"Yes I escaped, but my past still haunts me like the winter wind's gusty shrill. Town by the lake, your path has halted. The snow belt's future's in doubt." -- The Sheila Divine's "The Swan"
The oppressive winter sky has returned over Lake Erie. Steel-gray clouds are blowing in an early winter chill that drives people indoors.
The forlorn vision, beautiful in its own right, is ingrained in Aaron Perrino, haunting the impassioned rock music he composes for his band, the Sheila Divine.
"Every song I write is about Buffalo," says the soft-spoken Perrino. "On one hand I love it, on the other hand I despise it. I have serious pride for Buffalo. But growing up, all I ever wanted to do was leave."
Perrino did leave, now residing in that musical mecca of Boston, but has found that Buffalo will always be a part of him. He often returns with the Sheila Divine, as he will on Wednesday when the melodic rock band performs in Buffalo State College's Rockwell Hall on a tour supporting the moody new CD "The Secret Society."
Since graduating from Hamburg High School, Perrino's story is one filled with the battles fought by anyone who has ever felt the passion to live their art as well as some wonderfully sweet success stories, too.
There were brief stints at various colleges and some time spent in Alaska where his uncle worked for a cruise ship. But Perrino understood he couldn't be happy without music. He knew it back in high school -- the fact that he couldn't sing or play guitar then didn't really matter. And he knew it watching the Goo Goo Dolls and Tugboat Annie at the old Cabaret on Grant Street where he soaked up as much original music as he could.
"Growing up, there was an awesome music scene. I remember going out every weekend and seeing bands that were really good," Perrino recalls. It was, in fact, the dense indie rock of Tugboat Annie that really stuck with him; the group is the "No. 1 influence that made me want to be in a band."
Today, Perrino feels his passion more intensely as the Sheila Divine weathers the ups and downs of the fickle music industry. Despite the fact that the Sheila Divine has been signed to a major label and released four records, in many ways Perrino finds his struggles today are the same as when he was a teen just starting out.
There's still the fight to get radio airplay and the best deal for the band; there are the insecurities that arise when you have to work a day job and all you want to do is make music. And the big-label deal that all bands dream about? It became a nightmare that the group emerged from with a stronger sense of identity and purpose.
The most fulfilling part has been getting the music to the people. Perrino, bassist Jim Gilbert, drummer Ryan Dolan and guitarist Colin Decker have performed in front of as many as 50,000 people at European festivals, and in the fall became one of the few Western groups to perform in China. In Belgium and Holland, the Sheila Divine is a radio darling off the success of the politically inspired release "Where Have My Countrymen Gone?" and accompanying videos airing on TMF (the Music Factory).
It began in 1997 with a story line out of a musical fairy tale. The Sheila Divine was booked for a gig before it had rehearsed; garnered the coveted label deal (to Cherry Disc) within three months of the debut gig (thanks to an inventive friend who put a cassette in the tape deck of a label executive); and a month later, the small indie label was bought by Roadrunner.
That initial band gig was also the first performance -- ever -- for Gilbert and then-drummer Shawn Sears. "We were pretty bad, but at the same time it was indie rock. And indie rock is to me an unrehearsed band. I listen to the recordings we did in the beginning and we sound super indie and cool. Now we're super polished and people say they liked us better when we were indie," Perrino laughs.
It was a whirlwind time, a steamroller for the band. With barely a performance under its belt, yet with a label deal on the table, the band performed and wrote as much as it could. Perrino had the chance with his band to open for his biggest influence, Tugboat Annie.
Jay Celeste, former Tugboat Annie guitarist who now plays with Lakeside Falls, recalls these early days.
"I was immediately blown away by Aaron's vocals and his ability as a performer," Celeste says. "Just to watch him and the band evolve was great. We saw Aaron become a bona fide rock star in Boston. They've kept it at really hard, and that's the key."
It took two years to cut through the red tape from the label buyout, get into the studio and put the new disc out.
"New Parade" spawned the modern rock radio hits "Hum" and another of Perrino's hometown odes, "Automatic Buffalo." The dynamically infused, fiery collection of anthemic songs, screaming choruses and glorious melodies, made the Sheila Divine hard to ignore.
Buffalo's WEDG was one of the first to air the band after then-program director Rich Wall heard the group and was instantly hooked. In fact, he believed in the band so much he became its manager earlier this year.
"I was immediately taken by the disc -- it was nice, refreshing pop with traces of the Pixies and other cool bands," says Wall, who was initially unaware of the local ties. "Aaron had a very distinct voice like nothing I had ever heard. The fact that he can scream in a very melodic way one minute and then sing opera the next is amazing."
But the big-label deal came with a hitch: Roadrunner's roster is packed with metal acts, including such bands as Slipknot, Murderdolls and Killswitch Engage. There was no place for a rock band with a penchant for melody.
As the songs were taking off, tour support was dropped and the group was working harder and harder on its own. The difficult decision was made to split from Roadrunner and do it on their own. The band hasn't stopped since, as the European fandom, China trip and soundtrack work for movies including "Endless Summer III" would illustrate.
The loudest supporters, the ones that won't let Perrino stay away too long, are ironically from the place he had to leave -- his hometown. (The group has drawn roughly 15,000 fans to events such as the annual Edgefest concert.) WEDG Program Director Lenny Diana says he doesn't believe that is because of Perrino's Hamburg roots.
"The hometown ties will only take you so far, but if you don't have the music to back it up, it's pointless. And the Sheila Divine backs it up," says Diana, whose station is now spinning the volatile single "Back to the Cradle."
"They aren't just a part of this radio station, they're a part of the fabric of the city."
The Sheila Divine performs at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in Buffalo State College's Rockwell Hall. Also performing are Lowland, This Day and Age and Molotov Cocktail Inc. Tickets are $12 (Ticketmaster, Home of the Hits, New World Record). Call 852-5000.