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In the rock 'n' roll fast lane

By Christina Killion Valdez

ckillion@postbulletin.com

It wasn't a packed show or a trendy bar, but acclaimed music producer Steve Lillywhite felt like he was looking into a rearview mirror at future stars.

On stage at the Warehouse, an all-ages, alcohol-free hideaway in La Crosse, Wis., were Rearview Mirror, four guys from the small town of Cresco, Iowa.

"When I first came across them, I instantly recognized: 'Ah, this is what U2 had in the early days,'" claimed Lillywhite in the band's press information. "The U2 comparison isn't really a musical one. It's more a matter of spirit."

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Lillywhite has been most successful producing great live performers such as U2, the Psychedelic Furs, the Rolling Stones, Morrissey, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel and the Dave Matthews Band. He also looks for a dedication to music.

That is what drew him to Rearview Mirror, the first act he signed to his own label, Gobstopper Records.

"It's pretty cool that he thinks that," said guitarist and songwriter Matt Olson, about the comparison. "We just try to put on the best show we can."

Coming together

The group formed out of a desire to make the best use of spare time in a small town. Even the band's songs speak out about the people members saw wasting their lives and potential, said lead vocalist and songwriter Adam Ptacek.

Back in 1996, Olson bought his first guitar and he and his friend Jason Ptacek, Adam's brother, learned to play by mimicking favorite rock artists.

They recruited drummer T.J. Kammer. Adam Ptacek, who was then only 13, hung out with them enough to become a member.

"I would sit around and watch the guys and I wanted to be a part of it," Adam said. So he borrowed a bass from an uncle.

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As they grew into their instruments, the foursome reworked their roles. Adam Ptacek started writing lyrics and working on his voice while Jason switched over to bass.

"It's always been the four of us," Adam said. "We just decided to put everything we had in one band and work really hard."

They didn't know their hard work would pay off. "We didn't really imagine this. It was just something to do in high school," Olson said. "We planned on going our separate ways."

Rising stars

Only Adam, the last to go through Crestwood High School graduation, is still living at home in Cresco. Jason, now 20, moved to Minneapolis; Olson, who's 21, is in La Crosse and Kammer, 18, is in Winona.

A string of lucky breaks held the band together. "We're together most of the time. We're only home three days of the week," Adam said from a cell phone on the road in Illinois.

Most of their time together, at least five or six hours a day, is spent in their tour van promoting the recent release of their debut album, "All Lights Off." The tour should bring them back to the site of their biggest break this summer.

"We were kind of nervous and embarrassed at the same time," Adam said, recalling first meeting Lillywhite at the Warehouse. "At that point, we didn't have much following."

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Only 15 fans were there the night Lillywhite came to La Crosse, Adam said. "That's not a good sign. But that didn't matter to him."

Still, the show felt more comfortable than the few showcases they played for labels in Los Angeles, Adam said. They also liked the attention they got from Lillywhite and his small label, he said.

"He's pushing us to write better songs," Olson said. "I think before we were more influenced by learning all our favorite bands, so we were coming out like our favorite bands."

Now they've got their own sound and their own style. "We just want to look like regular people and play good songs," Olson said. "We're not rock stars. We're just into looking however we look that day.

"It's sort of weird on the record label, dealing with stylists, photo shoots and all that stuff," he added.

Including media attention -- the band's been interviewed in some of the biggest magazines in the music trade including Billboard and Spin. Still, they stay grounded and even talk about back-up plans.

But right now they have one focus. "We're just us, a four-piece band playing our instruments," Ptacek said. "We put on the same show for five people as we do for 500 people."

"All Lights Off" by Rearview Mirror, released June 4, is available at Broadway Records in Rochester, Sam Goody and Musicland stores. Listen to "In the Beginning" in the Entertainment section of www.postbulletin.com.

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