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.

"I'm not really sure why he wouldn't [release us]," Barnett says. "I guess he wanted the axe to drop by his hand, not by ours. Maybe he wanted to have the control and not us. But we didn't want on the label anymore, because we could see, obviously, the direction the label was going in, and we weren't going in that same direction."

Of course, Barnett and the others could probably see the axe falling. When Wind-Up began sending the band CDs by the groups signed in the wake of Creed's dubious accomplishments, it was as good as over; the label might as well have mailed the band a recording of "Taps." Wind-Up had filled out its roster with groups ready for modern-rock radio--in addition to its Pearl Jam knock-off (Creed), it had its versions of the Cranberries (Stretch Princess) and Tool (Finger Eleven). And even more distressing was what the label had decided to do with Baboon: The band was to be Wind-Up's answer to Korn. "They were going to market us toward the metal crowd," Huffstetler says. "I think they were confused."

To say the least. Baboon has never been afraid to display the soft side that lurks underneath its rough surface. One listen to We Sing and Play confirms this, as the disc includes two of the most astonishingly beautiful songs the band has ever written, "Angels" and "Endlessly," slow-burning songs that are more melody than malady. Even the other tracks on the EP--especially the blast-first "Lush Life," which sounds like Fats Domino sitting in with The Jesus Lizard--are more about the songs than about the noise that comes with them, even when Huffstetler is doing more screaming than singing and the rest of the band might as well be playing three different songs. That's what has long been misunderstood about Baboon: They may have been in the Fraternity of Noise, along with Brutal Juice and Caulk, but the band has long since graduated. The pointy edges may make the songs hard to get a grip on, but they're worth holding onto.

Wind-Up never quite agreed, paying for the band to stay at home and write songs, encouraging the members to listen to the radio so they could hear what kind of songs would work. When it became obvious that the demos Baboon was turning in (one of which, "Tidal Wave," turned up on last year's Scene, Heard compilation) weren't fitting into the label's plans, the group received its walking papers. Even though it was exactly what the band had wanted since beginning of its relationship with Wind-Up, its members were still caught off-guard.

"When I first heard it, it was kind of like this shock, like 'Whoa,'" Hughes says. "It kind of felt like a rug had been pulled out in some way, but after a couple of days I got adjusted to the idea. I think I went home and drank a bunch of wine, and just listened to all the music I like, thought about why I was playing music and why I was involved in a band. After that, there was no question that I wanted to continue."

It didn't take long for the band to regroup, landing at Crystal Clear Studios less than six months later to record We Sing and Play, with The Paper Chase guitarist John Congleton on board to produce. Congleton had long been a fan of Baboon's--he even wanted to join the band a few years ago--and he felt the group had never been properly recorded. A veteran of Dallas Sound Labs (where he helped record Kirk Franklin, among others) who has also worked with Steve Albini, Congleton felt it was his job to get it done this time. He took pains to make the band sound more organic through such methods as having Huffstetler sing through a handheld mike, the way he normally would onstage. And he recorded everything as loud as he possibly could, pushing the sound levels until they fell off into the red.

"You can hear a little bit of that crackle," Barnett says, still surprised more than a month later. "You can hear it overdriving the system. There are a couple times, during some of Mike's guitar parts, if you listen closely you can just hear the tape melting." He laughs. "I was very happy that he took that approach to recording."

The entire band is quick to sing Congleton's praises, as well as the list of guests that appear on the record, including The Dooms U.K.'s James Henderson, Gospel Swingers keyboard player Kari Luna, Jon "Corn Mo" Cunningham, and Reznicek. The band knows it couldn't have made it without them, and probably wouldn't have anyway. Doing things themselves, playing with their friends--those are the reasons Baboon formed in the first place. And the members of the band couldn't be more pleased that they've ended up back where they started.

"They all came in on one day," Huffstetler remembers. "It was like Super Bowl Sunday. We had them scheduled, and they all came in at various times, and we put down all their tracks. It was a great day. It was like the best 12 hours I've had in my life. Being a band in a studio and having these great musicians come in. And this whole project. We did it all ourselves, and paid for it ourselves. Doing the artwork. Using our friends, you know? That's the best thing about being in a band. Just to do it, for the music and ourselves. No strings attached. Put out music, put out songs that we write. And it's awesome to have people like them."

Baboon performs May 29 at Trees. Slow Roosevelt and Frognot open.

Scene, heard
Todd Deatherage relays the following piece of information with a slight chuckle, the kind that prefaces his statement with a hinted: I know this may sound silly, but... The Calways' frontman explains that he and a batch of top-notch local musicians--including ex-Hagfish drummer Tony Barsotti, bassist Kirk Tatum, and Cowboys and Indians multi-instrumentalist Jim Lehnert--have recorded a cover of "Accused of Love" off Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' new album Echo. The reason: A few weeks ago, MP3.com put out the call for musicians to record a new Petty song as part of a contest the Web site is running through May 30. The entries will be judged by Petty himself (or so the site insists), with the grand-prize recipient getting to join Petty and his mates on stage during the band's forthcoming tour. Deatherage says it's been his "lifelong dream" to play with Petty, so here's hoping. You can judge the tune for yourself by downloading it off MP3.com...

On May 27, Deathray Davies will play one of their final shows for some time to come. Frontman John Dufilho is leaving for Europe in a few days; he plans on backpacking across the continent, spending time with his brother in London and with the gone-but-never-forgotten Spyche, who's currently living on the west coast of Ireland. Dufilho and Spyche will actually do some shows together in Ireland, where Spyche has been making some extra money by playing acoustic gigs. "I'm gonna try to preach the gospel of Deathray over there," Dufilho says, "and see what happens." The Deathrays won't play again locally till later in the summer, which means the band won't get to play Barleypalooza in July. So catch them at the Barley House this week, with Legendary Crystal Chandelier.

Send Street Beat your war bonds to rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com.

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