We can work it out

Baboon jumps out of the frying pan and into the fire in pursuit of major-label green

For many bands, signing a major-label deal is like trying to date two girls at once: It hardly ever works, people hate you for doing it, and although the pitfalls are well-documented, it's tempting enough to try anyway.

When a Dallas band signs to a major label, it's even more hazardous. The list of bands from Dallas that have signed on the dotted line, only to have the label stab them in the back with the pen, is long and getting longer, counting Funland, Vibrolux, Bobgoblin, Hagfish, and cottonmouth, tx among its growing number. Yet bands keep coming back, smiling through busted lips like battered wives who think that this time, this time, things will be different.

Things are different: They're bad and getting worse. Record contracts these days are only good as long as the person who signed you can keep from getting fired, and since the music business has a turnover rate roughly equal to that of drug smuggling, the contracts might as well be written on toilet paper. The music business is not even about album sales anymore, although that remains a big part of it. It's more about politics, about how many people you have on your side when the inevitable street fight breaks out. The bigger the label is, the bigger the chance that a band will find itself on the curb with the garbage once it's time for spring cleaning. Bobgoblin's deal with MCA Records was squashed before its record even had a chance to flop, as the band was cut loose a month after its debut album for the label hit stores.

Baboon is the latest band to belly up to the major-label bar, even though it knows all too well the headaches that record labels--big or small--can cause. The band is more familiar with the wicked games that record companies play than anyone, having spent the last few years trying to wriggle out of a bad deal with New York-based indie Wind-Up Records. Wind-Up is the same company that held Slowpoke for a $1 million ransom and continually delayed production of Baboon's second album, last year's Secret Robot Control. The band asked out of its contract after Grass Records, Baboon's original label, was sold and became Wind-Up. The label turned down the band every time it asked, then dropped it anyway. Now that Baboon has been freed from its abortive deal with Wind-Up, why would it want to enter into a potentially worse contract with an even more powerful company?

"We never got a chance to go for a major label," guitarist Mike Rudnicki explains. "We were on Grass, and then it got bought out, and our contract turned over to Wind-Up. We were kind of stuck on that [label]. So, we're trying to go for a major label now, even knowing all the risks involved. We feel like we have to give it a try, see what happens...And if that doesn't work out, we'll try to put it out ourselves, or wherever, if someone wants to put it out independently. It'll come out, we just don't know where or when."

Rudnicki is referring to Baboon's long-awaited third album, which is part of the reason why the band is looking for new digs. The band, which also includes singer Andrew Huffstetler, drummer Steven Barnett, and bassist Mark Hughes, began recording demos for its follow-up to Secret Robot Control a year ago, putting more time into the songwriting process than ever before. The songs that resulted from those sessions, such as the unbelievably pretty "Tidal Wave" (featured on this year's Scene, Heard compilation), were somewhat of a departure, containing less malady and more melody.

"I think it still has that energy and emotional intensity," Rudnicki says of the new material. "It has that in common with the older stuff. It's not as abrasive. There's a couple that are a little abrasive, but overall, Andrew is singing more than screaming, and there's not as much noise. It's still distorted guitar, rhythmic drums, same kind of drony bass style that was on some of the older stuff."

Early on in the recording sessions, Wind-Up paid the band to do nothing but write songs. When the label got a chance to hear the end product, though, it wasn't impressed. Riding high on the fluke success of Creed--the band that helped turn alterna-rock radio into a collection of Pearl Jam B-sides--Wind-Up wanted Baboon to smooth its rough edges even further, making itself more palatable to radio program directors. Executives at Wind-Up even suggested that the band listen to the radio more often, so they would have a better idea of what the label wanted. After that recommendation, the band knew it wouldn't be long before it could add "ex" in front of "Wind-Up recording artist."

"One day I just decided to call our A&R guy and ask him what was going on, try to get things moving, start looking for producers, [find out] what we needed to do to get into the studio," Rudnicki says. "He got really quiet and nervous. I mean, we knew him and were friends with him, on a certain level at least. He got kind of nervous, and said, 'Well, this is really hard for me to do, but...' I kind of figured it out from there.

"They knew we weren't going to move any closer to what they wanted. We want radio success also. We just want to do it by writing good songs, and not by writing cookie-cutter, generic material. The stuff we gave them, we think is some of the best stuff we've written. We think it has radio potential, because we think it's good. But it's not cookie-cutter, generic Big K Cola to Pearl Jam's Coke."

Unfortunately for Baboon, a major label isn't likely to be any more willing to accept the band as is than Wind-Up. With major labels comes major meddling, as business school graduates try to give bands pointers on how to write radio hits and move product. Rudnicki and the band are well aware of this, but they want to tarnish themselves with the music business' brass ring anyway. Baboon has put too much time and effort into being musicians to rely on Friday night gigs at Trees to cover the rent. Besides, the band figures if it's going to get screwed anyway, it would rather have it be by a better--or at least richer--class of people. But if the major-label money doesn't come through soon, Baboon may be on the backstretch of its existence.

"I'm optimistic about it to a degree, but it's just kind of 50-50, because I don't have any idea how much interest there is at this point," Rudnicki says. "In a way, it's kind of moving towards as if the band won't be the priority if it doesn't get on a major label. Hopefully, it will still stay around. I think it will, especially if everyone is in the area. It's pretty much been the priority for the last few years, 'cause we've been touring and that kind of stuff. But you can't really do that if it's not going to pay the bills.

"Either we're going to do it purely for fun, or it's going to pay the bills for us, and either way is fine with me. I'd love for us to keep going and move to another level, because I think we have a good thing going. I think we have a good group of guys; they're all my best friends. At the same time, it's not the end of the world if we don't become rock stars. I got a taste of the whole touring, rock life...We'll just kind of do it for fun, purely for fun. Which is maybe the way it should be anyway."

Baboon plays a free show at Trees on October 30. Legendary Crystal Chandelier opens.

When I'm forty-four
Musicians don't retire, they just take lower-profile gigs. Sometimes the gigs are so modest, they can't be heard unless you have an ear pressed against the door of a bedroom or garage. Such is the case with Beatles in a Blender, the latest project by Steve Dirkx, former member of the Telefones.

The Telefones were one of the best new wave bands to come out of Dallas in the late '70s and early '80s, playing the Hot Klub, D.J.'s, and Magnolia's along with bands like N.C.M., the Doo, Quad Pi, the Ejectors, and the Devices. Dirkx and his brothers Chris and Jerry wrote deceptively catchy and funny songs, sounding like a Texas-bred version of the Stranglers or the Buzzcocks. But those days are long gone, and Dirkx has traded in his bass guitar for a steady job at the Irving Community Television network. It's hard to raise four kids on a struggling musician's salary, and beer tickets don't put food on the table.

Though Dirkx, 44, has put his career as a musician on the shelf, he hasn't been able to throw it away completely. Every few years, he and his brothers get together for a Telefones reunion, and earlier this decade, Dirkx played in Whiteman, a new wave-funk band that also featured Neil Caldwell (ex-N.C.M.) and Bart Chaney (ex-Feet First). While he probably won't be in a full-time band ever again, Dirkx can't seem to shake the bug he caught when he first stepped on a stage almost two decades ago.

"I don't really have time or energy to be in a band, but I piddle with stuff," Dirkx says, as one of his daughters squeals in the background. "Like that tape I sent in. Kind of a 'hermit musician' kind of thing."

The tape he refers to is a limited-edition recording (you'd probably have to know him to get one) of eight songs created almost exclusively from Beatles samples. The songs--with titles such as "Ringo is God is Acid," "CumonCumon," and "Acid is Groovy, Kill the Pigs, Etc."--are somewhere between parody and praise, patchwork quilts created by a life-long Beatles fan with a sharp wit and a new plaything.

"Actually, I did something similar like 10 years ago, but I only had a cheap little Casio keyboard," Dirkx explains. "It wasn't until just recently--the past year or so--the prices of sampling machines came down to where I could afford to do one with decent fidelity. When I got my new toy, it just kind of inspired me. I did five or six of 'em over the course of a couple of weeks after I got home from work late at night. I work till 11, get home around 12, and that's the only time I have to do something creative. So, I'd stay up late and do the mad scientist thing with my sampler."

For his part, Dirkx isn't that concerned whether Beatles in a Blender will become anything more than an outlet for his creativity. He isn't even sure if he'll keep doing it. He's more concerned with stressing the fact that the tapes are not for sale.

"You might want to emphasize that it's not for sale," he says, for about the 10th time in our conversation. "I've just been kind of giving them away to friends and people I think like the Beatles or whatever. Legally, I don't know where I stand. There's no way you can get Beatles clearances. They're pretty tough on that kind of stuff."

Send your uncleared samples to rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com.

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