By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Speedealer has endured its share of hassles, legal and otherwise. First was the cease and desist order, then, the bankruptcy. And tonight, lead singer and guitarist Jeff Hirshberg is trying to shake some unpleasant bug he awoke with this morning, plus the cell phone keeps cutting out. But the band plays on, as it did for a solid year with no label and no albums to distribute.
Speedealer is about due for a change of luck, away from the kind that has cursed them for much of the past couple of years. One of the group's main problems began when they formed in 1995. After dubbing itself REO Speedealer, the group began gigging and doing some home recording. Band members rehearsed like madmen, built up a local fan base, played as much as they could, and in general began making a name for themselves.
And then--if you can imagine a '70s/'80s hair band taking itself too seriously--the humorless prigs in REO Speedwagon took offense.
"They were completely in the right," says Hirshberg--with no rancor whatsoever--from a cell phone in Youngstown, Ohio, where the band is sharing a bill with stoner-rock linchpins Fu Manchu. "There's really no great story. They filed the cease and desist order about two and a half years back. They said they'd take us to court if we didn't quit using the name, which they did own. So we quit. That's pretty much what happened. I'm not really sure how they found out about us; Kevin Cronin's son is a fan, maybe it happened that way. I don't know."
Even though no one with even a single functioning eardrum is going to mistake Here Comes Death for Hi Infidelity, the band found the cease and desist to be a blessing after all. "We were glad to give it back, truthfully," says Eric Schmidt, who shares guitar duty with Hirshberg. "The name had become kind of a problem. We were getting these really wasted old-timers showing up, thinking we were a cover or tribute band. People lump you into a certain category, like your band isn't anything but a cute name. So we were done with it. There's absolutely no hard feelings there at all."
In 1998, the renamed Speedealer released its self-titled debut on Royalty Records, and followed it with a strong second album titled Here Comes Death in 1999, at which point Royalty promptly crumbled.
Drummer Harden Harrison, along with bassist Rodney Skelton (a five-year band vet and, like Hirshberg, an original member of REO etc., etc.) forms the rhythm core of Speedealer. He recalls getting something like 200 copies of Here Comes Death to sell on the road after Royalty went bankrupt. "The plan was for 10,000 pressings, I think. A lot more than the 1,500 that eventually got run, anyway."
But Speedealer very likely lucked out in getting as many as they did. Says Hirshberg, "[Royalty] went bankrupt almost immediately after Here Comes Death was released, but they continued to ship out [copies], for some reason. And those 1,500 copies got bought up really quickly. You can still find them, it's just a tremendous hassle."
So there they were, Speedealer, having been good eggs about the whole REO thing, having practiced their craft diligently and fine-tuned the band into a riff-heavy, hard-guitar outfit, winning converts on the road. They found themselves unceremoniously dumped into a position where they had no record label, no album to tour and nothing to offer fans to take home after the show.
"It was a little scary," offers Schmidt, in a voice that suggests it was more than a little scary. "There was a moment, just a moment, where we thought, 'Well, this is it. We have no income and we have nothing to sell.' We didn't have a label for about a year, all we had was a booking agency, and we were on the lowest end imaginable. The agency respected our work ethic, though, and what they did was send us as many places as possible for the bare minimum of payment. We'd go out and play shows, trying to keep ourselves in people's heads, and we just barely broke even over that year. We eventually played, I think, 300 shows in 1999, hoping that someone would pick up on it."
According to the band's official itinerary, it was a total of 309 shows last year for Speedealer. And someone did, in fact, pick up on it.
Palm Records A&R man Michael Alago--who brought Metallica to Elektra and White Zombie to Geffen--had been a fan of Speedealer since he'd seen them at the SXSW conference while they were signed to Royalty. When he found out they were between labels, he pushed for Palm to snap them up. "Michael said he wanted to do an album with us, and they brought a bunch of people up to Brownie's in New York, where we were playing," recalls Hirshberg.
So Here Comes Death, produced by Daniel Rey (Ramones, Misfits), is finally getting its first solid distribution on Palm; the re-release comes only one year after the initial run. Plans are already in the works for a new album in 2001.