Rock and rollercoaster

"We're not looking for a shot at the big time. We just want to make great music."

Funland singer-guitarist Peter Schmidt says he likes to do interviews, if only because they force him to think about the things he has often relegated to memory. As he sits on a couch alongside guitarist Clark Vogeler, Schmidt's bandmate and close friend for almost five years, he is now being forced to reconsider his so-called "shot at the big time"--a short-lived deal with Arista Records that produced one EP and a lifetime's worth of bad memories. On the eve of the release of their first full-length album, The Funland Band on the local Steve Records label, the two musicians sit here and wonder how it all happened so suddenly, and so slowly.

One of the few constants of the so-called Dallas music scene since late 1990, Funland has experienced the brief highs and the unrelenting lows built into the music business. Schmidt, Vogeler, and drummer Will Johnson have performed in front of tiny audiences in no-name towns, and they have been on the roster of a record company headed by one of the most respected members of the music business; they have savored potential fame, and they have gagged on its aftertaste.

But always, they have been a damn good band, one of the best power-pop bands ever to come from Dallas and one of the strongest, having endured the most trying of circumstances--a major-label deal gone sour, potential stardom extinguished by condescending record executives who never understood the music, a manager fired, five bass players come and gone this year alone.

By all rights, this band--rather, this inseparable trio who share equal credits as songwriters on The Funland Band--should have called it quits a long time ago, but they are still together. And they have never sounded better.

"We didn't know each other before the band," Schmidt says. "But we found out that there's something a lot deeper here [than just music]. There's a certain respect we have for each other we didn't want to let go just because we weren't going to get to make music for a corporation anymore. We still liked each other, and we still believed in each other."

In the spring of 1992, Funland embarked upon a journey that would begin in New York City and end in disillusionment and disgust. Their manager at the time promised them a shot at a young band's dream--a recording contract with a major record label and all the frills such a deal would provide--and so they headed north to play two showcases. The first was at CBGBs, the hallowed home to the New York avant-rock scene of the late '70s; the other at the then-trendy discotheque Danceteria. These performances were the rock equivalent of training camp, opportunities for the band to show off its wares for the artist-and-repertoire execs various labels had sent to the show to scout out a future prospect.

One A&R man who was quite taken with the band was Richard Sweret of Arista, who had previously worked only with dance bands. Funland's then-manager, Leslie Aldredge, scoffed at the idea of signing to Arista--she considered the home to Barry Manilow, Air Supply, and Whitney Houston a joke of a label--and was sure she'd get the band signed to the more prestigious Elektra Records. Still, she agreed to a meeting with Sweret.

So on a clear and lovely spring day, the four members of Funland sat in Sweret's office with another A&R man, Tom Sarig, and listened patiently as the two anxious record executives laid out their plan. Because Arista, especially its very powerful boss Clive Davis, was anxious to get a band that would provide the label with much-needed alternative rock credibility, Sweret and Sarig promised Funland anything they wanted--their own label imprint so the band wouldn't be so closely associated with such a Top 40 organization, a touring van, a credit card on which they could rack up unlimited expenses.

During one break in the conversation, Peter Schmidt asked Sweret if Arista was just going to use the band to break into the then-burgeoning and profitable "modern-rock" ballgame; he wondered why it wasn't better to sign with a true indie label, and whether Arista would interfere with the recording of Funland's album.

To these and other questions, Sweret replied: Yes, the point is to sell records and make money, but it's his job to do so in a way that the band will still be able to respect itself in the morning. "You can look in the mirror and say, 'I did it the right way with the right vibe,'" Sweret told them, and it was all the convincing it took.

Almost a year later, Funland released its Arista debut, the Sweetness EP that barely hinted at the potential Funland had displayed during shows. It managed to sound both slick and unfinished, its bright spots ("Fall Away") obscured by its dim ones (the silly "Amarillo" and an embarrassing Air Supply cover). Such live standouts as "Impala" and "I'm Not Sorry" were left off, and the album was remixed more than once after Arista executives found it unsuitable for release. Two years after it arrived in stores, then quickly disappeared, the band looks back at Sweetness with considerable bitterness.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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