No monkeying around

Baboon finally gets free of its label and releases its best, most grown-up record yet

Every few minutes, Baboon frontman Andrew Huffstetler abruptly leaves the table, breaking off the conversation to disappear briefly into the thinning crowd of diners at Sushi Nights. None of the other members of the group--bassist Mark Hughes, guitarist Mike Rudnicki, and drummer Steven Barnett--pays much attention to Huffstetler's comings and goings. He is, after all, on the job, moonlighting from his regular gig as a video editor to pick up some extra scratch waiting tables. Huffstetler's not the only local musician on the clock at Sushi Nights this evening: former Tomorrowpeople and current Pinkston drummer Ben Burt is behind the bar, cracking open bottles of Kirin. With the familiar faces and the Flaming Lips and Radiohead blaring overhead, the restaurant feels more like a clubhouse, especially after Mark Reznicek--Toadies drummer and Rudnicki and Huffstetler's neighbor--walks in with Floor 13's Chris Brodie, another Sushi Nights employee.

Huffstetler is picking up a paycheck tonight, yet he hardly seems to be working, merely acting as a gracious host, occasionally running to the kitchen to fetch his guests a bite to eat or a beer to drink. It may feel like a party, but it's a world away from the decadent New Year's Eve bash the band was invited to a few years back at a Park Avenue penthouse, thrown by owners of the group's former label, New York-based Wind-Up Records. There are no glossy photos of the hosts posing with Janet Jackson and Sting and Eddie Van Halen on the walls. No Pekinese puppies scurrying underfoot wearing designer sweaters imported from France. Certainly no hostess greeting guests at the door offering a bowl of mixed nuts in one hand and a tray of joints in the other. This is reality, not a rock-and-roll cliche.

Baboon will, most likely, never return to that world. The band is no longer affiliated with Wind-Up, or any other record label for that matter, and Huffstetler is working at Sushi Nights on this Wednesday evening because every little bit counts when contractual advances turn into severance pay. Not that Huffstetler or anyone else in the band is bemoaning Baboon's unsigned status. But the extra money helps now more than ever, since the group is set to release its first record in two years, We Sing and Play, a project the band funded by itself, from the recording to the artwork. And We Sing and Play isn't just a hastily assembled demo either. As Huffstetler says, "It's as much of a full-length as anything we've ever put out." The members of the group couldn't be happier to be on their own, off a record label's dime and out from under its thumb, and you can hear it, both on the record and in the way the band talks about it.

"There's such a big difference in mental attitude when you're doing it solely to please yourself, and you don't have to worry about the opinions of businessmen in New York," Barnett says. "Even though we tried not to think about that, we couldn't help but think about that when we were signed with Wind-Up. And it sucked. There are probably different opinions within the band, but I personally would rather not be on a label at all, and just recoup our money from sales and at gigs and so forth. That way we can have absolute control over what we do. Because I've seen too much bad stuff happen with record labels, and I don't want that to be a part of my life anymore."

Like Tripping Daisy and its upstart Good Records, Baboon has decided to go it alone, recording whatever it wants, whenever it wants, and releasing the results on its own. The band plans to follow up We Sing and Play with another six-song EP in six months or so, but no one has thought much about sending copies of the disc to record labels. They haven't even decided how to distribute the EP yet, though Huffstetler has suggested selling the disc door-to-door. "I think it would work," Barnett says. "In Denton, it would work."

After Wind-Up dropped the band last October, the members of the group did briefly consider trying to find a major label willing to take them on, and the door remains open to the possibility. At this point, however, there probably isn't a label around that could fit through the crack--complete artistic control and enough marketing muscle--the band has left open. Besides, working on We Sing and Play proved that the only things record labels offer apart from national distribution are compromises, and after eight years together, the band is tired of answering to anyone else.

Baboon had enough of that at Wind-Up, where the bottom line was always the bottom line, especially after Creed's multi-platinum debut, 1997's My Own Prison, turned the label into a surprise success. Baboon had never been comfortable on Wind-Up: As soon as it bought out Grass Records (which released Baboon's 1994 debut, Face Down in Turpentine, as well as 1996's Numb EP), the members of the band began trying to extract themselves from their contract. They tried again when the label was holding up production of its second album, 1997's Secret Robot Control. But the executives at Wind-Up wouldn't have it, saying all the right things to convince the band to stay; one of the owners even flew down to Dallas to plead his case. Which made it all the more shocking when the band was informed that its services were no longer required by the label.

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