The million-dollar record

Four years after its debut, Slowpoke makes its major-label bow on Geffen

About 30 minutes into the interview, Dave Gibson stops, frowns, shrugs, and lets out a slight moan. He is in the middle of explaining why it has been four years since his band, Slowpoke, has released an album, and suddenly it has struck him that perhaps he's burying a story of good fortune--on April 7, Slowpoke will release its second record, Virgin Stripes, on Geffen Records--beneath too many what-could-have-beens.

"This is making me feel like a Barbara Walters interview," he says, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. "Are you trying to make me cry?"

He and bassist Corbett Guest have been talking about the fact that Virgin Stripes isn't a new record at all, but a collection of songs that's two years old. The album has been finished for so long that Gibson was well into writing a third album before he discovered that Geffen--home to Sonic Youth, Lisa Loeb, and, um, Counting Crows--was indeed going to debut Slowpoke with Virgin Stripes, and even then, he wasn't sure whether it was such a hot idea. Not that he wasn't proud of the music, not that rock and roll comes bearing an expiration date, but still, maybe it was time to move on.

As such, Gibson and Guest are at once thrilled and a little diffident--happy to get their music out at last, but also a bit weary and ready to look ahead.

"Where have our lives gone?" Gibson asks no one in particular, shaking his head and wearing what's either a frown or a grin.

Their story begins in 1994, shortly after the release of Mad Chen, Slowpoke's debut on the then-small indie Grass Records. Mad Chen sounded not too unlike the Afghan Whigs and the Toadies fighting with Jawbox for control of the studio. Gibson growled his songs about the death of love ("can't stand the sickness of devotion") over music that sounded like an unexpected firecracker on a still night. Yet the momentum created by Mad Chen dissipated within months: Word circulated throughout Deep Ellum that Slowpoke had broken up, and Gibson had gone back to school to get his master's degree in biochemistry. Gibson all but disappeared from the downtown clubs, and drummer Chris Michaels split and formed his own band. That was that, it appeared, the end before the beginning. Only a split seven-inch single with the Toadies ever appeared.

Gibson now explains that Slowpoke was still together, only with a rotting lineup of musicians that included Corbett Guest on bass and Brent Dunham, the bassist on Mad Chen, on guitar. Gibson and the band were ready to record a second album, but Grass kept putting the band off; executives at the label explained that Grass was in the middle of being sold and that it didn't make sense to record if the label wasn't going to be around. Guest and Gibson explain that Slowpoke actually recorded at least three albums' worth of material that never saw release, but because of Grass' impending sale, there was no pressure to record for anyone but themselves.

"The band existed," Guest says. "It was just quietly finding its way."
"Grass wasn't offering us our second record, and we weren't forcing the issue," Gibson adds. "We were like, 'Whatever--we'll do what we enjoy by playing and writing music and not getting our hopes up.' That's the killer."

In early 1996, Grass gave the band the OK to record its second album, using Wally Gagel (Folk Implosion, The Old 97's) as producer; the band trekked up to the vaunted Ft. Apache Studios in Boston and recorded Virgin Stripes, thinking the whole time it would be released through Grass--which was indeed bought out and became Wind-Up Records.

The music was a remarkable step away from Mad Chen. Where the first record had been dissonant and derivative, even by the band's own admission, its successor was as pop and accessible as they come, a record so radio-friendly it all but hugs the listener. Songs such as "Lorraine" (the first single), "Hey! Alma Mater," and "Am I Shade?" belie an art-pop sensibility that blends swirling effects with straightforward melodies; the result is an album that feels bigger than its songs, like an acoustic record recorded on a dozen electric guitars and keyboards. Virgin Stripes is not as loud as Mad Chen, not as dirty and visceral or oblique; but never for a moment does the album sound dishonest, like a cop-out. It earns its eccentricities.

"I think a lot of old Slowpoke demos that Dave did were poppy and catchy, but we would just pollute them in the process," Guest says, explaining the extreme differences between the albums. "When this record came about, it was like, we wanted to be true to the songs from the very start."

"At heart," Gibson says, "I'm a pop fan."
During the recording of Virgin Stripes, the band handed over a three-song cassette to the folks at Grass--a tape that somehow began making the rounds at a few major labels, including Elektra Records. According to Gibson and Guest, one A&R man from Elektra contacted Grass--which, by then, had become Wind-Up--about buying Slowpoke out of its two-record deal, thinking the indie would be happy to make a little extra scratch selling off one of its baby bands. But no deal: Wind-Up wanted to become a player in the music business, and figured if Elektra was interested in Slowpoke, maybe it had something after all.

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