Run its Course

A decade later, Course of Empire utters its last words

Tellingly, the band would distance itself from the debut when it came time to release the stripped-down, unhewn Initiation in 1994. During an interview with the Observer in January of that year, band members seemed to apologize for the first record's excesses. They weren't ashamed of their ambition, but embarrassed it had failed to make the transition from stage to studio.

"After it got done and we listened to the first record, it was like, 'Well, maybe we shouldn't have tried that,'" Mike Graff said at the time. "We should have just played music instead."

Which is what they did on Initiation, and the record was significantly better than its predecessor--louder, faster, funnier. It didn't need to prove how smart it was, only how rock it was, and for a while, "Infested!" found its way onto MTV and the playlists of not a few modern-rock stations across the country--in San Francisco, Phoenix, Denver, Atlanta, and a few other major markets. But it never became much of a hit in Dallas, Jaffe says, garnering only a little airplay on the Edge and Q102, and then, it was often during the late-night shift. To make matters worse, "Infested!" was, for a few weeks in 1994, among the top five most-requested songs added to radio--until it just disappeared.

"'Infested!' was almost a novelty," says Redbeard. "It wasn't representative of the band, but for some reason, people made 'Infested!' a minor hit in the world of industrial dance-rock music, and this is a perfect case of how a tag can be stapled to your behind and how it's damned hard to get rid of it. Sometimes a hit, if it's a novelty, can be a bane and not a boon."

The song "collapsed," says Jaffe, who blames the band's inability to score a hit single on the fact that Zoo Records never offered any big push behind Initiation. In fact, Course had nothing but bad luck at the label, he says. "At the height of 'Infested!,' the head of promotion at Zoo had a heart attack and went from Los Angeles to Atlanta," Jaffe explains. "The girl who was the head of alternative promotion at Zoo moved to Radioactive Records, and there was never any replacement made. They had a small field staff at Zoo, and when you cut off the head of a midget, you have two stumps, not two legs."

But that didn't stop Course from building a studio near downtown Dallas and beginning work on its third album for Zoo. The only problem was, come 1997, there wasn't a Zoo Records to deal with--the label folded its Los Angeles offices at the beginning of the year and died a quick, ugly death. Jaffe knew it was coming and, in the fall of 1996, set up a couple of showcase gigs, trying to sell the group to a new label. He says that he wrangled at least nine A&R reps from various majors for a show at Trees, but that it wasn't one of Course's best outings--"the kids loved it," he explains, "but they weren't in fighting trim"--and he had no takers. A show at Rick's in Denton the following week convinced TVT's Tom Sarig to sign Course, and in February 1997, it was a done deal.

A year later, Telepathic Last Words was released, and then...nothing. All the momentum (a word industry insiders so love to bandy about, as though it means anything) from "Infested!" disappeared after four years; Course of Empire might as well have been a new band even as far as local radio was concerned. Jaffe says it was a "fucking crime" that Course couldn't get played on local radio. More likely, Course's time had come and gone at corporate-controlled, lowest-common-denominator radio.

Redbeard says that at the beginning of the year, TVT brought radio programmers from all over Texas to Dallas to hear Telepathic Last Words and see the band perform. He recalls that during a dinner, music directors from such cities as El Paso, San Antonio, Austin, and Lubbock were complaining that they couldn't play Course because the band was too industrial.

"And I said, 'Have you seen them in the last year or heard the album?' and of course it was like, no," Redbeard recalls. "There was this preconceived notion of what Course of Empire was before people got to the music, and in my experience, preconceived notions are hard to dispel."

And so the band disappears for good on July 18. Jaffe and Jerome both hope some "miracle" happens and "Captain Control" becomes the hit single this band has always craved, forcing them to hit the road again and support Telepathic Last Words, which TVT publicist Carleen Donovan says has sold 19,400 copies since its January release.

But Stevenson says that even if the single breaks at radio--don't hold your breath--this is the end of Course of Empire.

"I thought they would be a platinum-plus band," Jaffe says, the unhappiness creeping into his voice. "I think they have more talent than 99 percent of the other bands out there. They were writing smart songs in a genre not known for that...I thought they could cross over to a far more mainstream audience and had a really good live show. It was interesting, it was different, they were musical, and they were entertaining. What more did they need?"

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