamming to Nirvana tunes. Their sound, of course, was a bit incomplete until one pivotal Halloween party when they met up with McConnell, whose parents brought over his drum kit so all five boys could rock out together.
“That’s really when we became a band,” Justin said. “It just kind of happened.”
Arata had to be satisfied with his role of fan and friend until 2004 when Balasz left the band. McConnell immediately suggested Arata, who’d been playing the bass since middle school.
“I knew I wanted to be a part of the band,” Arata said. “I thought that maybe, if I went to their shows long enough, they might let me play with them, and that’s how it worked out, so that was cool.”
Soon Downstait were performing sets of Justin Call-penned originals all around town. Arata admits that when they first started they weren’t necessarily anything to write home about.
“We were good for a bunch of 15- and 16-year-olds with guitars, but we did kind of suck,” he said. “We’ve come a long way since then. We’ve had to adjust. Our sound has gotten better, and we’ve grown up a lot. I mean, we’ve seen a lot of things other people haven’t, playing in bars at such a young age. It’s all helped prepare us for what’s happening now. We know that we need to act right and not go crazy and do stuff that will come back to haunt us. We want to enjoy this, but keep our noses good and clean.”
Since those days of being ushered out of bars to their awaiting – and incredibly supportive – parents, Downstait have shared the stage with the likes of Ra, Drowning Pool, Pop Evil, Rev Theory, Saliva, Skid Row and Call brothers childhood heroes Queensrÿche. They’ve also toured the East Coast with Ra, something Justin said solidified his resolve to dedicate his life to music.
“I couldn’t picture myself doing anything else, ever. I knew that this was what I needed to be doing and what I should be doing for the rest of my life.”
Chances are he’ll get his wish. With six of their tunes currently in rotation as part of ESPN’s high school football season coverage and the release date for their album set for January 2010, the future for Downstait is looking mighty bright. Thankfully, Justin’s got his shades, not to mention a healthy perspective on work and fame that he shares with his bandmates.
“We’re all about making music, and we obviously want that music to be as good as it can be. We play with our fans in mind, and if we don’t think it’s good enough for them we work hard to make it better.”