Out of a Trance

It began eight years ago as a hobby--no, a passion. It gave a home to bands no one else wanted, or bands who wanted no one else. It was an asylum where art came first, commerce never, and records sold by the dozens to aficionados who wanted their rock and roll independent and, so often, brilliant.

In 1990, King Coffey--drummer for the Butthole Surfers and, for Fort Worth cats who remember that far back, once a member of the Hugh Beaumont Experience--began the Austin-based Trance Syndicate because he was frustrated with the lack of outlets for Texas' post-punk bands; after all, the Buttholes had to go to Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label in San Francisco and Touch and Go in Chicago at the beginning of their career. So Coffey planted a seed in his own back yard, and Trance sprouted an indie-rock Garden of Eden, releasing albums by the likes of local heroes Bedhead, Austin's power-pop Sixteen Deluxe, psychedelic-rock father Roky Erickson, and the Houston's Pain Teens.

But Trance Syndicate is, sadly, no more: The best independent label in the state's history is out of business as of October, when Trance will release a 10-inch single from Bedhead, "Lepidoptera/Leper."

"It's King's decision," says Trance label manager and Coffey's longtime business partner Craig Stewart. "He's just not into it anymore."

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The death of Trance--home to such tremendous new bands as Furry Things, Paul Newman, ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, and Monroe Mustang--means Bedhead will have to search for another label, as Trance has released all of the band's albums and EPs, including the magnificent Transaction de Novo, released in February. Stewart says that with the exception of ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, all the bands on Trance "are taken care of," meaning they either have deals with new labels or don't need or want them.

He also insists that the death of Trance will not affect Bedhead: "They're not on hiatus as much as they don't have anything planned," he says. "They've done all they wanted to do for this record as far as touring [the band recently completed a U.S. and European tour], and they don't have anything else coming up. And if they do regroup and get something done, they have plenty of labels that would want to have them. Touch and Go and Matador would love to have them, but it's totally up to them."

But it's unlikely Bedhead would leap to a label like Matador, which has distribution through CEMA, which also distributes Capitol Records. Matt and Bubba Kadane, the songwriters and guitarists behind Bedhead, have always been outspoken about their desire to stay independent of a major-label distribution system. If anything, they will go with Touch and Go, which already distributes Trance, Merge, Drag City, Thrill Jockey, and a number of other revered indies.

"We always thought we would go to Touch and Go to make another record anyway," says Matt Kadane. "We wanted to see if we would sell more records--a moderate but important number of records above what we had sold before. We wanted to see if we could double the number of records we sold. I never kid myself in thinking there are 100,000 people in this country who would like our music, but I think there are 25,000 instead of 12,000. If 25,000 people would buy a Yo La Tengo record, I think they would like our records."

Trance's first release was Crust's Sacred Heart EP, followed by the two "Love and Napalm" seven-inch compilation singles that featured the likes of Ed Hall, Drain (Coffey's dissonant side project), and Crust. The first non-Texas band released on Trance was Crunt, which featured Babes in Toyland singer Kate Bjelleland and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion drummer Russell Simins. Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder told Spin at the end of 1994 that Crunt's self-titled debut was one of his favorite albums of the year. Sixteen Deluxe also released its first album on Trance, only to leap to Warner Bros. Records--the only Trance band to make the transition from the indie to a major.

But the label's prestige came from releasing albums by Bedhead and Erickson, whose poignant 1995 "comeback" All That May Do My Rhyme, which sold 17,000 copies worldwide, remains Trance's best seller. According to Stewart, Bedhead's albums--including 1994's WhatFunLifeWas, 1996's Beheaded, and Transaction de Novo--sold between 10,000 and 12,000 copies. But Coffey wasn't in it for the sales or the money: He was in it for the music, often funding the label from his own pocket, thanks to the Buttholes' deal with Capitol Records. (The Buttholes, who were to have released a long-completed album earlier this year on the label, are looking to get off Capitol for myriad undisclosed reasons.)  

"King and Craig have always really liked what they put out, so they've been into the bands for aesthetic reasons," says Kadane. "It's an advantage that King had Butthole Surfers money too, so Trance has been indirectly bankrolled by a major label--but indirectly is the operative word."

Coffey's decision to fold the label after eight less-than-profitable years isn't a shocking one; hard to believe it lasted this long. The rule of thumb in rock and roll: The better the bands, the worse the sales, and there are few bands in America better than Bedhead. But its legacy is not completely dead. Stewart says he will continue to operate the Trance imprint Emperor Jones, the more electronic-and-experimental label that has released albums by the American Analog Set (From Our Living Room to Yours), Alastair Galbraith (Mirrorwork, released in June), and The Mountain Goats (Full Force Galesburg). Should Emperor Jones thrive in the next year, Stewart says, then it will absorb Trance and release some of the bands currently on the label.

"I think Bubba and I are deeply, profoundly, utterly saddened by the end of Trance," Matt Kadane says. "I guess what makes me sad is it's the end of an era. When I think about good music that has come from Texas in the '90s, I think of Trance. And Lord knows all of it hasn't been good, but what good has come out of Texas in indie-rock has come out on Trance."

... and the Horse they rode in on
Fort Worth's own T-Bone Burnett once insisted that Jack O'Neill was going to prove to be a great singer-songwriter the day O'Neill decided to leave Jackopierce. "Like PJ Harvey," Burnett said, overstating his case to make his point. "Really." At the time, it was easy to mistake his zeal for the paycheck A&M Records was giving him to produce the band's 1994 A&M debut Bringing on the Weather; surely, it was the money talking.

But never doubt a man who plays with Elvis Costello and lays with Sam Phillips--he ain't no dummy. The new American Horse six-song EP, available now in your finer record shoppes, proves that O'Neill was indeed blinded by the glow of cheap coin that surrounded Pierce, whose idea of mixing art and commerce was selling Jackopierce hacky-sacks and koozies on the band's Web site. American Horse--which also features Jackopierce escapees Clay Pendergrass (bass) and Earl Darling (drums) and ex-Fever in the Funkhouse lead guitarist Chris Claridy--ain't exactly the stuff of absolute greatness (then again, nothing is these days), but finally, O'Neill gets to prove there's more to him than songs about girls with mahogany hair and summer sunsets and all that other horseshit that passes for sensitive genius on Fraternity Row.

The disc begins with promise that doesn't double-cross until the closer, a little Casio folk-soul number called "Moment Betrayed" that dares begin with the lines: "You and I in a gilded cage / Strange brotherhood, I never knew I was his brother." The words are wimpier than the music, which isn't saying a whole lot--no, wait, it is. But the rest of the record, all five songs of it, hints at O'Neill's born-again taste for rock and roll; it's gritty, ugly, low-down, hoarse, and coarse, and probably the worst thing you can say about it is that it sounds not a little unlike Pearl Jam's more dour, art-rock moments--O'Neill's rasping mumble would make Eddie-now-Ed proud (or would that be Michael Hutchence?). The opener, "Steering Wheel," is the highlight, maybe because it's a driving song that doesn't go anywhere; it's more like an idling car in a closed garage, and the fumes are intoxicating.

Hate to say a band of vets has potential--six songs, one a half-done acoustic demo, don't give a whole lot to go on. But O'Neill and Claridy (at long last, in a band that utilizes his estimable talents) and the rest of the boys prove you're not defined by your past, as long as you run the hell away from it as fast as you can.

Dooms T.K.
For years, the crowds have been clamoring for their take-home copies of such classics as "Heather Has Two Mommies" and "Golden Shower" and "Come Play With My Kitty," but they've left the arena in frustration. John Freeman is a tease, the audience mutters in despair, wondering why he and his Dooms U.K. bandmates would taunt them with live renditions of songs they could never own. Well, fret no more, poodle-hairs and punks and lovers of fancy metal everywhere: At the beginning of August, the Dooms will release its second album in four long years, Art-Rock Explosion, and it will indeed consist of those crowd favorites and scoopfuls of other unknown rave-faves-to-be.  

"At least half the songs are songs we don't play live," Freeman says of the forthcoming disc, which will be a co-release on Freeman's Ballalicious label and Hot Link Records, the Denton label run by Wally Campbell of Cornhole. "I always think a band's album should be a different experience than they are live, so it has a different feel. There's more instrumental stuff on the new record: The first song is an eight-and-a-half-minute instrumental with a kinda prog-rock feel."

The reason there has been so much time between the Dooms' Greasy Listening (released on Direct Hit) and Art-Rock Explosion is a matter of simple economics: The band--which included, this go-'round, Matt Pence on drums, Mark Headman on bass some of the time, and Jon "Corn Mo" Cunningham on Tommy Shaw keybs all of the time--recorded the album all by its lonesome and went into the studio when it had some spare scratch. Freeman also cut his own Dutch Treats/William Pollard (also of Cornhole) split seven-inch single during that time, which will be released next month as well. The vinyl will feature Freeman covering Cornhole's "Naked Child" and Pollard remaking Freeman's immortal "Crack Whore"; also featured is Freeman's rendition of "I Was Born to Make Dwarf Porn," a love song.

"When the Dooms CD comes out, we're going to do unusual CD release shows," promises the keeper of all things heavy-mental. "We're going to have a video-showing and concert combined. We want it to be arty and unusual, because we're tired of regular rock." Who isn't?

Scene, heard
While we heartily applaud Last Beat Records' Shaun Edwardes' attempt to develop a scene (his words, not ours) built upon techno and electronica and hip-hop, we offer these words of caution: Don't name it Future Beatz (sounds like a 1984 Greenville Avenue disco/strip club), and don't solicit tapes from bands wanting to be part of the scene (they will all suck). Yeah, we know: "A thriving scene...is only just emerging through the quagmire of discarded and disbanded rock bands," reads the press release announcing the first Future Beatz night (man, I hate having to write that name) on July 17 at the Curtain Club. But you have to be subtle about it; if you force something that ain't there, you'll have ADance Regina! playing Deep Ellum every weekend. That said, the July 17 bill is a durned respectable one: Aside from the obvious Terror Couple (whom Edwardes manages), there's the top-notch talents of Shabazz 3 (underappreciated local heroes of hip-hop) and Sub Oslo (rub-a-dub dub), topped off with the between-band DJ spinning of Jeff "cottonmouth, texas" Liles. I recommend the bill, commend the spirit, and demand the name be changed immediately.

Send Street Beatz e-mail to rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com

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