by SP Clarke.
Part 9: The Mid ‘90s
Small, locally-operated independent labels were nothing new in the Portland Rock music scene. They had been in existence as early as the 1960s. But a label can often be just a mantle and little more. The chief drawback to being an independent label lies in the word “independent.” In order to distribute (in hopes of selling) a recording, a label requires a distribution network, which would make that recording available to every one-stop, chain retailer and independent record shop in the country.
In the past, this was possible for an indie label to accomplish only by aligning itself with a major label. The successful independent labels of the day all had handholding agreements with major labels. The owners of the SupPop label got rich in that way. And that was the way business was traditionally done- until the advent of the internet in the late ‘90s.
In Portland in the mid-90s, there were several vibrant labels, Tim/Kerr, Cravedog, Candyass, Rainforest, Flying Heart, Elemental, Burnside and Schizophonic, among them, which were flourishing locally and regionally; but had been excluded from entering into the vaunted “Valley (one of the nation’s largest one-stops) database.”
To have a title listed in the Valley database meant that the recording was available to any Tower, Best Buy, Camelot, Wherehouse, Barnes & Noble, or Borders store in the country, as well as to any number of local and regional chains. Without that, an indie label could only hope for sales via mail-order through reviews and advertisements in alternative publications, or though word of mouth.
For an indie label without distribution connections, sales of a few thousand copies of a title would be rated as spectacular. With distribution channels in place, sales of 20,000 would be quite respectable and warrant sniffage from major label corporate dogs. Sales of 100,000 units would be a hit that would make a few people rich. Ani Di Franco has managed to maintain her career as a true independent musician and label in this fashion.
With their success in turning over Everclear’s World Of Noise album to Capitol Records, Tim/Kerr Records was set to follow the Sup Pop ‘finders of the new hitmakers’ lead in their attempts at hitting the Rock’n’Roll jackpot. Burnside Records, by way of their affiliation with the Music Millennium indie retail chain, was able to reverse market their product “back upstream,” to the source one-stops across the nation. Smaller, less well-positioned local labels were not so fortunate.
Mike Jones of Schizophonic Records, well aware of the aforementioned potholes in the road to success, conceived of an unique plan to overcome those obstacles by forming the Northwest Alliance of Independent Labels or NAIL, late in ‘94. The idea was that NAIL would act as an umbrella: broker and one-stop distributor for a host of small labels.
It was a breakthrough concept, which helped to open the door to wider distribution, nationally and worldwide, for many regional independent labels and artists. NAIL is still in operation today (owned by local independent music distributors Allegro Corporation). Meanwhile Jones’ Schizophonic Records label (possibly in conjunction with Tim/Kerr) was about to embark on a Tim/Kerr-like voyage of its own, with a little-known band called Skiploader.
Skiploader took a different tack from that of most bands. Rather than spend months in the local trenches, getting their act together, playing Thursday night gigs to an audience of thirty, in order to build a following, Skiploader skipped all that. They rehearsed their Smashing Pumpkins-influenced material to perfection and hired then-fledgling, producer wunderkind Tony Lash to produce their album, Sprainy.
The release of Sprainy on Schizophonic in the Summer of 1994 was met with universal critical enthusiasm- with “Album Of The Year” recommendations from several local pundits. Frontmen, vocalist/guitarist Thomas Ackerman and lead guitarist Kevin Higgins, seemed the perfect tandem for conveying their moody, muscular music. Soon, major labels such as Geffen, Columbia, Epic and London were making inquiries.
The band flew to LA in the Fall of 1994 to perform a series of showcase performances, drawing thirty-six label flaks to a Wednesday night gig at a place called Bob’s Frolic Three. In January of 1995, Geffen Records (Quarterflash’s old home) signed the band to a contract for “one EP, two albums, firm.”
Culling songs from Sprainy, Geffen released the five-song Skiploader EP Anxious, Restless in April 1995; with little promotional support, other than to send the band out on tour and front them enough money to record their first contracted album. That album, From Can Through String, was released in February 1996. A month and a half later the band broke up with Ackerman at odds with Higgins. “It was personal differences between me and Kevin. It was obvious he wanted out of the band for a while. But rather than just quit, he decided to make my life miserable by being a jerk on tour.
“Geffen wasn’t taking the band seriously. It didn’t make sense to me to be an indie band on a major label. They just wanted us to tour forever and do their work for them, without spending any money on us. Also the rhythm section was pretty much useless. I would have been willing to tolerate the poor job situation if the songs sounded the way I wanted them to. But they didn’t. And I no longer wanted to have a professional relationship with people who didn’t contribute anything but complaints.
“I think what I learned most from Skiploader is that if you are trying to make it in the entertainment business, ‘Professional’ comes first. Its called ‘Show Business’ not ‘Show Buddies’. This business is too hard and you have no true friends.” And that was the end of that.
Flushed from the success of their own efforts in connection with Everclear Tim/Kerr Records was eager to find a second band with which to forge a partnership. Dharma Bum Jeremy Wilson’s band, Pilot, seemed the likely vehicle for such a venture. In the Summer of 1994 (the same time as Skiploader released Sprainy) Pilot released a three song EP on Tim/Kerr Records.
In December 1994, based on the strength of that EP, Elektra Records (of the Warner/Elektra/Asylum conglomerate known as WEA) signed the band to a two-record contract. Humble to a fault, Jeremy said of the signing: “When I was in the Dharma Bums I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t realize we were a popular band. My reality was living in a van for five years, in really bad health, getting cavities in my teeth. I’m glad I had the gumption and willpower to put another band together.” But, before Pilot were able even to release the album they had recorded for Elektra, they were dropped from the label, in July 1995, falling victim to one of the periodic corporate shakeups at WEA headquarters. The new boss passed on the album the band had recorded for the old boss. It’s a familiar story. It happens all the time. Though Pilot continued on, to release another album on Tim/Kerr a year later, it was obvious the experience stole vital energy and direction from the band’s soul.
Undaunted, Tim/Kerr soon found another band to promote. The Dandy Warhols first came onto the Portland scene late in 1994, making an immediate impact with their sloppy, irreverent, happy combination of T. Rex and the Velvet Underground. Sort of an American version of Oasis.
Fronted by Courtney Taylor, who had paid his dues earlier in the decade, drumming with the Beauty Stab, the Dandys attracted large crowds to Satyricon and La Luna as their primary strongholds. With a hip, droll sound, a certain alternative glamour, a few good songs and a couple of other ideas, the band enlisted Tony Lash to produce their first album, Dandys Rule OK, which Tim/Kerr elected to release under their imprint in April of 1995.
Soon, Rolling Stone magazine was to name them one of “Twelve Artists On The Edge,” proclaiming of the Dandys: “They’re exploding, plastic and inevitable. Not long after that, Capitol Records signed the band to a contract in October of 1995. Capitol was apprised of the Dandys by graphic artist Mike King, who had done the artwork for Everclear’s World Of Noise release on Tim/Kerr. King sent a copy of Dandys Rule to Capitol VP of A&R, Perry Watts-Russell, who ended up signing the band to a contract with the label. Thus began the year-and-a-half-long roller coaster ride that became the recording and release of the Dandys first Capitol release.
Drummer Eric Hedford was quoted as describing the adventure thusly: “So at the time of Dandys Rule OK’s release there was this big industry buzz about the Northwest and we got swept up by it. The first single, ‘TV Theme Song,’ was added on a lot of radio stations and even MTV. We were pleasantly surprised, especially when this was done with Tim/Kerr’s one person promotion department.
“After that we had every major label A&R person and their mom following us around. If you know us, you know that we can be quite excessive, and big moochers. So naturally we rode this pony for everything it was worth: free meals, plane rides, hotel rooms and much, much more. Eventually we ran out of A&R people willing to fund our entertainment, so we chose the best label we could find to sign with, Capitol Records. They gave us loads of cash and it was a big party. We all have healthy egos anyway, but at this point we thought we could do no wrong. We had our picture in Rolling Stone. We toured the world and everyone wrote about us, saying we were the next big thing. Of course we fucked it up.”
The Dandy Warhols set about to squander not only their advance money, but their industry credibility as well. “When it came time to do the big record,” Hedford continued, “it all fell apart. The songs weren’t quite ready. The studio wasn’t quite right. Courtney and Peter [guitarist Holstrom] started fighting. And when Capitol heard the tracks, they said, ‘there’s no songs!’ ‘Songs? Oh, we thought you wanted something new. We thought it couldn’t get any worse, when our high profile accountant told us we were broke and that our personal savings had been used up to fund everything. The press went crazy with speculation. Our new friends stopped calling. And we felt like dumb asses. It was a wake up call. We moved all our gear back to Courtney and Pete’s crappy basement. Courtney wrote a bunch of songs and we went back to the studio with Tony Lash to have another try.” .
When the appropriately titled The Dandy Warhols Come Down was finally unveiled in the late Spring of 1997, it was met with immediate critical zeal, but only moderate sales. Even the placement of “Every Day Should Be A Holiday” in the unexpected hit film There’s Something About Mary failed to generate the anticipated response. Some insiders called into question Capitol’s judgment in selecting as the debut single the controversially entitled anti-drug song “Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth.”
Maybe, in retrospect, the album’s sales failed to meet expectations because in 1997, another musical trend was gathering momentum: the Swing revival ushered in by the notoriously obscure “Cocktail Nation.” Perhaps, in wasting time, as well as money, in producing their stunning inaugural effort for Capitol, the Dandy Warhols missed their narrow window of opportunity to become the true rock stars they always presumed themselves to be. But the story is getting ahead of itself. It is, perhaps ironic that Hedford ended up leaving the Dandy’s in March of 1998 before beginning the band began the process of putting together their second Capitol album Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia in June of 2000.
Heatmiser, which had been a highly visible musical force in Portland and the surrounding vicinity since early in the decade, were no strangers to distribution by a “major” independent label. By the end of 1994 they had already released two well-received albums on the Frontier Records label- Dead Air in 1993 and Cop And Speeder in 1994. When Heatmiser signed with Virgin Records in the Spring of 1995, to be distributed through their sister label Caroline, the future seemed clear and bright.
But Heatmiser were not the typical “newly-signed act.” For starters, Elliott Smith, one of the primary songwriters, had already launched a successful solo career. And, increasingly, demands were being made on drummer Tony Lash’s time as well. His growing prominence in Portland as a world-class producer created an incremental upsurge in requests for his services.
By the time of the release of Mic City Sons on Virgin/Caroline, in the Fall of 1996, the band members were already seeming to head in their own separate directions. Not even the addition of Sam Coomes as replacement for bassist Brandt Peterson could stem the tide. The band broke up shortly after the album’s release.
Coomes was undergoing changes in his own right. Motorgoat, the band he had founded with his wife, drummer Janet Weiss, fell apart when the couple divorced. As if not to lose their musical bond along with the marital, Coomes and Weiss formed Quasi, yet another configuration for Coomes’ quirky Pop masterpieces. Quasi still perform to this day- although Weiss’ time is now dominated by her duties as drummer for Sleater-Kinney.
1995 was a pivotal year for the Portland music scene. Bands were being signed to major label contracts at an unprecedented rate. By the end of year, Thor Lindsay, the mastermind behind Tim/Kerr Records, crowed, “I think I’ve counted twelve local bands signed to major label deals in the last two years.” His reckoning was not far off. It seemed, for a time anyway, in ‘94 and ‘95, that nearly every month some local band was being signed to a major label contract.
Meredith Brooks was the last entry to the list in 1995. Her signing with Capitol Records in December seemed to delay the Dandy Warhols’ release. Or perhaps it was Everclear’s inextinguishable flame. Capitol had its hands full, promoting Oregon artists. Whatever the case, Brooks’ album, Blurring The Edges made of hers a household name across the nation. On the strength of the Spring 1997 release of her hit single “Bitch,” obviously influenced by Alanis Morissette’s success, Brooks finally achieved the stardom she had been earnestly seeking for nearly twenty years.
It was a circuitous route to be sure. After leaving Portland, following the 1985 breakup of her band, The Angels Of Mercy, Meredith moved to LA to seek her fame and fortune. It nearly happened for her earlier in the ‘90s when she was receiving accolades for her work in The Graces, an all-female trio that also featured the Go Go’s Charlotte Caffey. But when that act disintegrated, Brooks’ story seemed to mirror those of countless other musicians who almost made it to the big time, but didn’t quite. All that changed with “Bitch.”
The sudden high national visibility in 1994 and ‘95 of so many Oregon acts played an essential role in placing Portland in the position to be the host of an important new music convention: North By Northwest. The annual South By Southwest convention, held every Spring in Austin, Texas, had become too big for its organizers to handle. It was determined that a second seminar was necessary, preferably to be held at a location in some other region.
The logical location for this second event would have seemed to be Seattle. But the fury of the Grunge movement, which had percolated so violently earlier in the decade, was ebbing considerably. Portland’s scene seemed to just keep chugging along; a classic example of the tortoise outdistancing the hare.
Countless top and second-tier local bands saw NXNW as an opportunity to showcase their talents to an array of industry hacks, flaks, touts and flouts.
Bands such as Hummingfish, Richmond Fontaine, Silkenseed, the teenaged Marigolds from Eugene; the Euro-Gothish Sylvia’s Ghost, Nicole Campbell and Ivan’s Wish, Sattie Clark and 17 Reasons Why, heralded by Musician magazine as one of the nation’s best unsigned bands; Steve Lockwood and Haymaker, who had received similar honors, the all-woman bands Carmina Piranha, Sleater Kinney and Joy Pop Turbo, the Dead influenced jam bands Renegade Saints (who later evolved into Kerosene Dream) and Calobo (one of the all-time best selling bands at Locals Only record shop), the Raging Woodies, Little Sue Weaver, Fernando and his producer Luther Russell, Tales Untold, the American Girls, On A Llama and Jesus Presley, among many, many more.
Eugene-based Calobo was formed in the early ‘90s around the original singer/songwriter duo of Caleb Klauder and Dave ‘Hobo’ Andrews. Cal + Hobo= Calobo. Caleb and David added bassist Nate Query and drummer Brian Bucolo, keyboardist Jenny Conlee and vocalist Michelle Van Kleef and, eventually, Kenneth Erlick on lead guitar. Calobo consistently rode the top of the local charts with their various album releases, but never incurred much major label interest and seemed to go their separate ways in 2000.
Renegade Saints, another Eugene jam band, in the tradition of the Grateful Dead, was also founded around a duo of singer/songwriters: John Shipe and Dave Coey. Together they took the band through seven years of performances throughout the western region. When the band split up in 1998, Coey went on to form Kerosene Dream, while Shipe ventured into a solo career, releasing two albums in the subsequent years.
Yet another Eugene ensemble, Floater, went in a completely different musical direction. Combining aspects of Metal and Grunge with flourishes of Ambient and Industrial. Guitarist Dave Amador, bassist Rob Wynia and drummer Pete Cornett first teamed together in 1994, releasing four albums on the Elemental label in the eight years since. They remain together today.
Hummingfish were purveyors of a Folk-flavored sound, reminiscent of Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs. Singer/songwriter Deb Tallen wove intelligent tales of love and life, ably backed by Jeff Inlay on guitar, Mark Buchanan on bass and Andrew McGough on drums. The band first formed in 1993, releasing two very well-received albums before disbanding in 1998.
Nicole Campbell first made an appearance in the local scene with a track included on the release of the Puddlestomp, compilation of 1993; before promptly disappearing for several years. When she reappeared in the mid-‘90s, it was with the band Ivan’s Wish, who attained modest success in the local clubs. Campbell made greater strides once she left Ivan’s Wish, with two critically acclaimed releases around the turn of the decade, featuring Niclole’s powerfully emotive voice and enduring songwriting skills. She continues to regularly perform in local clubs, as well as working at Dead Aunt Thelma’s recording studio.
Little Sue Weaver honed her chops with the Crackpots in the early Ô90s, before going her own way later in the decade. Little Sue’s two fine solo releases sparkled with Country textures and Folk contrasts. Her willowy voice has drawn comparisons to Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris, containing s a unique charm of its own. She also remains a fixture in the local scene.
Pop Theology evolved out of the partnership between the singer/songwriter, husband and wife team of Robert and Gina Noel, who first made a name for themselves in the ‘80s with Napoleon’s Mistress. However, the Noels divorced in the ‘90s, but continued on with the band Pop Theology. Robert eventually left the band. Gina forged ahead, first with the short-lived Twig, then with Love Nancy Sugar- an ever-changing array of musicians backing Gina- who has continued to make waves locally through the present. She released her first solo album in the Fall of 2003.
In the six years of its existence, since its inauguration in Portland in 1995, NXNW managed to create a cleaned up, PC version of the Pub Crawl of the early ‘80s: a great party with nothing much to show afterwards other than a lot of litter and a plethora of intense hangovers.
Increasingly over the years, local factions registered dissatisfaction regarding the focus of the conference, as well as the distribution of the profits. The feeling was that the Austin honchos were robbing Portland blind, using its talents and resources to line their own pockets. After the NXNW 2000, Portland was stripped of its hosting honors. There never were any local band/major label hookups directly attributable to NXNW. Willamette Week’s subsequent “PDX Fests,” fairly paled in comparison to North by Northwest, but continue on to this day.
But there were, however, more band/label hookups all the same. As was often the case, as many bands broke up over the negotiations as actually released product. Nero’s Rome was the most visible casualty of the mid-‘90s major label feeding frenzy. Mercury Records, renowned industry-wide for sleazy, down-and-dirty tactics, managed to take Nero’s Rome down as well.
While Nero’s and Mercury were negotiating a contract based on the Tony Lashed produced album Togetherly, the dreaded “corporate shakeup” killed the deal. It also killed Nero’s Rome. After eight years in the local clubs, coming perilously close on several occasions, but failing, to capture the elusive “deal,” the band broke up. “James [vocalist Angell] and I needed a break,” said guitarist Tod Morrisey. “The music goes on, with or without Mercury. We’re still proud of what we accomplished.” Angell released a well-received solo album in 2002 and Morrissey has released a couple of albums with his band Man Of The Year.
At about the same time, Mercury entered into a distribution agreement with Tim/Kerr Records. But after only seven months, having drained T/K of most of its resources, Mercury pulled out of the deal. Though hobbled severely by Mercury’s treachery, Tim/Kerr managed to survive the siege and carry on for a few years, before finally shutting down altogether in the Spring of 1999.
Kelly Joe Phelps managed to alienate Burnside Records/Music Millennium head honcho Terry Currier, when he signed a contract with Rick Rubin at American Records. By contract Kelly Joe still owed Burnside an album. But with the help of pressure tactics employed by Kelly’s new LA-based attorney, Burnside was bought out of the deal. “I’ll never manage another artist,” said a frustrated Currier. Phelps later released the groundbreaking Roll Away The Stone on the Rykodisc label, which had absorbed Rubin’s American Records label. Currier never saw a penny, nor received even so much as a thank you-note from Phelps.
In 1998, after four years together, the lure of a developmental contract with RCA led On A Llama’s Lea Kreuger to dump guitarist Greg Kirkelie and drummer Kevin Rankin from the trio. Developmental deals, being a-dime-a-dozen in the industry, are a label’s way of securing an artist without doing anything with them. Not surprisingly, an embittered Kreuger returned to Portland a few years later, never having released anything on RCA. She still performs in Portland today.
Poised at the ready, no band was more prepared for the Swing revival of 1996 than the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. Their road to overnight success had been traveled for seven years, slogging all over the region, promoting lead singer Steve Perry’s tireless vision: to meld Sammy Davis Jr. and Cab Calloway with Jerry Lewis’ Nutty Professor alter-ego Buddy Love. The Daddies released Zoot Suit Riot in 1997 on the Mojo/Universal label. That album stayed on the Billboard charts for over a year, garnering platinum status along the way.
The follow-up album, Soul Caddy, released in the Fall of 2000 was a far more eclectic affair, hearkening back to the Daddies roots of Pop, Ska, Punk and psychedelia, before they became so closely associated with the whole “Swing” movement. Sales on the album, however, were not particularly impressive.
Another “Swing” band which found great popularity in 1996 in Portland (and around the world actually), without the aid of any sort of record contract, was Pink Martini- headed by the charismatic piano protégé Thomas Lauderdale, who had graduated cum laude with a degree in History and Literature from Harvard. Lauderdale’s well-heeled breeding and flair for classy productions made him the toast of countless strata of local social circles; Pink Martini was the creme de le creme of the area Cocktail nation. And, owing to Lauderdale’s extensive social connections, the band catered to a far more diverse and extensive sub-demographic than that to which most bands had access.
Known to be something of a musical taskmaster, Lauderdale’s point-perfect arrangements of original and traditional Swing and Latin numbers, coupled with his purposeful selection of an orchestra comprised of disciplined, like-minded players, afforded him the luxury granted to few bands: of being able to play any gig, anywhere- from a night at Berbati’s, to a wedding reception, to a grand Civic affair. From Portland to Paris. Pink Martini set the standard by which all other Cocktail Nation bands were measured. None could near compare.
Pink Martini were one of the first local bands to go worldwide, making quite a name for themselves in Europe, especially France. National Public Radio reported in December 2000 that the Pink Martini number “Je Ne Veux Pas Travailler,” which became known in France through a Citroen commercial, was so popular that the chorus of the tune was offered as a ringing option for the mobile phone subscribers of the French phone company Bouygues Telecom.
According to NPR, “The success of Pink Martini’s music among the French public and the ensuing rise in sales for Citroen prompted Volkswagen to get the band to help sell the Passat in France, using their cover of the tango classic “Amado Mio.”
Pink Martini’s self-produced album, Sympathetique, is Portland’s all time best-selling local recording, logging sales rumored at well over a half million units, worldwide (over 300,000 in France), since it’s release in 1997. To this day, the album frequently appears on regional Top Ten retail sales charts, nearly seven years later.
SP Clarke © 2011- All rights reserved