Star maker

Can Interscope do for four local bands what it did for Nine Inch Nails and Snoop Dogg?

"I get this a lot from people," says the 25-year-old Santamaria, who's worked his way from the Interscope mail room to A&R in three years. "They ask, 'So what bands have you signed?' And I tell them, 'Toadies and Brutal Juice,' and they ask where are they from, and I tell them, 'Dallas.' They say, 'Well, you sign all these Texas bands,' and it's true. I do.

"But it's good music. The city is like a city anywhere. If you sign bands from Los Angeles, nobody says, 'You signed a lot of California bands.'"

Regardless of the connection, or lack thereof, these four local bands are signed to one of the most profitable--and most powerful--labels in the country, a "major-minor" that's part of the mammoth Warner-Elektra-Atlantic group, which released more than 1,200 albums last year.

According to a recent piece in The New York Times, Interscope posted domestic wholesale gross revenues in 1994 of more than $110 million, with a profit of nearly $10 million. And Warner Music just bought an additional 25 percent of the label for a whopping $100 million--ostensibly to keep other labels, including Sony Music (which was desperate to own a piece of Interscope), from overtaking Warner Music as the record industry's top conglomerate.

In the five years since Iovine and financier Ted Field started the label, Interscope has become equally respected and feared within an industry that thrives on brutal competition. Chris Blackwell, founder and owner of Island Records, actually told the Times that "Interscope is the best in the business because it's on the cutting edge...It's the most exciting company since Atlantic in the late '60s when it had everyone from Otis Redding to Led Zeppelin."

Other industry types aren't so kind, though, with one calling Interscope "the Terminator of the record business"--referring to the label's wanton spending on bands it wants to sign or ones it feels can be successful. For instance, in the wake of the success of Nirvana's Nevermind, Interscope rushed to sign Helmet for almost $2 million, an outrageous sum for an untried and anonymous band, and Iovine was maniacally aggressive in trying to lure Nine Inch Nails from TVT Records, so confident was he in Trent Reznor's potential to become a star.

Interscope has risen to prominence on the backs of such artists as Reznor, Dr. Dre, Teddy Riley's platinum-selling R&B band Blackstreet, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Marilyn Manson, Primus, Tupac Shakur, Bush, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, and with sound tracks to The Crow, Above the Rim, and the megaselling Natural Born Killers (which was assembled by Reznor). These are all artists who, five years ago, were just beneath the mainstream--written off by the industry as shock-rockers and gangsta rappers, deplored by the Bob Doles of the world and adored by the all-important 18-to-25-year-old demographic.

When placed upon that roster--which also includes the likes of Cop Shoot Cop, Rocket from the Crypt, Prick, Helmet, and All--Reverend Horton Heat, the Toadies, and Brutal Juice fit quite nicely. All three acts deal in extremes: the Rev is rockabilly by way of grunge, presented by a man who is equal parts Frank Sinatra and Gene Vincent. The Toadies are punk by way of pop, fronted by a man whose manic disdain for religion is rivaled only by his manic on-stage persona. And Brutal Juice creates a sound that is sheer lunacy, born of punk and psychedelia, the disturbing sex-and-violence-obsessed lyrics so outrageous they are hilarious.

Of those three bands, Reverend Horton Heat has, to date, proven the most successful--so much so that Reverend Horton Heat's manager, Scott Weiss, gushes that "Interscope is by far the best record company in America...They're perfect, literally perfect."

The Rev, fronted by Jim Heath, has toured with the likes of Soundgarden and White Zombie, been profiled in Rolling Stone, and sold about 100,000 copies of last year's Liquor in the Front domestically (with another 60,000 or so overseas, though figures aren't completely tallied). The last number--which marks a nearly four-fold improvement over sales of The Rev's previous album on Sub Pop, 1993's Full Custom Gospel Sounds...--is the most impressive statistic, and maybe the most disappointing, Weiss says.

"We didn't have huge expectations," says Ferguson. "We still saw this as a development. For us it's been successful. It's just a question of time when he's going to come up with the right song that catapults him on radio and turns him into this rockabilly star. You don't get a Nine Inch Nails walking through the door every day, but Jim's not going away anywhere. He's not a fly-by-night artist. It's just a matter of time."

Of the four Metroplex bands signed to Interscope, Deep Blue Something is the anomaly--a bright and light pop band among so many angry, sullen, brooding, and harder acts.

But their signing to the label by Chuck Reid, who also brought "rapper" Marky Mark and new-wave revivalists Possum Dixon to Interscope, is part of the label's move to broaden the spectrum of its roster and compete on a larger scale with bigger labels like Warner Bros. and Columbia. In addition to the Something, Interscope has also added Canadian folkie Ron Sexsmith and the Sweet and Low Orchestra, a Celtic-rock band that features guitarist Zander Schloss and actor Dermot Mulroney.

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