Getting the business

With the new Jesus Hits Like The Atom Bomb, Tripping Daisy has made the best record of its seven-year career. So what took so long?

Tripping Daisy's rehearsal space has hardly any space at all. It's nothing more than a shack behind the house that Tim DeLaughter and his girlfriend of more than 15 years, Julie Doyle, share near Lower Greenville. An air-conditioning unit--plugged into the side and blowing meekly, as though embarrassed that it can't get the job done--provides no comfort. Inside, the walls of this windowless room, this Unabomber paradise, are covered with gray soundproofing foam; two dim overhead bulbs provide just enough light to illuminate the sweat pouring from the five band members as they rehearse in the withering, hundred-plus-degree heat. Drummer Ben Curtis--always in motion, his thin arms disappearing in and out of the shadows of this tiny room--sweats the most. He looks like a wrung sponge.

Though the band will not tour until the fall--well after the July 7 release of the Daisy's third full-length album, Jesus Hits Like The Atom Bomb--they are preparing for a radio-sponsored concert in Montreal and an upcoming record-release party at Bill's Records and Tapes, where they will perform July 6--in the wee hours before the album goes on sale. They run through a couple of songs from Jesus: "Geeareohdoubleyou" (referred to as "G.R.O.W.") and "Waited a Light Year," which will be the album's first single--despite the fact that it clocks in at six minutes, far longer than most radio hits.

They play for each other--Tim DeLaughter, Wes Berggren, and Philip Karnats on guitar, Mark Pirro on bass, Curtis on drums--and for an imaginary crowd of thousands. The music explodes from the amps piled around the room, and it's a wonder this tiny shack can withstand the impact. The sound is deafening in such a confined space. Never again will anyone ever be able to complain that Tripping Daisy, once adored for its swirling slide shows and DeLaughter's penchant for wearing wigs and housecoats on stage, doesn't rock.

DeLaughter, wearing a white T-shirt and dark green slacks, stands in one corner of the "pod," as the band refers to the space; he holds his guitar and sings into the mike, his high voice nearly lost beneath the swirling tumult. Pirro, looking oddly dapper in a straw hat and old-man's shirt, stands next to him, keeping the beat, controlling the chaos. Across from him, Berggren and Karnats turn deceptively simple melodies into tidal waves of mayhem. And they all sing, even Curtis, who's never out of breath.

Next week, Tripping Daisy will release what is easily the finest, most consistent, most complete album of its seven-year career. Jesus Hits Like The Atom Bomb is the sort of collection that record-label executives dream of as they lie in bed at night, balancing corporate ledgers in their grubby little heads--every other song, including "Mechanical Breakdown" and "Your Socks Have No Name" and "New Plains Medicine," is a potential hit at fickle radio. The album, a pastiche of new-wave charm and punk-rock bravado and indie-rock propriety, delivers the goods in a tidy, shiny bundle; it's the very best of both worlds, an album with commercial potential that doesn't sacrifice artistry for easy dollars.

"It's more epic and more emotionally connecting," says Island Records chairman Davitt Sigerson. "It's a more ambitious work than what came before. That doesn't necessarily make it better--sometimes ambition is a dangerous thing--but in Tim's case, it makes for something better than what has come before."

After seven years and two albums--1992's Bill, originally released on the local indie Dragon Street and re-released the following year by Island Records, and 1995's I Am An Elastic Firecracker--the Daisy has finally made a disc its members are proud of from start to finish. The reason: They made it alone, without interference from Island execs, who signed Tripping Daisy in 1993 and thought they had an instant hit on their hands.

After all, Tripping Daisy hit like, well, an atom bomb on the local music scene in 1991; all of a sudden, it seemed, they went from playing an open-mike night at Club Dada to turning away hundreds at Trees to headlining KDGE-FM's annual Edgefest concert in front of more than 20,000. They had a record out less than a year after DeLaughter connected with University of North Texas products Berggren and Pirro. They were meteoric downtown celebrities, their every breath documented in The Dallas Morning News; they swept the Dallas Observer Music Awards, which they considered meaningless but were nonetheless voted for by adoring fans. They were the 1990s version of the New Bohemians--bigger than anyone else in town, a self-contained scene.

But just because a band makes it here doesn't mean they can make it everywhere. Often in the hands of a major record label, making music gives way to making money, artistic control gives way to commercial collusion, homegrown heroes become national nobodies. On tour to nowhere, bands tire of each other, wear down and lose sight of the creative spark that brought them together in the first place. They begin to doubt themselves, argue among themselves, questioning whether they were nothing more than the one-hit wonder their record company now accuses them of being. The fighting can get nasty, the break-up bitter; it's time to call it quits, go home--form another band or get out of the business altogether. Such is the stuff of rock-and-roll myth--and Tripping Daisy has spent the better part of its career trying to debunk it--though with only some success.

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