Barreling heedlessly ahead as a trio in early 2003, Ludo started telling audiences they'd return in the fall with a rhythm section — and an album. At the time, they had neither. "I don't think we knew any better," Convy says. "We got really lucky a bunch of times and that convinced us we could do anything we wanted."

Volpe has a less sunny memory of that time. "It was honestly a blur," he says, adding in an ironic tone, "A blur of sadness, and hunger, and a desire to do something better."

Back in Tulsa, Ludo posted the following ad: "Bassist/drummer needed to help take over world." In Fanciullo and Palermo, they found two more single-minded musicians. Palermo, who was nineteen at the time, left community college in Spring, Texas. Fanciullo says his own band was on the verge of a breakup, and his girlfriend was pressing for marriage. "I would be a better father and husband having chased my dreams and passions in life," he figured. "It was important for me to go for it, and really go for it — not half-ass it."

Ludo plays at Mississippi Nights, September 30, 2005.
Ludo plays at Mississippi Nights, September 30, 2005.
drummer Matt Palermo
drummer Matt Palermo

Finally a five-piece, Ludo recorded its first, self-produced album after three weeks of practice. "Everything we did was in hyper-drive," Volpe says. "There was nothing else but the clock ticking, debt piling up."

Wherever Ludo plays in Iowa, they see the same two sisters who appeared at the sparsely attended House of Bricks show back in January. Wearing matching black twirl skirts and hot-pink tights in different patterns (one fishnet, one candy-cane striped), they watch the set from the best possible vantage point — dead center and close enough to touch their toes to the stage.

After the performance, the pair, both in their mid-20s, talk about how much they admire Ludo's inventiveness. When they spot Volpe, they cut the conversation short and bolt toward him. Volpe remembers them well. "They do graphic design stuff and they make clothing," he says. "Every once in a while they'll come to a show in Chicago or Omaha."

He goes on to boast: "There are little pairs or groups like them in every town we frequent. A couple of girls in Godfrey [Illinois] have come to shows in Minnesota, California, Texas." Such loyalty is the payoff for time spent lingering after shows and hours more on MySpace. At the crowded Warped Tour, Ludo members were aghast when other bands walked away from kids without shaking any hands. With a shocked expression, Volpe says, "We were like, 'What are they doing?!'"

Dan Friedman, the St. Louis-based entertainment lawyer who engineered Ludo's five-album deal with Island, says label reps took notice of the group's burgeoning fan base. In fact, a vice president from Island who attended the band's 2006 "Cinco de Mustache" show in St. Louis offered them a deal on the spot, Friedman remembers. "He saw 1,200 kids singing along to all the songs," says Friedman. "He said, 'You'll have paper within a week.'"

Ludo signed with Island in part because the label agreed to let the band produce "non-commercial" material on its own Red Bird Records. The "creative" stuff might be live recordings, holiday-themed albums, or, Friedman says, "Andrew can do another rock opera."

What the band wanted from any deal, Friedman adds, was radio play. He reasons that even if fans download the singles — instead of buying the album — the radio exposure could pay off in publishing royalties down the road. "They're getting their shot at radio," he says. "If radio takes off, then it's OK."

Producer Matt Wallace, whose credits include Faith No More, had the job of distilling Ludo's expansive live act. He says that as much as Ludo wanted the radio play, they weren't willing to compromise everything. Rather than edit out the part of "Hum Along" where fans like to sing along, Ludo left the track off its wide-release album. "It could've been a tremendous pop single," Wallace says.

Wallace thinks You're Awful has potential for several other pop singles ("Such As It Ends," "Please," "Mutiny Below"). It also reflects the band's maturity. At 24, Palermo is the youngest member, while the rest are in their late 20s. Ferrell wrote "Topeka" about a real-life van breakdown and the mental training that helped him through it. "I had been trying to maintain a positive outlook," he says. "Of all the times we had a mini-catastrophe, I didn't lose my head over it."

Volpe wrote "Scream" after his girlfriend's father died unexpectedly. On its surface, the song is a bouncy, driving rocker with twinkling Moog parts, but it poses a serious question: If I scream scream scream/About a good man's life/Will you ever stop and listen? Volpe says at the time he was thinking about the unlikelihood of anyone playing a song about a "good man" on the radio. "It's not some sexy, teenage thing."

Wallace says the delicate songs are as true to Ludo as the rock. "The thing to listen for is the tremendous amount of emotion and humanity behind all the stuff they try to hide it with."

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