By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It began eight years ago as a hobby--no, a passion. It gave a home to bands no one else wanted, or bands who wanted no one else. It was an asylum where art came first, commerce never, and records sold by the dozens to aficionados who wanted their rock and roll independent and, so often, brilliant.
In 1990, King Coffey--drummer for the Butthole Surfers and, for Fort Worth cats who remember that far back, once a member of the Hugh Beaumont Experience--began the Austin-based Trance Syndicate because he was frustrated with the lack of outlets for Texas' post-punk bands; after all, the Buttholes had to go to Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label in San Francisco and Touch and Go in Chicago at the beginning of their career. So Coffey planted a seed in his own back yard, and Trance sprouted an indie-rock Garden of Eden, releasing albums by the likes of local heroes Bedhead, Austin's power-pop Sixteen Deluxe, psychedelic-rock father Roky Erickson, and the Houston's Pain Teens.
But Trance Syndicate is, sadly, no more: The best independent label in the state's history is out of business as of October, when Trance will release a 10-inch single from Bedhead, "Lepidoptera/Leper."
"It's King's decision," says Trance label manager and Coffey's longtime business partner Craig Stewart. "He's just not into it anymore."
The death of Trance--home to such tremendous new bands as Furry Things, Paul Newman, ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, and Monroe Mustang--means Bedhead will have to search for another label, as Trance has released all of the band's albums and EPs, including the magnificent Transaction de Novo, released in February. Stewart says that with the exception of ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, all the bands on Trance "are taken care of," meaning they either have deals with new labels or don't need or want them.
He also insists that the death of Trance will not affect Bedhead: "They're not on hiatus as much as they don't have anything planned," he says. "They've done all they wanted to do for this record as far as touring [the band recently completed a U.S. and European tour], and they don't have anything else coming up. And if they do regroup and get something done, they have plenty of labels that would want to have them. Touch and Go and Matador would love to have them, but it's totally up to them."
But it's unlikely Bedhead would leap to a label like Matador, which has distribution through CEMA, which also distributes Capitol Records. Matt and Bubba Kadane, the songwriters and guitarists behind Bedhead, have always been outspoken about their desire to stay independent of a major-label distribution system. If anything, they will go with Touch and Go, which already distributes Trance, Merge, Drag City, Thrill Jockey, and a number of other revered indies.
"We always thought we would go to Touch and Go to make another record anyway," says Matt Kadane. "We wanted to see if we would sell more records--a moderate but important number of records above what we had sold before. We wanted to see if we could double the number of records we sold. I never kid myself in thinking there are 100,000 people in this country who would like our music, but I think there are 25,000 instead of 12,000. If 25,000 people would buy a Yo La Tengo record, I think they would like our records."
Trance's first release was Crust's Sacred Heart EP, followed by the two "Love and Napalm" seven-inch compilation singles that featured the likes of Ed Hall, Drain (Coffey's dissonant side project), and Crust. The first non-Texas band released on Trance was Crunt, which featured Babes in Toyland singer Kate Bjelleland and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion drummer Russell Simins. Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder told Spin at the end of 1994 that Crunt's self-titled debut was one of his favorite albums of the year. Sixteen Deluxe also released its first album on Trance, only to leap to Warner Bros. Records--the only Trance band to make the transition from the indie to a major.
But the label's prestige came from releasing albums by Bedhead and Erickson, whose poignant 1995 "comeback" All That May Do My Rhyme, which sold 17,000 copies worldwide, remains Trance's best seller. According to Stewart, Bedhead's albums--including 1994's WhatFunLifeWas, 1996's Beheaded, and Transaction de Novo--sold between 10,000 and 12,000 copies. But Coffey wasn't in it for the sales or the money: He was in it for the music, often funding the label from his own pocket, thanks to the Buttholes' deal with Capitol Records. (The Buttholes, who were to have released a long-completed album earlier this year on the label, are looking to get off Capitol for myriad undisclosed reasons.)
"King and Craig have always really liked what they put out, so they've been into the bands for aesthetic reasons," says Kadane. "It's an advantage that King had Butthole Surfers money too, so Trance has been indirectly bankrolled by a major label--but indirectly is the operative word."
Coffey's decision to fold the label after eight less-than-profitable years isn't a shocking one; hard to believe it lasted this long. The rule of thumb in rock and roll: The better the bands, the worse the sales, and there are few bands in America better than Bedhead. But its legacy is not completely dead. Stewart says he will continue to operate the Trance imprint Emperor Jones, the more electronic-and-experimental label that has released albums by the American Analog Set (From Our Living Room to Yours), Alastair Galbraith (Mirrorwork, released in June), and The Mountain Goats (Full Force Galesburg). Should Emperor Jones thrive in the next year, Stewart says, then it will absorb Trance and release some of the bands currently on the label.