By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
AUSTIN--The Trance Syndicate office--if one can call a tiny room in a wretched little business park no bigger than its neighboring car wash an office--is a wreck. Random sheets of paper, discarded memos, old copies of the Austin Chronicle, publicity photos, and other pieces of errata and dumped trash cover the floor; the desk upon which the work is done is not much better. Craig Stewart, one half of the label's braintrust, apologizes for the mess but does not seem fazed by it. He says he'll get around to cleaning it up this week...probably.
Among the loose scraps and important faxes lying on Stewart's desk is a copy of an article written in the Austin American-Statesman, a review of a Trance Syndicate showcase a couple of weeks ago that featured such label signings as Austin's Sixteen Deluxe, Desafinado (also from Austin), and Dallas' own Bedhead ("they're by far my favorite band on the label," Stewart says, "without question"). The article, written by Don McLeese, comes complete with a headline that reads, "Trance Syndicate wakes up to reality of success." Stewart, surveying the label's digs, chuckles when pointing it out.
"Does this look successful?" he says, looking around. "I mean, if he wants to see successful, I'll show him my wallet...It [the headline] cracks me up every time I read it."
He says this with the exasperation of a man who has had to repeatedly remind several folks that financial success does not always accompany artistic success--and that, quite frankly, he and Trance's founder, Butthole Surfer drummer King Coffey (who was out of town during this visit), wouldn't have it any other way. Despite the recent profiles in Rolling Stone and Billboard, despite national praise heaped upon the likes of Bedhead and the all-star Crunt (in a recent Spin, Eddie Vedder referred to their self-titled Trance debut as one his fave records of the year) and the signing of Austin legend Roky Erickson, Trance is the very definition of a cash poor, creatively rich indie label. Coffey and Stewart work on a tiny budget, and outside a system that seeks to co-opt and ruin the things it allegedly praises.
Since its inception in 1990, when Coffey founded the label as a safe haven for Texas bands unable to secure record deals with either indie or major labels, Trance has become a home to some of Texas' best bands: Houston's renowned Pain Teens, Austin's venerable Ed Hall, and Bedhead. By the spring, Trance will have 35 releases in its catalog, including full-length albums and singles from such noisy Austin bands as the Cherubs, johnboy, Crust, Drain (Coffey's side project, in which he plays guitar), and the power-punkish Sixteen Deluxe; a Butthole Surfers' album that was originally released as a bootleg; a record from the Glasgow, Scotland-based a.c. acoustics; and an astonishing Roky Erickson record (All That May Do My Rhyme, in stores February 13) that proves the space between madness and genius is negligible at best.
As Coffey has repeatedly said, he formed Trance because he was frustrated with the lack of outlets for Texas' post-punk bands. When the Buttholes began in the early '80s, they had to go to Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles and then to Touch and Go in Chicago to find labels willing to release their material; the same happened with Austin's noize-core Scratch Acid, which went with Touch and Go before evolving into the Jesus Lizard.
Coffey felt he could fill the vacuum with a label of his own creation, and signed on a few of his friends. Though Trance will release a Butthole Surfers' CD this March--actually a reissue of a fan's bootleg Coffey bought for more than $30 at an Austin record store--and issued a Buttholes picture-disc single last Christmas, Coffey from the beginning made a conscious effort not to turn Trance into the Surfers' vanity label. His first release was Crust's Sacred Heart EP, followed by the first of two "Love and Napalm" seven-inch compilation singles (which featured Ed Hall, Crust, Drain, and others, and were released as one disc in 1993).
(A sound track for Slacker, Richard Linklater's one-fingered salute to Austin, was to be among the first scheduled Trance releases--which made sense because Ed Hall and the Butthole Surfers had music in the film--but Coffey couldn't quite stomach the idea of having to include Poi Dog Pondering among the Austin bands.)
The first non-Texas band with a Trance release was Crunt, which released its eponymous--and amazing--debut last February. The band was something of an indierock supergroup (if such a thing is possible), consisting of Babes in Toyland bassist-singer Kate Bjelland and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion drummer Russel Simins and Lubricated Goat guitarist-singer Stuart Gray, and sold appropriately: Stewart figures 20,000 copies of the record--a walloping punk-pop record that, as a lark, is better than anything Babes has ever done for a real paycheck--were sold worldwide. But it's likely just a one-off because Bjelland and Gray, once husband and wife, have split.
Records from Los Angeles-based Distorted Pony (whose grinding Instant Winner, "produced" by Steve Albini, is impossible to listen to in its entirety) and the upcoming a.c. acoustic record (Able Treasury, which contains songs originally released overseas in 1993 and 1994 and was licensed by Trance for release in the states) followed.