Influenced by the songwriting classicism of piano men Elton John, Coldplay's Chris Martin, and neo-soul star John Legend, Mêlée present their own style of carefully crafted melodic pop on Devils & Angels, the quartet's debut album for Warner Bros. Records, which was released April 3, 2007. The songs, which range from driving pop-rock anthems to uplifting power ballads, are characterized by solid hooks, lilting melodies, and frontman Chris Cron's soaring vocals and expressive piano-playing.
On tracks like first single, "Built to Last," Mêlée display a grown-up song craft, one with an unabashed emotionalism uncommon in young bands these days. Upon first listen, Devils & Angels may sound like an album full of relationship songs, but dig deeper and you'll find reflections on "getting in fights with friends, songs about friends coming home from college and not being able to get jobs," says Cron. "The album is about being in your '20s in modern America. It's about our experiences right now with life, love, friends and asking questions about where we're going and what's going to happen. That's the whole theme."
Guitarist Ricky Sans says, "There are obviously several really optimistic love songs, but others have to do with problems that our friends and loved ones were going through." "Imitation" deals with one of Sans' girlfriends finding out that her sister was schizophrenic. "I was carrying a lot of weight dealing with this broken family who were being torn apart by all this crazy stuff," he says. "And the song is about how there's nothing you can do but hope for the best and be there for the people in your life."
The stunning piano ballad "Can't Hold On" is about someone Cron knew who died. "I was concerned about why I wasn't getting really upset," he says. "I thought, 'What's wrong with me? I don't want to be an emotionless robot. I want to be able to feel like everyone else.'" Then there's "Rhythm of Rain," which is inspired by Hurricane Katrina. "We were actually in New Orleans for the first time a week before the storm hit," Sans says. "We loved the city, so the disaster hit close to home. We wrote the song from the perspective of how sometimes terrible things happen and all you can do is accept it and try to make the best out of it."
"Then, of course, we have songs about crazy ex-girlfriends," he adds with a laugh. "We try to cover all the bases."
Cron and Sans have been writing songs together for eight years, and share song-writing duties on the album. For Cron, the process starts with sitting down at the piano or with a guitar and seeing if anything comes. "I'm more methodical and organized, whereas Rick," who says his songwriting usually begins with a lyric or part of a poem, "is more into an instant 'if it sounds good, go with it' approach," Cron says.
"Rick and I can't really be described without our differences," Cron continues. Adds Sans, "We were raised very differently and had very different experiences growing up, which has given us each a unique view of how we see the world. So when we come together to write, we tend to butt heads trying to agree on a message that we both feel is truthful. We both have such strong personalities, so we just work it out 'til we're both happy. It can be a tough process, but the end product is very genuine. I think it works because the songs have a universal perspective that comes as a result of two different people coming together as one."
"One thing we do agree on though is that a song really needs to emotionally connect, even if it's a tongue-in-cheek pop song," Cron says.
Devils & Angels was produced by in-demand studio wiz and 2006 Grammy Award nominee for Producer of the Year Howard Benson, who might be considered an unusual choice given his work with harder-edged bands such as My Chemical Romance, All-American Rejects and Head Automatica. "It turns out that Howard is really big into '70s pop artists," Cron says, "and he's a piano player himself, so keyboards are his main focus as far as instruments. He wanted to do a record like ours for a long time, but hadn't found the right band yet. He really helped steer us in the right direction, while at the same time, let us be creative and roam free."
That freedom included letting Cron's piano become something of a second lead vocalist. Cron started playing piano at age 5 and took jazz piano lessons in college ("which really opened me eyes to what I could do on the piano other than playing Bach"), but didn't start writing songs until he picked up a guitar at age 12.
"I didn't think piano was cool at the time," he says. "I used to hate going to lessons, but then I got the guitar and was like 'Oh, I can write songs and maybe girls will like me.'"
He and childhood friends Sans and bassist Ryan Malloy played music together all through high school in Orange County, but got serious about it while attending college. They signed to Hopeless Records, and brought drummer Mike Nader into the fold. In 2003, Hopeless released an EP, Against the Tide, followed by a full-length album in conjunction with indie label Sub City, Everyday Behavior, in 2004. That album which reflected the guys' early love of power pop and late-'90s ska sold 15,000 copies and led to a major-label bidding war for their talents. Mêlée signed with Warner Bros. Records in September 2005.
Since then, they have appeared on the Warped Tour, the Take Action! Tour, where they performed alongside The Donnas, Sugarcult, and Motion City Soundtrack, and hit the road with Bowling For Soup, Bayside, and The Junior Varsity, among others. They toured with The Early November and The Rocket Summer in support of Devils & Angels.
And the highlight throughout all of it? "Just being with your best friends, traveling the country playing music, and watching everything that we've ever dreamed of happening actually happen," says Cron, "slowly, one step at a time."