You never notice the smell of cigarettes until you stop smoking them, and even then it takes a while before you really start to notice the stale stench staining air and skin and anything else it comes in contact with. Kind of like breaking up with someone and not realizing until months later that you hated him/her the whole time. Or that you should have, anyway. Point is: Not exactly the smell you want to wake up to on a Saturday morning. Even less so if it's more like Saturday afternoon. And especially not if it's the aftermath of about half a pack of Basics coming from a pair of unexpected guests waiting outside the front door.
This is the part where it should be pointed out that the guests weren't exactly unexpected--we'd set this up a few days earlier, after a few failed attempts--but the hangover that preceded them was. Needless to say, it wasn't the right time to think about work. Or play. It was hard to tell which category the two men--Chris Purdy and Herman Suede--were in the mood for.
At any rate, ladies and gentlemen, meet one half of Ruffled Feathers: Purdy, the quietly talkative leader, shorter and scruffier than his silent partner Suede, who sipped from a cup he repeatedly replenished with Reunite, until the bottle ran out and he grabbed another one from the black truck parked at the curb. They looked like a couple of friends wasting a Saturday afternoon, and they were. But they also had a purpose: They were there to drum up business for their band's soon-to-be-released debut and infrequent live shows. Ambitious, but not really. It would have worked too, if there had been a tape recorder nearby. As it stands, that afternoon wasn't an interview, but a conversation.
December 22 at Lota�s Goat, and December 29 at the Brickhaus Caf�.
Two months later, and nothing much has changed, except the cast has grown, and the proceedings are being recorded for posterity. Purdy and Suede are joined this time by Jared Young, as well as drummer Keith Stephens, a fairly recent addition to the band. The band is crowded around a table at the uncrowded Cavern; it's only 8:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, a little too early in the night--and the week, for that matter--for much of a drinking crowd. Still, the volume on the jukebox is set on stun, and the upstairs bar is dark enough to hide a few hundred people. All it's covering at the moment is one group of none-too-boisterous musicians and a table that rapidly fills up with empties and cigarette butts.
"What's the story here?" Chris Purdy asked periodically during that first abortive interview and on the phone a few days after. "Have you figured out what the story is yet?"
Yes, I know what the story is. I've figured it out. So have you. So has everyone. It's clear what the score is as soon as they all start talking. Purdy's story, and that of Jared Young and Herman Suede and Ruffled Feathers is a common one in this local scene and, more than likely, in every other music community around the country. Of course it is. Think about it: A group of young musicians burn out before they have a chance to fade away, sacrificing everything in return for nothing. They give up on the band, music, even themselves for a while. Even though they swore they'd never play again, much less with each other, a few years later--guess what?--they're doing both, and better than ever. Making it is all of a sudden less important than just making music. Here's the part that doesn't always happen: In the process of not trying to impress anyone but each other, they impress someone--the kind of someone who comes with a record contract in one hand and a pen in the other. It's a cliché, a Hollywood script, a John G. Avildsen flick with a good soundtrack. It's been done.
Although that is essentially Ruffled Feathers' story, it sounds different the way they tell it. Maybe that's because they don't, really. Tell it, that is. They leave most of the story out, sticking to the most minimal amount of information required. It's not even a story--maybe an outline, depending on how loose your definition is. For example, here's how Purdy and Young describe their time playing music together:
Young: "Me and Chris have known each other for years, about 10 years. Played together previously in a band called Girl. Did that for about, I'd say, four years. And, uh..."
Purdy: "Broke up. We all went our separate ways, and then came back together, around October or November 1999."
That's it; they move on. No reasons for the break-up, no highs or lows, no nothing. Eventually, the rest of the story leaks out, but it takes more than an hour and more than a little piecing together, taking one sentence here and adding it to one brief tangent there, until it all adds up. For the most part.
Here is what it adds up to: Chris Purdy and Jared Young formed Girl around 1993, after they'd worked together at the long-gone Mad Hatter's in Fort Worth. Purdy had just come off a two-and-a-half-year tour of duty as the drummer in Slowpoke; check the credits of the band's debut for Grass Records, 1994's Mad Chen, for one Chris Michael, as Purdy was calling himself at the time. Girl (which also included, among others, Gospel Swingers singer/Sub Oslo drummer Quincy Holloway) was a pop band--disheveled in all the right places, yes, but still a pop band. In an interview with the Dallas Observer in 1995, Purdy and Young 'fessed up to their shared enthusiasm for albums such as Toad the Wet Sprocket's Pale, a record almost "everybody seemed to be making fun of us for having," Purdy said at the time. They weren't going to change the world, though they stood a decent chance of making it sound a little better going around.
They never did, though not for a lack of trying. For one reason or another or a dozen, Girl wasn't able to make it to the point where potential becomes reality, where wishes and hopes turn into record contracts and backstage deli trays. Girl didn't even have hometown support to rely on during the lean times. ("We've never been a big draw in this town," Purdy says. "We always did a lot better away than here.") The group split up in 1997, unfulfilled and disillusioned--with each other, the business, the music that brought them all together. At the time, it felt like the end, and it was. But only of the first chapter.
"When Girl broke up, I quit playing music all together," Purdy says. "Just sold everything, and I wasn't gonna do it anymore. It wasn't fun anymore. It wasn't a good experience. That's why we all, collectively, just kind of let it go. Then time passed, and I think that we got back into music for the right reasons. We made a conscious decision to separate ourselves from some of the bullshit that we went through with Girl. So Jared and I started playing together again. Eventually, my cousin--who was also in Girl--came back, and we picked up Keith."
Purdy's cousin Herman Suede--Purdy calls him by his middle name, Robby--had signed on with Girl on bass at some point, which was only natural, since he and Purdy had been playing together and with other musicians in their family for years. They grew up together in Arlington, even attending the same Catholic school--the same Catholic school, incidentally, whose chapel served as the recording studio for Ruffled Feathers' forthcoming debut--and though they couldn't look less alike, you can tell they're more than friends or bandmates, bouncing off each other with the ease of two people who've seen each other at their best and their worst, and all points in between. So when Young and Purdy decided to give it another go, it made sense that Suede would re-up as well.
As for Stephens, the newest Ruffled Feather, when he began playing with the group in October of this year, it finally ended the parade of drummers that can now list Ruffled Feathers on their résumés. Purdy--who played drums professionally for seven years, including his stint with Slowpoke--manned the kit himself during the recording sessions for the band's debut. More qualified than anyone else--in Ruffled Feathers, at least--to objectively judge the band's material, Stephens says, "I think it's more honest than a lot of stuff I've seen around."
More valuable to the potential success of Ruffled Feathers than the honesty of the music is the honesty of the musicians making it. After almost a decade of playing shows to a few dozen people (maybe) and sticking around until 2 or 3 in the morning to get paid (probably), they're through kidding themselves. Yet at the same time, since the members of the band are, as Purdy says, "both has-beens and newcomers," they're in a unique position for a start-up band. They're able to avoid some of the pitfalls and pratfalls this time around, if only because they fell victim to many of them the first trip around the block. The time between the end of Girl and the beginning of Ruffled Feathers gave them a chance to reconnect musically and personally. "The break between now and when Girl broke up gave us some time to work out whatever was going on," Young says.
Purdy agrees. "Music has always been there for me--a passion and a friend," he begins. "The way Girl went, we were just real naïve to the way things go, I guess. We did it for four years, which is a long time for a band that doesn't draw shit. It just got out of hand and stupid. The nice thing about this is just being able to get back to that original mindset of doing it because you like to do it, not because you've just been doing it."
With that in mind, once they were all back in a band together, Purdy, Young, and Suede (and whomever happened to be playing drums that week) didn't waste any time. Once they'd worked up enough material, the band booked studio time with Matt Pence at The Echo Lab in Argyle. Before long, they had a tape of songs--including "It's Up to You," "Can't Put My Finger On It," and "Nite Cap," tunes that didn't stray too far from Girl, but didn't make an exact copy either--they were sending out to a handful of record labels. The tape sparked the immediate interest of two people: Copper Records' Darrell Cooper and Peter Jesperson, the man who put out the Replacements' great early records on his own Twin/Tone label, and who now works for New West Records, home to Slobberbone and former Wall of Voodoo singer Stan Ridgway, among others.
"He liked it quite a bit," Young says, referring to Jesperson. But Jesperson and New West were hindered by their business plan; Jesperson, it turned out, was interested more in putting out Ruffled Feathers' second album, rather than its debut,
"They were--at least what I understood--they were, as far as signings, done for the year," Purdy adds. "He knew that we were looking to put out an album fairly quickly, so basically what he told us, was to keep him updated. We talk every month."
Cooper, however, was ready to start working immediately, based on a recommendation from his wife, who loved the tape. Purdy doesn't remember how he heard of Copper Records, or even why he decided to send the label a tape, but it was a good choice. Copper may be small--the label has put out only four records in the four years it's been in business--but "all of his records have done well selling-wise, and review-wise," as Purdy says. He's right: The label first caught eyes and ears with its tribute to Badfinger (1997's Come and Get It) that featured contributions from the likes of Aimee Mann, The Knack, 20/20, and Dwight Twilley. And Cotton Mather's unofficial tribute to the Beatles, 1997's Kontiki, received rave reviews in England, leading to a string of dates with Oasis; Noel Gallagher even publicly declared it one of his favorite albums of the year. Cooper/Copper knew how to get bands heard.
After he agreed to work together, Cooper came to Arlington to record Ruffled Feathers' debut--tentatively titled Whole Year Inn, and tentatively scheduled to come out on Copper in February. Instead of booking time at one of the recording studios in the area, Cooper and the band decided to set up their gear in the chapel of Purdy's and Suede's old school in Arlington, after briefly flirting with the idea of recording it at the infamous Texas Theatre, site of Lee Harvey Oswald's capture following the Kennedy assassination. With Cooper--whose main business is setting up recording studios--at the helm, the band bashed out 12 songs in four days, working practically around the clock to finish the tracks.
"We just wanted to represent the songs in a good way, in a kind of stripped-down way, and it's a good rock record," Purdy says. "This record was just going to be a good rock record, a good debut record, kind of representing where we were at the time."
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"I guess, for the most part, the songs that we did were probably the most straightforward rock tunes that we had," Young adds. "I think that maybe they were the ones that fit. There was somewhat of a stage up front. We set the drums up there, and the guitars and everything on the side. It was cool, because it was sort of a live setting. We could actually go in and record in a live setting. I think it was different than what we've been used to. He kind of rode us hard, you know? But he wanted to get the best performance out of us. And it turned out to be a good thing."
"It was a lot different than other things we've done, because [Darrell] didn't want us to use headphones or anything," Purdy says. "He saw us going in a direction that...he wanted to make a good, American rock record. And that's what we wanted to do, too. He thought he would record us like Cream or Jimi Hendrix, where you know, you set everything up, you get a good sound, and just play. And that's exactly what we did."
Cooper is still slowly but surely putting together the results, sending the band tapes in the mail to update them on his progress. At the moment, the group is itching to hear the finished product and anxious for everyone else to hear it as well. They plan to play a few more shows, then spend the next month putting the finishing touches on the album and fine-tuning their set, ready to start building a following one show at a time. That strategy didn't pan out for Girl, but Purdy is confident that this time will be different, that starting at the bottom is exactly the right place to start. Even though you've heard this story before, you can't help but believe him a little.
"We don't think we're above playing on a Wednesday night," Purdy says. "We'd pretty much play anywhere. But I'd rather play at a jail and connect, than play on a Tuesday night to people who'd rather listen to karaoke or Limp Bizkit or something. I think our main mission with this, or focus, is that we're bound and determined that we're gonna build an audience from nothing. Even though it's frustrating at times right now, it's a good place to be. It's where I want to be at least. Because once it's all done, we earned it."