Preston Edmands had what one might call the typical coming-of-age experience for a musician. At 18, he left his small hometown of Kennebunk, Maine and traveled south to attend the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. Two years passed before the audio engineering major realized he hadn’t connected with the school and wanted instead to focus on becoming a musician.
“I had the drive,” he said, “and I wanted music to be my vehicle.”
So he spent the summer of 2004 living behind a house in Martha’s Vineyard and playing guitar. After returning home for a year, Edmands decided to try New York. He moved to Long Island City and sought a route traveled by many aspiring musicians looking to supplement their nighttime gigs — he began working at Starbucks.
Fortunately for Edmands, the coffee chain has given him the biggest break of his music career so far.
Edmands, 23, along with a band comprised of several Queens Starbucks employees, won the company’s Avant-Grande music competition on June 19, held at the Astor Place Starbucks in Manhattan. Edmands' band — tentatively called Preston Edmands and the Wonderful Undertones — won the opportunity to perform at the Celebrate Brooklyn Performing Arts Festival on July 19 at Prospect Park.
Although Edmands is the group's lead vocalist and has written all the songs they currently perform, the band is more of a collaboration among friends than a solo effort. He plays with three fellow employees from his Starbucks at 31st Street and Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria, another from the Continental Avenue, Forest Hills location, and a longtime friend who traveled from Maine to perform in the competition.
The band formed and began practicing only days before the Avant-Grande contest, after Edmands saw a flier in his coffeehouse. To enter, at least one group member had to be a company employee. Edmands, a shift supervisor, sought out the accompaniment of several good friends once he learned that he was chosen to perform in the competition's final round after submitting a demo tape.
Mike Romanowski, who lives in Astoria and works at the Ditmars Starbucks, met Preston eight months ago when he started working at the coffeehouse. He plays percussion with the band. The other group members are Jake Chamberlain on drums, Chris Ashworth on rhythm guitar, Kyle Marshall on bass and back-up vocals, and Aaron Butler on keyboards.
“He asked me to join into the band the week he found out about the competition,” said Romanowski of Edmands “It was very exciting and nerve-racking.” But, he adds, “we have momentum together.”
Even though their coming together was perhaps haphazard and the group’s lineup may be subject to change, each musician has been practicing music on his own for years, and some perform with other bands.
Edmands explained that his musical chops emerged at an early age.
“I was 6 or 7 when I recorded my first song,” he joked. “I was singing ‘Baby, Won’t You Drive My Car’ into a Fisher Price tape recorder.”
Now, he says Elvis Costello, Paul Simon and Spoon are his favorite artists. Edmands’ own songs are “indie rock with a real pop sensibility. They're memorable without beating you over the head with it,” said Marshall, 24, who lives in Astoria and works at the Starbucks in Forest Hills.
Indeed, Edmands’ favorite song that he’s composed, “Incident After,” came about following the conception of a “groove” melody. “I could do lyrics or melody first. I have no idea where to start, it’s very organic,” he said, adding that he’s finished fewer than 10 songs recently, but has dozens more in the works.
As a solo artist, Edmands has performed in Astoria at Freeze Peach Café at 22-00 29th St. and at Waltz-Astoria at 23-14 Ditmars Blvd.
Even though the band is excited about their upcoming performance at Celebrate Brooklyn and the doors it might open, Edmands’ goals are still modest.
“Ideally, just to support myself on my music and be able to travel with it,” he said. “I don't want to have millions of dollars — just enough to get by.”
As a musician eager to focus solely on his career, Edmands has another aspiration: “to never have to clock in again,” he said.