Star maker

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

Four months after the Toadies began their careers as major-label artists, joining a roster that includes such superstars as Nine Inch Nails and Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre, the band members found themselves back in town last Christmas contemplating finding day jobs.

Their major-label debut, Rubberneck--which was originally scheduled for release in April of last year, then held up by the label to make way for releases by Reverend Horton Heat, Helmet, and fright-rockers Marilyn Manson--had sold only a few thousand copies nationally by Christmas. The video for the first single "Mister Love" aired on MTV only once, during the late-Sunday-night alt-rock ghetto "120 Minutes"; the label rejected the second video for "Backslider"; and the band had toured as an opening act for second-string alternative bands they didn't like.

Interscope was ready to let Rubberneck die. The label was ready to send the band back into the studio to record its second album and see if they could begin again. If that failed, then the Toadies would likely seek another label.

"Rubberneck got a little play, and it didn't explode," says Tom Bunch, manager of the Toadies and the Butthole Surfers. "Everybody wants the next Offspring or Nirvana, and it didn't happen. But you have to realize that Interscope gave it four or five months, which is a lot of time. Look at Samiam, which was supposed to be the next hot thing. The Toadies opened for them, they got six weeks of Atlantic Records' time, and look what happened to them. Nothing. Shit, they're nowhere."

But Bunch was convinced the record would take off if the band kept touring. At the very least, he hoped he could convince Interscope the record still had legs, as they say in the industry.

And he was right: three months after Bunch forced the band back on the road, at Interscope's expense, the record began to sell--by the hundreds, then by the thousands. One week earlier this spring, according to tle label, Interscope received orders for more than 6,000 copies of Rubberneck.

The label began to notice and launched a new push for the band, even landing them a slot on the syndicated "Jon Stewart Show" earlier this year, where they performed "Possum Kingdom" (the current single and video) and "Mister Love." The appearance and subsequent months spent on the road have finally paid off: last week, "Possum Kingdom" debuted at the No. 36 slot on the Billboard rock track chart, and Rubberneck debuted at No. 57 on the "Heatseeker" chart--the latter of which is based upon sales for artists not in the Top 200.

Most importantly, Interscope cofounder and co-owner Jimmy Iovine--who had previously produced albums for Tom Petty, U2, Bruce Springsteen, and Patti Smith, and managed Lone Justice--made officials from MTV watch the "Possum Kingdom" video in its entirety, telling them "this is our up-and-coming band"; the rare display of power by the label chief impressed even those who have known and worked with Iovine for more than a decade. If and when Rubberneck begins selling a few thousand copies a week--which Bunch and Ray Santamaria, the band's A&R man at the label, think is more than likely--Interscope will re-pitch the video to MTV, this time expecting the cable jukebox to play it repeatedly.

"One thing I always wanted to do with this band was take the slow approach, and it can be hard," Santamaria says. "I know the band is very talented, and I didn't want them to be the Vanilla Ice of rock. I wanted them to build up credibility--not indie credibility, but credibility as a real band. I wanted them to be out there, struggle, make friends, and build a career.

"We could have come out with a huge push and lots of radio right away. But if it doesn't click, you waste money and people are disillusioned. We put them on the road for nine months. The band complains, 'We're tired,' but they love it. It couldn't have worked out better."

Or, as Bunch says, "Now Interscope has the chance to prove to us they're the great record label they claim they are, and I think they're going to do it."

As Dallas bands continue to get signed by major labels--Vibrolux being the latest to Atlas-Polydor--Interscope Records hordes them like a child with Halloween candy.

First, artist-and-repertoire man Tony Ferguson managed to lure Reverend Horton Heat away from Sub Pop, cutting the renowned Seattle indie label a sweet deal in return. Then, Ray Santamaria signed up the Toadies, who in turn convinced Santamaria to bring Brutal Juice into the fold after a performance at the annual South by Southwest music conference in Austin. And just three weeks ago, in a move that surprised many local music insiders, Chuck Reid signed Deep Blue Something to Interscope, bringing the total to four local bands on one powerful major label.

Ferguson, who helped turn Bush into the first successful British grunge band, says it's "a fluke" that four area bands are on Interscope. Reid, who was turned on to Deep Blue Something by Dallas-based regional promotions director Kathy Romero, dismisses it as "coincidence."

"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.

"I think we've reached our musical identity as a label," Ferguson says. "And as major label, being competitive we have to learn to diversify. We're looking for acts that are not associated with the persona of Interscope. You can't keep signing Nine Inch Nails Part Two or Part Three or Part Four. You've got to diversify if you're going to be competitive in the music business. We'll sign a good pop band or R&B band or an all-girl soul band or whatever it takes. We're looking for a good band.

"It was a conscious decision to go for a sound early on, both with the rap and the hard rock, on all our parts. We felt for people to take notice of the label, we had to define a role. Our first signing was [Latin pop-rapper] Gerardo, our second was Primus--I don't know how much more opposite of the spectrum you could be--and we realized people weren't taking the label seriously because of that. That's when we made the decision to go for these harder bands that appeal to the younger audience."

As part of its new commitment to diversity, Interscope is rush-releasing Deep Blue Something's debut for the label. Titled Home, it is a re-mixed and slightly re-recorded version of the band's same-titled CD on local RainMaker Records, which was released in 1993; the album is due in stores within two weeks. A video for the first single, the regional radio hit "Breakfast at Tiffany's," is already being planned, as is an extensive regional tour.

All of this is in direct contrast to the label's plans for Brutal Juice, whose debut Mutilation Makes Identification Difficult hits stores this week. Right now, there are no plans to push a single, and a video likely will not be shot until--or, more accurately, if--the album shows signs of success (one is tentatively scheduled for late summer). Instead, Interscope plans to keep the band on the road indefinitely, hoping Brutal Juice builds up a sizable following through a live show Santamaria likes to describe as "brutal and painful...it's a total assault--but I mean that in a nice way.

"That's the start," he adds. "They'll play 40-plus shows in the first two months, and hopefully we'll keep that going. And along the way we'll make friends, get radio stations, which is what you have to do for bands that really want to stay on the road and get careers. There's a big misconception you should go right out and take everything to MTV and get me on every alternative radio station, but what happens after the first month? You waste half a million dollars, and then there's nothing."

But Brutal Juice bassist Sam McCall is not so sure. He is happy the label is releasing about 1,200 copies of Mutilation on clear vinyl, and was content with the near-$60,000 budget the band was given to record their debut (money left over from the recording was even used to help fund a Brutal Juice European tour).

But McCall remains cautious about his band's relationship with the label, concerned because there will be no video or single from the get-go. (Interscope is initially shipping the record to college and metal radio, where Santamaria thinks programmers will latch onto "Kentucky Fuck Daddy" or "The Vaginals.") McCall can't understand why Interscope would give the band "thousands of dollars to waste on our third transmission on our van" and not put some of that money toward an inexpensive video.

After all, McCall says, "I'm not looking forward to us touring without any promotional support. It'd be like, 'Hello, Detroit!' and there's one dude out there clapping and shooting the finger at us...

"Jimmy said to me when we went and met him the first time, 'Eighty-five percent of the work is up to you guys because you have to tour.' We said, 'No problem. As long as you hold up your 15 percent, which is what our success is measured by, everything will be hunky-dory.'

"When I get to the towns and see shit in the record store, I'll be able to have an opinion. Right now I have the attitude we've been forced to have from the beginning, which is, 'I'll believe it when I see it.'"

Paul's dead...
...but Zach's not.
Hagfish's major-label debut ...Rocks Your Lame Ass (on London Records) isn't due in stores until June 27, but already the band has reached Beatles status with rumors of a dead member circulating throughout the scene. On Saturday, members of Hagfish started receiving phone calls from distraught friends sending their condolences: they had heard that guitarist Zach Blair had died late Friday night on Central Expressway, run down while changing a tire on the narrow, construction-riddled road.

News of Blair's "death" made the rounds quickly on Saturday--thanks to a handful of music-scene regulars--and reached North Dallas and Border's Books and Music by 6 p.m., when Vibrolux arrived for an acoustic performance bearing the sad story. An hour later, however, they were relieved to find out the rumors were false: Zach was indeed alive and at the house of bandmates George Reagan and Tony Barsotti.

It turns out a childhood friend of the Blair brothers, Zach and Hagfish bassist Doni, was indeed killed on Central late Friday night. His name was also Zach, and he too was a native of Sherman, the brothers' hometown. According to a Dallas Police report, Zachariah Hopson had pulled over on Central Expressway with a flat tire, then tried to cross traffic, apparently to get help; he was struck in the southbound lanes of Central and suffered extensive injuries to the right side of his body, including a blow to the head. He was pronounced dead at 5:57 a.m. at Parkland Hospital. The police report also notes Hopson smelled of alcohol.

"I felt really guilty," Zach Blair says of the whole affair, hoping people didn't think it was some sort of cheap publicity stunt. "I felt like it was real cruel trick that maybe some people thought I had planned out. It was just a terrible thing."

Scene, heard
Bedhead will make one of its rare local appearances June 10 at the Galaxy Club, after which the band will embark on a lengthy West Coast tour and, later in the summer, begin recording the follow-up to last year's WhatFunLifeWas and 4SongCDEP19:10. The band has also contributed a new track to a forthcoming Trance Syndicate compilation...

For those who have had the misfortune not to hear Slobberbone yet, you have several chances throughout the month: the band is performing every Thursday at Club Dada...

Pick hits of the week: Course of Empire, which has begun recording (and producing) their third record (the second for Zoo Entertainment), will come out of their studio to perform Friday at Trees. That night, Domestic Science Club, which has also been in the studio (at Crystal Clear Sound) working on their second album, will perform at the Sons of Hermann Hall; Clubmember Sara Hickman, who has just returned from a tour with Nanci Griffith, will open the show. And Yo La Tengo will perform Wednesday at Trees.

Street Beat welcomes E-mail tips and comments at DalObserv@aol.com.

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