The million-dollar record

About 30 minutes into the interview, Dave Gibson stops, frowns, shrugs, and lets out a slight moan. He is in the middle of explaining why it has been four years since his band, Slowpoke, has released an album, and suddenly it has struck him that perhaps he's burying a story of good fortune--on April 7, Slowpoke will release its second record, Virgin Stripes, on Geffen Records--beneath too many what-could-have-beens.

"This is making me feel like a Barbara Walters interview," he says, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. "Are you trying to make me cry?"

He and bassist Corbett Guest have been talking about the fact that Virgin Stripes isn't a new record at all, but a collection of songs that's two years old. The album has been finished for so long that Gibson was well into writing a third album before he discovered that Geffen--home to Sonic Youth, Lisa Loeb, and, um, Counting Crows--was indeed going to debut Slowpoke with Virgin Stripes, and even then, he wasn't sure whether it was such a hot idea. Not that he wasn't proud of the music, not that rock and roll comes bearing an expiration date, but still, maybe it was time to move on.

As such, Gibson and Guest are at once thrilled and a little diffident--happy to get their music out at last, but also a bit weary and ready to look ahead.

"Where have our lives gone?" Gibson asks no one in particular, shaking his head and wearing what's either a frown or a grin.

Their story begins in 1994, shortly after the release of Mad Chen, Slowpoke's debut on the then-small indie Grass Records. Mad Chen sounded not too unlike the Afghan Whigs and the Toadies fighting with Jawbox for control of the studio. Gibson growled his songs about the death of love ("can't stand the sickness of devotion") over music that sounded like an unexpected firecracker on a still night. Yet the momentum created by Mad Chen dissipated within months: Word circulated throughout Deep Ellum that Slowpoke had broken up, and Gibson had gone back to school to get his master's degree in biochemistry. Gibson all but disappeared from the downtown clubs, and drummer Chris Michaels split and formed his own band. That was that, it appeared, the end before the beginning. Only a split seven-inch single with the Toadies ever appeared.

Gibson now explains that Slowpoke was still together, only with a rotting lineup of musicians that included Corbett Guest on bass and Brent Dunham, the bassist on Mad Chen, on guitar. Gibson and the band were ready to record a second album, but Grass kept putting the band off; executives at the label explained that Grass was in the middle of being sold and that it didn't make sense to record if the label wasn't going to be around. Guest and Gibson explain that Slowpoke actually recorded at least three albums' worth of material that never saw release, but because of Grass' impending sale, there was no pressure to record for anyone but themselves.

"The band existed," Guest says. "It was just quietly finding its way."
"Grass wasn't offering us our second record, and we weren't forcing the issue," Gibson adds. "We were like, 'Whatever--we'll do what we enjoy by playing and writing music and not getting our hopes up.' That's the killer."

In early 1996, Grass gave the band the OK to record its second album, using Wally Gagel (Folk Implosion, The Old 97's) as producer; the band trekked up to the vaunted Ft. Apache Studios in Boston and recorded Virgin Stripes, thinking the whole time it would be released through Grass--which was indeed bought out and became Wind-Up Records.

The music was a remarkable step away from Mad Chen. Where the first record had been dissonant and derivative, even by the band's own admission, its successor was as pop and accessible as they come, a record so radio-friendly it all but hugs the listener. Songs such as "Lorraine" (the first single), "Hey! Alma Mater," and "Am I Shade?" belie an art-pop sensibility that blends swirling effects with straightforward melodies; the result is an album that feels bigger than its songs, like an acoustic record recorded on a dozen electric guitars and keyboards. Virgin Stripes is not as loud as Mad Chen, not as dirty and visceral or oblique; but never for a moment does the album sound dishonest, like a cop-out. It earns its eccentricities.

"I think a lot of old Slowpoke demos that Dave did were poppy and catchy, but we would just pollute them in the process," Guest says, explaining the extreme differences between the albums. "When this record came about, it was like, we wanted to be true to the songs from the very start."

"At heart," Gibson says, "I'm a pop fan."
During the recording of Virgin Stripes, the band handed over a three-song cassette to the folks at Grass--a tape that somehow began making the rounds at a few major labels, including Elektra Records. According to Gibson and Guest, one A&R man from Elektra contacted Grass--which, by then, had become Wind-Up--about buying Slowpoke out of its two-record deal, thinking the indie would be happy to make a little extra scratch selling off one of its baby bands. But no deal: Wind-Up wanted to become a player in the music business, and figured if Elektra was interested in Slowpoke, maybe it had something after all.

But Wind-Up sat on Virgin Stripes once it was completed. By then, Wind-Up was still in turmoil--another Dallas band, Baboon, would be similarly caught in the tumult and forced to delay the release of its second record, Secret Robot Control. The label was also demanding that Slowpoke sign a five-album deal before it would release Virgin Stripes.

To make matters more complicated, Geffen Records and one of its imprints, Outpost Recordings, also had begun expressing interest in Slowpoke. Luke Wood, an A&R man at Geffen, wanted to sign Slowpoke immediately and release Virgin Stripes in its entirety. But Wind-Up refused, demanding an unbelievable amount of money for a record it wasn't even going to release.

"Wind-Up didn't want to sell it," Gibson says. "They wanted an ungodly amount of money."

"A million dollars," Guest adds.
Pardon? A million dollars?
"They just made insane demands, and honestly, I had a hard time believing that they were going to do any kind of deal with Geffen," Gibson says. "It was their record. They funded the record. It was a $10,000 record, and they wanted a million for it. It wasn't that they really wanted [the money]. It was kind of a way to say, 'Fuck you.'"

In October 1996, the band ended up singing with Geffen--and writing off any hopes of ever releasing Virgin Stripes. Gibson had a hard time dealing with that--imagine raising a child and then having someone steal it from you in the middle of the night. But as soon as Gibson began coming to grips with the loss, he began writing new songs--great new songs, he says now, big and wonderful new songs--for a third record. He'd show Wind-Up, taking his record like that.

Then came word Wind-Up was going to release the album without any promotion or even the band's permission; it was going to piss away Gibson's songs without his say-so. It was also a real possibility that someone over at the label was going to erase the album altogether, keeping it from everyone's hands.

But over dinner in Fort Worth one night, Geffen's Luke Wood informed the band that Geffen had indeed purchased Virgin Stripes from Wind-Up--which actually upset Gibson, perhaps to his own surprise.

"My instant reaction was, 'I don't want the record; we're writing the new record; I'm over that record,'" Gibson recalls. "I didn't want there to be any chance that, due to the bureaucracy of labels, that the contract takes forever to go through and we get excited about it and have to wait that much longer. Luke was like, 'I think it's a great idea to do this. We'll get it done right away. You'll have your record out by summertime [of 1997].' So at that point we had a decision to make, so I don't know..."

Gibson pauses, then begins again. "I love the record, and it being the record it is, we have a real personal attachment to it. I wanted the record out. I was just trying to be as practical as possible."

It would take another year before Geffen would release Virgin Stripes. Gibson went into the studio and recut a lot of vocal and guitar tracks, and then there was a matter of finding a suitable spot on the release schedule. So here it is, two years late--no worse the wear, but a record that could never live up to the expectations created by the drama that surrounds it. Gibson knows this, which is why he's not too thrilled about telling this story.

He knows you will expect a great record, not a second record; he knows you will expect a million-dollar gem instead of a $10,000 jewel. But so be it: Virgin Stripes contains its share of memorable moments ("Lorraine" is a sweet, catchy tune as psychedelic as it is pop, and "I Can't See You Anymore" recalls the sort of song that should have made Funland stars), and it will likely be followed within a year's time by Slowpoke's third record. A record made now instead of then.

"We haven't been in the studio as a band in a couple of years," Gibson says. "Morale-wise, we need some momentum. I would like to be in the studio by the end of the year and have another record out next year. We need that mentally to keep ourselves going after this long phase."

Slowpoke will perform April 10 at Trees.

Necessary angel
There are few local records ever released that were as cherished as Sara Hickman's 1989 debut Equal Scary People; vulnerable, charming, quirky, sad, funny, and utterly innocent without being naive, almost a decade later it still feels brand-new. Much of that was because of the sparse, simple production; Hickman and Brave Combo's Carl Finch, who released the album on his Four Dots label, never let the song get in the way of the songwriting--meaning they left the record wide-open, full of silences and bereft of clutter. For a while, Hickman would forget the very thing that made her so special. Her Elektra Records debut, Shortstop, and the record Elektra refused to release, Necessary Angels (which Hickman bought back for $40,000 and released through the Santa Monica-based Discovery), were so overproduced, the songs were almost irrelevant; they sounded as though played on cash registers, with Hickman's wonderful melodies and lovely voice buried somewhere beneath the bills.

Which is what makes her brand-new Two Kinds of Laughter--released on the New York-based Shanachie folk label, which released her odds-and-sods collection Misfits last year--all the more remarkable. Featuring only Hickman and producer Adrian Belew (best known for his work with Talking Heads and King Crimson), it's a sort of return-to-roots record for Hickman, no studio musician or special guest standing in between the song and the audience. It's a reminder that there are few things more special than the sound of Hickman alone with an acoustic guitar. Two Kinds of Laughter manages to be at once fragile ("Now I talk to God all day/As he tries to take this pain away/That you have embedded so deeply") and tough ("Just don't forget/I wear the crown"), music made by a mother of a 19-month-old daughter and by a woman who recently became single again. With songs penned by Hickman, who left Dallas a few years ago for Austin, and occasionally co-written with Jon Brion (the former Grays guitarist who has worked with Sam Phillips) and local pop-folkie Colin Boyd, the album proves that sometimes, less gives you way more than you ever expected.

Sara Hickman will perform April 3 at the Gypsy Tea Room.

Scene, heard
Metafora, the Dallas-based Spanish-language 'zine dedicated to covering Latino rock and roll, will hold its first concert on April 4 at Palenque Dallas. Confirmed so far are Molotov, the Mexican ska-punk-rock band that sounds as though it's listened to a lot of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone, and Peru's Terapia Intensiva. The show begins at 8 p.m., and tickets are available at the door for $30. (Wait--Thirty dollars? That'd better come with free drink tickets.) Call (214) 367-8800 for more information...

The very-rockin' REO Speedealer--singled out by NashVegas superstar Kathy Mattea during her recent SXSW performance because she found their name so, like, weird--has just released a seven-inch single on the New York-based Royalty Records. The A-side features the sensitive ballad "Double Clutchin' Finger Fuckin'" (no, not the George Gershwin song of the same name), and the single's available at finer outlets near you...

For those who follow such things, Psalm 69 has busted up (nooooooooooo!), citing in a press release (nooooooooooo!) "creative and personal differences" (nooooooooooo!). The band will bid Dallas its tearful farewells with two upcoming shows: April 4 at Club Dada and April 10 at the Orbit Room.

Send Street Beat e-mail tips, gripes, and pipe bombs to rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com

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