North Texas appears to be the latest Happy Hour of Talent luring thirsty A&R reps from major labels all over America. But for every CD or demo that drew the attention of some A&R schlub, there had to be a producer behind the scenes to get the sound right, adjusting the knobs, salvaging the unsalvageable. So who are these people--these George Martins of the Metroplex--and what is it exactly that they're doing?
"A producer, simply expressed, has the ultimate responsibility for the sound of a record," says Keith Rust, the long-time house producer at Crystal Clear Sound. Rust has worked with Mildred, the Toadies, Funland, and Buck Jones, and he's also a member of an elite group of area producer-engineers that includes the diehard studio guys like Dragon Street Records' Patrick Keel, Planet Dallas' Rick Rooney, RSVP Productions' David Castell, and Crystal Clear's Terence Slemmons.
But equally prodigious behind a mixing board are musician-producers like Brutal Juice's Sam McCall, Ugly Mus-tard's Mike Daane, Brave Combo's Carl Finch, and Mark Griffin (better known as MC 900 Ft Jesus).
To produce a band means trying to climb inside its head and decipher its thoughts; a producer can just as equally wreck the perfect as he can keep the Titanic from going under. Such is a hydra-headed chore that changes with each artist--making sure the group is comfortable and understands the difference between recording in a studio and performing live.
The producer ultimately must assist in finalizing a song selection for the project; head up preproduction, during which songs are arranged and parts rehearsed; and baby-sit, keeping egos in check while keeping the strippers and drugs out of the booth.
Castell, who has produced Course of Empire, Fever in the Funkhouse, and Dave Abbruzzese's Green Romance Orchestra, likens record producing to film directing: "Depending on the situation and the personalities involved, you might find a very minimalist, hands-off approach, or someone who's a technical and instrumental wizard who ends up doing everything for the band except the vocals," he says.
Of course, each producer utilizes different methods and equipment. Musicians like McCall and Daane literally operate out of makeshift studios in the guest bedrooms of their homes. They both started producing tapes for their own bands and garnered reputations among their peers for capturing live sounds and raw emotion.
McCall, who has produced Baboon and Slobberbone in addition to his own band Brutal Juice, laughs: "I attribute it all to ignorance and blind stupidity. I know what I want it to sound like, and somehow I find a way to get the sound. If I have to burn up a few tweeters along the way, so be it."
Live Music Venue
The Arcadia Theatre has started booking shows again, but that's a specious pronouncement when the bills feature Nazareth and April Wine; and what's so disturbing about that isn't that someone would think these bands are worth booking, but that someone might actually show up and pay money to hear this shit. Here's proof Dallas doesn't need more midsized venues--long a consideration around these parts--but better audiences to fill them. After all, when Jethro Tull sells out the Bronco Bowl in a day, and Lou Reed can't fill half the 3,000-seat venue, you begin looking for the other signs of the Apocalypse.
The reopening of the Bronco Bowl in January was a welcome occasion, and the venue made an auspicious splash with Reed and Bruce Springsteen right off the bat; the Oasis show should play even better, so suited are the Fabber Four to a venue that's big enough for them to shoot off a canon and small enough to allow the audience to smell the smoke. The Bronco Bowl harbors many great memories for the local-born, but there's nothing like the promise of better shows tomorrow.
The Bronco Bowl's presence in town won't hurt Deep Ellum Live, which can host shows too big for Trees--which still has the best sound in town, and the worst damned bathrooms, even without the graffiti--and the ones too small for the Bronco Bowl. (The Bomb Factory and Dallas Music Complex are, on the other hand, giant fuck-yous to their audiences, uncomfortable even to life-sentence prison inmates.)
But for my money and yours, the 80-plus-years-old Sons of Hermann Hall is still the best bet--all hardwood and cheap beer, the sort of dance hall-cum-bar they take for granted in the Hill Country. A German fraternal hall that can comfortably host everyone--Junior Brown, Ronnie Dawson, Wilco, Son Volt, Joe Ely, and even Cafe Noir--the Sons is a mother of a concert hall.
Radio Program That Features Local Music
When I hear local-radio programming directors fighting over who made the Nixons or Deep Blue Something, I know I made the right decision when I put that CD player in the truck. You boys want to fight it out over Jackopierce? Let us know when you're done. Not that local radio exposure isn't crucial or even a good thing--Funland landed three different songs on KDGE-FM (94.5), KEGL-FM(97.1), and KTXQ-FM(102.1) at one time--but how about playing the good stuff every now and then? Oh, wait. This is radio. Forget it.
The four nominated radio programs are their own beasts, existing apart from the rest of the programming that surrounds them; just because KEGL jock Chris Ryan plays REO Speedealer's "Viva La Vulva!" on "The Local Show" doesn't mean the song's got a shot in hell at getting played at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday. But Ryan, like "Twisted Kicks" host Dave Chaos at KNON-FM(89.3)--where the most incisive question ever asked a band during an on-air interview is, "Like, dudes, what's up?"--at least gives the locals one swing behind home plate in the big leagues, even if they get sent back to the minors the next inning.
Q102's "Texas Tapes" and music director Redbeard probably deserve most of the credit for changing the local-music landscape on radio; at a time when the station's ratings were desperately slipping, Redbeard started playing the Toadies and the Nixons and Deep Blue Something and Spot until finally other stations around town--and around the country--started taking notice of the heavy rotation numbers. Redbeard helped land the tiny indie Ardent Records, the Memphis label run by Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, and a distribution deal with the mighty BMG.
KDGE's "Adventure Club" belongs in a class by itself. Keven McAlester and Josh Veneble host the best three hours of radio in town every Sunday night, and while it all ain't local (of course, that's probably why it's a great three hours), the two men fill it with the sort of "cutting-edge" music the Edge has ignored since Hootie became alternative and Alanis won a Grammy. Lo-fi, hi-fi, indie, outie, Morrissey or Hagfish--it doesn't make a difference to these boys, especially if it's an import 7-inch from England featuring a guy who used to play with someone who was once in a band with this guitarist who knows Stone Roses' Ian Brown. All radio should be like "The Adventure Club."
Local Record Label
Aden Holt started One Ton Records for pragmatic reasons: Why split the tiny percentage of money he makes from sales of records by his band Caulk with someone else when he could just as easily pocket the change? And so he launched One Ton, which quickly became this town's most successful label if you're talking ratios: After releasing ...so called the cupboard's bare and then winning a Grammy-sponsored talent show, Doosu now has a demo deal with Sony; cottonmouth, texas' Jeff Liles will re-release his One Ton record through Island this spring, which makes Holt two-for-three till someone comes calling for Caulk.
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Holt may well be on to something, but he doesn't yet wield the power and prestige of Crystal Clear Sound's Sam Paulos, whose Steve Records is still seeking its identity as a real label. But that's almost incidental to Paulos, who owns the studio where most local bands record and who oversees the distribution and manufacturing of most every release in town. Steve scored a major coup last year by releasing The Funland Band, which birthed three singles within a week, but its other signing, Sixty-Six, is currently trying to figure out which direction it's headed. You're not a real label till you've got three bands under contract; till then, you're a hobby.
Speaking of which, since the demise of Direct Hit's record store, that label--which once seemed poised to become Dallas' Sub Pop with a roster that included Bedhead, the Grown-Ups, Dooms U.K., Slowpoke, and Baboon--has sort of gone into hibernation over the past year. Shaun and Kelly Handran are releasing three 7-inch singles in coming days--one from Girl, a split single featuring the Mullens and Mess, and another from the Mood Swings--and there's a planned split single on the way from UFOFU and Funland, which means spring's here and it's time to come out of the cave.
Direct Hit, though, has suddenly emerged as the busiest label: Where once it seemed stalled with a tiny roster of mediocre acts, the label has quickly blossomed with a catalog that includes a single from Tablet (through a deal with Mercury to promote the upcoming album Pinned), a new full-length CD from rubberbullet, Comet's fantastic "This is Freedom 7" single (nominated for a Music Award, even), Riot Squad's LP Undying Breed, and Stinkbug's industrial hodgepodge, Dynamic Domination. And while quantity doesn't mean quality, the more shots you take, the more you make.