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?

By October 1997, it came time for the band to leave for Woodstock, New York, to record its third album with producer Eric Drew Feldman, a member of Polly Jean Harvey's band. And on the day they left, October 7, they told Mitch Marine to take his equipment out of the van--he would not be joining them on this or any other trip.

As luck would have it, UFOFU was disbanding just as the Daisy was heading to New York. After one album of its own, the group--Joe Butcher on guitar, Brandon Curtis on bass, his kid brother Ben on drums--was dying a quick, ugly death; Brandon and Ben had stopped speaking to each other altogether.

Two weeks after Tripping Daisy had been in Woodstock--without a drummer, trying to figure out what the hell they were going to do as the studio meter was running--they called Ben and invited him to join the band. He laid down tracks within hours of reaching the studio. "When I got up there, it was really positive," he says. "Everyone was open to anything. After UFOFU, it was a relief." (Brandon, now in Captain Audio, and Ben are back on speaking terms.)

By the end of the year, the Daisy had recorded the 15 songs that make up Jesus Hits Like The Atom Bomb, a record that pops from start to finish. For the first time, it sounds like a band instead of three guys playing straight men to DeLaughter's whimsy; it gets a groove on and never lets up, even when you can't find the hooks. The decision to debut with "Waited a Light Year" is a risky one, only because there are half a dozen other songs that could have become the soundtrack to summer, especially the new-wave "Mechanical Breakdown" and the catchier-than-the-flu "New Plains Medicine."

With this new release, DeLaughter and the band are making their stand: Because of "I Got a Girl," they want people to realize they're not a one-hit wonder, even if it means being a none-hit wonder this go-'round. They have seized control of the whole publicity process from Island, going with the New York-based Kathy Schenker Associates instead of the label's in-house publicists; they will again tour without label money, if only so that they don't owe Island anything extra.

"It's the first time we've made a record that when people hear this, they'll know they're hearing a band that knows exactly what it wants to do," says Pirro. "But now, I think we're the best we've been so far."

It's overstating the fact to say that the future of Island Records depends on the success of Tripping Daisy, but not by much. Just last week, Seagram Co. purchased PolyGram, Island's parent company, for $10.6 billion--which, in turn, gives the Canadian-based Seagram about 25 percent of the international music business. (PolyGram's labels also include MCA, Mercury, A&M, Geffen, Interscope, and Universal, among so many others.) The sale has been the talk of the industry for months, and it was made official on June 24--though it will not be completed for several more months, after the standard regulatory approvals and other bookkeeping details.

There's speculation among some industry insiders that Seagram CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. will shut down a few of PolyGram's labels in order to recoup some of the costs, and Island is an obvious choice when it's time to whip out the calculators and hacksaws. According to industry figures, Island--home to U2, PJ Harvey, Melissa Etheridge, and Tracy Bonham--accounts for only 1.42 percent of all the records sold in the world. U2 is by far the biggest-selling band on a label that has recently lost such mainstays as Grace Jones and Tom Waits. An article in The Hollywood Reporter last week stated that "thousands may eventually lose their jobs" at PolyGram.

Davitt Sigerson--who replaced Island Records chairman and founder Chris Blackwell after he left in a snit last November and launched a new multimedia corporation, IslandLife--isn't so worried about the immediate future. Sigerson insists the label will exist in some shape, large or small, after the sale is completed next year. He says the label's status will depend upon whether he can prove to Bronfman and his board of directors that Island is profitable enough as an independent subsidiary and that it doesn't need to be folded into a larger conglomerate label.

Does that mean if Tripping Daisy sold millions of records and made Bronfman some extra money, Island might not be blown apart?

"Absolutely," Sigerson says. "Absolutely." It doesn't appear as though he's joking.

Sigerson, you see, talks openly of the day when Tripping Daisy becomes as successful and "influential," he says--as bands such as Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead, bands that top the critics' polls and, more importantly, the pop charts. He figures Jesus Hits Like The Atom Bomb will sell at least 500,000 copies, making it a gold record, though that's just his modest projection. More likely, he imagines, it will go platinum, selling more than a million discs between now and the end of the year.

He speaks of the label's born-again marketing push, of the thousands of dollars he has given DeLaughter to make a film based on the album, of the reasons he will send to radio a six-minute epic instead of a three-minute hit. (Sigerson hastens to add that there will also be a four-minute edit of "Waited a Light Year" sent to radio: "We're not daring them to play it.") He speaks of risks and payoffs; he speaks of ambition and respecting the artists' vision. He talks about coddling the fan base and creating a new audience--he's got the rap down pat, and he seems sincere enough. After all, Sigerson stresses, he was, once upon a very long time ago, signed to the label himself, and he has been a producer for the likes of the Bangles and Tori Amos.

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