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.

Former Dallas Observer music editor Clay McNear said of the band at the end of 1988, "They are one of the state's best--and least pretentious--alternative-rock bands," adding that "instinct says that '89 might be the year that TOAH finally catches a break." Geffen Records had signed the New Bohemians, and it was pretty much agreed by everyone that Three on a Hill would follow, the next Next Big Thing to come out of Deep Ellum and have its collective mug plastered all over MTV and its songs all over the radio. And then...

Nothing. After the appearance on The Sound of Deep Ellum, the band remained anchored to the Dallas club scene. The compilation, which looked so much like the beginning of something at the time, turned out to be nothing more than a big tease. Island was briefly interested in signing the band, but decided to pass and instead snatched up the Buck Pets.

"We weren't ready yet," says Kim Buie, an A&R rep for Island at the time, now a vice president of A&R for Capitol Records in Los Angeles. "Island was a smaller label then, and we had to make sure that every project that we did we were absolutely sure about. We got down to making further evaluations, and decided that we weren't ready at that time."

As in most cases, when so much is expected and so little gained, the band panicked. At least, its management did: Three on a Hill's husband-and-wife management team tried to change the band's music, its image, anything and everything to get that all-important record deal; they even suggested choreographed on-stage moves. Some of the members of the band agreed with management. Schmidt's best friend and TOAH bassist Mark Fischer was one of them; Schmidt was not.

Fed up with giving everything and going nowhere, Schmidt left the band in May 1990--despite the fact that Three on a Hill was nearly done recording its first full-length album. He briefly considered quitting music permanently. He was 24 then, and it was time, he thought, to begin the rest of his life.

He couldn't stay away from music for long, though. He resurfaced in November of that year, opening up for Course of Empire at Trees, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, a whisper compared to Three on a Hill's roar. The performance was part getting-back-on-the-horse, part classified ad. He said from the stage that night that he wanted to be in a band again, and that if anybody was interested, they could meet him after the show.

Five months later, Schmidt was fronting a new band--Melt--after hooking up with guitarist Clark Vogeler, drummer Will Johnson, and former Loco Gringos bassist Mark "Crash" Chambers (who would later be replaced by Alan Shook, the first in a series of a half-dozen replacement bass players). It seemed like even more of a sure thing than Three on a Hill. Schmidt's songs were sharper than ever before, less power and more pop. About a year after forming, the band, rechristened Funland, was already being courted by record labels. Schmidt had been in this position before, so he knew not to get his hopes up too soon. He said at the time, "I look at meeting with record companies a little differently now. And you know what I see? A free meal."

Still, it's hard not to be blinded by the light reflecting off a record company's credit card. In late 1992, the band signed their lives away to Arista Records--previously thought by the band and then-manager Leslie Aldredge to be a joke label, as it was home to Barry Manilow and Air Supply--after meeting with Richard Sweret, an A&R man with the company. Sweret promised the band all the right things: a new van, a company credit card with an unlimited line of credit, their own label imprint so they wouldn't lose their indie-rock credibility. In hindsight, the promises were as empty as a Deep Blue Something song. At the time, it was everything the band wanted to hear.

The band released its only record for the label, the Sweetness EP, in 1993. The seven-song disc wasn't meant to be the band's be-all, end-all statement. (Good thing, because Sweetness became the lowest-selling record in Arista history.) It was just a means to an end, a way to get Arista to send them out on tour. All Funland really wanted was to be on the road; all they did was sit at home.

"Being on Arista didn't facilitate being creative," Schmidt says now. "I sat on my ass for most of the year we were on Arista. We did one six-week tour, and other than that, we sat on our ass the whole time. It was without a doubt the single most depressing year of my life. At the time, I was rationalizing. I didn't get a job: 'Hey, fuck it, I'm on a major label. I don't have to do this.' If I had to do it over, in retrospect, I would have gotten a job just to keep my mind occupied and keep myself sane. I was staying up all night playing video games, sleeping half the day, and then just not doing anything. We didn't even rehearse that much during the year that we were there."

Finally, in February 1994, the band asked to be released from its contract, and Arista happily obliged. Schmidt and the band went through a period of self-doubt: If they weren't good enough to be on Arista, were they good enough to even keep playing? It didn't help that so many local bands--the Toadies, Deep Blue Something, Hagfish, Jackopierce, and Vibrolux among them--were being snatched up by major record labels and were beginning to achieve some of the success Funland had been denied. It didn't seem fair. Schmidt was arguably as talented as any member of any of those bands, yet for the second time in his career, his chance had passed.

It was a career crisis that would have sent many other musicians running for cover bands and desk jobs. But Schmidt and Funland not only didn't give up, they got better.

"Now I look back, and I don't get really angry at it [the year on Arista]," Schmidt says. "It's the experience that brought me where I am today. I learned a lot, and it made all of us in the band focus on what we wanted out of music. For that reason alone, it was worthwhile."

The band signed to Sam Paulos' steve records in 1995 and released its first--and only--full-length album later that year. The Funland Band was the sound of a hungry band at the top of its game. Every song was a winner, from the loud foot-stompers such as "Impala," "Angry Girl," and "Garage Sale," to the subtler, quieter moments of "Down Stage" and "Sparkloser." When it was released, it looked like the last piece of the puzzle, the album that would finally turn record-label heads the right way. Instead, it turned out to be a farewell note. The band would break up eight months later, before friendship took a backseat to music-industry bullshit.

"I was proud of the fact that I think most bands would break up after an experience like that, and I'm glad that as a band we were able to bring it back to a higher note and then break up on that note," Schmidt says. "I loved Funland. I'm not kidding myself, I thought we were pretty much a straightforward rock band. But I think of the bands that try to do that thing, I honestly think that we were one of the best. We just wrote great songs."

Not enough people shared Schmidt's opinion, and so the band played its farewell show June 15, 1996. Will Johnson would go on to form centro-matic, a one-man project that would become a full-time band, and release Redo the Stacks on steve in 1997. Vogeler ended up joining the Toadies, replacing ousted guitarist Darrel Herbert.

In the end, Funland was too good not to have succeeded at a national level, too good to have been ignored locally. So the question remains: Why did Funland break up instead of break through?

"When Funland decided to call it quits, radio stations were happy with the success of 'Angry Girl,' show attendance was the highest ever, and they were actually selling records again," says Sam Paulos, who also owns Crystal Clear Sound and is an investor in a handful of Deep Ellum clubs. Paulos insists, in retrospect, that Funland was one song away from breaking on regional, then national, radio. But he is perhaps speaking with the optimism known only to owners of record labels and other gamblers waiting on the sure bet that never comes.

"In the end," he says with a shrug, "the public has a lot of music being thrown at them all the time. As a result, their attention spans are limited, and a band like Funland can succumb to a what-have-they-done-for-me-lately? attitude. The band waited a long time between the Arista record and The Funland Band--too long without anything bright, shiny, and new to attract their attention. My hope is that Clark, Will, and Peter with his new release will all get the public and critical acclaim they deserve. Then Funland will be viewed retroactively as the super group that it was."

If they do, it will be too little, too late, and way too far in the past.

After Funland broke up, it looked as though Schmidt had given up on the music business for good--again. Hell, the business had already given up on him two years ago. He went to work at Internet Media, designing Web sites.

"It was great," he says. "It was the first year of my adult life that I really had money, good money, on a regular basis. I liked the job; it wasn't a bad job at all, but I finally just quit because I really wanted to do this again."

This--making music--actually began again at a December 31, 1996, show put together by then-UFOFU bassist Brandon Curtis. Schmidt had never stopped writing songs; he just wasn't sure whether he wanted to play them for anyone anymore.

"I had mentioned to Brandon that it was probably going to take someone booking a gig first--someone making me do a gig--and then I would have to sit down and come up with a set to do," Schmidt says. "So he went ahead and told me he wanted me to play on this New Year's Eve show, because he said, 'I know you won't get off your ass and do something unless you do that.'"

Just as he had done after Three on a Hill disintegrated, Schmidt re-emerged onstage, alone, backed by his acoustic guitar. Over the next few months, he began taking baby steps back into music, playing a handful of solo shows, usually playing only after someone asked him to. By June, he knew he wanted to be in a band again, but this time, it would be on his terms. The project would be his vision, his songs performed the way he wanted to hear them. He had no idea what he was getting into.

Schmidt sits at a table at Magnolia Bar B-Q, recounting exactly how the recording of his "debut" solo album--under the name Legendary Crystal Chandelier--went from full of possibilities to impossible, nearly destroyed in a cloud of lost money and empty promises. His hair is shorter and flecked with gray now, but other than that, he looks the same as he did 10 years ago.

It's March 1998 now, and the sessions for the album wrapped up a few weeks ago, but the frustration remains, as evident in his voice now as it was on that December night at Pence's studio. There are a million things left to do, though: The album has yet to be mastered; artwork hasn't been approved; a band needs to be put together. He remains understandably apprehensive. He won't feel satisfied until he's holding a finished copy of the CD in his hand.

"There's still so many opportunities for crap to go wrong," he says. "I don't believe anything now until I see it. I'm not trusting anyone."

It's clear that Schmidt won't be the same again. He's seen and done too much in the time it took to record Love or the Decimal Equivalent to ever go back to the person he was before. He's a little more cynical now, less willing to put his life in someone else's hands. When the album is finally released this month, it will have been more than a year in the making--a year that broke his bank account and almost broke his spirit.

"I ran out of money," he explains. "When I quit my job, I had saved up $3,000, thinking, 'Well, that'll easily get me through the summer in comfort, and then I'll get another job.'" He smiles at the memory. "I ran out of personal money and ended up borrowing, and that's what mostly hurt me. The budget for the record...I got screwed there a little bit, just because I had planned to do it one way and then had to, at the last minute, just totally change how I'd budgeted the money. If I'd planned to do it the way I ended up doing it from the beginning, we could have done it a lot more effectively and cheaper, but it just didn't happen that way."

The original plan was simple: Schmidt and Pence would record some basic rhythm tracks together at Pence's studio, then Schmidt would record the bulk of the album at Course of Empire drummer Chad Lovell's studio near downtown Dallas. Lovell had already established a good working relationship with Schmidt, starting with a remix that he did of Funland's "Angry Girl" (which appeared on the "Bleed Like Anyone" CD single), and continuing with the cut-and-paste cover of Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It," which the duo collaborated on for the Come On Feel The Metal compilation released last year. Lovell even supplied Schmidt with tape loops to augment his occasional live performances.

But the relationship quickly soured once Schmidt and Lovell began to record the album. Lovell was beset by technical problems from the start, problems that never seemed to get fixed, and the project was delayed interminably. Stuck in a limbo between recording and waiting to record, Schmidt lost a little more money and patience with each passing day. Eventually, Lovell and Schmidt dissolved their partnership, but only after Schmidt had wasted about $4,000 and more than three months. When he discussed the project in July 1997, he was excited about the prospect of working with Lovell and Pence. Now, he sounds shell-shocked, as though he still hasn't come to grips with how he could have been so let down by someone he considered a friend.

"Every day, there was a promise that it was going to get fixed tomorrow, so I'm not going out and getting a job, because I'm always thinking that I'm starting the next day, or at the very least, two days from now," Schmidt says. "I think Chad's a really talented engineer, but I mean, when it comes down to it, I double-checked on everything: 'Are you sure you're going to be able to do this? [Are you] sure everything's working, because I'm not quitting my job?' When it came down to it, I don't think he took his responsibility seriously at all. I offered--and we came up with--a lot of different scenarios on how to work around the problem, potential solutions, and he vetoed them all, when they could have worked and we could have gotten an album done. It was a shame."

Lovell declines to talk about the aborted project.
Once again, Schmidt found himself trapped by other people's promises. Stuck without a job, and with no idea when he would be able to record again, he had to find ways to make ends meet.

"Every now and then, I would go pick up a day or two of work up at Tapemasters, which is depressing work," Schmidt says, laughing at the absurdity of spending his days dubbing other peoples' cassettes and CDs while he was trying to make his own.

He finally got back on his feet with the help of Matt Pence. Pence was always supposed to be part of the production team, keeping the album from turning into a Course of Empire project. Now, he was the sole producer. However, he had an even bigger job: keeping Schmidt from giving up.

"Peter has always been struggling to get his ideas out," says Pence, who has since moved to St. Louis. "I can't imagine fighting for as long as he has, and facing so much adversity. I can't imagine how he's kept going, and how he's had so much success. It's easy for me to throw myself into a project for six months to get it done, and fall into that fully. It's a totally different thing to say that I'm going to follow through on something for my lifetime the way that Peter has."

Schmidt credits Pence for seeing the album through, sticking by him and motivating him during even the darkest times. Schmidt says now he was ready to quit the record several times, walk away from it as though it were a car that just won't start. And every time, Pence would goad him to finish, like a track coach pushing a runner to complete the marathon even when his legs are about to give out. The final product, Love or the Decimal Equivalent, proves it was worth the struggle.

"I wish I didn't have to go through all that, because I'm still..." Schmidt stops, then begins again. "My personal life and financial [situation] are all screwed up. It really just threw my whole life off schedule, but I'm glad I ended up doing it with Matt."

It's July 1998 now, only a couple of weeks away from the album's release. Schmidt looks relaxed for the first time in months. The album is finally finished, and he's got a job again, working in the production department of an advertising agency. It has been a while since the recording of the album was completed, and some of the bitterness and frustration have left his voice. The journey that began more than a year ago is almost done, and he looks happy to finally see it come to an end. He isn't worried about how many copies the album sells, whether it's in the thousands or in the dozens. He's just happy it exists.

"My only concern as far as sales is, within the space of a year, I'd like it to pay for itself," Schmidt says. "I'd like to break even on it--not me personally, but for Sam [Paulos], because I asked him to do a lot of things differently this time. I'd like him to see that this all made sense somehow."

Even though recording Love or the Decimal Equivalent drained Schmidt's bank account, it hasn't exhausted his love of music. He's already begun testing out new material, and another record is being planned, whether anyone will release it or not. In a weird way, he seems rejuvenated by the whole experience, cleansed by fire.

"Despite having been through all the musical stuff that I've been through, I don't think I'm really cynical about it," he insists. "I still have a lot of the same goals. I still want the music to exist for the music's sake. A lot of times, you get guys my age that have been in bands for the last 10 or 15 years, and they're at the point where they just want to make money at it. I can't blame them, because, man, those thoughts have crossed my mind, and I don't know how you could do it without making money at it. But I know when that gets involved, that the music doesn't end up how I want it."

It's those kinds of sentiments that convince the listener that Peter Schmidt hasn't just grown older playing rock and roll--he's grown smarter too. He no longer wants, or needs, to be a rock star. He just wants to be a musician.

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