By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It's an age-old trade-off that exists in most art forms, but music probably illustrates it better than most: Work at the local level and enjoy the support of people who are familiar with you, who understand your vision and your process, and who have a personal interest in your success. These people are there to help you, but are unable to ship 100 demos where it counts on the West Coast (spaying the cat really set us back this month, man) or to get anyone in New York to return a call. Claw your way up to the national level, and you find yourself chained to the oar of some multinational slave ship; the captain knows whom to call in New York, it's just that he won't return your call.
Deep Ellum's Last Beat Studios and its sister entities--Last Beat Media, Last Beat Records, and the Last Beat record store--have forged an unrivaled combination of these two worlds to offer Dallas something that is in very short supply: a place for musicians that blends neighborhood intimacy and support with national effectiveness.
A visit to Last Beat confirms its status as a place where things overlap. Along a central hallway there's the typical office hum and bustle: People run documents, file things, seal envelopes, and execute the countless small tasks needed to make an operation run smoothly. The fact that this office staff boasts numerous examples of facial piercings, tattoos, and dyed hair seems to make little difference: Phones ring and are answered almost immediately. The floors are clean, and all the doorways have doors in them. On hinges, even.
The true test of how well a venture is doing is how it's equipped. Both the office and the studio at LB are up to date. There's a dial tone when you pick up the phone. The mixing boards, the microphones, the effects boxes, are all sleek and new. There are extra guitars and amps, should they be needed, but there is equipment even more noteworthy: the shower in the back, or the washer and dryer that sit next to it, across from the kitchen. These are amenities that many musicians have long ago given up hope of owning or even having reliable access to.
It has not always been so. Office manager Tami Thomson has been with Last Beat since the beginning, when owner Karen Barrett set the label up over on Henry Street, where Cafe Society is now located. Back then, the space was one big, open warehouse, with a practice area for Barrett's band Liquid Velvet at one end and a desk (i.e., office) at the other. The label limped along, like countless others of the type. "We were kinda hard to take seriously," Thomson admits. With her large, slightly almond-shaped eyes, nose ring, and highlighted hair, she seems perfect for the part of Mary Richards--if you cast The Mary Tyler Moore Show from a Friday-night crowd at CBGB's. You don't have to talk to--or watch--Thomson long to realize that she is one of those essential types, a hub about which countless wheels revolve: part taskmaster, part mother, and part archive. "We worked with Liquid Velvet, and Jeff Liles when he was doing Decadent Dub Team. I guess about the time we did this punk 7-inch for a band called Terminal Disgust, we started taking it seriously. Still, we were happy just to get our stuff in all the record stores in Dallas."
Things have changed quite a bit. Although the record store will probably be retired soon, Last Beat has added a number of related endeavors. Last Beat Media maintains the enterprise's Web site, which features individual band pages and various local chat forums, and also takes on outside work. In addition to the business offices and recording studio, Last Beat contains a number of rehearsal spaces and has plans to expand into unfinished space they own next door, adding not only more room for bands but also an area for live performances, which could then be carried on the Internet through LBM. A number of notable local bands use Last Beat as a kind of base of operations, both formally and informally: the Toadies, the Tomorrowpeople, Mess, and Fireworks, to name a few. In addition, in the past LB has released significant albums by acts such as rubberbullet, Tablet, Riot Squad, and Spinning Ginny; the Reverend Horton Heat just finished a month of pre-production there. The label just inked deals for the European distribution of its entire catalog, with licensing (which gives the licensee the rights to manufacture--rather than import and sell--records) of hotter acts such as the Tomorrowpeople. The label also handles most of the detail-intensive work-a-day bullshit that many groups must do (and subsequently screw up) for themselves--booking and tour support, publicity, and other piddling details often ignored, forgotten, or passed over.
The key factor in this change from hapless local concern to multi-faceted international business has been Shaun Edwardes. If you were casting a rock and roll movie, you might be tempted to feature Edwardes as the villain. Smooth and handsome, with a cell phone constantly by his side, an up-to-the-minute sense of style, and a British accent, at first blush he seems the very embodiment of a business wherein players range from self-interested clowns to evil personified.