Daniel Hopkins, 26-year-old drummer for the North Texas synth-pop outfit Radiant, talks in almost spiritual terms about the group’s performance before a million-plus plus live spectators at Times Square’s New Year’s Eve 2006 celebration.
The exposure was abrupt, to say the least: Pontiac advertisers and producers of Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show had selected Radiant to play after a national contest exhorted unsigned bands to send in their MP3s. Lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Levi Smith had e-mailed the sponsors a tune almost as an afterthought months before. In fact, he neglected to inform his bandmates that they’d entered. Hopkins and the others learned about the victory when they got a cell phone call saying they were being flown to New York City.
It may have been instigated by a corporate gimmick, but Radiant’s really big shoo moment was nonetheless flung out across the satellite-cable sphere. Ultimately, CNN wound up carrying the Radiant stint live on Anderson Cooper’s New Year’s Eve countdown. Jimmy Kimmel Live later excerpted a tune recorded at the gig and played it on his Jan. 17 broadcast. “We were definitely on a big high,” Hopkins said, speaking figuratively and literally. “For one thing, the stage was about four stories up from the audience, so at first it seemed like there was a disconnect. But the roar from the crowd was like nothing I’d ever heard before. I could feel it in my body. We got MySpace e-mails from all over the place saying people had really liked it.”
In terms of national exposure, the Kimmel and CNN broadcasts were real summits for a band that’s been juggling day jobs, on-the-sly studio time, and near-constant live shows in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Denton for almost seven years now. Before bands like The Killers and Black Tie Dynasty began re-educating ears about the glories of thick, layered electric guitar riffs and floaty, pastel synths woven underneath chilly, romantic melodies, Radiant was developing the sound while opening for long-since-defunct Dallas acts who were big at the time. Radiant — which now consists of Hopkins, Smith, Jon Shoemaker on bass and keyboards, and guitarist Dragan Jakovljekiv, a native of Bosnia-Herzegovina — started off as seven high school buddies who practically mainlined Radiohead’s polarizing opus OK Computer, and played under a variety of names, including The Epiphonics and The Burning. (“It took us about a month before we figured out that sounded like a venereal disease,” Hopkins said.) The lineup is now small and focused, Hopkins said, the way they want it.
The band’s new 13-tune album, We Hope You Win, features fresh material as well as re-recordings of favored songs of past works. Two tracks in particular, “If I Had Known” and a pulsating workout called “The Sound of Splitting Atoms,” speak to the band’s Christian underpinnings. “A pastor told me a long time ago that when angels sing in high notes, they emit light out of their mouths,” Hopkins said. “But when they sing in low notes, it comes out as the sound of atoms splitting.” He paused. “It’s kind of cheesy, but it’s always stuck with me.” As far Radiant’s very deliberate, even contemplative sound, Hopkins said, “We think we’ve got one foot in the indie world, and one foot in pure pop. I’m really not into intricate rhythms. I like beats that make people want to move.” Bandleader Smith’s near-croon (at times he sounds like Rufus Wainwright without so much airplane glue melding his lips together) and otherworldly lyrical images have a consoling quality that Hopkins grounds with drum work carried high in the mix.
We Hope You Win, with its blend of pointing forward and dipping back a little, reflects musical resources forged on hundreds of stages. And it all goes toward a goal that most bands fantasize about before they record one melody: quitting their day jobs and paying the bills with full-time musicmaking. That hasn’t happened yet, although the internet and, specifically, the “citizen music critics” or bloggers have carried Radiant’s name and tunes to all corners of the global community. “I admit, I miss the album as a complete artistic statement” that includes artwork and liner notes, Hopkins said. Most albums, he said, are merely collections of single songs that get passed along as individual digital files. “But you can’t buck progress,” he said. “I blog for the band [RadiantBoys.blogspot.com]. I also read blogs like Gorilla vs. Bear and Stereo Gum. They talk about great new songs. [The reviews you get there] have become as important as newspapers and magazines for a lot of people.”
Hopkins said that, after all these years, Radiant is lucky not to have burned out from divided attentions like family and professional demands, and the nagging need to have what his mother calls a “back-up plan.” (He’s thinking about finishing the bachelor’s degree in communications that he started on shortly after the band got together.) He doesn’t know which would be riskier for Radiant’s long-term health: a potential early flameout from major-label patronage or their current long march through real and potential opportunities. He most definitely doesn’t fear the major-label flytrap that’s consumed so many other talents. Through sheer persistence they’ve kept themselves a viable presence. Creative Artists Agency books their shows, and SXSW finally accepted Radiant as part of its official roster for 2007. “We’ve usually played house parties [during SXSW],” Hopkins said. “When we applied before, we got turned down. I think the Jimmy Kimmel thing, and the fact that we never took [the rejection] personally, that we kept on pushing, finally helped this year.”
Fri w/ The Campaign, Foreign Oren, and The Greater Good at The Aardvark, 2905 W Berry St, FW. 817-926-7814.