Longform

Schmidt happens

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In 1986, Deep Ellum Records--the label owned by Jeff Liles and Russell Hobbs, the braintrust behind the Theatre Gallery and, later, the Prophet Bar--released Three on a Hill's EP Biting on Tin Foil. A year later, Island Records released its compilation The Sound of Deep Ellum, which featured the likes of Three on a Hill, the New Bos, Decadent Dub Team, the Daylights, and the Buck Pets. By then, A&R scouts were starting to circle around the band like ambulances around an old folks' home on a hot summer day.

Former Dallas Observer music editor Clay McNear said of the band at the end of 1988, "They are one of the state's best--and least pretentious--alternative-rock bands," adding that "instinct says that '89 might be the year that TOAH finally catches a break." Geffen Records had signed the New Bohemians, and it was pretty much agreed by everyone that Three on a Hill would follow, the next Next Big Thing to come out of Deep Ellum and have its collective mug plastered all over MTV and its songs all over the radio. And then...

Nothing. After the appearance on The Sound of Deep Ellum, the band remained anchored to the Dallas club scene. The compilation, which looked so much like the beginning of something at the time, turned out to be nothing more than a big tease. Island was briefly interested in signing the band, but decided to pass and instead snatched up the Buck Pets.

"We weren't ready yet," says Kim Buie, an A&R rep for Island at the time, now a vice president of A&R for Capitol Records in Los Angeles. "Island was a smaller label then, and we had to make sure that every project that we did we were absolutely sure about. We got down to making further evaluations, and decided that we weren't ready at that time."

As in most cases, when so much is expected and so little gained, the band panicked. At least, its management did: Three on a Hill's husband-and-wife management team tried to change the band's music, its image, anything and everything to get that all-important record deal; they even suggested choreographed on-stage moves. Some of the members of the band agreed with management. Schmidt's best friend and TOAH bassist Mark Fischer was one of them; Schmidt was not.

Fed up with giving everything and going nowhere, Schmidt left the band in May 1990--despite the fact that Three on a Hill was nearly done recording its first full-length album. He briefly considered quitting music permanently. He was 24 then, and it was time, he thought, to begin the rest of his life.

He couldn't stay away from music for long, though. He resurfaced in November of that year, opening up for Course of Empire at Trees, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, a whisper compared to Three on a Hill's roar. The performance was part getting-back-on-the-horse, part classified ad. He said from the stage that night that he wanted to be in a band again, and that if anybody was interested, they could meet him after the show.

Five months later, Schmidt was fronting a new band--Melt--after hooking up with guitarist Clark Vogeler, drummer Will Johnson, and former Loco Gringos bassist Mark "Crash" Chambers (who would later be replaced by Alan Shook, the first in a series of a half-dozen replacement bass players). It seemed like even more of a sure thing than Three on a Hill. Schmidt's songs were sharper than ever before, less power and more pop. About a year after forming, the band, rechristened Funland, was already being courted by record labels. Schmidt had been in this position before, so he knew not to get his hopes up too soon. He said at the time, "I look at meeting with record companies a little differently now. And you know what I see? A free meal."

Still, it's hard not to be blinded by the light reflecting off a record company's credit card. In late 1992, the band signed their lives away to Arista Records--previously thought by the band and then-manager Leslie Aldredge to be a joke label, as it was home to Barry Manilow and Air Supply--after meeting with Richard Sweret, an A&R man with the company. Sweret promised the band all the right things: a new van, a company credit card with an unlimited line of credit, their own label imprint so they wouldn't lose their indie-rock credibility. In hindsight, the promises were as empty as a Deep Blue Something song. At the time, it was everything the band wanted to hear.

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain