Working on a building
It's an age-old trade-off that exists in most art forms, but music probably illustrates it better than most: Work at the local level and enjoy the support of people who are familiar with you, who understand your vision and your process, and who have a personal interest in your success. These people are there to help you, but are unable to ship 100 demos where it counts on the West Coast (spaying the cat really set us back this month, man) or to get anyone in New York to return a call. Claw your way up to the national level, and you find yourself chained to the oar of some multinational slave ship; the captain knows whom to call in New York, it's just that he won't return your call.
Deep Ellum's Last Beat Studios and its sister entities--Last Beat Media, Last Beat Records, and the Last Beat record store--have forged an unrivaled combination of these two worlds to offer Dallas something that is in very short supply: a place for musicians that blends neighborhood intimacy and support with national effectiveness.
A visit to Last Beat confirms its status as a place where things overlap. Along a central hallway there's the typical office hum and bustle: People run documents, file things, seal envelopes, and execute the countless small tasks needed to make an operation run smoothly. The fact that this office staff boasts numerous examples of facial piercings, tattoos, and dyed hair seems to make little difference: Phones ring and are answered almost immediately. The floors are clean, and all the doorways have doors in them. On hinges, even.
The true test of how well a venture is doing is how it's equipped. Both the office and the studio at LB are up to date. There's a dial tone when you pick up the phone. The mixing boards, the microphones, the effects boxes, are all sleek and new. There are extra guitars and amps, should they be needed, but there is equipment even more noteworthy: the shower in the back, or the washer and dryer that sit next to it, across from the kitchen. These are amenities that many musicians have long ago given up hope of owning or even having reliable access to.
It has not always been so. Office manager Tami Thomson has been with Last Beat since the beginning, when owner Karen Barrett set the label up over on Henry Street, where Cafe Society is now located. Back then, the space was one big, open warehouse, with a practice area for Barrett's band Liquid Velvet at one end and a desk (i.e., office) at the other. The label limped along, like countless others of the type. "We were kinda hard to take seriously," Thomson admits. With her large, slightly almond-shaped eyes, nose ring, and highlighted hair, she seems perfect for the part of Mary Richards--if you cast The Mary Tyler Moore Show from a Friday-night crowd at CBGB's. You don't have to talk to--or watch--Thomson long to realize that she is one of those essential types, a hub about which countless wheels revolve: part taskmaster, part mother, and part archive. "We worked with Liquid Velvet, and Jeff Liles when he was doing Decadent Dub Team. I guess about the time we did this punk 7-inch for a band called Terminal Disgust, we started taking it seriously. Still, we were happy just to get our stuff in all the record stores in Dallas."
Things have changed quite a bit. Although the record store will probably be retired soon, Last Beat has added a number of related endeavors. Last Beat Media maintains the enterprise's Web site, which features individual band pages and various local chat forums, and also takes on outside work. In addition to the business offices and recording studio, Last Beat contains a number of rehearsal spaces and has plans to expand into unfinished space they own next door, adding not only more room for bands but also an area for live performances, which could then be carried on the Internet through LBM. A number of notable local bands use Last Beat as a kind of base of operations, both formally and informally: the Toadies, the Tomorrowpeople, Mess, and Fireworks, to name a few. In addition, in the past LB has released significant albums by acts such as rubberbullet, Tablet, Riot Squad, and Spinning Ginny; the Reverend Horton Heat just finished a month of pre-production there. The label just inked deals for the European distribution of its entire catalog, with licensing (which gives the licensee the rights to manufacture--rather than import and sell--records) of hotter acts such as the Tomorrowpeople. The label also handles most of the detail-intensive work-a-day bullshit that many groups must do (and subsequently screw up) for themselves--booking and tour support, publicity, and other piddling details often ignored, forgotten, or passed over.
The key factor in this change from hapless local concern to multi-faceted international business has been Shaun Edwardes. If you were casting a rock and roll movie, you might be tempted to feature Edwardes as the villain. Smooth and handsome, with a cell phone constantly by his side, an up-to-the-minute sense of style, and a British accent, at first blush he seems the very embodiment of a business wherein players range from self-interested clowns to evil personified.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Edwardes truly likes music and really wants to see people do well; by contract the way is clear for every Last Beat act to move up to bigger and better things should the opportunity arise. His accent is real. After service in the Royal Army and at stab at a career in finance, he decided that music was what he wanted to do; in 1984 he hooked up with a friend in London, who was starting a studio, and parlayed that into a long stint working with bands on the road in Europe, including Bon Jovi, Simply Red, Duran Duran, and Michael Jackson. Tiring of the road, he followed a love interest to Dallas, where he worked with Kid Creole and the Twin Peaks triumvirate of Julee Cruise, David Lynch, and Angelo Badalamenti. When internal friction broke that daisy chain apart, Edwardes used his familiarity with the Dallas scene to sign local bands Vibrolux and Tablet to management, a move that not only focused attention on Dallas as a happening scene, but also on Edwardes as the guy who knew it.
Edwardes wanted to do more than A&R work for other people, however. "I wanted to have both a studio and a label," he explains, "so that one could feed off the other, and so that you could do as much stuff in-house as possible and keep your overhead low." Although he was talking to major labels about bankrolling this dream, it was his contact with Barrett that seemed the most resonant; she ended up asking him to run the label for her.
"At the time," Edwardes says, "Last Beat had some great resources and was financially sound; it was just misdirected. It was a challenge, and it would enable me to do what I wanted to do without getting into bed with the majors, which I'm very glad about."
Slouched in a chair in his office, occasionally eyeing the small video screen on his desk that shows him what's going on in the hallway outside his door, Edwardes seems both cool and committed. "Most bands get signed too early," he says, no doubt thinking of the Tomorrowpeople--an LB act he also manages--who had major-label reps at their third gig. "They don't know the road; they have no fan base outside their home, and they go out with a major label record. Then they're asking questions like 'How come our records aren't in any of the stores? How come no one's here at the gig?' and it's because no one's done the groundwork.
"That's what we're here for," he says. "Most bands signed now are coming from the indies [record labels]. There was an article in Billboard, oh, around six weeks ago, and it was all about how for the first time ever, indie labels had shifted more units than the majors. The majors are now really looking to those independent labels for bands that have product, for bands with experience on the road and in the studio and that already have a fan base."
Edwardes' features darken almost imperceptibly as Brandon Smith--formerly Tablet's bass player and currently in charge of LB Media's Web work--interrupts with a question that apparently can't wait. At times like this, you can discern behind Edwardes' genteel urbanity a man who will gladly suffer a certain amount of foolishness and then no more--at least not gladly. The question answered, he continues. "I think the difference between me and the major-label guys is that with me, it's not all bottom line. I'm into music; as long as we can stay afloat, I want everybody to get paid, make a living, and the bands enjoy themselves."
There doesn't seem to be any doubt that Edwardes has achieved the last goal. Earlier in the afternoon, the Toadies were getting ready for rehearsal in their space across the hall from Edwardes' office. While Clark Vogeler shuffled about the room--with its Christmas lights, posters, and parachute hanging from the ceiling it seemed more like a comfy dorm room than the bleak commercial spaces most bands cram themselves into--Lisa Umbarger sat on the couch, cradling a big black Rickenbacker.
"It's like a live-in community," she says, noodling on the bass as she speaks, the unamplified notes buzzing off into silence like June bugs falling from a screen door. "It's not just a place with a room for recording and like an office tacked onto that; here, there are all these rooms, and you can hang out and talk to people, hang out with other bands--which you usually don't get to do. A lot of times you only ever see people out at the gigs, but this way you get to know other musicians."
"You get to hear their new songs," Vogeler says as he adjusts a microphone stand, adding that the label goes to great lengths to ensure the bands' comfort. "Like this room--Last Beat completely accommodated us; they took what had been a garage and turned it into the coziest room here."
"I brought the Supersuckers in here [several weeks ago] when they played here, because there was no place for them to get away. They just freaked out. They said, 'Shit, we should just move to Texas--there's nothing like this in Seattle.'" Umbarger laughs at the memory. "Their mouths were just hanging open."
"People here are having fun, and it shows," Vogeler says.
"You can set up all your stuff, practice, and leave it set up," Umbarger explains. "Then, when you want to make a demo, all you have to do is drag it down the hall to the studio, where [LB house producer/engineer] Ben [Yaeger] will help you record."
"Ben is amazing," Vogeler says. "He doesn't get enough credit."
Down the hall, Slowpoke's Dave Gibson and Corbet Guest are in the office for Last Beat Media. "All this," Gibson says, indicating the machinery and computer screens around him, "is so readily available to local musicians that it makes the industry more communal. The staff here is really on the ball in terms of getting things done, but with that vibe. You really feel like they're there to help nurture your artistic vision."
"It's so easy to get locked into local management and local booking," says Guest, "and you never get your feet wet in other markets. Here, you'll have a chance to do that, if you want. It's really convenient to have all the elements--a studio, a label, the booking, the distribution--right there in one place."
Riot Squad's Joe Russell is calling in from Chicago, where the band has arrived after a gig in Iowa the night before. They're checking in with Steve Agnew, who handles LB's booking, and the home office. "It's just got this family atmosphere," Russell says. "Everybody knows everybody else. It's definitely a real company, but it doesn't feel like it. All we want to do is tour, record, and write songs. All that other stuff--booking and everything--is a pain in the butt, and it's great to have a label that can do that for you."
"The whole environment is just really conducive to letting bands be bands," agrees Chris Mess, leader of the now-defunct band Mess. "They put effort into getting people to shows, and into pushing you to other markets. There are all these tools at your disposal--you can come in and make fliers, sit at a computer, go into the studio. They help you with ASCAP, with publishing and all that, and everybody is so supportive. They don't just work in the office; they come to the shows too. It's just like a clubhouse. Everything runs efficiently, but we all still have fun. I think they're the best indie label in the nation."
Winston Giles knows how far Last Beat will go for an act. Giles is the creative force behind Floor 13, an Australian punk band, and he'd always wanted some quality American hang time. Although he'd been stateside several times--he cut an EP with Slowpoke's Duncan Black on a previous visit to Dallas, where he met Edwardes and piqued his interest--he always had to return after a few months: It takes real effort to get a long-playing visa. Other record companies had promised him help before, but nothing ever came of it. "Shaun and Last Beat are the only reason I got a two-year work visa," he says softly, as if such largesse were still too much to believe. "Nobody else could--or wanted to--do it, but the one I've got now is an O-1 level, which means 'exceptionally unique talent' or something like that."
In an industry where bullshit often rules, Last Beat manages to keep both style and substance intact. The label has just signed their first non-Texas act, New York City-based Clowns for Progress, to a two-record deal. To support the new European distribution, LB will stage their first foreign tour, sending Mess, Fireworks, and Riot Squad throughout the Common Market. Ric Ocasek's name is being bandied about as the next producer for the Tomorrowpeople, and the label is making its first forays into video. Despite all this big-time development, however, LB keeps its local connections alive: Stephen Holt's next project--tentatively called Sensation--will come from them, and extremely idiosyncratic local act the Necro Tonz have found a home there as well. In many ways, Last Beat represents the modern mutation (or perhaps maturation) of the old '60s dream: people living, working, and making art together against a backdrop of rock and roll, incorporating the freedom and change of that medium into their very lives. Although seeing each new sunrise is very much a product of a successful bottom line, Last Beat's continued success seems unlikely to contradict Shaun Edwardes when he proposes, "I think we can safely say that we're about music, not business."
Street Beat values all your e-mail tips, comments, news, blather, and spew at Matt_Weitz@dallasobserver.com.
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