AUSTIN--The Trance Syndicate office--if one can call a tiny room in a wretched little business park no bigger than its neighboring car wash an office--is a wreck. Random sheets of paper, discarded memos, old copies of the Austin Chronicle, publicity photos, and other pieces of errata and dumped trash cover the floor; the desk upon which the work is done is not much better. Craig Stewart, one half of the label's braintrust, apologizes for the mess but does not seem fazed by it. He says he'll get around to cleaning it up this week...probably.
Among the loose scraps and important faxes lying on Stewart's desk is a copy of an article written in the Austin American-Statesman, a review of a Trance Syndicate showcase a couple of weeks ago that featured such label signings as Austin's Sixteen Deluxe, Desafinado (also from Austin), and Dallas' own Bedhead ("they're by far my favorite band on the label," Stewart says, "without question"). The article, written by Don McLeese, comes complete with a headline that reads, "Trance Syndicate wakes up to reality of success." Stewart, surveying the label's digs, chuckles when pointing it out.
"Does this look successful?" he says, looking around. "I mean, if he wants to see successful, I'll show him my wallet...It [the headline] cracks me up every time I read it."
He says this with the exasperation of a man who has had to repeatedly remind several folks that financial success does not always accompany artistic success--and that, quite frankly, he and Trance's founder, Butthole Surfer drummer King Coffey (who was out of town during this visit), wouldn't have it any other way. Despite the recent profiles in Rolling Stone and Billboard, despite national praise heaped upon the likes of Bedhead and the all-star Crunt (in a recent Spin, Eddie Vedder referred to their self-titled Trance debut as one his fave records of the year) and the signing of Austin legend Roky Erickson, Trance is the very definition of a cash poor, creatively rich indie label. Coffey and Stewart work on a tiny budget, and outside a system that seeks to co-opt and ruin the things it allegedly praises.
Since its inception in 1990, when Coffey founded the label as a safe haven for Texas bands unable to secure record deals with either indie or major labels, Trance has become a home to some of Texas' best bands: Houston's renowned Pain Teens, Austin's venerable Ed Hall, and Bedhead. By the spring, Trance will have 35 releases in its catalog, including full-length albums and singles from such noisy Austin bands as the Cherubs, johnboy, Crust, Drain (Coffey's side project, in which he plays guitar), and the power-punkish Sixteen Deluxe; a Butthole Surfers' album that was originally released as a bootleg; a record from the Glasgow, Scotland-based a.c. acoustics; and an astonishing Roky Erickson record (All That May Do My Rhyme, in stores February 13) that proves the space between madness and genius is negligible at best.
As Coffey has repeatedly said, he formed Trance because he was frustrated with the lack of outlets for Texas' post-punk bands. When the Buttholes began in the early '80s, they had to go to Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles and then to Touch and Go in Chicago to find labels willing to release their material; the same happened with Austin's noize-core Scratch Acid, which went with Touch and Go before evolving into the Jesus Lizard.
Coffey felt he could fill the vacuum with a label of his own creation, and signed on a few of his friends. Though Trance will release a Butthole Surfers' CD this March--actually a reissue of a fan's bootleg Coffey bought for more than $30 at an Austin record store--and issued a Buttholes picture-disc single last Christmas, Coffey from the beginning made a conscious effort not to turn Trance into the Surfers' vanity label. His first release was Crust's Sacred Heart EP, followed by the first of two "Love and Napalm" seven-inch compilation singles (which featured Ed Hall, Crust, Drain, and others, and were released as one disc in 1993).
(A sound track for Slacker, Richard Linklater's one-fingered salute to Austin, was to be among the first scheduled Trance releases--which made sense because Ed Hall and the Butthole Surfers had music in the film--but Coffey couldn't quite stomach the idea of having to include Poi Dog Pondering among the Austin bands.)
The first non-Texas band with a Trance release was Crunt, which released its eponymous--and amazing--debut last February. The band was something of an indierock supergroup (if such a thing is possible), consisting of Babes in Toyland bassist-singer Kate Bjelland and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion drummer Russel Simins and Lubricated Goat guitarist-singer Stuart Gray, and sold appropriately: Stewart figures 20,000 copies of the record--a walloping punk-pop record that, as a lark, is better than anything Babes has ever done for a real paycheck--were sold worldwide. But it's likely just a one-off because Bjelland and Gray, once husband and wife, have split.
Records from Los Angeles-based Distorted Pony (whose grinding Instant Winner, "produced" by Steve Albini, is impossible to listen to in its entirety) and the upcoming a.c. acoustic record (Able Treasury, which contains songs originally released overseas in 1993 and 1994 and was licensed by Trance for release in the states) followed.
At some point, Stewart says, Trance would like to broaden its stable of artists so it's a better mixture of Texas and national bands. With the exception of Bedhead and Erickson, Trance seems to be overrun with bands for whom the difference between noisy and deafening is subtle, and has been characterized by some writers as a label filled with bands whose every breath seems to pay homage to the Surfers and Scratch Acid.
"I don't know anything we could do we're not doing already," Stewart says. "Our only goal is to put out music and to have a good time. One goal, I think, would be to have a more national bent. Right now, the label is cool concept-wise, but King realized he was just pigeonholing himself--not with a bunch of what writers say are Butthole Surfers rip-offs, but there are only so many good Texas bands he can sign."
As part of that expansion, Trance has added another imprint, Emperor Jones, that will release albums from low-fi darlings Truman's Water (Milktrain to Paydirt) and Austin's My Dad is Dead (whose first album was titled My Dad is Dead and He's Not Gonna Take it Anymore, recorded after the frontman's dad had, indeed, shuffled off this mortal coil). Stewart will run that label almost exclusively, if only because the Emperor Jones will push those bands he prefers considerably more than Coffey; Emperor Jones records will, however, also bear the Trance logo, the infamous seven-headed snake once used as the SLA logo.
Unlike a Direct Hit Records in Exposition Park--perhaps Dallas' closest parallel to Trance in ideology; they share Bedhead in their catalogs--that has a limited distribution through indie record chains, Trance currently has an amazingly good distribution and production deal with Touch and Go (and Trance's European imprint, Southern). Trance provides the music and the artwork for the albums, and Touch and Go manufactures, distributes, and even promotes the releases. Trance, in fact, was the first label Touch and Go distributed other than its own imprint; because of the deal's success, such labels as Merge (home to Superchunk) and Drag City (Pavement) followed suit. Touch and Go also helps with the bookkeeping and, when all the money's taken in, Trance gives 60 percent of the profits to the band--which is 10 percent more than Touch and Go, "one of the most honest labels in the world" (so says Stewart).
Because Touch and Go handles production and distribution, the Chicago-based label decides how many copies of each album to press; usually, they will manufacture between 3,000 and 5,000 CDs, a couple thousand cassettes, and almost 1,000 copies on vinyl (the only exception being Bedhead's 4SongCDEP19:10, which was logistically impossible). "Vinyl, it's for the kids," Stewart jokes.
Currently, the Pain Teens are the best-selling, and probably the best-known, functioning band on Trance: their last CD, Destroy Me, Lover, sold more than 11,000 copies internationally (more than half in the U.S.). Bedhead, though, has sold more than 6,000 copies of their 1994 debut WhatFunLifeWas in the states, as well--which, Stewart says, "is really incredible for being an unknown band" that has played such a small amount of live gigs with little publicity. It's likely, though, Trance's profile--and album sales--will increase with the release of Erickson's album, his first in a decade, and the Butthole Surfers bootleg, which will retain the original packaging.
Such success has not gone unnoticed outside of Austin. Trance so far has fended off the advances of at least one major label seeking to absorb it into the fold: MCA Records recently made Coffey and Stewart an offer, hoping that having its own indie label might give it the sort of alternalegitamacy it sorely lacks (and no, the Nixons do not count).
To attach itself to a major label--as Sub Pop just did with Elektra, as Matador has done with Atlantic--says Stewart, "would be so bogus. I would be so against that, and King would be so against that. It's like fake money, just for a major label's credibility, which I don't give a fuck about. It nauseates me just to think about it. We're set up doing distribution and production with Touch and Go, which is the best indie in the world, so that's the end of the line. There's no further to go when you're putting out this kind of music."
But if, indeed, any Trance band is interested in making the leap to a major label, they have that option: Coffey and Stewart rarely sign contracts with any of their bands, and they are, in most cases, free to split after two or three records--and sometimes, after just a single release. Ed Hall, Crust, Desafinado (formerly johnboy), and the other Austin bands operate on a handshake deal, and to sign a contract with Sixteen Deluxe, Stewart says, "is insulting because they're my best friends."
Bedhead was among the "two or three bands" that did put pen to paper simply because they were not friends with Coffey and Stewart before going to Trance. "It was really more out of courtesy" for both sides, Stewart says. All Bedhead requested of Trance was that Coffey not sell the band to a major label.
Trance retains rights to the material recorded and released specifically for the label for seven years; after that, all rights revert to the bands. And if a band wanted to release a single or an EP (under 25 minutes) on another label, they have the right to do so without Coffey or Stewart's permission.
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"One huge independent label signs bands to five-record deals, thinking this band might be approached by a major label," Stewart says. "And that kind of thinking ahead does nothing for the band. All that does is think of careers, and I don't care about that. If they want to leave, there's no grudge--they can.
"Getting bands to sign long contracts to protect yourselves against major-label attacks may be a smart move financially, but that kind of planning ahead is just for players. I'm not a player. I'm not a record-label player. I care about how good the record is and why I'm into the music, and all the other stuff associated with the band's career, I just don't care about."
Of the 116 Dallas-Denton-Fort Worth bands that applied to the annual South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin March 15-19, 21 have been sent acceptance letters. Those who made the final cut of about 500 featured artists are: Baboon, Bedhead, Colin Boyd, Brave Combo, Brutal Juice, Cafe Noir, Cowboys and Indians, Ronnie Dawson, Rachel Goetz and Ghostown, Hagfish, Heads and Dreads, Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks, Mad Flava, Mean Gus, Rubberbullet, Shabazz 3 Shabazz, Tablet, the Toadies, Tripping Daisy, Tex Edwards, and Ray Wylie Hubbard. But this is not necessarily a final list: some of those bands accepted may not be able to attend, and several Dallas artists are on the sub list and could be added when other bands drop out.
The list of Dallas bands tagged to attend SXSW is up from last year's weak total of 11, though seven of this year's bands were on 1994's list (including Heads and Dreads, Bedhead, and Meredith Miller). And last year, Hagfish was among those 60-plus area bands not selected--causing Dragon Street honcho David Dennard to fire off a nasty letter to the governor's office berating "Dimensions of Austin"--and was forced to hold its showcase performance in an Austin record store. This year, with a London Records deal in hand, they're getting an invite to sit at the big kids' table.