On the living-room set of "The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn," in front of a fake alcove by a fake picture window overlooking a fake holiday cityscape stand three of the seven members of Save Ferris.
Singer Monique Powell, guitarist Brian Mashburn and bassist Bill Uechi are rehearsing a stripped-down acoustic version of "I'm Not Crying for You," a track from their new album, "Modified," that they'll perform later on the show.
Less than 15 feet from Powell (who's sporting a brazen shock of feathered fuchsia-and-black hair) stand her boyfriend, her roommate and the band's manager. The three are not exactly watching Powell; instead their eyes are transfixed on the nearby monitor.
They will glance at the real Powell, who's belting her heart out, and then like clockwork their eyes will bounce back to the monitor. It's strange, but those closest to her seem to feel closer to her watching her on TV. They're all in the same room, but the real Powell is being upstaged by her televised image.
In this jungle of artifice, it's easy to see what Powell means when she says later, in reference to the anxiety she felt readjusting to "normal" life after nearly two years of extensive touring, "What I was feeling and living wasn't particularly real and now I have to find reality."
The self-described "ska-pop-swing" band from Anaheim, scaled down to a trio on this day to accommodate the Kilborn set, formed in 1995 when members of various Orange County third-wave ska bands including Los Pantalones, Knuckle Brothers and Larry came together for fun--just for a few shows, initially--and then realized a career might be spawned.
The industrious group released a five-song EP, "Introducing Save Ferris," in 1995, won an award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences' Grammy Showcase for best unsigned band in 1996 and released their first full-length album, "It Means Everything," in 1997 after landing a major-label contract with Epic Records.
Then the group embarked on nearly two years of touring, including opening slots for fellow O.C.-based bands Sugar Ray and Reel Big Fish, plus the Warped Tour and numerous TV spots and an appearance in the movie "10 Things I Hate About You."
It was a heady time, to be sure, the kind of success all musicians who slave away in school band or, in Powell's case, through 11 years of opera training, dream about. Right?
"It was hard for me to feel the happiness associated with all the things I was blessed with," said Powell, who found herself falling into a depression when the band came off the road to recoup, regroup and begin writing songs for the funky, rock and R&B laced, keyboard-laden "Modified," written largely in an Orange County rehearsal studio in late 1998.
For fear of appearing ungrateful, Powell shies from using the term "depression"--a word that seems fitting in this instance--often using the euphemism "identity crisis" instead.
"We're taught that the people who are happy all the time make everybody feel happy, and that that's what life should be about," said Powell, with a sigh.
It's clear she's in conflict about whether to tarnish her image as the band's peppy, can-do, self-assured front-woman with her very human, very poignant struggles.
Should she be the fantasy associated with the sound of upbeat music, or the flesh-and-blood person who sings--on "Modified" at least--of disillusionment, heartache and fear?
On the haunting "Let Me In," the album's lone ballad, Powell sings "All the world is spinning round and round inside my head tonight / I will fall into the darkness and I fear I will never see the light."
The album, produced by John Travis (Kid Rock, Sugar Ray) is not only a thematic departure but a bit of a sonic one as well. Where horns took center stage in previous releases, only about half the songs on "Modified" feature them.
Guitarist Mashburn sees this as a natural evolution.
"You kind of get a writing formula and it [used to be] like 'Here's a space; put the horns here,' " he said. "So we tried doing that less to give the songs a bit of a different feel."
Luckily for the band's horn players, they have other talents. When performing some of the new songs live, trombone player T-Bone Willy moves to keyboards, trumpet player Jose Castellanos becomes a backup singer and saxophonist Eric Zamora grabs a guitar.
Since releasing "Modified" in October, the band has toured for a couple of weeks at a time on each coast and has played a few radio festivals, including the locally prestigious KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas concert at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim.
They'll start touring college campuses this month or early February and most likely follow that with another tour, one they hope will be as the opening act for a bigger band.