Knocking at Your Back Door
By Raoul Hernandez
AUGUST 25, 1997: The glaring sun beats down on this arid, dusty, alien plane, heating its surface to approximately 12,000 degrees and turning everything bright red. There are no signs of life. Mars? Try San Antonio's Sunken Gardens Amphitheater on a three-alarm July afternoon where the R.O.A.R tour ("Revelations of Absent Revenue," mutters one roadie) is grinding to a halt. There will be more dates after this stop, but already the news has come down that headliner Iggy Pop has dropped off the bill (including this one), and crowds are staying home in droves.
Judging from the crowd-size here, alternative nation has indeed shrunk. Young toughs strut by in their T-shirts, showing off their weed-eater haircuts, piercings, tattoos, and busty girlfriends, but it doesn't take a team of scientists to figure out that intelligent life doesn't exist here. In particular, there's a strain of life-forms whose ultimate form of rebellion is wearing all black (long pants included) on a day such as this. There's precious little shade at Sunken Gardens, and with the Texas heat going thermonuclear this afternoon, that aforementioned red surface is my skin blistering and crackling like I was being burned at the stake. Another pair of goth skate punks walk by in their Darth Vader outfits. See you coolsters in the emergency room.
Two hours after the gates open, around 4pm, another nameless band (Subrosa, Sexpod, Puzzlegut anyone?) takes the stage -- the main stage -- and although a couple hundred kids will crowd in front of the barrier, the concave half circle in front of the stage looks pretty empty. The band opens with the first song from their self-titled Interscope debut, "Graze," all taut bassline and staccato guitar riffs. The singer, shirtless, hairless, bellows with a deep voice and jumps around as if the stage were on fire. The drummer and bassist, also shirtless with long tresses of dyed hair, pound out tribal rhythms that start the crowd moshing. "Clover," the album's second song, comes next, and on the third, the singer leaps into the crowd -- a dangerous move with such a sparse gathering.
Their set lasts 50 minutes and hits nearly every song from the hard-working quintet's debut, including radio-ready tunes like "Shutter Gut," and "Pocket Salt." It could be a lot louder, but the audience responds as if the group were headliners Sponge. When the singer, whose energy level remains in the red the whole set, asks who has the band's album, at least 30 hands go up. As a reward, he hoses 'em down, which on a day like this is nothing but pure, unadulterated love and mercy. When the band bounds off-stage, they look clearly energized, not enervated.
Backstage, towel draped over his clean-shaven head, the singer looks up when lobbed yet another comment about the heat. "Yeah," he says, smiling, eyes alive. "I wanted to turn the hose on the band, but didn't really want to electrocute them." Good idea. How 'bout some air-conditioning, instead? The singer motions toward the two-story structure to the right of the stage. "The dressing rooms have ac," he says motioning toward the second story. Ten minutes later, after he's rounded up the rest of the band -- minus their sample guy -- the five of us, plus a couple of girlfriends, are sitting upstairs in the arctic breeze, backs to a wall of mirrors, faces toward my tape recorder. The first question is obvious.
Who the hell is Soak?
"Well," says the singer, chuckling. "We're a band. We're actually an Austin-based band."
"We travel a lot," injects the bassist. "We do a lot of shows and just 'cause you haven't heard of us doesn't mean we don't exist."
"The reason why Austin hasn't heard a lot about us," starts the guitarist, "is because in the first three years, we played a few shows in Austin, like at the Back Room or Steamboat or whatever, but we concentrated mostly on getting out of town -- to Dallas, to Houston, down to Victoria and San Antonio."
"We didn't want to get niched as a hometown band," explains the drummer. "We wanted to be a touring band from the git-go, so that had a lot to do with it. To be honest, we struggled with response [in Austin] -- it's really that simple. We're not an Austin-y sounding kind of band. It's hard to draw a crowd."
"A lot of the clubs," interrupts the singer, "some of the Sixth Street clubs, we were a little too heavy for them. Let's be honest; the Austin scene, basically, if you're successful in Austin, you've either got an acoustic guitar, a funk beat, or a girl singer -- or all three.
"I've said this before," finishes the bassist. "You could spend your whole career trying to be king of the hill in Austin or you could take it to a broader fan-base. That's what we've done."
There it is, Soak, featuring singer Jason Demetri, bassist John Moyer, guitarist Chal Boudreaux, drummer Heath Macintosh, and the absent "Turdlben," loops, samples, and keyboards. Now you know. Of course when the news came down following South by Southwest '96 that this non-profile local band had signed a deal with Interscope -- in the wake of one, six-song CD, Omniphonic Globalnova -- there were a lot of local music scensters scratching their heads.
Yet, Soak had been there all along, or at least since May 1, 1994 when the group debuted with Demetri, Boudreaux (then on bass), Macintosh, and guitarist Leigh Mason, who left the band just after the completion of the Interscope album. Still, this was one Austin band, born in the wake of Nirvana ("we came together right before Cobain killed himself," says Demetri), that was intent on doing things differently. Befitting a frontman, Demetri is the most vocal member of the group, and does most of the talking.
"From the git-go we were gonna do everything twice as hard as everybody else," he states, "because obviously, what everybody else [in Austin] was doing wasn't successful -- there weren't that many success stories happening out of there. We knew that the goal was to not make one specific market some big market. If we could get out to as many people as possible, and really, one of the biggest things that stemmed from that was the fact that we just wanted to play out. We knew we couldn't play seven days a week in our hometown, so we knew we had to pick up other towns. Well, in the process of picking up these other towns just so we could play more, we started finding that we were getting a better response outside of Austin."
Sounding much more Dallas, more Nine Inch Nails (Filter really, but this was pre-NIN counterfeiting) -- more "alternative" than most Austin bands -- Soak started concentrating on commercial-friendly metropoli like Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. Small college towns such as Nacogdoches and College Station, in particular, embraced the band. Victoria, especially, was receptive to the band's now-familiar alternative-era sound. "That was like our hometown," says Demetri. "We could go there and pack a club, sell a lot of our tapes, a lot of our shirts. We could go down there and be little rock stars, and it's like, `Well, man, that's what we're in this business for -- for people to hear our music and like it. So, when we started noticing that the response was better outside of Austin, we just kinda started going with that. We just went wherever we were gonna be liked. If you liked us, then we were gonna come play there as much as possible. That's what happened -- basically with why Austin didn't know who we were."
Not that the band didn't try to get recognition in its hometown.
"Oh, we tried," asserts Demetri. "we sent out a lot of tapes to different people."
"To radio stations, to magazines," says Moyer.
"To you!" say Demetri, Moyer, and Macintosh in unison.
"To everyone," finishes Moyer. "Sometimes we'd get a call back, sometimes maybe a blurb or something. Usually nothing. And it was like, `Alright, we'll knock a little louder and we'll knock a little louder. But you know, that's not the only door around. There are other doors. And we knocked on those doors too. Those other doors opened, and we went in."
The most significant door they knocked on outside of Austin was located in Dallas and it belonged to Paul Nugent, manager of Deep Blue Something and the Nixons. Macintosh sent Nugent a copy of Omniphonic Globalnova, recorded in the fall of 1995, and by the end of February 1996, the manager and head honcho at Rainmaker Records invited the band up to Dallas to play a show at Trees. After the gig, manager and band sat down for coffee, agreeing to "take baby steps together."
"It's two o'clock in the morning when we agree on this," recounts Demetri. "And at five o'clock in the morning, Paul is flying to L.A. for a marketing meeting [at Interscope] about Deep Blue, and he tells us, `If anything happens between now and next week when I get back, let me know.' Well, when we got back to Austin at 5am, on my machine, was another record label -- I think it was Giant -- leaving a message saying, `We got your CD from a deejay down there [101X's L.A. Lloyd]. We love it. We're listening to it all week. Please give us a call.'"
Instead, it was Nugent who got a call that morning, and though he hadn't had any intention of playing Omniphonic Globalnova for the brass at Interscope, suddenly there was blood in the water. Recall that this is February 1996, a time during which an industry-wide signing frenzy is still in effect, and a good 10 months before the media starts proclaiming the death of the alternative era. Interest from another label meant bargaining power, and Nugent knew it.
"So he's sitting there talking to the marketing people for Deep Blue Something," says Demetri, "and they go, `So, Paul, what's up your sleeve next. What are you working on?' `Well, I'm working on this,' and he starts playing [our CD]. A few minutes into it, Jimmy Iovine's assistant comes in and says, `Jimmy Iovine and Tom Whalley [the label's CEO and president, respectively] want you in their office right now with that CD.' Five, 10 minutes later they were negotiating a deal. We hadn't even known Paul 24 hours, and we had management and were negotiating a recording contract."
Before they signed any- thing, Nugent ordered the band to hire a lawyer, a handful of which they interviewed at SXSW that year -- also the place they met Interscope's Tom Whalley for the first time ("he didn't even know we were flying out to meet them the next week," recalls Demetri). A gig at L.A.'s Dragonfly, Soak's first show outside of Texas -- arranged by the band's A&R man to be, Chuck Reid -- clinched the deal. "After we were done playing," remembers Demetri, "Ted Fields [Interscope's other CEO] comes up and he's like, `That last song, "Me Compassionate," I swear I was watching rock & roll history being made. Jason, if you still want to sign with us, whatever you want, you got.'"
Well, not quite, but they did get a two-album guarantee, a "really high" point percentage for each album sold, a mechanical royalty rate of 100%, and a good budget to record their debut. What they didn't get was a lot of money ("we're still broke," says Macintosh wryly), but enough that the band was able to buy new equipment and a van. In other words, they got their big chance. Pretty lucky, eh, that whole sequence of events. It's not every day a veteran producer/music industry legend like Jimmy Iovine hears your CD through the wall and orders your manager of a few hours to bring it into his office.
"As a matter of fact," says Demetri, "when it first happened, one of the things Austin was saying was, `Oh yeah, this band Soak pops out of the wood work -- this lucky band.' Our philosophy has always been, you know, we really don't believe in luck. We believe in you work your ass off and you create so many situations and scenarios that you're involved in, that those doors, those luck chances are gonna be there."
The harder you work, the luckier you are?
"Exactly," they say together.
"You can sit around on your couch," explains Demetri, "and maybe be one of those one-in-a-million, one-in-a-billion that gets lucky by accidently sitting on your couch, or you can go, `You know what? I'm gonna bring that luck to me. I'm gonna go out and find it, instead of it just accidently falling into my lap.' That's what we do. We bust our ass. And we still do. Now's the hard part."
"It's even harder now than it ever was," says Moyer. "We knew -- we talked to some other bands who'd gotten signed -- and we knew. Once you get signed, that's when the real work starts."
Having inked their deal last April 1 ("we're still waiting for the joke," quips Moyer), the band set about talking to producers, settling on Ben Gross, best known for his work with Filter. Having already worked up an album's worth of songs, the band entered the studio last August and emerged six months later with Soak, just in time to hit the road in support of an album that wouldn't see the neon lights of record stores until June 3. In fact, the band was scheduled to be on R.O.A.R tour from date one, but going that route would've meant canceling a number of album release parties in the Midwest, where management had the band touring because of its already established Deep Blue Something and Nixons' contacts.
Out on the road since February and expected to stay there through the late fall, the band says reaction to their shows have been good, even before the album was released; the Midwest, especially, has been accepting, thanks in part to management's connections, but more likely due to the album itself, and its first single (and video), "Me Compassionate." Not only is the album's radio-friendliness obvious, it's also the most "alternative"-sounding album put out by any local band (save, perhaps for Spoon). Gross must know what's he doing.
"Ben is the man," states Demetri. "He is the shit. He'll mix for two days on one song, and then after that, after we've approved it, he'll spend an additional eight hours just tweaking; sitting there with his ears, tweaking."
"And you'll hear the difference," says Macintosh.
"Yeah, it was great eight hours before," adds Demetri. "Now, it's incredible. Before we got it mastered and were done -- we're all new to this -- we were like, `Wow, is it gonna sound good?' and all that stuff. And now I hear that shit on the radio, and man, Ben just mixes for radio."
Yes, but isn't "alternative" rock dead?
"Here's the way I look at it," says guitarist Boudreaux, who's been quiet most of the interview. "You could say `Alternative is dead,' or `Metal is dead,' and you could say technology is taking over, but technology will never take the place of the person there onstage. The thing about Soak is the combination of technology -- samples and stuff -- and the human feel."
"We love technology," says Demetri. "We believe that's the way it's going, but we love emotion, and emotion will never get lost. And it doesn't matter what you play. If you've got the emotion, it doesn't matter if you're dated. If you've got the emotion, people are gonna love watching you play. And we always knew that our music and what we're about is based off of our live shows and what people see."
"I think with our music," adds Macintosh, "we're in a real safe place -- regardless of what the industry says as far as this style is dead. Nobody knows anything until the people and the public decide what they like. And you can't say that if a band gets signed today that's an "alternative" band, that they're dead in the water, because ultimately the public decides whether they're gonna make it or not."
And if that public, say Austin, has basically ignored you, as have the local media and the clubs, what then?
"Look," says Demetri seriously. "I spent the last eight years of my life in Austin, and all I ever tell people is that Austin is the shit. Austin is the greatest place to be. And when my own hometown wasn't supporting me and wasn't embracing me, I was so hurt. And now, I don't care about what all has happened in the past. Now, all of a sudden people are starting to embrace us, and I'm just happy. Finally, finally, our hometown is starting to embrace me."
"I can't be as forgiving as Jason," says Macintosh, "because it's gonna take until there's some hype, and I hate hype bands. But until there's some hype, Austin isn't gonna catch on."
"I would love to be embraced by our hometown," finishes Demetri. "I would love to be the band that puts that town on the map, with people going, `Damnit, Austin has some kick ass shit coming out of there.' We don't wanna be something that just comes out, barely hits gold, and then disappears."
Soak plays the Atomic Cafe, Thursday, September 11
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