Los Angeles When Maroon5 won the Grammy last month for best new artist of 2004, the Los Angeles pop band bested a field that included critics' darlings, notably hip-hop auteur Kanye West and the archly ironic Scottish rock band Franz Ferdinand. It's no exaggeration to say there was awkward disbelief in the Staples Center aisles after the envelope was opened.
"It was a shock, a total shock," said one musician who was in the audience that night. "I was embarrassed," said another. A third remembers wondering "if there was a mistake made or something."
And that's just the guys in Maroon5.
It's not that the band is self-loathing -- far from it, the five musicians collectively have the relaxed gait of a fifth-year college senior in flip-flops. It's just that they know who they are and how they are viewed: an act that gets much love at record stores but usually braces for the worst when critics pull out their pens.
When the band started a decade ago, its members were middle-school students who bowed north to Seattle; the lead singer, Adam Levine, wore flannel onstage and whipped his long hair just like his hero, Eddie Vedder.
Now, the reed-thin Levine is a pop star who vamps in music videos and last year found his band sharing a bill with Jessica Simpson, "American Idol" singer William Hung and other Top 40 froth at Wango Tango, the super-sized pop show at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Climbing the charts
Upon retiring the flannel, Maroon5 became a pop venture with just enough funk to call itself blue-eyed soul and far more in common with Hall & Oates than Alice in Chains.
Its creative compass has been recalibrated from Kurt Cobain to Stevie Wonder, and its debut album, "Songs About Jane," has sold 3.7 million copies in the United States, with lots of help from the ubiquitous radio hits "This Love" and "Harder to Breathe."
Maroon5 is guitarist James Valentine, keyboardist Jesse Carmichael, bassist Mickey Madden and drummer Ryan Dusick. Oh, yes, there's Levine, the lead singer and guitarist who has become, with no doubt, the Gwen Stefani of this outfit -- the telegenic face, and abs, of a band that plays to largely female cheers.
Valentine joined the band in 2001 when the band became known as Maroon5. Before that they went by the airy name of Kara's Flowers, the choice of the four childhood friends who knew from the start of high school that they wanted to be a band. Kara was a girl they shared a crush on and the habit of name-checking real romantic figures in their lives would hold on through the years; "Songs About Jane" is for an ex-girlfriend of Levine's.
The band members recently gathered at the Viper Room to play a private show for pop-radio powers in the Los Angeles market.
Trip down memory lane
Before the Viper Room show, the band set aside time for a shared trip to the past -- they all piled into two cars to visit the Brentwood childhood home of Dusick, whose parents long ago gave up their musty garage to band gear of Kara's Flowers.
Standing in the garage, the band members chatted warmly, teased one another and dusted off old stories and gear, recalling how in the late 1990s it seemed as if their music career would be mothballed, too.
Kara's Flowers released the CD "The Fourth World" on Reprise Records in 1997. Noted rock producer Rob Cavallo was on board, and even before the band members were old enough to vote, their tours of duty in Los Angeles clubs seemed to prime them for a big ramping up. Their sound by then had moved from grunge to a 1960s vibe, but none of it clicked at record stores, so they split.
Levine and Carmichael headed to college in New York, where they found their West Coast guitar sensibilities suddenly sampling R&B and other urban influences. That would be the sea change when they came back and relaunched as Maroon5.
The defining pop-culture moment for the band was not 10 years of touring, the Grammy or even the anointment by Clive Davis, the famed music mogul who has been instrumental in the group's rise to fame.
No, the memory held by most fans is the video for "This Love," in which Levine vamped for the camera while wolfishly making out with his then girlfriend, model Kelly McGee, each of them in varying degrees of disrobement.
"Naturally, Adam is more the focus as the singer, which doesn't bother me at all, but I often stand there and feel like it's happening around me and I'm like some sort of set piece," Madden said. "We had wanted to do something cinematic, but it's hard to realize that it will become this thing that introduces you to most fans."
As it is, the group members straddle the line between pop stars and rock rebels, last year being featured in both Seventeen and High Times magazines.
The band is looking for a producer to guide its follow-up effort, and Levine shrugs off any concern that a misstep now will send the group into one-hit-wonder territory.
"Whether you love it or hate it, there's no comparable band right now," he said. "We occupy a pretty weird space. ... We are a hugely successful pop group. Our spot is where we're at now. Unfortunately it's the byproduct of being perceived as attractive. But don't hate us for it."