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"They're the hardest working band — on the promotion side of things — out there," says Brian Roberts of Ha Ha Tonka, a former touring partner from Springfield, Missouri. If Island's effort is as strong Ludo's, Roberts predicts, "Sky's the limit."
Andrew Volpe started writing what became Ludo's first songs when he was at John Burroughs School. After class, he'd park his car at Schnucks and scribble down lyrics, including an early version of "Hum Along." Many fans have memorized the song, which takes the old boy-pines-for-girl story to a new height with a preposterous daydream narrative: Maybe you'd be kidnapped by pirates/And they would take you to their hideout/As pirates often do/But I'd find the secret map/And I would vigilante-bushwhack/Through the jungles of Peru/Just to save you.
Volpe delivers more colorful songwriting with "Love Me Dead," a morbidly funny take on the inexplicable magnetism of a damaging affair: Kill me romantically/Fill my soul with vomit/Then ask me for a piece of gum/Bitter and dumb/You're my sugarplum/You're awful, I love you!
An official, bigger-budget video for "Love Me Dead" interprets the song in a literal, vaudeville style. "I can just tell Andrew's been through the works in the theater classes," Beverly Hills-based director Scott Culver says. "He's very animated."
As a kid Volpe was cast in local commercials and in a Muny production of Bye Bye Birdie. He prefers to describe himself as a music nerd who tried to resist the urge to pursue rock stardom. "I spent a long time trying to come up with something more 'adult' to do, something more easily mentioned in a group of one's parents' friends," he says. "After a while I was like, 'Who am I kidding?'"
Volpe started planning to form a band after his sophomore year at Washington University. He and a music buddy from Burroughs, Dave Heltibrand, looked for a guitarist who wanted to play three-minute songs, not the "acousticy nonsense" that seemed to interest everyone else around them. Ferrell, a Saint Louis University High School graduate who was home from Notre Dame on summer break, answered their ad.
Ferrell struck Volpe as a little too preppy, but that impression changed as soon as he started shredding, Volpe says, breaking into an air-guitar lick for emphasis. A vegan who meditates for two and a half hours daily, Ferrell is anything but preppy. He notes that at the time, Volpe was squatting in an apartment near Wash. U. Ferrell says he remembers thinking, "This guy is a disaster." But Ferrell also recognized the creative energy: "What's the point of starting a band with boring people?"
The entire Ludo lineup is an odd yet complementary mix. Baby-faced Matt Palermo studies technique DVDs and doesn't have much to say unless it's about drumming. Stick-thin and stoic, Ferrell is another dedicated musician; he's been playing since age six and spent his spare time last year building a microtonal guitar.
Marshall Fanciullo, the bassist, has a dry sense of humor that plays off Volpe's cartoonish antics. A graphic designer, he also supplies the artwork for the band's merchandise and album covers. Convy is gregarious, reaching out to the crowd from behind the Moog. Offstage, he's the band's business liaison. Volpe, whose attention span is so short that he forgot about making the tooth-brushing video, says he gravitated toward people who would bolster his weaknesses. "Early on I felt like Ludo was something that needed to have other people's mark on it."
From the start, Ludo thrust themselves before any audience who would have them. "We started calling it 'Ludo' that summer, even though it was kind of ridiculous," Ferrell recalls, thinking back to one show on the Wash. U. campus in which they stuffed themselves into a bay window and played between sets of "real" bands. A life-size cutout of Admiral Ackbar from Star Wars with drumsticks shoved into his cardboard hands served as their drummer.
Playing as an acoustic duo after college, Ferrell and Volpe vowed to practice every day. They forced themselves onto the road, playing 80 times in a five-month span. Most of those "shows" were at open-mic nights. Ludo would crash into a cozy community of hobby performers, then have the audacity to ask for a floor to sleep on. Ferrell says their motto was, "We're going to suck until we don't suck anymore."
Ferrell and Volpe ended up in Tulsa, where Ferrell moved after he graduated in 2002. They lived on the overdraft protection from Volpe's checking account and shared a dumpy little house on the wrong side of town. That house in Tulsa looms large in band lore. "The screen door was on one hinge, and there was a cat with random sores," says Fanciullo, who drove down from Omaha for an audition in the summer of 2003. He and Palermo still recoil in horror at the thought of Volpe's two pet ferrets and their overpowering stench. "There's probably a blanket somewhere that still has that smell," Palermo says. Adds Fanciullo: "They had personality, the little bastards."
Volpe, who had dropped out of Washington University's music program, was impetuous as he urged Ludo forward. He invited Convy, who was Ferrell's friend from St. Louis, to join them after watching him sing with his '80s cover band in Columbia, Missouri. The fact that Convy played guitar (and Ludo didn't need a third guitarist) didn't matter. "He said, 'You should be in Ludo,'" Convy recalls. 'We'll buy a Moog and teach you how to play it.'"