SANTA MONICA, California — Maroon 5 are best described by their daydreams.
"I want to do a record with Rick Rubin and the Neptunes," fantasized singer Adam Levine. "That would be f---ing genius."
"We want to be the band that backs up a rapper, like the Roots did with Jay-Z," keyboardist Jesse Carmichael mused.
A fusion of the funky rock of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the groovy soul of N.E.R.D. and the imaginative musicianship of the Roots, Maroon 5 could be living out those fantasies before they know it.
The Los Angeles fivesome have conquered their hometown, where they lay claim to a long string of sold-out shows and a celebrity fanbase, including superfans Michelle Branch and Natalie Portman. What the Strokes are to New York, Maroon 5 are to Hollywood.
And now, thanks to their standout set on the Jeep World Tour with Sheryl Crow and Train this summer, the rest of the country is catching on to what one critic called "neo-soul's first rock band."
Not that Maroon 5 are chasing after instant stardom.
Levine, Carmichael, bassist Mickey Madden and drummer Ryan Dusick flirted with that world while they were still classmates at Brentwood High, when Warner Bros. signed their band, Kara's Flowers. The group scored a minor hit with "Soap Disco," but their buzz fizzled quickly.
"When they throw money in your face, it's gratifying for you ego, but it's empty," Levine said, finishing a salmon entrée at the fittingly named Earth, Wind and Flour. "We want to have longevity and a happy career. I don't care if it takes a year or two [to break the band]. I'm much happier to be on a smaller-scale thing."
After high school, the bandmembers moved to New York and attended music school together. In the Big Apple, the band found its groove.
"We were staying in this housing place that was primarily black," Levine recalled. "That's when I started waking up to the whole hip-hop, R&B thing. We had friends named Chaos and sh--. It was not Brentwood High."
Levine also discovered soul music there. "That was the biggest culprit, especially for singing," Levine said. "I thought, 'I can sing like that.' "
As Carmichael tells it, the band experimented with several styles, even country and folk, before deciding groove-based music was the most fun to play.
"We just wanted to do something different," Levine added. "Just to do the thing that is expected, we were getting kind of bored with it. We were into doing something that was against the grain, taking something out of context."
So Kara's Flowers changed their name to Maroon 5 (the primary colors were taken), added guitarist James Valentine and became "a soul band, but with five white dudes."
A few years later, they are at the forefront of a Jamiroquai-inspired white soul movement that includes Nikka Costa, Minneapolis' Iffy and Robin Thicke (see "Robin Thicke: Mixing The Beatles, Zeppelin And Hendrix With Jay-Z").
"I saw [Thicke's video] and thought, 'Wow, there's more of us!' " Levine said.
Earlier this month, Maroon 5 released their Matt Wallace (Train, Third Eye Blind)-produced debut album, Songs About Jane, on Octone Records, an imprint of Clive Davis' J Records.
The album has garnered positive reviews, not just for its dance floor friendly music, but for Levine's introspective lyrics.
"That's the biggest change between Kara's Flowers and Maroon 5," Levine said, adjusting his mesh cap. "We wanted real songs that meant something. I used to think it was cheesy to be heartfelt and sincere and emotional. Then I realized I can articulate in a way people can identify with."
Most of the material on Songs About Jane is about relationships, or to be exact, Levine's ex-girlfriend, Jane.
"There's at least one line in every song about her," Levine said. "But it also just happens that Jane is such a common name, you know, like Jane Doe."
Levine wrote "This Love," one of the album's standout tracks, the day he and his girlfriend broke up and she moved away. The song, which will likely be the second single, has already been remixed by the Pharcyde's Tre Hardson.
"We need to get Adam back in a dysfunctional relationship pronto," Carmichael joked, then he turned serious. "His lyrics hit me hard. I got the chills sometimes in the studio."
The first single from Songs About Jane, the infectious "Harder to Breathe," is actually not about his ex-girlfriend, Levine cleared up.
"That song comes sheerly from wanting to throw something," he explained. "It was the 11th hour, and the label wanted more songs. It was the last crack. I was just pissed. I wanted to make a record and the label was applying a lot of pressure, but I'm glad they did."
At a recent Maroon 5 show at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, the crowd belted the song so loudly they drowned out the stunned band. The entire show was a career highlight for Maroon 5.
"We even had some criers," Levine said. "That's awesome. That's so Michael Jackson. It really freaked me out. Who knows, maybe there was something in their eyes. That's what we want. I want our shows to have masses of sexuality and crying."