By TAMMY LA GORCE
Published: February 25, 2011
THE pop-rock quartet Kicking Daisies was at the Fairfield Theater in December, preparing for a sold-out show, when the call from Radio Disney came.
The band’s drummer, Caitlin Kalafus, 18, couldn’t believe it.
“It’s the biggest thing that ever happened to us,” she said during a backstage interview minutes after hanging up. “It’s huge. I was like, Oh my God!’ “
Radio Disney, the tween-friendly syndicated radio station based in Burbank, Calif., had chosen the quartet from an annual nationwide talent search that trains a Disney-sized spotlight on an unsigned band: it had been named Radio Disney’s Next Big Thing.
Kicking Daisies, which began in the Kalafus family’s basement in Milford in 2008, includes Caitlin’s singer-bassist sister, Carly, 15, with whom she writes songs; Duran Visek, 15, a singer and guitarist; and another guitarist, Ben Spremulli, 14.
That the announcement came when the four of them were off the road and getting ready to play for local fans – the mobs of tweens and teens who circulated in the lobby before the show – supercharged the thrill.
“We are, like, on top of the world,” Caitlin said.
Had she been asked to sum up the band’s overall outlook a few hours earlier, though, she might have said the same thing.
For a fledgling act that not many people over 18 have heard of – all four members are home-schooled high school students – Kicking Daisies has already amassed a hefty amount of bragging points. The group landed a spot in the Bamboozle Festival lineup in New Jersey last May and played the Gathering of the Vibes festival in Bridgeport in July. They released “K.D.: The E.P.” in November.
The Next Big Thing designation from Disney led to a December concert within days of that phone call – for a crowd of 20,000 in Celebration, Fla., opening for the popster band Allstar Weekend. On New Year’s Eve, Kicking Daisies opened for Natasha Bedingfield and Leona Lewis at the Orange Drive Festival in Miami. They are currently in Los Angeles meeting with television executives about developing a reality show; this weekend a music-video-style commercial for a new candy, starring the band, will begin appearing on Cartoon Network, Disney XD and ABC Family.
Much of the credit goes to Mike Mangini, of Fairfield, a two-time Grammy-winning producer who has worked with Joss Stone and the Jonas Brothers.
Mr. Mangini helped form the band after meeting Ben Spremulli, of Bethel, at the Chef’s Table in Fairfield. Mr. Mangini said the owner of the restaurant, Richard Herzfeld, had called him up and said: “Hey, I know you’re this producer guy – there’s this 12-year-old kid who’s been playing guitar at my restaurant. He’s like the next Eddie Van Halen.”
“A lot of people call me and tell me to check stuff out, and I don’t really follow up that much,” Mr. Mangini said. “But I stopped by. And he was incredible – this kid was shockingly good.”
Mr. Herzfeld, of Fairfield, is now the band’s tour manager. “I’ve had a lot of bands play here through the years,” he said, “but no one ever moved me like this kid.”
Mr. Mangini said that when Mr. Herzfeld asked him, “What do you do with a kid like this?” he told him, “Well, if you find four young kids with that kind of ability and put them together, it could be pretty amazing.”
A search through YouTube for a singer turned up Duran Visek, who was then living in Cape Coral, Fla. Mr. Herzfeld urged Mr. Mangini to call Duran’s father.
“I didn’t make a big push,” Mr. Mangini said. “I told his father: Your son is very talented. If you feel like coming up to Connecticut, we’d love to try him out.’ “
Duran now lives in Fairfield with his father. “My dad has been incredibly supportive,” he said from the Fairfield Theater green room. “All our parents have.”
That includes Chris and Lisa Kalafus, whose basement became the launching pad for the group after Mr. Herzfeld showed Mr. Mangini YouTube videos of Caitlin Kalafus behind a drum kit.
In 2007, Caitlin, who has been playing since age 8, attended the annual National Association of Music Merchants show in Los Angeles; while there, she entered a drumming competition. The organization clocked her speed and later pronounced her the world’s fastest female drummer in terms of her footwork on the bass drum (another girl was timed as having the fastest hands).
Caitlin was 14.
“The record still holds,” she said.
But even though she said she admired the technical prowess of artists like Neil Peart, the drummer for the rock group Rush, Kicking Daisies might be recognized less for its virtuosity than for its chemistry and energy.
All the band members, including Carly Kalafus, who was recruited to round out the rhythm section – she had never played bass and was mostly interested in gymnastics prior to 2008 – cite the pop-punk band Paramore as a group they look up to.
“They’re not just musically tight – they really connect with their fans when they’re onstage,” Duran said. “We learned that from them.”
That lesson was in full effect as Kicking Daisies took the stage at the Fairfield Theater to screams and cheers.
“They just have very good stage presence,” said Miriya Noel, 14, who traveled to the show from Brookfield. “Duran will take breaks where he talks to everybody. It’s cool how they manage that, and then they’re all so amazing musically.”
Mr. Mangini, who has been producing music for 22 years, backed up that assessment: “These kids are unbelievably talented, and what they do musically is real,” he said. “I don’t see any reason why they can’t be as big or bigger than any artist I’ve worked with.”