Schmidt happens

After 10 years of being told he was the Next Big Thing, former Three on a Hill and Funland frontman Peter Schmidt makes the best record of his career. And he did it, for the most part, all by himself.

Peter Schmidt shouldn't even be here now. Here is Matt Pence's home studio in Denton, and now is December 1997, not so long after it appeared that Schmidt had finally given up on music for good. By now, Schmidt figured, the record he has been making for months--months that seemed like years--would have been at the pressing plant, finished, maybe even released. But no, not even close. Too many things have gone wrong; they always seem to.

So Schmidt is here in Denton, and things seem to be going smoothly for the first time in, well, for the first time. That is, until an unanticipated problem with the computer program Schmidt and Pence are using causes the recording session to come to a muttering halt. Schmidt kneels on the floor of the studio, glaring at the screen as though he could maybe make the damned thing work if he just concentrated hard enough. Each attempt to solve the problem only elicits a series of error messages from the computer and a string of mumbled curses from Schmidt.

The delay is a minor one, the kind of glitch that often happens during the recording of an album. Well, it would be a minor one if it were happening to any other musician, during any other recording session. Schmidt has already seen the recording of this album, his album, run so far behind schedule and over budget that he might as well have asked James Cameron to produce it.

After a decade and a half of haunting the stages of Deep Ellum (if there is such a thing as Local Band Hell, Schmidt probably knows the devil), no delay is minor to Schmidt anymore. He's tired of being at the mercy of unreliable equipment and even more unreliable people, tired of having to put his life on hold for a business that treats him like its bastard son, tired of having to sit and watch while lesser talents show off his brass ring. Ten years ago, Schmidt probably thought that at this point in his career he'd be filling his bank account with Top 40 gold and platinum. Instead, he's in a grubby little studio in a grubby little town, making himself crazy and going broke.

Being a musician has never been easy for Peter Schmidt. From the beginning, his career has been plagued by bad luck or bad timing--or both. But it has never been an issue of talent.

He's probably one of the best songwriters ever to stand on a Deep Ellum stage; he's just never had the opportunity to let the world know. Schmidt has been through all the chutes and ladders the music business has thrown at him, and emerged on the other side with his talent and integrity intact. On July 21, he will release his first solo album, Love or the Decimal Equivalent, an album that is as much a testament to his perseverance as it is a document of his continuing brilliance as a songwriter. Love or the Decimal Equivalent might be the best album Schmidt has ever recorded.

Albums this good, this complete, have made stars out of lesser talents than Schmidt. It overflows with quiet surprises and familiar delights; it's the kind of record that you put on and throw away the remote control, because every song is worth hearing.

"When I was younger, getting signed to a major label was the ultimate validation," Schmidt says. "It was like, 'Ha, ha--I did do something.' But really, it's not the most effective way to further your real goals, which are--hopefully for most musicians--to be creative."

In a just world, Love or the Decimal Equivalent would make Schmidt a little money, a little famous, a little bit of everything he has been denied for more than a decade. But, truth be told, none of that matters to him anymore. He has grown up on a stage with a guitar in his hand and a microphone in his face; he began playing local clubs when he was a desperate 17-year-old wanting to own his piece of the prize. But he is 32 now and has been through two bands and a lifetime's worth of promise and disappointment. Peter Schmidt has bet his life's savings on a record he wanted to make, if only to prove they couldn't beat him. Again.

Peter Schmidt's first chance at stardom collapsed in a heap of bad advice and busted friendships. In 1985, the R.L. Turner High School graduate was the singer, guitarist, and songwriter for Three on a Hill, one of the bands--along with the Buck Pets, New Bohemians, Shallow Reign, End Over End, and Reverend Horton Heat--at the forefront of a resurgence of local rock and roll. Playing such long-gone venues as the Twilite Room, the Theatre Gallery, the Prophet Bar, even the Nairobi Room, those bands made a little noise, and a little history, in downtown long before the North Dallas carpetbaggers and frat-boy millionaires turned it into a mall with alcohol. Back then, Deep Ellum seemed like the promised land, an oasis of concrete and rock and roll.

In 1986, Deep Ellum Records--the label owned by Jeff Liles and Russell Hobbs, the braintrust behind the Theatre Gallery and, later, the Prophet Bar--released Three on a Hill's EP Biting on Tin Foil. A year later, Island Records released its compilation The Sound of Deep Ellum, which featured the likes of Three on a Hill, the New Bos, Decadent Dub Team, the Daylights, and the Buck Pets. By then, A&R scouts were starting to circle around the band like ambulances around an old folks' home on a hot summer day.

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