Ann Arbor’s hard rock scene is kind of like a good Creed song – neither one really exists. The lone exception, Taproot, has achieved international success the old fashioned way: By touring their asses off. But when the band was getting started in 1997, the lack of proper places to play in town forced the band to travel to Detroit for gigs.
“We started off driving there quite a bit, playing a lot of the small clubs,” says vocalist Stephen Richards. “We did a lot of shows out in Detroit for the first seven or eight months before we actually started getting shows in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Then through contacts and demand, we finally worked our way into the Blind Pig.”
Taproot became regulars at the Pig, playing there “probably once a month for a good year-and-a-half to two years before we were signed.” According to Richards, it’s the only place in town “that can hold a good hard rock show.”
Taproot also utilized the Internet to build a fan base early on. “We made a full time job of contacting people on web sites just to get our name out there. We sold a lot of independent records, almost 10,000 before we got signed, all over the world.”
In a now infamous story, Taproot signed with Atlantic after being courted by none other than Fred Durst for Interscope Records. “We made a conscious decision not to go with Fred because we didn’t want to lose control of our band and our music. We didn’t want to become the next Staind and have him in all our videos,” he explains. “Luckily that didn’t happen, but we’re still kind of known as the ‘Fred band’ even though that’s what we were trying to get away from in the first place.”
In retrospect, the singer sees the incident as having a mixed impact on their career. “It has brought a lot of attention our way, some good, some bad … we’re doing things the way we want to and we’re very happy with where we are. I’m sure Fred has other things on his mind by now.”
Taproot quickly put Durst out of their minds and jumped headlong into the recording of their debut album, Gift. “We did the first record in six weeks. The goal was to have it released for Ozzfest 2000, our first major tour. We just ran through it really quickly. We had been playing all those songs when we were a local band playing the Blind Pig, we didn’t write anything new while recording.” Singles “Again and Again” and “I” were minor successes on radio, but Gift’s quarter million in sales came mainly from relentless touring.
In November 2001, the band returned to the studio to record their follow-up, Welcome. “We’re really happy with the new record,” Richards states enthusiastically. “We spent nine months on it.” And it shows. Welcome is a giant artistic step forward for Taproot, trading muddy guitars and bad rapping for smooth vocal harmonies and crisp instrumentation.
“Poem,” the album’s first single, has done quite well on radio, but the band doesn’t overestimate its impact. “A lot of people especially that work at radio say it’s a full-blown hit, but I definitely don’t think it affected our record sales much,” says Richards. “We’ve sold more records sooner this time, which I guess has a lot to do with the single, but its not like we’ve blown up.” Rather than concern themselves with air play, Taproot continues to focus on the road. “‘Poem’ is doing pretty well and hopefully ‘Mine’ (the next single) will do well, but we’re doing what we did on the first record. We’ve spent a lot of time on the road already; this is probably our third or fourth tour since the record came out. We’ve been hitting the road pretty hard.”
That road doesn’t often bring Taproot back to their hometown. “We don’t have many opportunities to play in Ann Arbor. We usually end up playing Detroit since that’s where the bigger venues are. We’re from Ann Arbor, but Detroit is still the hometown crowd because family and friends are there.”