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An overseas assist takes Hockey from breakdown to breakthrough 

At the time, it seemed a pretty sound idea: Ben Grubin, frontman for Portland power-pop quartet Hockey, converted the band's van to vegetable oil for a cross-country tour. This was two years ago, back before Hockey scored big with infectious singles like "Too Fake" and "Song Away."

Unfortunately, the cost-cutting measure backfired in Colorado, where the van sputtered to a halt and forced the group to cancel all remaining dates. Suddenly, the future looked pretty bleak.

"There we were, stranded at our friend's house in Denver, when some guy from England called us and said, 'I've heard your songs and I want to be your booking agent!'" recalls Grubin, who's still not certain how his home-recorded Mind Chaos EP found its way overseas. "And we were like 'OK, yeah, whatever,' because we literally had nothing then."

The rest is English history. Their new associate had already gotten Hockey's music played on BBC radio stations, says Grubin, who, in his baggy white T-shirt and rumpled jeans, is the on-stage antithesis of rock-star chic.

"And that started everything," he says. "As soon as that happened, it was like everybody over there suddenly wanted to play, book or sign us. The whole music industry, it seemed, became interested."

At least overseas. Still unknown in America, the group inked a trans-Atlantic deal with Capitol/EMI, then flew to London for its debut gig at a tiny club called Water Rats. But the buzz had grown deafening: The show was sold out and packed with show-biz insiders jockeying for Hockey's publishing rights.

"The crowd was at least 85 percent industry, and we didn't realize how scary it was until after we played," says Grubin. "And the next night, we played a much bigger place for Club NME Night. And again, nobody knew us, but it was packed — there were over 1,000 people there for this off-the-wall show."

Like the Strokes before them, Hockey broke big in the U.K. before making waves back home. The punky, percolating "Too Fake" was released as the band's first British single in March, leading to BBC-TV's Live From Abbey Road and Later With Jools Holland, plus coveted festivals like Reading and Glastonbury.

Grubin, who'd formed Hockey as a lo-fi duo with bassist Jerm Reynolds back in '04, was suddenly bumping into musical heroes like Pete Doherty and the Arctic Monkeys.

"Alex Kapranos, the singer from Franz Ferdinand, even came to one of our in-stores," says the long-time NME reader. "I was getting into this world that I'd only looked at but had known about for so long."

That was the original goal, he adds.

"We didn't wait for any producers or anybody — we wanted to do something ourselves that would have a life of its own."

Naturally, Hockey's current world tour will conclude with five dates in England. By Grubin's calculations, it's the band's ninth trip abroad. Now, he says, "London pretty much feels like home, every time we go back." Which is a big change for Grubin, who recalls his previous gig "making food and washing dishes" at a Mexican health-food-burrito place in Portland.

"I don't feel like we've entered some overwhelming fairy-tale world yet," he says, "other than the fact that we're just really happy to not be working our other jobs."

scene@csindy.com

  • A broken-down van led the way for Hockey's success in England, and eventually, the U.S.

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