Breaking Down Barriers 

Cute Is What We Aim For takes inspiration from criticism, uses Internet flak to build momentum

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Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s--about the time the kids in Cute is What We Aim For were being born--if you wanted to "talk" to a band, you either had to write a letter to the group's record label or stalk band members backstage after their concerts. But thanks to the rise of Internet technology, fans and hecklers alike can now instantly voice their opinions on chat boards and discussion forums.

Web sites such as Pitchfork and have considerable power among fans of indie-rock, emo and pop-punk. They can seemingly make or break an act simply by choosing which bands to feature on their splash pages, giving a band instant hipster credibility, or relegating a review to a virtual dust bin, accessible only after searching through a seemingly endless maze. For every Pitchfork or, the Internet also offers hundreds of discussion boards and chat forums where fans and hecklers alike can just as easily confess their crush on the singer of Fall Out Boy or accuse the members of Panic! At the Disco of plagiarizing lyrics.

Cute is What We Aim For owes its success, in large part, to that very phenomenon. The power-pop band was endorsed and promoted early by, but later ridiculed and criticized on the very same site. Fans and self-described critics (including their one-time manager, who accused them of "unethical business practices") took them to task for abandoning their earlier projects (Cherry Bing and A New Hope) and have compared their lyrics to everything from Shakespeare to frivolous, adolescent diary rock.

The group's debut album, The Same Old Blood Rush With a New Touch, was released earlier this year on Fueled By Ramen, a stalwart supporter of the burgeoning power-pop/emo/pop-punk scene. (The label also released Fall Out Boy's gold-selling album, Take This To Your Grave.) The album, which cracked the Billboard 200, showcases the band's shiny, radio-friendly commentary on hipsters, replete with lit-class wordplay and punky, poppy melodies.

Boise Weekly recently caught up with CIWWAF singer Shaant Hacikyan as the band was about to embark on an extensive national tour to be followed by a string of dates in the U.K. Hacikyan was in a reflective mood as he talked about what it's been like dealing with a community of fans that both swept the band to success and heckled them online.

BW: The band formed in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2005. In that short amount of time, you've toured internationally and seen your album sell more than 50,000 copies. Does this level of success still take you by surprise?

Hacikyan: It's surreal. Honestly, it's such a cliche thing to say, but it realistically feels like just yesterday we were starting out. I think about our first show and I remember what I wore and what I ate and all this stuff and it's bizarre, but it's so cool at the same time.

Why do you think your music prompts such a strong reaction?

I think maybe we're hitting a chord with kids because we're kids, too, and I'm writing about things that a lot of people have experienced. There's a connection, you know?

Musically, who are some of your influences?

Bright Eyes, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Fall Out Boy, The Academy Is ... and Oasis.

What are some of the other things that inspire you?

Fun. I used to play sports and thought about becoming a professional athlete, but I never had that connection, that feeling, that I do with music. So when we're making music, a lot of inspiration comes from the fact that I can say, "Hey, I'm 19, and I get to make music for a living."

How long did you take to write and record your album?

We had four songs done in July [2005], but we wrote the rest of the record in probably three weeks, maybe even two weeks. It was definitely a high-pressure thing; we wrote four songs in a week in preproduction in the studio. I literally sat in a booth during tracking with a notepad full of lyrics. Some of the songs were done in single takes. We definitely weren't a band that went in with 30 songs. We went in with four or five and then just crossed our fingers. None of us thought we'd be able to do it. It was pretty scary.

Sounds like it could have been a recipe for disaster.

Yeah, but I need that pressure. I think it really brought out the best in us and myself. I was the kid in school who did homework the morning of. But everybody's different. There are a lot people that prefer to take their time, but if it was up to me, we'd record the next record tomorrow.

CIWWAF has been plagued by drama throughout its existence. How do you manage to keep your focus on the music?

When we were recording Blood Rush, a good friend of mine said, "Read the press, but don't live the press." Whenever I'm writing or thinking about anything, that's the phrase that comes to mind. It's kind of like being in school: Everyone's going to talk, but it shouldn't affect you. A lot of the drama is completely false, and as long as we're not hurting anybody and we're having a really good time and we still get the support, it's just a matter of being mature about it, keeping a level head and your chin up.

Still, does any of that take a mental toll?

Absolutely. I'd be lying if I said it's never affected me, but all the stuff that people say has been for the better, because it's really made me realize who I am. There's always that self-doubt, but then you just step back and you realize "Hey, they're wrong, that's not true." It also inspired me: "OK, this is going to be put under a magnifying glass, so you'd better step it up, Shaant." And I think every artist, except the ones in their own little worlds, would agree with that.

You're in a band during a time when the Internet can provide instant commentary on everything, whether it's television shows, politics or music. Do you think that "instant" quality affects your band?

It can come down to a point where I wear a shirt that I like and I can go online and look at someone bashing me for wearing that shirt within the next day. So it adds a lot of pressure, but at the same time, it definitely adds a lot of accessible exposure, which is fantastic. There are always negatives to everything, but I think, if anything, it's a positive.

Do you think there are things too personal to put in your lyrics?

No. I think that's almost a cop-out. I'm already putting myself out there, so why not go all the way? I respect artists that throw it all out there, unless they're being mean or racist or something along those lines. But for me, everything we do should have an explanation. I want everyone to know exactly what happened, no holds barred. Because our fans support us, and they deserve to know, because I consider our fans almost to be members of the band.

Sunday, Nov. 19, doors at 6 p.m., Hellogoodbye, Reggie and The Full Effect, Cute Is What We Aim For, David Mellilo, $15, The Venue, 521 Broad St.

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