Imagine an unsigned act so good, it persuades not one, but two musicians to quit their already signed band, join forces, and start the process anew. It happened in late 2001, when guitarist Aaron Fink and bassist Mark James Klepaski bolted Universal recording artists Lifer to team up with vocalist Ben Burnley and drummer Jeremy Hummel in Breaking Benjamin.
"Everyone told me I was crazy," laughs Fink, "but I didn't see it that way. I've known these guys since high school, and heard hundreds of Ben's songs-all of which sounded like hits to me. I sat in with them one night and everything clicked. I thought, 'This is it.' How many musicians can say they were a fan of the band they joined?"
Says group co-founder Hummel, "Ben and I opened for Lifer a few times, and always wanted the band to be the four of us because we're all friends, but it took some time. We talked about it for awhile, and I'll never forget the night Mark called while on tour in Arizona and told me it was official, that he was leaving to join us. When you think about it, it was a pretty big move. But we all knew this band was gonna happen."
Adds Klepaski, "Every once in a while, I'd get up and do a song or two with them and it always felt good. It's like falling in love: you don't question it, you go with it because it feels right. When the opportunity presented itself, I went for it and never looked back. We're family."
One listen to Saturate, Breaking Benjamin's explosive Hollywood Records debut, and Fink and Klepaski's move makes perfect sense. Uncompromising, cathartic and from the gut, the Ulrich Wild-produced (Deftones, Powerman 5000, Static X) album reveals a band with hard smarts, a keen sense of pop savvy, and influences that include Tool, Nirvana and Korn. Laughs Burnley, Benjamin's refreshingly candid main songwriter, "I find that music works best when you take a bunch of your favorite bands and rip a little something off each one to make something new. It works for us."
Clearly, Burnley's learned his lessons well: tracks such as "Home" and "Water" are thick and heavy, with the songs accommodating the band's metallic crunch without relinquishing melodic ingenuity. Then there's the powerfully primal "Medicate," which fuses Hummel and Klepaski's iron-fisted backbeat to an undeniable addictive hook, and "Shallow Bay" which tempers the speaker-melting riffage of Fink with Burnley's soulful vocal grit. Lead single "Polyamorous" is arguably the best of the bunch, mixing amp-joy intensity and compelling atmospherics with tuneful urgency and poetic wordplay.
"Listen to the radio today and you'll hear a lot of bands singing and complaining about how miserable life is," says Klepaski. "Maybe it's just me, but life can be shitty enough-music should make you feel good. Our songs give off a positive energy, and I think our fans appreciate that."
Among Breaking Benjamin's fervent followers is "DJ Freddie" (Freddie Fabbri), an on-air personality at 93.7X WBSX, a modern rock station in the band's hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. In addition to putting "Polyamorous" in rotation, where it quickly became the station's number one most requested track, Freddie then decided to give the band funding for their 5 song self-titled EP-a disc which sold 2000 copies locally.
"It was amazing," says Burnley. "All of a sudden we were getting airplay and playing to packed-house crowds. We became sort of a local phenomenon." As Benjamin tore up the east coast club scene, word of their frenetic live show and hook-laden sound spread through the A&R community. When the band announced a two-night showcase in March 2002, over a dozen labels showed up, and the band subsequently signed with Hollywood Records.
For Burnley, who taught himself to play guitar at age 14 by listening to Nirvana's Nevermind ad nauseaum, the recognition was a long time coming.
"I've been at this for a long time," says Burnley. "It wasn't all that long ago that I survived by playing cover songs in coffeehouses for scraps. I was like an acoustic jukebox, playing for people that ignored me while they ate and drank. It totally sucked. You eventually get to this point where you really want to be signed and make something happen, but you get so frustrated from all the bullshit, that you just don't give a fuck anymore. But of course, that's when you get signed."
"Now I wake up every day and can't believe it's finally happening, and that we get to do this for a living. Talk about a dream come true."