BOSTON — The name may sound like a clandestine government operation, but October Project is actually an underground band that has quietly gone from a garage in New Jersey to music halls across the country.
Their self-titled debut album sold more than 200,000 copies, bolstered by the band's touring with Sarah McLachlan and the Crash Test Dummies. Now, they have just released their second album, "Falling Farther In," and they are starting to tour as a headlining act.
In an increasingly competitive music business, October Project finds itself in an unusual, almost old-fashioned position: Word-of-mouth and local press are fueling their popularity.
"We feel blessed because we're able to make albums. We feel further blessed that we're doing well and people are responding," says songwriter and keyboardist Emil Adler in a phone interview.
While band members estimate they sell close to 5,000 records a week - 10 times more than their debut averaged - their records have never been reviewed in Rolling Stone or Spin magazine. Nor have they been heavily marketed by their record company, Epic.
This only adds to the band's grass-roots appeal, Adler figures, saying, "Our cult audience couldn't be happier."
"Many of our fans discovered us in special, roundabout ways. They feel like we're their band," explains Julie Flanders, who writes lyrics but does not perform on stage. "As a result, we have a very intimate relationship with our audience, and we feel like a local band wherever we go. It's something you can't create artificially."
Almost as unlikely in today's volatile music climate is the breadth of October Project's audience.
Judging from the e-mail we get, Flanders says, "the audience ranges from the teenager who can't get into the club to see us, to the parent of the teenager who has taken the CD, put it in the Range Rover, and won't give it up."
The ringer was when they heard from a marching band that covered an October Project song in a competition - and won.
While October Project's sound is difficult to describe, it occupies a lofty, mellow spot on the pop barometer, incorporating folk, keyboard-driven melodies, and rich, haunting harmonies. But it's hardly fluffy stuff. The group's poetry-set-to-music often evokes mystery and melancholy - qualities that have invited comparisons to Enya. The band eschews any "new age" label, however.
"Ethereal" is not really a word we like attached to us, says lead vocalist Mary Fahl. "Inspirational" would be better, but "emotional" is probably the best, she explains in the joint interview.
If October Project's debut album entertained any criticism at all, it was that the album as a whole seemed too sonically dense, too celestial. In response, the band built "Falling Farther In" with a "stronger rhythmic spine," as Adler puts it. "We wanted our second album to capture the urgency of our live performance," Flanders adds. "We're very much a live band."
Fahl's rich, full voice embodies much of the band's identity. (She counts Sandy Denny, Marianne Faithfull, and even Petula Clark as influences.) October Project's music has an enigmatic quality, Fahl says, where the emotions expressed are not direct. It's like an "emotional hologram," where the listener enters into the musical landscape, she says. "In a sense, Suzanne Vega does something similar in that it's not direct and yet one of the reasons it is so haunting and it lingers for so long is that the songs are very poetic and get to what they're saying in a very metaphorical way."
Adler adds that there's also a "healing quality about the band": "We attempt to do for an audience what we're doing for ourselves by being in a band and by making music - making the day better or making the moment better."
October Project band members also take pride in their contributions to LIFEbeat, the music industry's organization to help those diagnosed with AIDS, and their public-service announcements for Violence-Free Families and Communities. The song "Eyes of Mercy" on their first album was written for the children of Bosnia.
The band plans more tours and will work on another album. Their dream project? To open for someone they all admire. Speaking for the band, Flanders says, "Sting and Peter Gabriel would be top choices."