Being able to say that one of your mates just got sent to Guantánamo Bay might be a semi-respectable badge of notoriety for some rock...
Being able to say that one of your mates just got sent to Guantánamo Bay might be a semi-respectable badge of notoriety for some rock ‘n’ roll bands.
The PCBs, though, aren’t just any rock ‘n’ roll band. Yes, they do play classic rock, and they even have two guys named Garth and Tor. Beyond that, though, they’re just regular people with day jobs — and they’re about to represent the Seattle office of law firm Perkins Coie in the eighth annual Battle of the Corporate Bands, an international competition for office warriors and their inner guitar heroes.
As Axl Rose might say, welcome to the corporate jungle. At a time when thousands of air guitarists are strumming their stuff to rock-band-themed video games, it’s easy to forget that some amateurs actually play the real thing.
“I can understand that people like doing it,” Arunas Bura, the PCBs’ lead singer, says of the air-guitar trend. “But then I’m like, ‘Well, I’ve got one with strings on it.’ “
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On Saturday, Bura, a Perkins Coie paralegal, and the PCBs will get to prove their mettle onstage as one of 18 bands selected to compete at the annual Battle of the Corporate Bands challenge, sponsored by Fortune magazine, Gibson Guitars and Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
They’ll be headed to Los Angeles, one of four competition sites (along with London, New York and Nashville), where they’ll compete against other corporate bands such as High Definition (sponsored by NBC Universal), Manage This (Symantec Corp.) and the Pedestrians (American Automobile Association). The top two bands from each of the competition sites advance to October’s finals in Cleveland.
Unfortunately, the PCBs will be competing without Harry Schneider, a Perkins Coie partner and a PCB guitarist and backup vocalist. He’ll be headed to Cuba for a case central to legal efforts challenging Bush administration policies at Guantánamo — the defense of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a former driver for Osama bin Laden.
Naturally, the band is devastated. But work takes precedence. And from such adversity, courage is born. “We think we’ve got a pretty good set,” Bura says.
The Battle of the Corporate Bands draws entries from companies throughout the U.S., Britain and Australia. At least half the band members must work for the sponsoring company. None can be full-time musicians, and it’s safe to say the PCBs, who stumbled into formation seven years ago for one of the firm’s annual Christmas parties, are not.
That’s not to say they have no music experience. Guitarists Garth Brandenburg, a legal messenger, and former legal messenger Tor Midtskog have roots in Seattle’s grunge scene and sit in occasionally for small-time band Moon Spinners, which recently played the Georgetown Arts Fair. Dan Cunneen, one of three band members not employed by Perkins Coie — he works at the Japanese Consulate helping visiting diplomats get acclimated — is a former member of local punk-rock notables Final Warning and Zipgun.
Lead singer Bura, who sang in a Lithuanian choir as a boy in Philadelphia, played his first gig at age 17 for a post-punk band influenced in part by Echo & the Bunnymen. In Seattle, he actually once took the Crocodile Café stage for a band called Radio Caroline. Of his current gig, though, he says: “I never dreamed I’d be in a corporate band.”
Around the turn of the millennium, a set of amateur musicians, gathered by Perkins Coie bankruptcy lawyer Al Smith, were about to play a Christmas party at the firm when they realized they were short a drummer. “The party was Friday, and it was, like, Tuesday,” Smith says. “Garth said, ‘I know a guy who plays drums — I’ll call him up.’ “
That’s how Cunneen came on board. It was Thursday night before they could arrange a practice, jamming in a storeroom at the top of the Washington Mutual Tower. “It was like the Beatles playing the top of the Apple building,” Cunneen says. The group practiced for two hours and then went out for drinks.
By the next day, the Perkins Coie Band (aka the PCBs) was born. And it gives you that much more respect for the challenge of a 12-person jury when you consider that with just seven members, they couldn’t agree on a better name. “My favorites were Slander or Torturous Interference,” Bura says. “But instead we went with the PCBs.”
Ever since, in addition to events at the firm, the PCBs — with newest member Steve Harrold, a legal messenger — have been regular contenders at Seattle’s Lawyerpalooza festival (“Live and Litigious”), an annual benefit event for public-school music programs.
You might think a law-firm band would play up its legal connections, playing songs such as Billy Joel’s “An Innocent Man.” But you would be overruled. Law is not a field that lends itself to lyrical commemoration. “We’ve never even played ‘I Fought the Law,’ ” Cunneen says.
They’ve purposely worn suits a couple of times to play the part, but these 40-somethings are usually just themselves. Says Cunneen: “Our main look is, in a word, handsome.”
The band was invited to audition for the Battle of the Corporate Bands after Fortune magazine ranked Perkins Coie 55th in its annual “100 Best Places to Work” listing, featuring a photo of the band practicing in Cunneen’s garage. “I can totally be myself here,” Bura says of the firm. “Also, being the singer does have its benefits. People know you … . It’s something I recommend to everybody — join the band in your company.”
But in late June, the band was dealt a blow when it was announced that litigator Schneider would have to miss the competition because of his trial in Guantánamo. There, he’ll help defend Hamdan, who was either an informed member of bin Laden’s circle or, as Schneider and his team argue, a ground-level employee just making rent.
A request to continue the trial was denied. (Smith insists it was not so that Schneider could play the regionals.) That leaves the PCBs without one of their most animated members. “We stick [Schneider] in the middle behind Arunas, because he bounces around a lot,” Smith says.
Adds Cunneen: “He’s got a stage presence.”
The group doesn’t harbor any false hopes for the contest.
“It’s a real longshot just getting to where we are now,” says keyboardist Smith, who’s been with the firm for 17 years. “Some of these companies are huge, with thousands of employees. They probably take themselves really seriously.”
Among past finalists: Soul Focus of American Century Investments, the Loaners of Quicken Loans and Band Turismo of Sony Computer Entertainment.
And the judges will offer no quarter either — they all come from the world of professional music-makers. Past judges include Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of the Doobie Brothers, “Saturday Night Live” music director G.E. Smith and Southside Johnny of the Asbury Jukes.
Frankly, the PCBs are surprised they made it this far. Their audition CD consisted of cheap footage rustled up from one of their early Lawyerpalooza performances. But in early April, they found out they’d made the cut.
With the competition approaching, they’ve been practicing twice a week in Cunneen’s West Seattle basement. And while tunes of the British Invasion feed their repertoire, the PCBs have something up their sleeve — the punk background of Brandenburg, Midtskog and Cunneen.
“That’s our secret weapon,” Cunneen says. “There’s this undercurrent of a punk-rock thing that we do. An intensity.”
And “one of the songs,” Bura allows, “is actually from this century.”
Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or firstname.lastname@example.org