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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Living for the Next Gig

Kevin Carlberg and Pseudopod had a CD, a record deal and a bright future. And then the singer-songwriter started feeling sick.

March 08, 2003|Bob Baker | Times Staff Writer

The lead singer-songwriter lay in the back, woozy, something wrong in his brain, as the van headed back to L.A. from Colorado. None of the other three guys in the band said anything.

All they could think about was all the dominos that had, until the day before, lined up so perfectly: They'd gotten the major record-label deal every young band craved. Their debut CD was in the stores. They'd been heading toward a Midwest tour that would set the stage for radio play and a national reputation.

And now their frontman was looking death in the face and it was all slipping through their fingers. They felt horrible -- selfish -- for thinking about that and worse when they thought about what their buddy must be confronting.

The band called itself Pseudopod. It was made up of four ex-UCLA students recently out of school, two with degrees in music, playing classic rock with funk and jazz undertones. It had built a small but fervent fan base that exchanged videotapes of the group's live shows, planned road trips to out-of-town gigs and reveled in the band's extended jams.

It was mid-November of last year when all that came apart.

The singer, Kevin Carlberg, 25, a charismatic performer, started throwing up after a Denver meeting with organizers of a get-out-the-youth-vote group. Pseudopod was supposed to drive to Fort Collins for a show that night, but Kevin, whose nausea was accompanied by a stabbing headache, wound up in an urgent-care facility, then in an emergency room. His bandmates started calling the managers in L.A. Speculation ran to food poisoning or an infection.

Kevin called his fiancee, Meritt Elliott, who was designing her bridesmaids' dresses. They'd been together as long as the band, four years. Kevin had proposed last Christmas. The wedding was 10 weeks away.

Meritt, who suffers from a prolonged immune-system disorder, suspected the worst. The couple began the stunned, bad-dream dialogue that so often accompanies sudden tragedy. We're 25, she thought. We're supposed to be deciding what suits and dresses we're wearing. She drove from West Hollywood to Kevin's mother's house in the West San Fernando Valley to tackle more immediate questions, like whether Kevin's musicians-union insurance had lapsed.

Back in Colorado, one ER doctor told Kevin, who listened through a haze of painkillers, that there was something in his brain the size of a fist. Later, a specialist reviewed a brain scan and reduced the dimension to a small walnut. We can operate here or you can go back to L.A., they told him, but you need to move quickly. Flying might pose a risk, so the band drove west.

They were tightly bound. Two of them, guitarist Ross Grant and drummer Tim McGregor, both 24, had played together since middle school in a Bay Area suburb. They both wound up in UCLA's music department after Ross spent a year at a music conservatory. Early on, they bumped into an ethnomusicology major and bassist named Brian Fox, who was two years older, and formed a funk cover band.

One night late in 1998, Ross and Tim stopped by a Westwood bar where Kevin had become a popular solo performer. He was self-taught. He'd been a Catholic high school jock in the San Gabriel Valley community of La Verne when somebody put a guitar in his hands his senior year. He learned a chord, then another, then started writing songs, then started haunting open-mike nights. As Ross watched Kevin that first time, he felt the crowd of 50 could not take its eyes off the singer. Ross and Tim told Kevin they liked his songs, and as they began practicing in the basement of a fraternity house, Kevin liked the way the more sophisticated musicians rearranged his tunes.

They called themselves "pod," then realized they'd face problems from the established band P.O.D. Ross, who was premed, stumbled onto "pseudopod" in a textbook. He didn't know the definition (an organism's temporary foot). It didn't matter.

They joined the roster of hundreds of local bands that were able to book club dates only by pre-selling tickets. Gradually they became something of a UCLA house band, regularly playing a club in Santa Monica on weeknights, trying to play out-of-town gigs on the weekends. In 2000, they entered an Internet contest for college bands from across the country and won, earning $25,000. They used the money to put out a CD the next year, which helped them find management and attracted an offer from an Interscope Records executive, who watched a packed Santa Monica show where he was impressed by the way the fans sang along. Ross was able to delightedly tell his father, a physician: Dad! I don't have to get a real job.

Last year, Interscope sent the band to Memphis for three months to record its first label release. Playing festivals during the summer, Pseudopod met a constantly touring band named O.A.R., which asked it to open some dates in the fall. That was where they were ultimately headed -- to Lincoln, Neb. -- when Kevin got sick in Colorado.

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