Silver linings

Paul Nugent sits across the table eating sushi during a lunch interview he initially was skeptical about attending.

Nugent, who's co-owner of the local Rainmaker Records label, was hesitant to show up because he figured he was just being set up, duped into another opportunity to dump on two of his bands, The Nixons and Deep Blue Something--no favorites in these pages, to put it gently. But when he was reassured the invitation was for no such thing--that, in fact, I wanted to just talk to him about the success he's had with both bands and how it's affected his tiny indie label--he gave in. No idiot, Nugent wasn't about to turn down free lunch and good press.

But make no mistake: My admiration for what Nugent and partner Mike Swinford have done with Rainmaker isn't begrudging. They have taken two bands that should have eked out a tiny career playing the local club circuit and made at least one of them, Deep Blue Something, the ubiquitous darlings of VH1, which has sold almost 200,000 copies of their debut album Home. They have secured deals with major labels for two of their bands--The Nixons with MCA, Deep Blue Something with Interscope--and gotten both guaranteed three-record deals that will ensure job security for at least the next few years.

At the very least, Nugent and Swinford are great businessmen. They're better described as miracle workers.

"You don't have to like our records, and it's cool if you don't," Nugent says. "You're one of the millions out there who don't, and that's OK. That's not a crime, it's really not. We just found our audience. That's all you can do--go out there and work hard and try and reach people, and the people that care will buy the records."

In less than three years, Rainmaker has grown from a small showcase for bands Nugent booked and managed into a launching pad to the majors; what began with bands like pop poppins and Tabula Rasa has become a mini-factory of sorts, picking up where Dragon Street Records left off once it kissed Tripping Daisy and Hagfish goodbye and called it a night.

Rainmaker, in some respects, happened to have the right bands in the right place at the right time: When Deep Blue Something signed to Interscope earlier this year, it was something of an aberration for a label known primarily as the home to industrial/hard rock bands like Nine Inch Nails and Helmet, and for its alliance with Suge Knight's Death Row label (Snoop Doggy Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound). Deep Blue was signed by Chuck Reid (the man responsible for Marky Mark) to become the label's first pure pop band, brought in to broaden the "scope" of Interscope. Here was one Interscope band Bob Dole could love.

And The Nixons--one of so many bands, including Stone Temple Pilots and Silverchair, that bears a striking resemblance to Pearl Jam--gave MCA Records the alternative rock band it desperately needed. Though the band's debut Foma hasn't sold as well as MCA or Rainmaker must have hoped--according to SoundScan it has sold about 24,000 copies to date--the label has shown no signs of giving up on the record: It's getting ready to release a third single and video, "Sister," with heavy-duty promotion kicking in shortly after the new year.

Rainmaker--which grew out of the ADA booking agency, long controversial among local bands because of its grip on clubs like Trees and Rick's Place in Denton, and then 214 Entertainment--is certainly no anomaly in the history of Dallas music. This city has a long history of independent labels that have either fallen into the cracks of obscurity or done themselves in through mismanagement or lazy execution.

Such labels as Star Talent (which debuted, with no success, such R&B legends as Professor Longhair and Rufus Thomas in the late 1940s), Abnak (which scored a national record in the mid-'60s with the Five Americans), and GPC (on which England Dan and John Ford Coley, then known as the Southwest FOB, scored a Top 60 hit in 1968) experienced their brief moments of glory only to be forgotten. This is the legacy left behind for such current local labels as Direct Hit (home to Dooms U.K., Bedhead, Grown-Ups), Carpe Diem (Little Jack Melody, Cafe Noir), Leaning House (Earl Harvin, Marchel Ivery), Steve (Funland, Sixty-Six), and One Ton (Caulk, cottonmouth)--fine labels all, each home to some of this city's finest artists and deserving of broader recognition that might never come.

Many of the Dallas bands currently signed to so-called major labels didn't even make the leap from an indie: The Toadies' lone EP Pleather was released on the East Coast-based Grass Records, Brutal Juice's live I Love The Way They Scream When They Die was on Houston-based Sound Virus, Tablet's first EP was self-released, and Spot and Vibrolux hadn't released anything when they were signed.

Tripping Daisy and Hagfish released their first records on Dragon Street, but owner David Dennard has often referred to his label, which is now semi-defunct since Dennard has gone to work for Crystal Clear Sound, as a minor-league system geared to feed its bands into the major-label system. As such, Dennard and partner Patrick Keel groomed Tripping Daisy and Hagfish for the majors, basically selling those two bands and their albums to Island Records and London Records, respectively, for more-than-modest compensation.

But Rainmaker doesn't work that way, Nugent says, since the bands, not the label, own the masters to the albums--and because Nugent manages both The Nixons and Deep Blue Something, which means he has a protracted financial stake in those bands' futures. (Nugent--along with the likes of Jackopierce manager Brady Wood and Crystal Clear Sound owner Sam Paulos--is also a partner in a local booking agency called Alliance Entertainment, which handles the likes of Quickserv Johnny, Funland, Billygoat, and Soul Food Cafe.)

Nugent--who experienced his own bitter taste of fleeting fame with Four Reasons Unknown in the '80s, when his band won MTV's "Basement Tapes" and had a doomed fling with Epic Records--maintains that getting Deep Blue Something and The Nixons signed to majors has changed little for his label, especially because he didn't take quick cash for his bands. He must still promote the forthcoming disc from Adam's Farm outside the city, where they're just another anonymous good band among so many others, and get their record in stores.

There's no such thing as instant credibility in the music business when you're a record label, especially when your bands receive critical drubbings in the national press; Entertainment Weekly referred to Deep Blue Something as "wimpy-sounding" and described "Breakfast at Tiffany's" as "the year's most innocuous single [and] namby-pamby."

Nugent is quick to say he'd like to get Adam's Farm on a major, but he insists the process is a difficult one--despite the fact the three local rock stations (KTXQ, KDGE, KEGL) are beginning to play bands that aren't signed to majors, whether it's Funland or Ugly Mus-tard or Rainmaker's own Quickserv Johnny.

"It's really the band playing a lot of gigs and trying to build a base so you can recoup your expenses so you can make another record," Nugent says. "You play a lot of dates and try to get people into it and get them into the clubs. It's always hard, no matter what it is. You have to start all over, no matter what.

"It doesn't matter what your reputation is in terms of consistency or what history you have. Major labels are looking at sales--are you selling records, and are you viable? That's all they're looking at."

Scene, heard
Surprise, surprise--The Dark Room has the potential to be one of the city's best small venues, picking up where the sadly departed Chumley's left off when its owner skipped town to become a "philosopher" in New York (or last we heard). Already the tiny club, adjacent to the Green Room, has been booking the likes of Broose Dickinson and Meredith Miller, Rhett Miller, The Enablers, and Ten Hands' Paul Slavens on a regular or semi-regular basis, and the eclectic and low-key schedule boasts such acts as Slobberbone on December 15, Lockjaw the following Friday, The Calways on December 30, and Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks on New Year's Eve.

Street Beat welcomes E-mail tips and comments at [email protected].

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky