Audio Slideshow: Rebels With a Cause

Brandon Rainer, one of the two remaining original members of the River City Rebels, sings back up vocals on the song "Shiny Gun" on May 17, 2011. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Brandon Rainer, one of the two remaining original members of the River City Rebels, sings back up vocals on the song "Shiny Gun" on May 17, 2011. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

Ten years is a long time to wait for a big break.

Dan O’Day, 32, and Brandon Rainer, 30, know this perhaps better than most. The two Lebanon residents have seen their band, the River City Rebels, ride a wave of success to the tip of national renown, only to lose momentum through personnel changes and music industry red tape. It was a price they paid partly for insisting on doing things their way. And regrets, they have a few.

They started as rebellious anti-authority youths bucking the system with brash punk-rock mentality. “To me, being in a punk band means you can do anything and get away with it,” O’Day said. Only it didn’t quite work out that way.

After countless internal fights, punk-rock antics on stage and getting kicked off a record label for telling it like it is, they’ve found a different way forward. Now only semi-rebellious as adults, the two remaining original members of the Rebels, along with some new blood, have started recording and releasing their own music. Through it all, O’Day and Rainer have remained committed to the band and what it stands for living life on your own terms. And even though the terms may have changed, the song remains essentially the same.

O’Day, the primary songwriter in the band, knows what he wants and doesnt mind letting you know it. He’s short, round and witty, with a rhythm to his speech and certain loudness to his clothes. He likes tight black pants and platform shoes, sometimes red, sometimes leopard print. He wears scarves and black baseball caps. He has a heart tattoo next to his right eye.

If O’Day is the heart of the band, all forceful leadership and vigor, then Rainer is the quiet, thoughtful soul of it. He’s got long black hair that he tucks behind his ears. He likes dark colors and wears cowboy boots. He seems wary, as if you have to earn his trust. But if you get him talking, he’ll open up about almost anything. Whenever he’s outdoors, he has a cigarette in his hands.

The Rebels formed in 1999 in White River Junction, from which they took their name. O’Day was born in Lebanon and went to Hartford High School. Rainer is a transplant from Stoughton, Mass.

They started with O’Day on guitar and Rainer on trombone. (Rainer switched to piano because he got tired of only playing a hook and not doing anything else through the whole song.) After only eight months together, they got signed to a Victory Records contract.

“We were very lucky,” O’Day said.

Their first album, Racism, Religion, and War, was released in 2000. It built a cult following for them among young audiences that responded to the subject matter, and they began touring regularly throughout 2002. They were growing musically, but, according to O’Day and Ranier, singer Dan McCool didn’t like the new direction (more melody, less thrash) and left the band. Later that year, O’Day stepped up as the lead singer.

In 2003, the Rebels raised their profile by playing the Warped Tour, a yearly festival for punk bands, even though they werent officially on the bill. They’d just show up and play 39 shows in 45 days. (O’Day said he showered maybe three times.) In 2004, they released an album called Hate To Be Loved that strayed even more away from their punk roots.

In the fall of 2004, during the Hate To Be Loved Tour, after a particularly tense Arizona show, O’Day threw a drummer’s cymbals across a clubs parking because the drummer wasn’t loading his gear.

Needless to say, the drummer left; a replacement was hastily found. People have left the band for a number of reasons, but sometimes its just that the rigors of being in a traveling punk band are too much, according to O’Day.

“People get smoked out. It’s a lot of hurry up and wait,” he said. “Five to six hours in a van, then waiting four to five hours in a club. It drives them nuts. Were tougher than that, and were able to handle it.”

They were at the height of their popularity then — selling out clubs all over the East Coast. They had a manager and a booking agent, and they felt as though they were on the cusp of something great.

“On paper it was all there,” O’Day recalled. “It was everything we ever dreamed about.”

But his antics got the best of him. He wasn’t satisfied with the way Victory Records was running things he felt the company wasn’t doing enough to promote the record. So he called and said so. The result? The company dropped the band.

The Rebels didn’t want to lose the momentum they’d spent years building, so they decided to record the next album themselves, but they had to find another label to pay for the recording. After the tour they moved to Tacoma, Wash., to live near their manager, and started pre-production on their next record.

“Essentially we shopped around for a record deal,” O’Day said.

They caught a break when a woman who had connections with a production company saw them on the Warped Tour. In 2005, the now-defunct company flew them to San Diego and picked them up in a limo. They signed a contract with the stipulation that the album would be released within six months of its completion, according to O’Day and Ranier.

The resulting album was perhaps the bands most ambitious to date. They had evolved into something more akin to Bruce Springsteen than Black Flag. O’Day was influenced heavily by Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors and the Wilco album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The musical horizons were wider than on previous records.

The record was finished in early 2006, but problems arose. According to O’Day, the company didn’t want to lose the $80,000 it had spent on the recording, but wouldn’t turn over the tapes to the band because it was dead set on selling the recording to a major label for profit.

“Essentially the days of the million dollar contract were gone,” O’Day said, “but these guys were living out of the 80s and they thought it was going to be simple.”

While they were waiting for a resolution, Rainer and O’Day were reduced to playing on the streets for money. O’Day said he was getting drunk every day to cope. If they had a good day, he’d buy a handle of whiskey. If not, hed buy a big bottle of cheap wine.

Eventually, the production company couldn’t sell the record and was forced to relinquish the rights to the album back to the band. But the damage was done; the momentum they built up was gone.

O’Day, sick and tired, finally had enough and booked out of Washington. When the record finally was released on Sept 25, 2007, he said, they had lost a solid 50 percent of their fan base.

He came home to Parker Street in Lebanon. Rainer joined him, and they went on tour in support of the record. Then they started writing new material, but this time they decided they had had enough of the music industry.

The resulting record was called In Love/Loveless, and it was released in 2008 on their own label, Modhouse productions. It features the music of a band finally coming to terms with reality. Songs like Here Comes My Love Running, about reuniting with a lost love, and A Little Bit Longer, which features an operatic building refrain, sound not only immensely personal but also loose and affirming.

Now, they tour Europe once a year and play a big show locally about twice a year. When they’re not playing music, O’Day washes dishes and Rainer works in a coffee shop. They say day jobs keep them motivated.

“The goals become smaller as you get older,” O’Day said. “By the time I was 28, I had done everything I wanted to do musically. Now, its satisfying to be able to go to Europe and learn other cultures through an art that weve created over the years.”

“Just to have a place to play, and good songs to practice, and money in my pocket and an apartment to go back to is enough for me,” Rainer said. “I just want to keep doing it. It’ll be cool to say in 20 or 30 years that I stuck with it.”

“I think the main reason I do it is to be a part of the history of rock ‘n’ roll,” O’Day said. “There’s a story being written about this musical journey, and its being documented every one or two years with our albums. I don’t think that’s a bad legacy.”

Recently, they started rehearsing for a new record.

The two original members of the Rebels live together in a pleasant subdivision of town homes in Lebanon, a far cry from the early days in White River Junction when 10 people lived in a three-bedroom house. In May, they were loading the van to drive to Orange, N.H.

Bass player J.V. McDonough and drummer Chris Faulkner were there to flesh out some new songs. After a decade of a revolving cast of band members, it seems like a new beginning.

They practice in a house in the woods. There’s an issue of The New Yorker on the kitchen table, and the band sets up in a small bedroom, a far cry from the packed-to-the-brim clubs of days gone by.

O’Day wraps up little pieces of tissue paper that he sticks into his ears. He’s in the middle of the room, in front of the drummer and next to the bass player. Rainer is at his large keyboard, messing with the instruments settings.

O’Day hunches over the microphone, his head still while his body weaves left and right. His voice bounces with melody but hints at pain.

Ranier nods his head in rhythm, smiling and concentrating. He taps the metal tips of his cowboy boots on the pedal of his keyboard.

The song theyre working on is called Shiny Gun, about a fan’s suicide. A part in the middle has a quick drop to a quiet section that builds and builds.

“My heart is racing, my eyes wont fixate,” O’Day sings. The house vibrates.

They sound big but play softly.

At the end of practice, they stand in the living room and discuss their plans.

Now that they’re older, the songs are mellow. They still enjoying playing music, but looking back, O’Day thinks he might do things differently if he could relive the early days.

“We shot ourselves in the foot just by what I would say on stage, or how we handled business. We screwed ourselves over in how we just didn’t give a .... I probably wouldn’t have to work a job right now if I just shut my mouth.”

But he said the Rebels want to keep growing and evolving. “We’ve already been one extreme and it worked out pretty well. So why not keep progressing and growing as artists?”

They’ll record the album two songs at a time, to be released on vinyl, on their own label.

They still have goals — Rebels with a cause. They want to travel the world. And they’re still itching to get their chance at that big break.

And, if it comes, they’ll do it on their own terms.

But maybe this time, they’ll do it differently.