Orangeburg’s on the Radio

Four friends travel the long road to rock success.
Taylor Bruce

I’m sitting in the corner of a big-city cafe with the four members of I Nine. They look thoroughly tired, as if they woke up only minutes ago. Like they’ve been driving for hours. Like, well, a rock band on the road, with wrinkled jeans and sleepy eyes. I can’t help but wonder, do they even know what city they’re in?

Nobody ever said the cross-country grind of the musician’s life promised a good night’s rest. These twentysomethings’ faces attest. “I bet you guys miss home,” I say, prompting a spate of wistful remembrances of Orangeburg, home sweet home.

“I miss the sound of silence,” says singer Carmen Keigans, sipping tea to soothe a scratchy throat. “And seeing stars.” Cellist Bryan Gibson adds, “I miss milk shakes at the Dairy O. They have the best milk shakes in the world.” Guitar player Brian Whitman pines for Dukes’ Bar-B-Q. Bassist Matt Heath nails the small-town longing on the head. “I miss the smell of grass,” he says. “Orangeburg smells like grass.”

Thoughts of home compete with the requirements of making it, because I Nine is a band rising. Since the quartet teamed up less than four years ago, both film director Cameron Crowe and music mogul Clive Davis came calling to take notice of the group’s fresh alt-pop sound. This different-joint-every-night journey will take these childhood pals a long way from Orangeburg.

Musical Chops
Carmen’s voice could stop traffic. Standing upstairs at the theater where I Nine is performing, I’m stunned as the dark room fills with her commanding sound. The girl who grew up on show tunes and Stevie Nicks makes it look effortless.

Brian, Bryan, and Matt support her with a harmony of strings. The foursome seem to be having the time of their lives, having an Is this for real? moment.

Matt tells me later, “To put a couple years into this, with friends, and now to be putting our music out there―well, it’s crazy.” The work proved lengthy but certainly worthwhile.

I Nine wrote and recorded its debut album, Heavy Weighs the King, under the close ear of mega-producer Clive Davis, who mentored such stars as Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys. Released in May, national radio quickly picked up the single, “If This Room Could Move,” fitting the icy-clean vocals and fast-paced strings between current stars such as Avril Lavigne and Daughtry.

“It’s all pretty exciting,” says Carmen, unable to hide a smile. “It makes me nervous though.”

Writing and performing songs is a personal yet inexact science for the bandmates, difficult to distill down to method. “When we try to write a song in a set time frame, it’s usually not very good,” Carmen explains. “The best ones just come.”

Rockumentary
I Nine’s road to success includes two major epiphanies, the kind of serendipity that fuels a behind-the-music story.

The band traveled to New York in February 2005 to audition for Clive Davis. “We played in a tiny conference room that felt like the thermostat was set to a billion degrees,” Matt recalls. Davis saw enough to sign the band on the spot.

Later that year, while on tour, Carmen’s cell phone rang. Oscar-winning filmmaker Cameron Crowe spoke on the other end, saying he loved the band’s demo. Would they play a song he wrote for the soundtrack of his flick Elizabethtown? “Lucky isn’t the word,” says Carmen.

These days, I Nine still performs mostly as the opening act for other bands. Heavy Weighs the King is still young on the charts. As the world discovers the kids from Orangeburg, though, I Nine knows that the music works and the road is the way. •

For more information about I Nine, visit www.inine.com.

Behind the Name
No, the band isn’t named after a highway. I Nine doesn’t channel U2. Neither does the moniker pay tribute to a widely used federal immigration form. In fact, the origin is more highbrow than that.

I Nine derives its name from the Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. Central to the novel is a fictional substance called ice-nine. Significantly, the stuff is infectious, converting everything it touches into more of itself. Musicians such as the Grateful Dead and the television drama Alias have referred to ice-nine.

"Orangeburg’s on the Radio" is from the July 2008 issue of Carolina Living: People & Places, a special section of Southern Living for our subscribers in South Carolina.