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How low can you go?

If you haven't heard of Beautamous Loaf International, a Dallas record label that specializes in dishwater-dirty trip-hop and ambient sound collages, you're not alone. Beautamous Loaf seems less like an indie record label and more like an exercise in proving just how underground something can be without ceasing to exist. With the bands on the label's roster--Prison Rape Scenes, Jethro Tilton, Sphota, Sanguinaria, and Pantheon 23--appearing live so sporadically, they could be mistaken for a group of Mob informants, and only a handful of releases to its credit, it brings up the question: If a label releases an experimental trip-hop album and no one is around to hear it, does it really make a sound?

The answer is irrelevant, because nobody involved with the label seems to care either way. Three of the label's four core members live in Dallas, and all three realized a long time ago that their day jobs were real jobs; making music takes a back seat to making rent. The trio--Sphota's Phillip Walker, Prison Rape Scenes' Trent Straughan, and Joel Zoch (who, in addition to handling production and mixing for all of the bands, is a member of PRS, Jethro Tilton, Sphota, and Pantheon 23)--make records when they can, release them when there's enough money, and never fret about whether or not the Dallas music scene will accept them. They just assume it won't, and move on.

"I think one of our main objectives about getting this stuff out is to not worry about Dallas at all," Straughan says. "I think one of the understood formulas for this to work is to get it as far from Dallas as we possibly can. It seems like the farther we get from Dallas, the better the response is. I think people would like it, but it would have to go up north and then go through the appropriate marketing departments at MTV, and if it was to go through that and people here were told to like it, then it would be appreciated here."

The bands on the label aren't exactly begging to be appreciated. You don't do things like name a band Prison Rape Scenes or title an album Buttocks Spread to the Sky and expect people to come running with open Walkmans and fistfuls of cash. Nothing may be shocking anymore, but there are still some things that are annoying.

"If we were concerned about that, we would have named ourselves Pearl Jam," Zoch says. "There are a million bands in Dallas, and a lot of 'em are much more palatable than us." No kidding.

Another reason the label has remained anonymous is that the public really hasn't had a chance to hear any of its bands. Club shows by any of the bands are rare, occurring about as often as a change in seasons, with occasional performances in ambient tents at raves and parties. Zoch, Walker, and Straughan don't know how to classify their respective bands' sounds; they don't expect a typical Deep Ellum audience to figure it our either.

"You can't classify [our music] as industrial, and you can't really play it in a dance club, because it's more down-tempo," Walker says. "We get a good response whenever we do something at a rave or a party where they have a different sound system for more ambient stuff."

Continuing Walker's point, Zoch says, "As far as walking into the Galaxy Club and playing a gig, if we can get 100 people to show up, it's amazing. We don't play out a lot because we don't seek it out. Whenever we play, it's because people approach us."

Even with Beautamous Loaf's scattered release schedule and the bands' infrequent shows, the label has found a few supporters, including the Vas Deferens Organization and the now-defunct Buzzmonger fanzine. For the most part, though, the label is its own self-contained scene: Walker, Zoch, and Straughan--and Sanguinaria's Neil Poska, who lives in Colorado--are the musicians, the label owners, and the fans. It's a situation that figures to endure as long as the label does, as none of them talks about an actual scene developing around Beautamous Loaf. They are making plans to have their records appear in more stores around the country, but other than that, they seem resigned to live in a vacuum. All three of them are sure that they would have more of an audience if they lived somewhere else, and they're just as sure that they'll never move.

"Can anyone here move away from Dallas?" Straughan asks, as the other two shake their heads no and sip their drinks.

"We're so hooked in," Walker says. "We have a lot of good connections and a lot of good resources around here. It'd be really difficult to move away from that."  

"I think we'd be broke in a month if we felt like we had to live off the music," Straughan continues. "I think the best advice for anyone who wants to continue to make their kind of music is to find a day job that isn't too bad."

So far, Walker, Zoch, and Straughan have spent more money than they've made, plowing every cent back into the label.

"Oh, it's impossible. We've pretty much made it through donations and investments and from people who support us, but we haven't made shit for money," Zoch says. "Some people have made money off our records, but we haven't. If we had the cash, records would be coming out left and right, because there is definitely no shortage of ideas. We have a couple of hours of shit sitting on tape right now. Hopefully, the two new CDs will really pick up, and people will get an interest in it."

The label was started a little more than three years ago--with a release by Zoch's ambient project Jethro Tilton, Sickle Cell Show Tickets--but it actually began to take shape when Zoch joined Prison Rape Scenes with Straughan and the late Louis Howard. At the time, Zoch "wasn't hearing the sounds I wanted to hear, so I had to find some people and create 'em." He hooked up with Straughan and Howard as they were still trying to figure out their sound.

"Neither one of us had any background in music theory whatsoever," Straughan says. "Which is probably a good thing, because if I had understood music at the time, I would have heard the stuff that he did on his drum machine and said, 'That's fucked up. I can't play over that.' And that would have been the end of it. He was doing drum machine and vocals, and I was doing bass, so it was sort of a drum 'n' bass thing before the term existed. But it was a lot uglier, a lot meaner. And faster."

Zoch jokes, "I like working with people who don't have any musical training."

Adding Zoch may have helped with the structure of the band, but it didn't help much with critics, who panned the first two Prison Rape Scenes albums, the aforementioned Buttocks Spread to the Sky and Nitrous Cockslide. Those two albums show a markedly different sound than the current incarnation of Prison Rape Scenes, mainly because of Howard's presence. With Howard on guitar and vocals, Prison Rape Scenes was a much more aggressive (some would say offensive) band, with a sound that almost lived up to the band's name. It's hard to tell how the band feels about his passing, talking about him with a mixture of fondness and indifference.

"He had a lot of medical problems, most of which he brought on himself," Zoch shrugs.

"He had a pretty ugly cocktail in his blood at the time. In fact, he died across the street," Straughan says, pointing across Greenville from our table at The Cavern Club. "I just have this vision of him having to haunt the place where he died, which I think would be kind of funny with all the Dallas jet-set eating there. He'd probably like to look at the waitresses."

Walker adds, "I don't think PRS is going to attempt to do any vocals without him."

When Howard passed away last May, the band had already started to change, beginning to move away from the abrasive guitar sound of its first two albums to the spooky trip-hop heard on Licked By the Mother Tongue, the band's just-released third album. Zoch's imprint is clear on the album, which bears more similarities to his Jethro Tilton project than either of the first two Prison Rape Scenes albums. Straughan and Zoch both agree that there wasn't any doubt that the band would continue without Howard.

"I'm starting to feel like the rock and roll structure is really starting to fade away, and I think the last few years it really hasn't been an issue, needing a guitar, drums, bass, and vocalist to do what you like to do," Straughan says. "At the time, it felt like we could go on without him. We didn't want to replace him either."

Zoch looks confused, as though he never considered the possibility of quitting after Howard's death. "I could never stop making music, so that was never really an issue. There may have been a time when the label might have been in question, but we never would have stopped making music."

Even if no one is around to hear it.

Scene, heard
As an addendum to last week's news story about the closing of the Orbit Room, which happened June 23, it should be mentioned that the majority owner in the punk club's building is Sam Paulos, owner of Crystal Clear Sound and its spinoff steve records (home to Legendary Crystal Chandelier, Peter Schmidt's band), and one of the partners in the Curtain Club. (Paulos has money invested in several of the clubs and properties in Deep Ellum, actually.) But former Club Clearview owner Jeff Swaney, president of the Delphi Group Inc. Real Estate Services, manages the property; he is also one of Paulos' partners, having staked at least $35,000 of his own money when the building, which also houses Ketama and the Jet Lounge, was bought last summer. Paulos says Swaney handles all dealings with tenants and that he never spoke to Orbit owner Hector Fontecha about his decision to leave Deep Ellum. In fact, Paulos says of the Orbit's demise, "I think it is a loss." Indeed.  

--Robert Wilonsky

Send Street Beat e-mail to rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com. We dare you.


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