End of an era

After seven years and hundreds of thousands of miles, Killbilly calls it quits

The end of a local band often comes and goes with little notice or mention; as one implodes, another comes along to take its place, filling a void no one knew was empty. But the passing of Killbilly, which will play the final show of its seven-plus-year career this Saturday at Club Clearview, bears special consideration, if only because this is a band--call it "bluethrash" or a "Bill Monroe-goes-to-CBGB synthesis" or whatever else it's been tagged over the years--that's irreplaceable, and because the end occurs at a time when the band was at its peak.

Like any breakup, there are mixed feelings: Killbilly singer-songwriter-guitarist Alan Wooley says he is "happy about it, actually"--relieved to get off the grinding tours on which Killbilly found itself for almost eight years, relieved to excuse himself from a project whose viability he's been questioning for years. But singer Craig Taylor and drummer Mike Schwedler are less than thrilled that the end sits just a few days away. Unlike Wooley, they both feel the band has something left to say, some hidden spark that, perhaps, Wooley just doesn't see.

Schwedler recalls, with some sadness, Killbilly's most recent performance at the Philadelphia Folk Festival--playing in front of 12,000 cheering fans, soaking in every last detail because he knew what waited for him back home. He recalls how Killbilly--with its newest additions, Old 97s Rhett Miller on guitar and Murray Hammond on bass, filling the hole left by departed bass player Richard Hunter--was "firing on all cylinders," how "if there had been a roof on the place, we'd have blown it off."

"I had such mixed feeling about it going in," Schwedler says. "But when we walked off the stage, it was a poignant moment because we knew what was going to happen, and I felt a sense of loss. I thought, 'I'm going to miss this.' Personally, I feel like I'm losing...it's like a divorce, a divorce with children involved."

Band members credit the dissolution of Killbilly to two separate problems--financial and creative--that eventually became inextricably intertwined: a band that consistently lost money throughout its long career, money totalling thousands of dollars, became too preoccupied with its checkbook to concentrate on its art. It became, as Alan Wooley says, an impossible chore to keep writing good songs to place on good albums and know that no one will buy them and no one will hear them. Fact is, bluegrass just doesn't sell--big or small--and you can only shout in the vacuum for so long before you become hoarse from desperation.

Wooley and drummer Mike Schwedler figure that throughout its career--one that spawned four releases, from the Killbilly cassette in 1989 to this year's Foggy Mountain Anarchy, each better than the last--Killbilly sold a total of 20,000 units, maybe a few more. And they also figure that the six-member band traveled hundreds of thousands of miles and lost thousands of dollars doing so. Even a tour sponsorship from Bud Dry failed to alleviate much of the cost.

"If you came up with a dollar-to-band member-to-mile ratio, we made less money per mile than any other band in the history of the music industry," Taylor figures.

And in the long run, they could no longer afford to continue touring and recording albums for no one. If nothing else, the end of Killbilly is the only logical, and practical, solution.

"When we started this band, I never thought about how long it would last," Wooley says. "It was one of those bands where I could have done it all my life if the circumstances had been different--financially, mainly. Without the means to pay the rent and support your family, you're at a serious disadvantage. The amount of money we made was small--maybe half of what a McDonald's fry-cook makes in a year. The artistic part dried up as a part of the resentment of the projects not being rewarding financially."

Craig Taylor explains that there are two ways a band becomes successful: there's the "Tripping Daisy model," as he calls it, and the "Horton Heat model." In the case of Tripping Daisy, they were a band that recorded a CD, released it in its hometown, and became enough of a local draw to garner some major-label attention without having to endure substantial touring and the accompanying costs. ("That's also the New Bohemians model," Taylor says.)

Jim "Reverend Horton Heat" Heath, however, toured nearly nonstop for several years before landing a deal with a record label--mostly because his small band, always a three-piece, was cheap to take on the road and never had much trouble making money because of the low overhead. Eventually, Horton Heat got enough attention to interest the labels, and finally signed with Sub Pop and then Interscope.

"We weren't selling enough in Dallas to get major label attention," Taylor says, "and it wasn't possible for us to tour nationally without losing money because we had so many people in the band."

"You get in a broken-down Ford tour van and do it every day for 260 days a year, and you'll find out how hard it is," Wooley says. "It's a tough row to hoe, especially if you have a family. I think after eight years I can pretty well go to my grave saying I did everything I could to make that band work--everybody with that band did. We played all the places we were supposed to play and did all the things we were supposed to do, and I guess the people have spoken."

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