"I know we're not a new, great original thing," admits vocalist/guitarist Alex Martinez. "We haven't made up anything new in rock, but I'd like to think that we have that little edge, that extra something that separates us from the rest of the bands. That's what you're gonna have to depend on. There are tons of bands all doing the same thing, but you just have to have that little something that [makes] people want to like you."
With last year's A Letter to Bryson City, Sunday Driver (Martinez, bassist Arnold Nese, guitarist Charlie Suarez, and drummer Paul Trust) hopes to accomplish just that, pulling out catchy rock anthems that sound accessible enough to prick the virgin ears of those who think Jimmy Eat World put the "e" in emo -- but relevant and ballsy enough to keep the interest of the purist who thinks less and less of bands that sell more and more. The album's spunky melodic rockers "Forever Again" and "Wrong Things" contrast with ballads such as "Certain Doom," whose tug-at-your-heartstrings string orchestrations (courtesy of South Florida's Zach Ziskin) can make the emotional listener shed a tear or two.
Graduating from North Miami Senior High (also the alma mater of Jane's Addiction singer Perry Farrell), Martinez briefly played in a band with one-time As Friends Rust vocalist Damien Moyal. Then Martinez met Nese and Cary Samuelson, who lived around the block and owned a set of drums, which at the time seemed reason enough to start a group together. "When I look back, I don't know why I was playing in a band," Martinez says. "I didn't have a goal in music; it was just doing it because we could." The three formed area act Makeshift while still learning their instruments and, in 1997, released the six-song Female Hula-Hoop Champion under Jersey-based Now or Never Records, whose founder had approached them after a show at Fort Lauderdale's infamous Cheers and offered to sign the band. It didn't matter that they were the first act signed to Now or Never. "We were just starting as a band, so we were like, 'Hell, yeah, of course.' Now we have a label, someone to pay for our recording, and put out our music."
The group continued as a three-piece until they added guitarist Suarez, adopting the Sunday Driver appellation in 1999. The idea was to nurture their growing professionalism. "We had just been learning back then as Makeshift," Martinez says, "and I'm sure we played a lot of crappy shows to a lot of people." Around the same time, Samuelson bowed out and Trust took over on skins.
They hoped the name change would help their cause, but Martinez found the scene was not as welcoming as it had been in years past. "In 1995, you had [Davie's] Club Q and you had Cheers, and there was a scene," he says. "You'd have a hundred kids at every show, regardless of what night of the week it was. But then the clubs closed down, and it became really shitty. It sucks to say, but we concentrated on not playing in Miami. We had better shows on tour."
So the band, like breakthrough revelers Poison the Well and New Found Glory, put its efforts into playing outside the unfriendly confines of its home state. As Sunday Driver prepared to release a follow-up EP, Now or Never's founder passed along Sunday Driver to indie label Doghouse Records (All-American Rejects, River City High), which signed the band and released what became 2001's Third Place Prize. "They hadn't even seen us live before; they just put [Third Place Prize] out. Later in South by Southwest [in 2002], they saw us for the first time."
The band spent most of 2002 writing and recording their full-length debut, A Letter to Bryson City, titled after the North Carolina town in the middle of the Smoky Mountains where the band hoped to rid themselves of big-city stresses while assembling a new album. Band members stayed in one cabin and converted another into a makeshift studio. After the album's release early last year, they recorded a video for their song "Forever Again" and spent the remainder of the year on the road (with, among others, labelmates Feeble Weiner).
Sunday Driver is getting a glimmer of national recognition now, but Martinez isn't expecting sudden, or unwarranted, fame. He's content taking it day by day, fan by fan.
"I saw Jimmy Eat World five, six years ago in a garage in Orlando, and I've followed them ever since that day," Martinez says. "I've seen them grow from 10-people shows to 50 to 500 to 10,000. So I know that if you go out there and you have good music and you work, something's gonna happen."