The end of a local band often comes and goes with little notice or mention; as one implodes, another comes along to take its place, filling a void no one knew was empty. But the passing of Killbilly, which will play the final show of its seven-plus-year career this Saturday at Club Clearview, bears special consideration, if only because this is a band--call it "bluethrash" or a "Bill Monroe-goes-to-CBGB synthesis" or whatever else it's been tagged over the years--that's irreplaceable, and because the end occurs at a time when the band was at its peak.
Like any breakup, there are mixed feelings: Killbilly singer-songwriter-guitarist Alan Wooley says he is "happy about it, actually"--relieved to get off the grinding tours on which Killbilly found itself for almost eight years, relieved to excuse himself from a project whose viability he's been questioning for years. But singer Craig Taylor and drummer Mike Schwedler are less than thrilled that the end sits just a few days away. Unlike Wooley, they both feel the band has something left to say, some hidden spark that, perhaps, Wooley just doesn't see.
Schwedler recalls, with some sadness, Killbilly's most recent performance at the Philadelphia Folk Festival--playing in front of 12,000 cheering fans, soaking in every last detail because he knew what waited for him back home. He recalls how Killbilly--with its newest additions, Old 97s Rhett Miller on guitar and Murray Hammond on bass, filling the hole left by departed bass player Richard Hunter--was "firing on all cylinders," how "if there had been a roof on the place, we'd have blown it off."
"I had such mixed feeling about it going in," Schwedler says. "But when we walked off the stage, it was a poignant moment because we knew what was going to happen, and I felt a sense of loss. I thought, 'I'm going to miss this.' Personally, I feel like I'm losing...it's like a divorce, a divorce with children involved."
Band members credit the dissolution of Killbilly to two separate problems--financial and creative--that eventually became inextricably intertwined: a band that consistently lost money throughout its long career, money totalling thousands of dollars, became too preoccupied with its checkbook to concentrate on its art. It became, as Alan Wooley says, an impossible chore to keep writing good songs to place on good albums and know that no one will buy them and no one will hear them. Fact is, bluegrass just doesn't sell--big or small--and you can only shout in the vacuum for so long before you become hoarse from desperation.
Wooley and drummer Mike Schwedler figure that throughout its career--one that spawned four releases, from the Killbilly cassette in 1989 to this year's Foggy Mountain Anarchy, each better than the last--Killbilly sold a total of 20,000 units, maybe a few more. And they also figure that the six-member band traveled hundreds of thousands of miles and lost thousands of dollars doing so. Even a tour sponsorship from Bud Dry failed to alleviate much of the cost.
"If you came up with a dollar-to-band member-to-mile ratio, we made less money per mile than any other band in the history of the music industry," Taylor figures.
And in the long run, they could no longer afford to continue touring and recording albums for no one. If nothing else, the end of Killbilly is the only logical, and practical, solution.
"When we started this band, I never thought about how long it would last," Wooley says. "It was one of those bands where I could have done it all my life if the circumstances had been different--financially, mainly. Without the means to pay the rent and support your family, you're at a serious disadvantage. The amount of money we made was small--maybe half of what a McDonald's fry-cook makes in a year. The artistic part dried up as a part of the resentment of the projects not being rewarding financially."
Craig Taylor explains that there are two ways a band becomes successful: there's the "Tripping Daisy model," as he calls it, and the "Horton Heat model." In the case of Tripping Daisy, they were a band that recorded a CD, released it in its hometown, and became enough of a local draw to garner some major-label attention without having to endure substantial touring and the accompanying costs. ("That's also the New Bohemians model," Taylor says.)
Jim "Reverend Horton Heat" Heath, however, toured nearly nonstop for several years before landing a deal with a record label--mostly because his small band, always a three-piece, was cheap to take on the road and never had much trouble making money because of the low overhead. Eventually, Horton Heat got enough attention to interest the labels, and finally signed with Sub Pop and then Interscope.
"We weren't selling enough in Dallas to get major label attention," Taylor says, "and it wasn't possible for us to tour nationally without losing money because we had so many people in the band."
"You get in a broken-down Ford tour van and do it every day for 260 days a year, and you'll find out how hard it is," Wooley says. "It's a tough row to hoe, especially if you have a family. I think after eight years I can pretty well go to my grave saying I did everything I could to make that band work--everybody with that band did. We played all the places we were supposed to play and did all the things we were supposed to do, and I guess the people have spoken."
Wooley says he began to notice the dulling of the creative edge about two years ago--around the time the band inked a deal with Flying Fish Records out of Chicago, released their CD Stranger in This Place, and were tagged as the readers' choice for Best Act Overall in the 1992 Observer Music Awards. He says now it was like "a puddle that dried up gradually," and he began having his doubts about his future as a member of Killbilly.
Not long after the release of Stranger--a wonderful album highlighted by Wooley's masterful playing, the sweet-but-never-sickly-so harmonies of Wooley and Taylor, and smart lyrics--the band filmed a video at Trees for the single "Muddy Rio Grande" that proved a monumental mistake. It was, as Schwedler says, "a giant money pit" and an expenditure the band couldn't afford.
"It was too country for MTV, and too rock for country," Schwedler says, "and it never got played anywhere." He adds that various problems with management over expenditures and the group's musical direction compounded the difficulties.
And in the end, he says, there arose conflicts regarding the band's sound. Foggy Mountain Anarchy captured a band caught between its purist bluegrass roots and its members' punk-rock pasts, going so far as to include a blistering cover of HYsker DY's "Hare Krsna" among the standard mandolin-and-corn-brewed fare. It was a terrific testament to the band's live performance--finally--but raised some concern about direction.
"Alan had some frustrations during a period where we became more of a rock band than Killbilly should have ever been," Schwedler says. "The interpretation that it outlived its usefulness is correct, but we definitely needed a retro facelift, pushing it without turning into a rock band."
For Wooley, more so than anyone else in the band, the end of Killbilly could not have come at a better time: the Cartwrights, his country project with Donny Ray Ford, Barry Kooda, and ex-Killbilly drummer Richie Vasquez, are taking up a considerable chunk of his time, and he is becoming enamored of producing (evident on his current behind-the-board work on the Old 97s' Hitchhike to Rome). Schwedler, who now runs Big West Productions, will continue managing and booking the Cartwrights, Old 97s, and 66. Taylor is less clear about his future in music.
"I'm tired of the voluntary impoverishment which I've endured for the past seven years," he says. "I don't want to be wealthy. I just want to be lower-middle class, which would make me very happy."
"We got out of it at the right time," Wooley concludes. "If we had stuck it out any longer, who knows--we'd all be bums living on the street."
Killbilly, with special guests, performs for the last time November 5 at Club Clearview.
Bedhead goes to church, releases EP
Bedhead is that rarest commodity: a perfect band that gets better with each performance and each release. With the recent departure of guitarist-singer-songwriter Matt Kadane for school in New York City (not to mention the recent nuptials of his brother Bubba--mazel tov!), Bedhead as a performance ensemble has been put on hold (with the exception of a few occasional brief tours), but that has not stopped them from releasing a four-song EP that's a remarkable follow-up to this spring's WhatFunLifeWas, which remains the most complete and flawless work ever released by a Dallas band.
Recorded March 31 at the Kessler Community Church in Oak Cliff, straight into a lone stereo microphone plugged into a two-track deck, the pragmatically titled 4SongCDEP19:10 encompasses all that's great about Bedhead: songs that begin as three-guitar lullabies and grow slowly and surprisingly into crushing bursts; vocals that blur past like half-heard whispers; painfully intimate music that's rife with beauty and tension. But the EP is hardly formula follow-up: because of its short length, it can't sustain the hypnotic mood of its predecessor (though it comes damn close) and instead succeeds on the strength of its magnificent songs (more subtly diverse than before, and the last of which is a Joy Division cover, "Disorder"). Inspirational lyric (if you can hear it): "You speak to me, but it's in a dead language, and I speak back to you, but your ears seem to be dead, too."
4songCDEP19:10, on King Coffee's Trance Syndicate Records out of Austin, is available at finer record stores around town.
Drummer for hire
Ronnie Dawson has heard it a million time: "Hey, man," someone will tell him after a show, "I'm in love with your drummer." That didn't happen back when he was playing the Big D Jamboree in the late '50s--but he didn't have a female drummer then, either. So now, he'll just smile and say thanks, he loves her, too. And he'll be talking about her playing. As he says, "She's honest, and I like her spirit. It's real easy to communicate with her musically, and she's got great instincts. Plus, she plays her butt off."
In the past two years, since Lisa Pankratz has been accompanying Dawson and High Noon during concerts here, in Austin, and even as far away as Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, she's developed her own following. You can always spot the drummer fanatics standing in the corner, playing air drums and trying to make time with the woman keeping time.
But Pankratz is no kewpie-doll gimmick: the 26-year-old Dripping Springs native is among the best drummers around, a gun-for-hire who's in no band and all bands. Having sat in with everyone from would-be Austin surf-rock legend Teisco Del Ray to country-boy Don Walser to Dawson, she's quickly established quite a reputation as a musician who's adept at all styles while maintaining her own.
She began her professional career playing with her dad, a rhythm and blues drummer around Austin in the '60s, in the reggae band I-Tex; shortly before she left for Rice in 1990, she formed her own band, the rockabilly-and-jazz 47 Indians, which broke up in 1991. She nearly found herself in a band with two-thirds of High Noon until they added another member and decided to go rockabilly without percussion, which left Pankratz free to play with whomever she wanted or whoever called.
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"Hopefully, part of what's unique to me is being able to fit in and complement the musicians I play with," she says. "I'm not sure I have a style of drumming. Maybe that's a developing thing. I don't know. I think too much, and if I start thinking about my style I'll psyche myself out. Sometimes I think way too much and I have to remind myself to stop thinking and play. I think I provide a real solid backbeat when it's called for, but there's room, too. I feel like a lot of my favorite drummers are about what they don't do as much as what they do."
Ronnie Dawson and High Noon with Lisa Pankratz perform November 5 at Sons of Hermann Hall, 3414 Elm, at 9 p.m. This will be Dawson's last performance in town for a good while because he's set to return to London to finish recording his next album, due to be released early next year. In the meantime, he has just released a killer, brand-new single on the Rock-A-Billy label out of Colorado, "Boy Next Door"/"Rockin' Boppin' Fever."
DUMP on this
When is an underground-rock fest not an underground-rock fest? When it has corporate sponsorship from Shiner Bock, that's when. Otherwise, the 1st Annual Dallas Underground Music Party (which organizers refer to as "The DUMP") bears a striking resemblance to last year's initial Wake Up, Dallas! showcase: for two nights, some of the area's best (and not-best) punk bands play 15-minute sets at the Galaxy Club to raise awareness about The Scene. John Freeman will even emcee the proceedings, having proved himself the Ed Sullivan of such events at last year's Wake Up! debut.
On November 4, the bands performing will include: Baboon, Trucker Pussy (formerly Headswim, and not to be confused with Thunder Pussy), Vibrolux, UFOFU, Brutal Juice, El Kabong, Bad Hair Day, Alan Parsons Projectile, Thermus, and Superphat. The following night's lineup will include: Grand Pricks, Lithium X-Mas, Feckweed, Trailer Park, Loveswing, The Millionaires, The Soup, Duck Duck Annihilation, Cobbler, Panzee, and Hodge Podge. Admission is $3 each night for the 21 and over crowd; $5 for 18 and under.