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.

True to the myth, the Daisy didn't break out nationally into the platinum-selling chart-buster Island executives thought they had on their hands. After its first two albums, the band grew frustrated, wondering why they never got into Rolling Stone or Spin; they blamed the label, of course, became convinced some Island execs didn't understand their vision or support their art. Then they burned themselves out, touring too much, complaining too often, getting ground in the gears of the rock-business machinery till they became part of it. Time seemed to crawl: Berggren likes to say two human years equal one band year. For a while, they contemplated breaking up.

But unlike the myth, the Daisy has managed to survive: In the three years since the release of Elastic Firecracker, the band has fired two drummers and hired a third, in addition to a third guitarist (Karnats), turning the Daisy into a five-piece. Island has undergone dramatic changes, including the departure of founder Chris Blackwell and its recent purchase by the liquor giant Seagram Co.; James Dowdall and Rose Noone, the Island A&R execs who signed the Daisy and oversaw the making of Elastic Firecracker, have also left.

Unlike the myth, Island then let Tripping Daisy make the record they wanted--no time constraints, no pressure, no interference. "We've always had people from the label in our shit while we're trying to record, always with other things on their minds rather than allowing you to have a clear head to do what you want," DeLaughter says. "It was taxing, and it wasn't a good position to be in...But we made this whole record without one interruption from the label--not a phone call, nothing. It's the only way to do it, and maybe they don't understand that now, but later on they will."

And unlike the myth, it's now the future of Island records that remains uncertain--due, in part, to the merger mania that has overtaken Seagram's and is causing it to consolidate its various holdings. In a strange twist of fate, Tripping Daisy is being looked at as the savior of the label: If Jesus does hit like an atom bomb, the company may be spared from bottom-liners who seek to merge it out of existence. If the buying public doesn't do just that, the Daisy may forever find themselves back where they started: in their pod on Lower Greenville.

The story of Tripping Daisy is a tale about a band that came from nowhere and became, in an instant, stars in their own back yard. They were born like most bands, in that lucky moment when desire and desperation collide: Tim DeLaughter says he was looking for musicians who could "fulfill this need I had," while Wes Berggren and Mark Pirro were just looking, college students killing time in bands they cared nothing about.

DeLaughter, a classmate of New Bohemians' guitarist Kenny Withrow at Lakewood Elementary School, had tried everything, playing in metal bands and jamming with hippie musicians whose idea of a good time was taking mushrooms and riding the high all night long. But nothing was fulfilling until girlfriend Doyle introduced him to her classmate at North Texas, Berggren, who came over one afternoon, holed up with DeLaughter in his backyard shack, and discovered they were musically compatible. Pirro joined later, then came drummer Jeff Bouck, who was, in a short time, replaced by former Fever in the Funkhouse drummer Bryan Wakeland.

After one gig at Club Dada, all hell broke loose, or so the story goes: They became an oasis in a barren music scene (which wasn't, really, given that the Toadies and Funland and Bedhead and so many other fine bands were around), and fans started coming by the dozens and the hundreds and the thousands. Their audience was the ultimate cross-section, geeks and Greeks, all drawn to the dazzling slide-show of images flashing behind (and on) the band and DeLaughter's cartoon-character persona. His voice was all Johnny Rotten and helium; his hair, braided and dyed purple or orange. And the band was tight, a mixture of funk-rock, boho psychedelia, and prog-pop, even if the songs occasionally were not.

"We would come home at night and just freak out on it," DeLaughter recalls of the early, fanatical response. "It was totally about going and doing what we did." DeLaughter believed that the Deep Ellum scene hadn't been meeting the needs of its audience. "It was, to me, a very stagnant situation, very flat, not stimulating, and we had visuals going on and this total concept happening. It just went from there." It became, within nine months, a one-album deal with David Dennard and Patrick Keel's Dragon Street Records; the release of Bill in 1992; the appearance on local radio of the singles "Lost and Found" and "One Through Four," nice write-ups in Billboard magazine--an astonishing feat for a homegrown band. By March 1993, the band was signed to Island Records, home to Bob Marley, U2, and Tom Waits.

"A friend of mine in Dallas told me about them," says then Island A&R exec Rose Noone, who, along with James Dowdall, helped sign the band to Island after a short bidding war with a handful of other labels. "We drove down and went to see them at an in-store and thought the energy was so fantastic. Then we went to see them at the Agora and thought they were great musicians. We decided to try to sign them. But I remember all these other people wanted them too. I remember seeing all these other A&R people at the Agora and wondering, 'What are all these people doing here?'" By late 1993, then-Morning News music critic Michael Corcoran wrote in Request magazine that Tripping Daisy was "going to be huge. HUGE."

But in June 1994, he retracted his words after Island's rerelease of Bill failed to capitalize on its hometown adoration. "Tripping Daisy appears to be a major disappointment so far," he wrote, this time in the Morning News. But Corcoran related the handful of excuses spun by the Daisy and Island: The band insisted it wanted to build its fan base slowly, carefully; they said that having a hit too quickly meant having an audience identify them with only one particular song, and hit songs come and go; the label said it would be patient--like the band, it was in it for the long haul, not the immediate gratification.

"The success of Bill left more room to grow, so to speak." Pirro says now. "Things would have turned out differently if that record had gone gold or platinum. It got what it deserved. It did what it did because of what it was--a band's first record. I was pleased with how it came out."

For a while, Tripping Daisy believed Island would, in fact, be patient--more to the point, they believed in Island's Chris Blackwell, with whom they had become friends. According to one source at the label, shortly after the Daisy had signed with Island, they traveled to Jamaica with Blackwell for two weeks, which he seldom did with other groups. But over time, DeLaughter says, he came to understand that all labels are the same--"every one of them," he sneers. "It ultimately turns into a big disaster."

The problems with Island, he claims, began with the release of a live five-song EP in 1994, taken from a summer 1993 show at Trees. It was a mistake: The quality of the disc is poor, and even DeLaughter concedes now, "It wasn't exactly the best show to do it on." Problems were compounded with the recording of I Am An Elastic Firecracker. DeLaughter says Noone and Dowdall were always looking over the band's shoulders, trying to get DeLaughter to write a hit single or two.

Tripping Daisy had brought in revered producer Ted Nicely, best known for his work with indie stalwarts Fugazi, to produce the record. But DeLaughter says Nicely was too easily manipulated by Noone and Dowdall, quick to give in to the label's demands when what the band really wanted was a producer who would let them experiment with various sounds. "We were all innocent at the time," DeLaughter says, "but we were sucked in. Before we knew it, we were marching to their beat and not our own."

The result was a scattered, schizophrenic disc by a band torn between making art and making the charts. For every song like "Prick," which was noisy and frenetic and revealed so much growth from Bill, there were two like "I Got a Girl," which was just insistent and sing-song silly ("I got a girl who wears cool shoes/I got a girl who wears them in the nude"). "Girl" was hardly representative of the band, yet Island picked it as the album's first single and video (the band wanted "Rocketpop"). In time, it topped the Billboard modern-rock charts and landed in constant rotation on MTV, where several times daily audiences were driven insane through repetition. In the end, even the band grew sick to death of it.

"You were dealing with a record company that wanted to break this band big time," DeLaughter says. "They wanted to get on there and go to the moon, and that was their number-one focus. There was talk of selling a million records, and before you know it, you're starting to think like them and believe them and not really like...I dunno. You kinda got fogged by the whole idea. There was no consistency on Firecracker. The only thing consistent was the label going, 'This has to be perfect.'"

The second single, "Piranha," drowned before it ever hit radio, and sales of Firecracker stalled at 250,000 copies--damned respectable numbers, to be sure, but a far cry from what the label imagined. Noone says she can't offer any reasons why "Piranha" didn't chart with the success of "I Got a Girl." She does offer that she's happy with the way Firecracker came out; she mentions often in the course of a 10-minute interview how it sounds good, how the production is "amazing." Noone also insists that the decision to release "I Got a Girl" as the first single was a mutual one.

But Noone, who has long since left Island for Epic Records, doesn't want to talk about her relationship with the band. When asked what she and Dowdall contributed, artistically speaking, to the making of I Am An Elastic Firecracker, she offers only a curt, "This is getting too serious for me" before slamming down the phone.

In the summer of 1996, just as Noone and Dowdall were leaving Island, the band was invited to open for Def Leppard, which was like asking Bill Clinton to speak at a monastery. The Daisy's psychedelic prog-alternapop wasn't much of a fit with Def Leppard's antiquated metal-lite; the pairing--which was Def Leppard's idea, since the English band was by then desperately in need of a little credibility--made no sense at all.

In retrospect, the Daisy would have been better served by taking some time off. They had been on the road almost nonstop for five years, and they were coming close to burn-out. "This band was completely fried and about ready to call it quits," DeLaughter says. "We just wore ourselves out."

"Tim just felt we weren't growing in the areas we needed to be growing in," says Pirro. "I felt that a little bit at times too. I always feel there's something more out there, something better. And I didn't think we had reached our full potential."

In February 1996, they parted ways with drummer Bryan Wakeland. It was a mutual separation: Wakeland, a Neil Young fan, and DeLaughter, a '70s pop-culture fanatic who would re-record the title tune from Sigmund and the Sea Monsters for a cartoon tribute album, felt they were moving in different musical directions. Mitch Marine, a longtime member of Brave Combo, was hired on as his replacement; in time, theirs would prove to be an even worse partnership.

"We had just been on the road for so long, and then came the Def Leppard tour," Berggren says. "Fifty-seven shows with Def Leppard in an arena...I mean, it was cool. I know a few of us, like Tim and I, were just huge Def Leppard fans when we were kids. They were awesome. But we were burned out before that tour came along."

By then, the Daisy had become a "gear in the machine," as DeLaughter likes to say--they were not only caught up in the business of selling records, but they were making decisions based solely on commerce instead of art. They had taken ill-advised tours in the past--sharing bills with labelmates Tracy Bonham and Local H at the insistence of Island Records, even though the Daisy received no money from Island for tour support. And the Leppard tour did have its advantages: better food, dressing rooms stocked with beer, a posh touring bus instead of a rickety van. But after years of inviting bands like UFOFU to open for them, exposing wonderful but unknown Dallas bands to larger national audiences, the Daisy suddenly found itself opening for a dinosaur that was long past extinction.

In the end, audiences were receptive enough, even when Tripping Daisy stopped playing songs off Firecracker. The band had become tired of hearing them, sick of playing them--and began improvising on stage. Crowds usually booed at first, then came around by the end, especially after hearing "I Got a Girl" and recognizing it from the radio--after all, the song for a time was as inescapable as air, and audiences love hearing songs they know, even if they hate the band playing them.

Only one audience was openly hostile: In Sacramento, the Daisy was forced to go on before hometown zeroes Tesla, a long-forgotten boogie-metal band that hasn't released a record since 1991. The crowd wanted no part of Daisy's light-show-and-wigs extravaganza.

"After hearing us, they were like, 'Booooooo! You suck!'" Berggren recalls. "They were chucking pennies and quarters at us."

"This one guy wanted to fight us," Pirro says, either laughing or wincing at the memory. "It was a really, really chaotic scene."

"Tim told the crowd we were a bunch of homos," Berggren adds. "He said, 'What's the matter, you don't like gay people?' I was so nervous, man. Bottles were flying."

Nobody in the band will say they regret the tour; if nothing else, it gave them a glimpse of what it was like to play in the arenas after years in the clubs. And maybe they made a few converts along the way. But emotionally, the strain of being a band together for five years--almost every day, it seemed--was becoming too much, and so they parted ways for a while, unsure of whether the Def Leppard tour was their final one.

It was during that period that DeLaughter first hooked up with Philip Karnats, who was then playing with Comet's Josh Garza, Bedhead's Chris Wheat, and rubberbullet's Richard Paul in the band 1919 Summit. Karnats, who had also spent time in Bobgoblin, was working on his own music when he and DeLaughter connected a little more than a year ago--DeLaughter was looking for inspiration in a new collaborator, while Karnats was just looking for something to do.

"I was playing a lot of my own songs, working a lot, recording my own shit, really," Karnats says. "Tim and I just started playing. He was kinda bummed out. In the attic of our house, there's a studio, this one room that always has drums and amps, and we just started playing. We just clicked."

Over time, Berggren joined their on-the-side project, called the Platinum Experience, playing keyboards, with Karnats on guitar and DeLaughter on drums. Eventually, all three were playing guitar, and Karnats was initially invited to join the Daisy for a tour. Last June, he joined the band for good.

"It was perfect, perfect for me," says Berggren. "I played keyboards, and that opened up a whole new sound for me. I don't play the keyboards all the time, but we just bounced off each other really well."

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.

"I'm much less concerned about how our records perform than how we perform," Sigerson says from Island's New York headquarters. "I always try to emphasize to the artists that the public's vote is the final decider. I've seen great records come out and get lost and seen mediocre records come out and happen. Over time, I think the talent connects and finds an audience, and I think we're paying attention and we're confident [about Tripping Daisy]. I know the band is going to work hard--they always have. If this record were to sell fewer copies [than 500,000], I wouldn't say I was wrong about it. I can't have remorse about it. It won't make me love it any less."

DeLaughter says Jesus might well be the Daisy's final album for Island; the band signed to a six-album deal with three guaranteed, which included Bill. (Then again, Island may not be around come the fourth album.)

But the fact is, no band is ever happy with its label: The Toadies used to badmouth Interscope Records all the time, till Rubberneck went platinum and the label gave the band all the time in the world to record and release its second record. Elvis Costello and Los Lobos recently left Warner Bros., claiming the label didn't do enough to promote their records. The only time a band likes its label is before the ink dries on the contract. After that, it's all downhill.

Sigerson knows this and listens to DeLaughter's complaints with the grin of a man who's been on both sides of the process: as bitcher and bitchee. He laughs when told of DeLaughter's unhappiness with Island--he's heard it all before, from Tim and everyone else in the business. He says it doesn't matter--he likes the record too much to care. And if it becomes a hit--sorry, when it becomes a hit--nobody's going to be complaining about one damned thing.

"If a band loves you or hates you, you're not doing the full job," Sigerson says, laughing. "If they love and hate you, you're doing a fantastic job. It's not meant to be smooth. It's meant to be passionate. They have a right to expect us to be passionate about their music, so if we argue about it, it's a natural product of the passion. Tim and I have disagreed over stuff, but I think when he looks at me, he sees whatever else he sees--a jerk, an idiot--but mostly he sees a fan.

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