Maroon 5 makes cool new friends

MIKE ROSS

, Last Updated: 11:28 PM ET

Hilary Duff is a big fan. Kirsten Dunst loves them. So does the first American Idol Kelly Clarkson. Clay Aiken can sing along to all the words of the "big hit."

It's clear that if Maroon 5 is going to be seen as "cool" in cool rock band circles, the first thing they're going to have to do is acquire a better class of celebrity fan.

On the horn from Hollywood, guitarist James Valentine laughs, "Yeah. Exactly."

He's joking. But then again there's a grain of truth in his wry chuckle. Playing tonight at the Joint - on a headlining tour following a stint opening for John Mayer, just some of the 270 shows Maroon 5 played last year - the rock 'n' soul fivesome is not only riding a wave of hysterical hype thanks to their slow-burning hit album, Songs About Jane, they're dealing with a "street cred" curse that's been with them literally from day one.

Before he joined, Valentine was a fan of the band formerly known as Kara's Flowers, which ditched their Beatlesque, pop-punk sound in favour of a more "soulful" vein. It seems that singer Adam Levine had "rediscovered" Stevie Wonder and radically altered his own vocal style. A new direction unveiled at a show in Los Angeles a few years back marked the schism.

Valentine recalls, "I was in the crowd and I just remember seeing the crowd split. Half of them were saying, 'what the f---are they doing?!' They lost a good portion of their audience right there."

Good thing there was a vast new audience lurking in the wings. Nearly two years after the album came out, Maroon 5's first single Harder To Breathe is ... insert impressive music business sales pop chart jargon here ... well, that's pretty darn impressive, isn't it? Cue celebrity fan brigade.

Valentine joined the group shortly after that groundbreaking gig. With nothing more than a desire to try something new, he says, the freshly renamed Maroon 5 continued to mix R&B with alternative rock, a combo some have likened to Justin Timberlake backed by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or maybe Jamiroquai with the rhythm section from Matchbox Twenty (also big Maroon 5 fans, it turns out).

"It was exciting to be in that period where we were experimenting with using these different things," Valentine says. "No bands around us were doing anything like it. Above everything else we wanted to do something different. It was a huge risk and we alienated a ton of people. Aaron (Barrett) from Reel Big Fish, who introduced me to the band, was their number 1 fan - and he hates the band now. It's hilarious. But it turned out to connect with a whole lot more people."

As for the quest for cool, no sweat. After all, Valentine points out, a lot of people think Timberlake is cool; the multiple Grammy winner performs with undeniably cool groups like the Black Eyed Peas and the Flaming Lips.

If a twerp like Justin can do it, why not Maroon 5?

"We consider ourselves cool - we really do," Valentine says, tongue firmly in cheek. "We're aware of our place in pop culture. We find ourselves in very undesirable positions for any other Hollywood hipster to be in - we write catchy, accessible songs, we're on 40 radio. But we're not making any concessions in order to be popular. We're just doing what we do. At least relative to artists that we're around, we're kind of cool. Well, maybe not compared to the Strokes."

Which aren't cool anymore anyway. Or are they? It's all very complicated.


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