James Valentine is tired, and not just in the sense that he sounds distant and yawns several times during the course of our 10-minute interview. The guitarist for funk-rockers Maroon 5 is also tired in the metaphysical sense, fatigued from nearly three years of nonstop touring in support of his band's debut album, Songs About Jane, released in June 2002. "If you would've told us three years ago when the record got finished and we started touring that we'd still be touring now," he says wearily, "we'd probably be pretty bummed."
Endless tours aside, Maroon 5 doesn't have much to be bummed about these days. After a very slow build (hence the constant road work), Songs About Jane seems permanently lodged in Billboard's top 10. The single "This Love" was all over radio and MTV this past spring, thanks in part to a racy video featuring singer Adam Levine cavorting half-naked with his girlfriend, model Kelly McGee. It was briefly relegated to late-night-only rotation after the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident, but remained a Total Request Live staple and soon made it back onto the daytime schedule.
What's most remarkable about Maroon 5 is that they've achieved this massive success in a way few artists do these days: They make music that sounds like no other band out there, built an audience one fan at a time through word-of-mouth and relentless touring, and have the backing of a label that's willing to put in a couple of years' worth of work for a band that they believe in. Pitched somewhere between Lenny Kravitz, Matchbox Twenty and Usher, Maroon 5's music is rock 'n' roll infused with a hip-hop sensibility, blue-eyed soul that has been referred to as this generation's Hall & Oates, funky and danceable, yet appealing to fans of milquetoast bands like Train and the aforementioned Matchbox. In an era of increasingly fragmented, niche-marketed radio stations, Maroon 5 crosses genres like almost no other band.
There is still the "white boy funk" label that prevents the band from, say, getting airplay on urban radio or opening for anyone more R&B than John Mayer. A recent remix of "This Love" by hip-hop uber-producer Kanye West got some spins in clubs, and Valentine hopes the band can continue breaking down barriers between musical genres. "We'll continue doing stuff to break into that arena," he says of the hip-hop market, "just because that's where we find most of the interesting music. I feel like there's not a lot of rock bands making good records anymore."
It's daring for a band of five white guys to bad-mouth a genre that brought them success in favor of one that hasn't wholly embraced them yet. It's even more daring when you realize that seven years ago, Maroon 5 was one of those interchangeable alt-rock bands, a quartet (minus Valentine) called Kara's Flowers that released one major-label record before getting caught in the undertow of the decline of grunge. Imagine a band like Sponge or Gin Blossoms reinventing itself as an R&B group.
It sounds like a silly notion, but Maroon 5's massive success all but guarantees that copycat bands will come along sooner or later. Whether those will be new acts or rock bands quickly rejiggering their sound to get a label deal, Valentine is looking forward to the competition. "It's going to be funny," he says, "because I think they might, in doing the thing that we're doing, these musicians will be confused about what it really is that Maroon 5 does. I think they might get it pretty wrong. It'll be pretty amusing. But I'm looking forward to seeing those bands." That, and getting some rest.