Corporate rock sucks
Bobgoblin's appearance at this year's EdgeFest should have been the finest moment of the band's five-year career, proof that the band's uphill struggle against apathetic audiences and an indifferent record label was worth it. Worth the indignity of playing shows to four walls and a couple of bouncers on a Wednesday night in Iowa. Worth the humiliation of touring to support an album that its label, MCA Records, refused to promote. There they were, standing on a makeshift stage at a makeshift venue--the new Amphitheatre at The Ballpark in Arlington--playing to a crowd of more than 27,000 people, probably more people than have seen them during their entire career combined. The band made the most of this rare moment in the spotlight, putting on one of its best performances ever, leaving everything it had on that rickety stage. It was a career-defining show, a chance for these perennial losers to become winners, a chance for a new beginning.
And in a way, it was a new beginning, just not for Bobgoblin.
No, on May 17, 1998, Bobgoblin passed away, a victim of too many years of neglect and unfulfilled promises. Just as it intended, the band's performance at EdgeFest was a thrilling farewell, an opportunity for Bobgoblin to burn out as it faded away. When the band took the stage that Sunday afternoon, it knew it would be for the last time. There would be no more shows, no more numbered jumpsuits, no more Black Market Party. The revolution was over, stopped before it ever started.
Yet while Bobgoblin no longer exists, the members of the band--singer Hop Manski, drummer Rob Avsharian, guitarist Jason Weisenburg, and bassist Tony Janotta--remain together, reassembled as a new band, the Commercials. Though still being billed as Bobgoblin, the new incarnation makes its debut at the Curtain Club on September 11. It was a transition born partly out of inspiration and partly out of frustration.
"We had been recording some new songs that didn't sound like Bobgoblin to me," says Manski. "To me, Bobgoblin existed in sort of a conceptual world. That was how it was started, and that's the way we wanted to keep it. The new songs didn't seem to fit into that world. To play them as Bobgoblin would almost taint that world in a way, and we didn't want to do that. Plus, we wanted to get rid of all the bad vibes from MCA.
"But more than that, we just wanted to make a change. We started out hardcore into the conceptual thing, but when people aren't interested in it, you lose interest in it yourself."
It's a shame that more people weren't interested in Bobgoblin. Since forming at the University of North Texas in 1993, the band was consistently one of the best live bands in town, stalking the stage like a rogue squadron of militia men as video monitors flickered behind them. And the band's music was just as good as its stage presence, politically charged protest songs draped in '70s glam rock and '80s new wave. Its two albums--1994's self-released Jet and last year's The Twelve-Point Master Plan on MCA--were like razor blades in a Tootsie Roll, candy-coated reprimands against handgun-packing crazies ("Nine," "Killer"), Texas Lottery junkies ("25 Million:1"), and morally comatose suburban dwellers ("Mental Suburbaknights").
Now, most of those songs have been permanently shelved. The Commercials are a new band, not just another name for Bobgoblin.
"Eventually, there won't be any Bobgoblin songs in our set," says Avsharian. "Maybe save for a couple of tunes that didn't make it on the CD, sort of B-sides that we might sneak in there. At this point, we're not sure about The Commercials versus the Bobgoblin songs. I'd like to think that we can get a 70 percent Commercials, 30 percent Bobgoblin mix. But Hop lives in Little Rock now, so rehearsals are a little more complicated."
One of the Bobgoblin songs that the band will probably play is "Motor City Dilemma," a cut that was left off of the band's last album and included on a tape that MCA sent to radio stations, one of the only fingers the label lifted to support the band. The band's relationship with MCA ended almost before it started, as the A&R representative that signed the band was fired one month after the release of The Twelve-Point Master Plan. "It was one of those rock and roll cliches," says Avsharian.
Not too long after that, the band got the axe as well, not that they weren't expecting it. The band kept going, even though they didn't have any support from the label, or a record to promote. By the time that last show at EdgeFest rolled around, the band had been off MCA's roster for almost six months.
"There were people at the company that were good to us, that were real cool, but in general, we definitely felt like we were on the back burner," Avsharian says. "After The Edge [KDGE-FM, 94.5] put us in heavy rotation, I was hoping that that would kick it up a notch with MCA, but once again, shit didn't happen. After that, when MCA still didn't climb on board, we realized it was going to be a losing battle."
Now, after being without a label for almost a year, the band is ready to fight again, with a new look and a new batch of songs. The Commercials are almost finished with their debut album, as yet untitled, but don't expect to hear another Twelve-Point Master Plan.
"I won't say that the music is completely different than what Bobgoblin was, like we're experimenting with trash cans and wagons as percussion sounds and that kind of stuff," Manski says. "I still love the big guitars, as loud as I can get 'em. I just think that these songs are a lot more musical-sounding in a way, and by musical, I mean West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof."
Avsharian adds, "Direction-wise, they're still songs that are definitely heavy, but I think Hop is trying to squeeze out as much emotion and melody or whatever. He's really taken that to heart. [He's trying] not to be so verbose. There's the Bobgoblin kind of big guitars, but the hardcore Bobgoblin fan might hear some differences. But if someone came in off the street, it's not like we're going to be up there with cellos or glockenspiels."
The band expects to finish recording in mid-October, and at that point they'll begin the exhausting process of finding a new label. Their brief stint on MCA hasn't made them rule out signing to another major label. The band doesn't care if the label is major or minor--they just want to speed up the process. After all, it took them more than three years to build an audience in Dallas. They don't want to have to go through that again.
"We're all not getting any younger," says Avsharian. "At this point, it might be like a Course of Empire situation, where they made one last sort of brouhaha with their TVT release, and I guess that didn't happen. We're really hoping that something will happen within the next year. Otherwise, we're not sure if we'll..." He stops himself, unwilling to say that he knows the band could be gone by this time next year.
"Well, we're not sure what's going to happen."
The Commercials perform September 11 at The Curtain Club. Chomsky opens.
Thy Will be gone
Stunning new catch phrase: commercially responsible. Unbelievable. How could a band as clever, as gifted, as diplomatic as Centro-matic have forgotten to be commercially responsible? How dare they record 45 cuts of excellent, personal pop and not keep to the saturated road of radio marketability? What's this world coming to, when a nascent label places all bets on an emerging band, and the band betrays the label's trust by recording a great record. The scandal.
Last month--hell, last week--Centro-matic was preparing to release its second album sometime soon on the Austin-based doolittle label; everyone was happy, expectant, downright delighted. Now, all of a sudden, the band finds itself without a label to release it. Will Johnson and his bandmates are $4,000 in the hole, and the band is sitting on three albums' worth of finished material. All because the band was told by the label's honchos that its new material is not, well, "commercially responsible."
After months of negotiations this spring, Centro-matic was set to sign with doolittle, the same label that is home to their buddies in Slobberbone. Centro-matic--which includes founder-guitarist-songwriter Johnson, bassist Mark Hedman, keyboardist-fiddler Scott Danbom, and drummer-producer Matt Pence--spent the last six weeks recording the follow-up to Redo the Stacks (released in 1997 by steve records) in Millstadt, Illinois, or more specifically at Son Volt's studio with Pence engineering the project. All of this was done with doolittle founder Jeff Cole's blessing and financial backing, even though nothing was signed.
All agreements were verbal, though the parties had planned to exchange signatures once the band finished the record. (Ah, the quaint world of indie-label rock.) To this day, the doolittle Web site reads: "Another band from Denton, TX...they know the value of the ROCK!! Check out Centro-matic's pure pop perfection...Stay tuned for the 'official' word on Centro-matic joining the doolittle roster."
Either Cole's notion of "pop perfection" has mutated of late, or more likely, his vision for his label has shifted under doolittle's new distribution deal with PolyGram, an industry behemoth unsympathetic to indie sensibilities or "micro-marketing." In the shadow of this new Big Brother, Cole made the trip up to Millstadt, heard a fair cross-section of the new material, and balked. He decided to kill the deal with Centro-matic before he spent one more penny.
By phone from Austin, Cole says, "Since we had just done this deal with [PolyGram Distribution Group], I didn't want this to be the first release. This would have been the first new thing released through the deal, but I want the first record to be something that has the vision of being a more mainstream product. PGD is not good at indie distribution."
As for the recordings, Cole says, "I just thought they were going to go in a more...not a commercial way, but something where you might have a fluke hit at modern-rock [radio]. I didn't want like a Semisonic record, but something akin to [Beck's] Mellow Gold, where there was stuff the more adventurous music stations could use."
Throughout the year, Johnson often sent Cole four-track and studio recordings to give him and the label some indication of the Centro's sonic direction. And Cole quite earnestly insists that the new material "definitely picks up where Redo the Stacks left off. It's going to be another great record." So what happened? How, in so short a time, did Cole go from touting Redo the Stacks as one of his "favorite records" to telling the band that if they "pick up the rest of the tab, you can walk the record?"
Cole, for his part, insists it's all business, not at all personal. He says he still adores the band and wishes it well; he says that's why, after spending $8,000 on the disc (mostly for apartment rent during the band's stay in Illinois), he's willing to walk away from it, no strings attached. (If that's indeed the case: Centro-matic's manager, Bob Andrews, is waiting for legal documents to be signed to that effect.)
Johnson remains gracious about the whole affair, though the tone of his voice hints that all is not so amicable as it appears. "For the record, all I'll say, for now, is that Cole's need for our band and our need for our band are different. We'll release the record--whatever we have to do to get the stuff out--we'll self-release it sometime in the fall. Late October, early November, God willing."
As for distribution, Johnson makes noises about a potential deal with Crystal Clear Sound, then adds, "Heck--we'll just stuff the CDs in envelopes, draw friggin' crayon pictures on the front, and sell 'em from our front yard. On a table. Hi! Wanna buy a record? Whatever it takes." The band will have to scrape up the cash for the remaining studio tab and promo photos before releasing anything; likely, Cole says, that will be about $4,000.
It all makes you wonder how Cole would've responded to the new material had PolyGram not been an invading presence. Would he have signed the band, as originally planned?
"Maybe, but we would've had to amend their contract," Cole says. "We would have had to tone down the agreement from what it was and do it on more of a record-by-record basis. [Centro-matic's] lawyer asked for some sizable advances; you can't get a major-label advance for, say, a Guided By Voices record, so we would have had to change the approach."
For Centro-matic's sake, it's better that this all happened now rather than later; after all, if the band had already signed doolittle's dotted line, Cole could have rights over the fate of Johnson's songs. Johnson sounds rightfully disinterested in seeking another label deal. This is Johnson's second time to be burned by a label's agenda: The first occurred while he was the drummer for Funland, which was unceremoniously set free from a promising-turned-hollow deal they inked with Arista. For Johnson, it's been bad luck in the majors, the minors, and the gray spaces in between. No wonder he's resolved to make the new record a band-only release.
Despite the silver lining of Centro-matic's just-in-time liberation from pending disaster, the Austin label's pull-out dashes the band's hopes for a substantial promotional tour, which was to have taken up the better part of the fall. This kind of extensive road work has boosted doolittle mainstays Slobberbone's profile and record sales all along. Slobberbone has garnered a staggering tour habit--more than 200 dates in a year.
Which brings up the question of Slobberbone's fate in light of the doolittle's PolyGram deal. Thus far, Cole estimates that about 17,000 copies of the band's doolittle release Barrel Chested have been sold--with about 5,000 of those going in the Netherlands alone. Slobberbone has sold much of that figure from the back of their own tour van, but for a band on an indie label, this spells relative success. Though Cole insists he's not a "glorified A&R guy" for PolyGram now, doolittle's new distribution deal with PolyGram could either be a boon for Slobberbone's career--finally launching them into a bigger, much-deserved spotlight--or mean Brent Best and crew will find themselves lost in hostile territory. Time will tell.
Cole's next Great White Hope is St. Louis' Bottle Rockets; he's been angling to sign the major-label veterans who have been without a label since their falling-out with Atlantic. (The label spent $40,000 on a video that's turned out to be nothing more than an expensive souvenir.) The Rockets may find a kindred spirit in Cole--though why the Bottle Rockets would ever want to sign to a label, major or minor, ever again is beyond comprehension.
"[The PGD deal] allows me to compete for the bands that have some major-label interest," Cole contends. "But they wouldn't be on a label owned by PolyGram. We have the financial incentive to promote the bands. Brent [Best] and the Bottle Rockets and Mount Pilot [another doolittle band] can still make the kinds of records they want to make." Well, just as long as they're commercially responsible.
--Christina Rees and Robert Wilonsky
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