Changing the Course of Empire

Local favorite emerges from the commercial doldrums

Chad Lovell, drummer for Course of Empire, has a barely noticeable habit: Whenever he discusses the history of his band, he tends to laugh a lot--as a person will when later recounting a terrifying or trying experience. You can't really blame him. After a host of troubles--including its record company turning turtle on the very day that the band received accolades from Redbeard, the influential DJ at rock station KTXQ (102.1 FM)--the longtime local rock band has released its third album, Telepathic Last Words.

During the early '90s and the Second or Possibly Third Great Wave of Dallas band signings, when COE got on board with Zoo Records, it became a hometown success story. The band's Zoo tenure, however, wasn't all that peachy. "I can't say that I hate them," Lovell allows by phone from COE's Dallas studio. "I just think they didn't know how to handle us." The band put out Initiation on Zoo in 1994, and Zoo reissued the group's self-titled 1991 release that appeared on Allen Restropo's local Carpe Diem imprint. The group was waiting for Telepathic to appear in the summer of 1996 when it stopped by KTXQ for a little pre-release schmoozing and got Redbeard's encouraging feedback.

Later that day, COE was informed of Zoo's folding. "It was a...um, shock," Lovell admits, bursting into laughter, as if releasing the strain of long-ago trauma.

The group went right back out, shopping itself to labels and playing showcases. It had an unreleased album to its name, but reacquiring the rights to it from the now-defunct Zoo would take time. "When all the lawyers' dust had settled," Lovell says, "It had been a year." To make matters worse, the group found themselves in an unusual bind when it came to playing live: If they appeared too often, COE's audience might be utterly familiar with the songs on the new album long before it came out. Although the band still kept busy, people in Dallas wondered what had become of them.

"People just aren't that aware of what's out there," Lovell complains. "We're playing out there, but it's outta sight, outta mind. When we were touring around for Initiation, we were kicking butt in all these other markets, but since you didn't hear us on Dallas radio, everybody thought we vanished."

The band decided to go with a smaller label, TVT. "We liked them the most," Lovell says. "They showed the most interest in us early, and they seemed to understand what we were trying to do." One of the things the band and its new label agreed on was the need to tweak some aspects of Telepathic. "We wanted to change up the flow of the album, record some new songs, do a little bit of remixing, and just generally fix some things that we felt were problematic on the first [Zoo] version," Lovell says.

"Automatic Writing #17" is one of the songs that's new on the album, written specifically for the TVT release. The band also added a reworking of "Coming of the Century," off of their Carpe Diem debut.

"That's on there as a kind of reaffirmation for us," Lovell says of the old song. "Who'd have thought that we'd be here--still as a band, even--two years before the end of the century?" Indeed, the band's persistent popularity is a tribute to the appeal of their music, all the more impressive in light of the lower profile they've had to maintain.

"We've only released three albums in eight years," Lovell notes with another bout of laughter. "That's probably not so productive, but a lot of the reasons for the delay weren't our fault. It's not going to happen like that at TVT, however. I have a feeling that we'll be popping another one out for them here within a year, at least."

Telepathic Last Words has been worth the wait. COE has always been a rock band--a "hard" rock band, if that's the terminology you want to use--and they're still based on the heroic old-school, Led Zep-style principal of bigness: of sound, of song, of ambition. The band's two drummers (for a change) understand the potential of their twinned rigs and work up a juggernaut momentum ("Coming of the Century") powered by rhythms that somehow seem to be both complex and essential. The tunes on Telepathic can change form and mood widely within a single song--"59 Minutes" goes from rocker to subdued, subcontinental drum clinic almost before you notice. When you trace the movements within a song on Telepathic, the tune can sometimes seem like small orchestral pieces.

Vocalist Mike Graff meets the listener with the force and character that you'd expect from a singer who lacks a guitar to hide behind. Guitars crash and fall around him, strings ringing, and there is a definite weight imparted, whether it's wickedly rolling ( "New Maps") or dreamily ethereal (their remake of the old starndard "Blue Moon."). The group's tendency toward minor keys and almost Middle Eastern-sounding melodies is more developed, and the album is full of not-so-obvious loops, samples, and sonic tricks. Rock bands are beginning to borrow more and more from electronica, often in clumsy attempts to boost both their image and their sales. Usually they end up looking like idiots. Course of Empire, however, pulls it off. Their songs are well written, densely textured and surprising enough, to simply stand on their own. They are of this time, so they sound like this.

That posed a bit of a problem when it came to duplicating the songs live for the band's album release party Friday, January 23, and Saturday, January 24. Lovell had come up with the noises, passages, treatments, and loops not with a sampler--as many do--but at his computer in the studio. "All of the weird noises you hear on that album were made on the computer. I've never been afraid of electronics or electronic music," Lovell says. "To me, it's all instrumentation, all a means to an end."

But there's a limit. "It was important to me to actually trigger the samples [live] rather than play along with some DAT [Digital Audio Tape] somewhere," the drummer says. The samples were rather involved--some ran nearly the length of their songs--and the process of rendering them reproducible live was fairly complicated. Lovell turned to Tim Sanders (formerly of Code 4, now half of the Terror Couple along with wife Jaqueline) for help, and the two spent every spare minute before the weekend gig at the Curtain Club working on a solution.

Saturday night, the packed house testified to the enduring affection Dallasites feel for COE. "These shows always feel like a big wedding," one person there remarked. On stage, the band captured the fullness and density of the album perfectly. COE has long operated at a different level than most local acts--a couple of serviceable local bands will open up the bill and you think, "'hmm, not bad," then Course of Empire takes the stage and reminds you how much difference there can be between "not bad" and "good." Live, the band called up a tornado of sound--thick with the samples and loops Sanders and Lovell had worked on and impossible not to consider--and whipped it around the room, making it do tricks with aplomb. The band has a new booking agent and an upcoming appearance at the influential music-biz Gavin convention, and is considering a number of tours and opening slots. And they finally have Telepathic Last Words.

"All our career, we've been hearing something like, 'You're too diverse; it's like you have no idea at all of who you want to be,'" Lovell says, no longer susceptible to the giggles. "To me, that's looking at it exactly the wrong way. In Course of Empire, we strive to somehow have meaning in our music that attaches itself to life as a whole."

Scene, heard
Anyone who was strolling about Deep Ellum Saturday night, January 24, couldn't help but be struck by the differences between the Curtain Club and Trees, the club that CC co-owner Doug Simmons left not too long ago. Simmons took his sound system with him, but left years of rock and roll memorabilia on the walls and rafters: posters, drum heads, busted cymbals, and other kinds of rock bric-a-brac, most of it autographed. Recently he returned and reclaimed his decorations, many of which--having been over-stapled countless times, saturated with nicotine, and splashed with beer and God knows what else--had to be thrown away...

Every night is different in club land, and it's probably not fair to note that the Curtain Club was packed, while Trees contained maybe 50 desultory mopers. COE is going to outdraw Plaid Faction most nights, even when--as they were this evening--the P. Faction is playing their set as if serving a court-imposed sentence. If Son Volt had been there, you wouldn't have been able to slip a TV Guide between the patrons. The newly bare interior seemed almost sterile--a word you can bet isn't bandied about much in describing any nightclub...

What was noteworthy, however, was the absolutely abysmal quality of sound at Trees. Although their system is supposedly newer and better than Simmons', it sounded like the AM radio in your older brother's Torino next to the amazingly well-set PA at the Curtain Club. Break it down far enough, and it all comes down to how the show sounds. Is Trees already losing a battle with a fresh new competitor?

Chris Darlington, of the feisty three-piece band Darlington, was a startling sight in a fetchingly skintight lacy black number and (under the street lights, at least) gray pancake makeup. Darlington explained that he'd just finished a show down the street and had elected to stay in costume for a late-night constitutional. Looking like a Greco-Roman LeStat, he reported that the band was-even-as-we-spoke awaiting the arrival of Girltroversy, its new full-length from Last Beat, and looking forward to its imminent release...Leak of the week: "The Twist" will be an essential part of the new Darlington philosophy...Burette and Gabriel Douglas of Buck Jones stopped by to compliment the divine Mr. D on his ensemble and reported that they've just inked a deal for the German distribution of their Shimmer...

Is there any more plaintive call to hear from a stage than "Has anybody seen my band?" Country up-and-comer Brian Houser was crying those blues in between country songs from the corner stage at Adair's, then went on to distract himself by inviting two young ladies up on stage to sing with him. This--the laboratory portion of the show--conclusively proved that there was absolutely no connection between being able to stand behind the microphone and looking good, and actually being able to sing. Fortunately, Houser was saved when his band--no doubt mindful of last call--sauntered back in...

Homegrown rappers Bassx--who relocated to Brooklyn in early 1996--have called it quits, citing the usual creative differences and boredom with the routine of making music together. The group, which formed in Denton in 1992, was a perennial favorite in Dallas Observer Music Awards voting. The group put out two cassette releases before issuing their album Thick in 1995. All members--Ban Ra, Chill, Ari Hoenig, Homage, and Snika--will remain in NYC...Fast, aggressive rock with more than a touch of punk relentlessness could be the soundtrack to heaven or hell, depending on your tastes, but if you're in the former camp you should check out Super Sport 396. The band has a two-song demo floating around and can be caught this Friday, February 6...Paul Levatino, drummer for Big Twin Evo, reports that the band is starting work on an album that should be out by April; catch them at the Curtain Club Thursday, February 19...Jazz fans should check out guitarist John Pizzarelli, who will be playing at the Addison Sambuca this Sunday, February 8--a pretty good combination of intimate venue and big-name act...

Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys, Dale Watson, Lisa Layne, and fashion victim Marty Stuart will host "The Honky-Tonk Jubilee" on Saturday, April 4, at the Bronco Bowl. The show will benefit the Assistance League of Dallas...Ranger Randall's Texas Music Connection has announced the first of a regular quarterly throwdown to be called--not surprisingly--TMC Quarterly. The event, to be held at the Sons of Hermann Hall the weekend of Friday, March 6, will feature the Austin Lounge Lizards, the Ex-Husbands, the Rank Outsiders, Dale Watson, Colin Boyd, Peter Keane, and Darden Smith. Tickets are $25 now, and go up to $30 on February 24...Captain Audio announces that Brandon Curtis, formerly the bassist for UFOFU, has joined the band...

Street Beat is Siamese, if you please. Street Beat is Siamese, if you don't please. Both these seemingly divergent natures are brought together in one elegant whole at Matt_Weitz@dallasobserver.com.

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