All in Perspective
By Michael Bertin
APRIL 6, 1998: Chris Searles is not an asshole. He's not even a malcontent. Far from it. But Searles, the Austin drummer who has played with everybody from bigshots like Alejandro Escovedo and Joe Ely to more un-national artists like the Barbers and Will Taylor, hasn't the sunniest of outlooks for someone who just came home from back-to-back, relatively high-profile tours with Shawn Colvin and Abra Moore. Part of it might be the touring itself. After spending over a year on the road non-stop, Searles is just starting to re-acclimate himself to a less transient lifestyle. Another part of it could be the vantage point. From the back of the stage, shielded by the drum kit, Searles also spent the better part of a year getting a good look at the realities of the music business, and while not having to cope directly with the potentially negative psychological effects of being out front, some of that residue seems to have worn off on the 27-year-old drummer. Not that this was Searles' first encounter with the music industry. Far from it.
Almost a decade ago, while still a student at the University of Texas, Searles, singer-guitarist Davíd Garza, and bassist Jeff Haley formed what the drummer describes as a "fairly buzzy little band": Twang Twang Shock-A-Boom. Austin's juvenile incarnation of the Violent Femmes, Twang Twang were big with the kids, largely a result of their West Mall gigs, which were sort of like an MTV Unplugged show, only without all of the teen angst.
One day Larry Hamby showed up at a Twang Twang in-store at the no-longer existent Hastings record store on the Drag. Hamby, at the time an A&R bigwig for Columbia Records (CBS), spent a few minutes watching the band and the next hour on the sidewalk talking to the band's manager.
"We were signed as far as he was concerned," says Searles. "And he just had to get us up to the label to get them really pumped."
It was like the planets had aligned for the trio. Not only was this A&R rep instantly smitten, the band's manager, Mark Proct (who now handles Storyville and Jimmie Vaughan) also managed an act already within the Columbia group of labels - a group that was actually moving records for CBS: the Fabulous Thunderbirds. With label-literate and successful management to help smooth things out that much more, it seemed like all the Twangers had to do was show up, play a few tunes for the people with the power, then wait for the cosmos to divine them roots rock gods.
But a funny thing happened on the way to rock & roll stardom.
"We flew up to New York," remembers Searles. "And we had never really been out of Austin. We really didn't know what was happening - LaGuardia, the limo, the whole deal - but the next day we ended up in the boardroom of Bedrock, which used to be the big tower for CBS."
Now, remember, this is the late Eighties, right at the point when everything is changing over at CBS; Sony was taking control of Columbia and Epic, Mariah Carey's debut was about to come out, and her hubby-to-be Tommy Mottola, who was at Twang Twang's initial label meeting, was about to be assigned control of essentially everything at Sony. Searles recalls the entire ordeal with comic vividness:
"They had us play in the boardroom, with barely enough space for a band. A giant long conference table, and a bunch of New Yorkers with their $500 briefcases and $3,000 suits - they were all there, man. Everybody on the staff was required to be there. It was a really big deal - anyone associated with A&R, it was a big deal. We didn't really know that, but it was packed in the room. We knew that much.
"But the story is that Mottola, after asking us a few polite questions said, 'You boys been up to the Empire State building?'
"'No sir, we sure haven't.'
"'Well, you ought to get up there. Get yourselves a good look around. Get the lay of the land up here in New York, because it will probably be a good long while before you get back up here again.'
"And he said it so smooth, so fast," recalls Searles. "We just kind of smiled and had no idea what he was saying. We were rookies. I had no idea what was going on. But every briefcase zipped up and closed and everyone sat up straight in their chairs. It was over.
"Then our A&R guy, or what would have been our A&R guy, as soon as everyone cleared out of the room, which was in about two minutes, because they tied it up real quick - 'Okay, we'll be in touch' blah blah blah, and the room was empty - our A&R guy goes, 'Damn, I just remembered, I have a meeting,' and splits. We never heard from him again."
Though perhaps only in hindsight, it's not hard to believe that the incident left an indelible mark of realism on Searles and his views of the music industry. At the time, it wasn't a big deal; the three Twangers all thought it was kind of funny, and were joking in speculation as to what kind of crummy vehicle would be taking them back to the airport.
"It wasn't a big deal," says Searles plainly. "I mean, I was 18. Davíd was 18 or 19. We knew we had a ways to go. We weren't planning to break up at that point. We just figured, 'One down.'"
That "one down," however, soon came to refer not to the possible label deals on the horizon, but rather to the band itself; four months after the fiasco at CBS, Twang Twang split up, because, as Searles puts it so succinctly:
"Davíd decided he wanted to become a solo star."
Many years down the line from Twang Twang's break-up, it's interesting to note than Garza claims the trio never really broke up - a claim Searles doesn't explicitly deny but does nothing to substantiate, either.
"I mean, Jeff doesn't even play music anymore," chuckles Searles, contemplating the theoretical Jake and Elwood we're-putting-the-band-back-together phone call. "And I don't have any desire to play bongos professionally across the country, around the world, on stages or anything, but some of those songs I still definitely like. A lot of them are just way behind me now. For the sake of a good story, I guess Davíd is ready to say anything."
From this statement, one shouldn't think the two musicians are adversaries, however. Far from it. While Garza rebounded quickly from Twang Twang's break-up, so did Searles, who started hanging out at Spy vs. Spy shows and playing with as many locals as possible, trying "to gain as much experience as possible."
In fact, Searles continues to play with Garza, off and on ever since the breakup of Twang Twang. And while Garza has cultivated a much longer and deeper professional relationship with drummer Michael Hale, there's a slim chance that Searles might hook up with the artist formerly known as Dah-Veed to do some MTV promo appearances for This Euphoria; Searles is featured on the first single from Garza's Lava/Atlantic Records debut, "Discoball World."
Beyond his ongoing relationship with Garza, though, don't think for a moment that Searles doesn't have plenty to keep him busy. Try 1997 gigs like James McMurtry, Hal Ketchum, Abra Moore, and that ubiquitous chick singer who just picked up a couple of Grammys. What's her name? Shawn Colvin?
What's more interesting, however, is combining the two female names on that list, because it was right after coming off his trek with Colvin - a tour that began January 1997 with a couple of dress rehearsals at the Continental Club and ended a few months later at the Backyard with the local drummer looking very Andy Dick as he danced onstage to Earth Wind & Fire's "September" - that Searles jumped immediately onto Abra Moore's tour just as it was kicking off. That's right, in the year of Lilith, behind those two Grammy women (Moore was nominated) Searles was, in a very real and rhythmic sense, a man.
Moreover, considering the hotshots Colvin had playing with her - people like guitarist Stuart Smith, a Nashville regular who has done stints with Rosanne Cash and Wynona, among others, Searles' selection for the tour was a real coup. According to Searles himself, he was the only guy in the running: "Man, [Colvin] wanted me to have that gig," he says. "She waited until the last minute to call me up, and then she didn't audition anyone else."
Even though Searles is painfully explicit about the fact that he thinks Colvin is "the best at what she does" and it was " truly an honor" to be part of the tour, the reality of the job, for him personally, turned out to be less dreamy than it looked on paper.
"I wasn't blissfully happy in that situation," he says flatly. "Is that putting it gently? Sure. I really wanted that to be a big step, and it was, but not in the direction I wanted it to be.... I learned a lot about how an artist should be handled and what happens when someone is really focused on what they want to achieve and really investing in their career. I mean, other people I've worked with have looked at it as a crap shoot, so they got down. Her work ethic was just to stay out there and everything would work itself out.
"For me, though, I learned a lot of negative things. Certainly Shawn wouldn't appreciate me saying that, but just the inner workings of the band - the keyboard player was from New York, the bass player from Nashville, guitar player from D.C., back-up singer from L.A. - we just never really connected. That was really the problem for me ultimately; that we were playing these amazing shows every night for packed houses in the most beautiful theatres I had ever been in all across the country, making great money, and traveling really nice, and everything was set for us everywhere we went, but musically it wasn't as satisfying as I wanted. And I've come to understand what that means.
"What Shawn really wanted to achieve out of that tour was for 'Sunny Came Home' to get on the radio and be a really big deal, which of course happened. So it was a big success in that sense, but what that meant was there was a lot of effort spent trying to..."
"...kiss ass, instead of trying to make the music meaningful every night. You know, make it really happen. And I didn't see that at that time. I didn't understand the value behind it, and now I do."
After the Colvin tour ended, Searles was pretty confident that he didn't want to play in that kind of situation again. He was looking for a situation (read: band) where things could grow, and since most of his friends making music locally had albums coming out just as he was coming off the road, Searles had only to choose the project of his liking. He liked Abra Moore.
Despite being the option with the most personal connections and the most history, in some respects, Moore's Strangest Places tour ended up being more difficult for Searles than Colvin's. For one, it was longer - about four months longer, seven months altogether. Other factors contributing to the intermittent malaise are a little more difficult to quantify, but Searles tries nonetheless.
"Basically Abra is really good, really brilliant in her own way; she has a natural sort of empathetic musical spirit. But a), that's hard to put that onstage, and b), the record label doesn't see her for that."
Instead, according to Searles, handlers saw Moore as something for the alternative rock radio youth market, "forcing her into something that was really unnatural for her to be." Like playing on Regis & Kathy, for instance?
"Yeah, and that wasn't even as much of a stretch as playing after Sugar Ray and before Third Eye Blind in front of 22,000 16-year-olds," grimaces Searles. "We were like, 'This is ridiculous. What do we do?' We just kind of charged through it - 'It'll be over in an hour.' But it's fairly painful, because you know they are going to hate you to some degree."
Most struggling Austin musicians (which means almost all local artists) are probably having a hard time feeling pity for a guy who drums on two national tours, playing "beautiful theatres" on one and in front of 22,000 people on the other. Complaining about things like that makes a local musician sound like, well, like an asshole. Actually, Searles is keenly aware of the fact that he loses touch with certain aspects of the rock & roll lifestyle, but it's tough to fault someone who has seen the worst aspects of the music business from Day One for being a little cynical and jaded.
"You know, musicians forget that we don't have to clock in 9 to 5, and eat lunch at the same time everyday - all that stuff," concedes Searles. "But at the same time our lives are generally really formless. Your days are numbered. Your days are so numbered in the music business, and everybody is panicking about that - everybody that wants to score, that wants to make money, that wants to get a song on the radio or MTV.
"And at this point, as soon as you're not lukewarm or lukehot or whatever, it's over. They've forgotten about you - your label first and foremost. People get dropped after their second record - the bands are the first ones to get burnt. The deck falls on you in a real final way.
"And for a while I was freaking, because I definitely began the Abra tour feeling like, 'I'm 25. I'm still in the ballgame in terms of MTV.' Then when stuff started to wind down, and we toured with Big Head Todd for six weeks, I got a little nervous: 'What am I going to do? My career? Oh, my God.' Then I went, 'Wait a minute, what the fuck is that?'"
Whether epiphany or gradual transformation, over the course of the last year, Searles has worked himself into a position where those types of worries are less at issue. Most obvious is the fact that when you start making good money, financial concerns start to erode. But beyond that, after being in the spotlight, or rather sitting right behind the person in the spotlight - experiencing the celebrity myth that all musicians crave at some level - the vanity concerns seem to have eroded as well.
"I have luxuries right now from really putting in 24 hours a day for all of '97," says Searles. "I was never ever home.... It's great in some ways. The highs are really high and the lows are really low. Lots of drugs. Lots of chicks. Lots of liquor. Lots of late nights. Lots of long drives. Lots of special privileges. You go to San Francisco for the first time and you're a welcome guest at a bunch of different places because you're playing with Shawn Colvin. It can definitely tweak you a little bit. It doesn't take long for you to remember, 'Okay, these things feel this way,' but you'd really rather hang out with the people that aren't, 'Attend to me. Attend to me,' all of the time....
"I mean, it seems like ultimately the record industry is just one of those endeavors that human beings make to try to find themselves identities. You want to be recognized as, 'I'm a really great and important human being on the earth. Therefore, I'm going to be onstage in front of a lot of people and they're going to love me and give me all the attention that I always really deserved because of my talents.' Same thing with the press: 'The way I write...' Same thing with the people that are signing the checks and patting the artists on the back with their fingers crossed.
"There are not a lot of people that are in it for the long haul. It's more of a period in people's lives. And the music itself reflects that.... That's just traditionally the way we are - trying to create something to verify the fact we're valuable in our lifetime. When that comes crashing down around us, we come back down to earth a little and realize, 'Oh, we're all human beings.' We all do whatever it is we do, but it's not about, 'Man, the singer in Third Eye Blind is so fine, I wish I could fuck him.'"
Searles is lucky. Not because he toured with Third Eye Blind and got to hang with someone that many girls across the country desire. He's lucky because from an industry standpoint, the pressure isn't on him as much as it's on Shawn Colvin or Abra Moore - the person out front. Whereas people forget the faces of today's one-hit blunders, Searles can always get another gig. That's the upside of anonymity, people can't forget about you if they don't really even know who you are in the first place. If you're not the name on the marquee, you can leave and come back. Moreover, people are in perpetual need of drummers. Hell, they need them so bad that one year Searles scored slots playing on 12 different SXSW showcases.
And if not - if there's not another Colvin tour, or another Abra Moore tour or another whoever is selling records this time next year tour - maybe that's not a big deal either.
"The States is so money-oriented that if you don't make a bunch of money fast, or if you don't appear to make a bunch of money fast, somehow you're a failure and people have forgotten about you," says Searles. "I don't think that's the way it works. If you do something that leaves some sort of impression, people aren't going to forget about you - you can always play the Cactus Cafes around the country and there's nothing wrong with that. Certainly what I've learned in the last few years with all of these amazing opportunities playing in front of zillions of people in all different kinds of localized cultures around the country is that money really doesn't matter."
Playing with a Grammy winner and coming away with some negative impressions or playing with Austin's most successful act last year and having to hate some of it, yeah, it'd be easy to knock Chris Searles for not being completely appreciative, but nobody with that much perspective could be an asshole.
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