Run its Course

A decade later, Course of Empire utters its last words

It's not how they planned it, bidding farewell in the margin of an advertisement. But there it was last week, buried in the Trees ad found on page 97 in the Dallas Observer. On July 18, reads the ad, Course of Empire will play its "last show ever." The announcement is not in bold type, not blown up to broadcast the end in grand fashion. The phrase "last show ever" is in fact hidden in the fine print, the words in parentheses next to the band's name--almost like a whisper on the printed page.

"Does it really say that?" asks Course drummer Michael Jerome, when told of the ad's content. He laughs in disbelief. "He didn't want it to say that."

He in this case is Course of Empire frontman Vaughn Stevenson, who has decided to end the band he co-founded a decade ago with guitarist Mike Graff, bassist Paul Semrad, and drummers Chad Lovell and Anthony Headley (he was later replaced by Jerome). Stevenson, who had planned to circulate fliers the week of the final show, says the end--which comes almost exactly 10 years after the band made its local debut on July 4, 1988--was just inevitable after all this time. He is, plain and simple, too exhausted and disappointed after a decade of selling records by the handful to carry on.

"You know how hard it is to have a relationship with a girl for 10 years?" Stevenson says. "Try having it with four guys." He laughs, insisting he's neither thrilled nor disappointed in the breakup, simply resigned to it. "But we're all right. I am sort of the one who brought it to a head, but everyone I think feels similarly."

Indeed, only Jerome is disheartened by the decision--he refers to it as "disappointing"--but Stevenson says that's just because Jerome hasn't been in the band since the beginning. "He's not as beaten down as the rest of us," the lead singer jokes. "He's younger than us and tends to look at things on the positive side."

Stevenson's decision to end the band comes after six months of nothing but disappointment and bad luck. The year began with the release of the long-delayed Telepathic Last Words, which hit with all the impact of a melted snowball: Save for some airplay on KTXQ-FM (102.1), the single "The Information" failed to get played on local radio; KDGE-FM (94.5) and KEGL-FM (97.1) virtually ignored the song altogether--so much for that local radio playing local rock fad. Then came an aborted tour with the band Two, fronted by former Judas Priest singer Rob Halford. The tour, which began in the spring and was supposed to last more than a month, didn't make it past the third week; Two's label, the Trent Reznor-run Nothing, wanted the band to play in Europe and stop wasting its time and money playing the States.

When the tour ended a month ago, Course returned to Dallas with the vague feeling that the end was near, says their New York City-based manager Jerry Jaffe. Jerome says he took two weeks off to go on vacation and returned to discover that Stevenson was ready to call it quits. "When I left, I hoped things would change, and then I found they got more solid on where they stand," says the drummer, who now plans on going back to school and disappearing for a while. "So you move on."

Jerome, Jaffe, and execs at TVT Records (the band's home since February 1997) wanted Stevenson to wait it out a little longer. They had hoped he would give "Captain Control," the second (and most radio-friendly) single from Telepathic Last Words, time to make a dent on radio. But Stevenson's a smart man: He knows radio doesn't give you a second shot these days. Either a record breaks, or a band breaks up.

"In my mind, this was sort of the last record anyway, but I was willing to try to give it a full shot if that's what everyone wanted to do," Stevenson says. "Although I've changed my mind in the past, I was convinced this was it."

The end of Course of Empire "was always a possibility," says Jaffe, who has managed the band since 1994. "It's always a possibility when you realize your record is not going to go gold. There's a certain inevitability about it if you don't reach a certain success level. It's not like one day someone from the band calls and says, 'Guess what--we're breaking up.' It would be a shock if we were selling three million records and Vaughn called and said that. Then I'd be like, 'Oh, no! I'm having a heart attack.' But it's not a surprise."

And so Course of Empire becomes one more local band that disappears into the ether like so much smoke and empty promise. They add their names to the growing list of Dallas-based bands who sign to major labels and then wind up writing their names in the history books in invisible ink--see: Jackopierce, the New Bohemians, Tablet, the Buck Pets, Vibrolux, Funland, and so many more. Some were good, some were bad, but all were once hailed as the next big something or other once upon a time. They sold their souls for living-wage advances to Mercury or Island or Arista or A&M, and we applauded their signing on the bottom line, so desperate were we to get a band on the charts and help this city's so-called music scene get over its inferiority complex. Now, all these acts stand as proof that getting signed is indeed the worst thing that can happen to a musician; any band that hasn't figured out by now that it's better off recording and pressing and selling its own CDs is dumber than it looks.

Yet news of Course's demise doesn't come as any great surprise. Indeed, there are probably plenty of people who thought the band broke up some time ago: Three albums in 10 years don't do much to build a fan base. The delay between the second album (1994's Initiation) and the third (Telepathic Last Words)--caused when their label, the major-minor Zoo Records, folded--proved a chasm too enormous to cross. In the end, Course was done in by dumb luck and bad timing.

"Why this happened is going to be one of the great mysteries to me," says Q102 music director Redbeard. "[Telepathic Last Words] is one of my favorite albums of the 1990s--and not just local albums either. I'll be listening to this album into the next millennium easily, and there were four radio-ready singles on this album...I wish I could give you a succinct analysis of why this happened, but I think the truth is kind of murky. It's a shame."

It seems forever and yet not long ago that Course was one of the biggest bands in town, a sellout every weeknight and weekend; theirs was (or is--they have one more show, after all) arena-rock made for the clubs, a post-punk-pre-industrial pastiche that was at once danceable and overwhelming. Live, the band was so in-your face, it was behind you. At their best--say, on the single "Infested!" off 1994's Initiation, or in concert--they proved a band could make metal-machine rock and roll without losing the human touch; at their worst--say, on their 1990 self-titled debut--they were self-serious and pretentious, preachers with guitars.

When Course began in 1988, they were greeted with the warmest of hometown hugs: Almost from the get-go, they were press darlings and a booking agent's best friend. In these very pages in January 1990, former music editor Clay McNear wrote that this local "U2 with a Bauhaus hangover" was an "act to watch"; a month later, he wrote of the buzz surrounding Course, which was then caught in a weird sort of bidding war--between local labels, no less. Fighting over the band were Allan Restrepo's Carpe Diem Records, which to that point had released only Rhett Miller's Mythologies, and David Dennard and Patrick Keel's Dragon Street Records, which would go on to release the debut records from Tripping Daisy and Hagfish, among others. Restrepo won out, insisting at the time that he would "make a big push on" Course of Empire and transform them from a local phenom into a national act.

For a while there, Restrepo's plan looked real: In the fall of 1990, Carpe Diem released Course of Empire and sold "somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 copies," Restrepo says now. "It happened real quick and dropped off real quick." But after shopping the band to various major labels, Restrepo hooked up with Kim Buie, who was working in the A&R department at Island Records. (It was Buie, now a vice-president of A&R at Capitol Records, who came to town and put together The Sounds of Deep Ellum collection in 1987 that featured the likes of the New Bohemians, Three on a Hill, and Reverend Horton Heat.) But Island Records was in the process of being bought by PolyGram and was in a state of turmoil; Buie passed along the band to Anna Loynes at Zoo Records, who eventually signed Course to the label. "We got Zoo's attention," Restrepo says, "but I wish we hadn't."

In 1992, Zoo Records (then home to Matthew Sweet and myriad artists no one has heard of or heard from since) re-released the Carpe Diem debut with a few insignificant modifications; none but the hardcore noticed the difference. The national release got the band a little extra press here and there, but from the get-go, no one really seemed to know what to make of Course of Empire: Were they industrial or Goth or, for that matter, new-age metal? And more to the point, was this band--with its vegan sloganeering and into-the-mystic lyrics ("I flew to the summit in the mountains of the spoken")--for real?

"We're the aftermath of industrial," Stevenson told the El Paso Herald-Post in 1992 (getting press in such minor markets as El Paso might have been one of the reasons the record didn't sell too well). "We're a post-industrial, anti-rock and roll band." (Or it could have been statements like that.) In the end, Zoo's rerelease of Course of Empire didn't do as well as the band or label had hoped: "I was looking at Zoo's reports," says Restrepo, "and they didn't sell much more than I did."

But there was no way Zoo could have been expected to sell a record like Course of Empire: It was too scattered, too schizophrenic, and often too silly. It was the antithesis of their live show, which was enormous even in the smallest setting. "The record turned off a lot people who liked the live show," Restrepo says. "The band got slammed for being pretentious, but I think some of their best songs are on that record, like 'Coming of the Century.'" (The band probably agrees: Telepathic Last Words features a remake of "Coming of the Century.")

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?"

Apparently, they needed label and radio support they never received. Apparently, they needed a fan base that existed outside of Deep Ellum. Apparently, they needed more than just a great live show and two good albums. They needed everything they never had.

"I'm proud of the records we've made," Stevenson says. "We've made mistakes like everyone else, and it took us longer to get stuff out than I would have liked. I'm proud of the music. But I'm frustrated we didn't have a little more success so we could continue to do it without the day-to-day of the financial problems of it. I am sure everybody wants to have done better, but I'm not disappointed. Not at all."

Pulling Pranks
Ah, the mystique. So much for would-be rock stars panting after the press: Wiring Prank--a group of youngsters from Dallas-Denton-Fort Worth and places in between--won't talk to the Observer or any other publication just yet, but that doesn't mean that we won't talk about them. In their two-plus years of existence, the quartet has played only a few shows, has put out one 7-inch and has never had its picture taken, and the members are hard as hell to get hold of (think Bedhead's non-image image gone awry). Nonetheless, the group's recent show at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in Denton (the only place they seem to play), proved what word-of-mouth had rumored: Wiring Prank is pretty damned good. A solid case of guitar layering--dissonance over melody over sustain--paired with a determined lack of vocals and refusal to make eye contact with the audience makes for an interesting live-show experience, the trump card being purely sonic: melancholy progressions and gut-wrenching resolves. Pretension aside, the band is a bright spot (can a bright spot be brooding?) in a region teeming with crappy music. They play only a few times a year, so keep an eye out for their name in the listings; they may play again in August, and hope to hit the studio around that time as well (OK, so one member spilled those few beans).

--Christina Rees

Send Street Beat break-up notices to rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com.

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