The Austin Chronicle

Won't Get Schooled Again

Austin's Music Class of '98

By Andy Langer, January 23, 1998, Music

It's detention for Kelly Willis, Charlie Robison (standing) and Bruce Robison

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

Few things are certain about Austin's Music Class of '98, those local artists releasing albums this year on major labels or major indies, but one thing is abundantly clear: Enrollment is up. Although only a handful of this year's contingent have firm release dates for their forthcoming albums, it appears some 30 of Austin's favorite and best bands will try and sell their wares out on the open market. Thirty albums? That's nearly equal to the combined number of releases from Austin's Class of '96 and Class of '97 - two groups that distinguished themselves by having this music community's highest output and highest expectations. In fact, with this year's release schedule, it's already safe to assume that virtually every club ad will announce a "CD Release Party," while the subsequent glut of in-stores virtually guarantees both Waterloo Records and Tower spots in next year's Music Poll as "Best Venue." Just who are the local artists vying to define Austin nationally in 1998? So far, the class' only distinguishing feature is diversity. Of the "Freshman Eight," artists making their national debuts, the field is an even split between rock and country, with Sixteen Deluxe, David Garza, Meg Hentges, and David Rice representing the former, and Monte Warden, Don Walser, Bruce Robison, and Charlie Robison representing the latter.

On the other hand, 1998 may also be the year when talk of "sophomore slumps" replaces the annual discussion of the dreaded "Austin Curse" (this town's seeming inability to translate good music into commercial success). Using the traditional two-year turnaround for their follow-ups, eight members of Austin's Music Class of '96 are returning this year with their sophomore efforts for major labels - Spoon, Fastball, Storyville, the Ugly Americans, and (technically) the Butthole Surfers.

Just as easily, 1998 could well belong to its upperclassmen, the veterans, acts such as Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Ian Moore, who find slightly longer release cycles catching up to them this year. In addition, both Kelly Willis and Will and Charlie Sexton are looking forward to major label rebirths, with the former looking for a major label to release her first full-length since 1993, and the latter teaming up with A&M for a family-style album.

Interestingly, the only Class of '98 member committed to an indie release this year is also the only alumnus from last year's class who is ready to put out another album already: Alejandro Escovedo. Next month, Escovedo follows up last year's Buick MacKane release on Rykodisc with a live solo album, More Miles Than Money, on Bloodshot Records, the small but influential Chicago-based alt-country indie label. And while 1998 will hopefully find a few late '97 releases by the likes of the Derailers and Kacy Crowley picking up steam, it almost goes without saying that this year's class Valedictorian must keep pace with last year's honoree, Abra Moore, whose Arista Austin debut, Strangest Places, recently yielded a Grammy nomination for "Four Leaf Clover."

Yet before handicapping Austin's Music Class of '98, it should be noted that nearly all of last year's major label releases by local artists failed to register much more than a blip on sales radar (see sidebar). As such, this year's class size alone doesn't really say that much, since less than .5% of the total number of albums released nationally (30K seems to be the accepted figure) ever go on to sell more than 250,000 albums. In other words, great expectations are rarely matched by sales figures.

But even if 30 major label A&R reps making an investment in Austin music are just looking to cash in on another "Pepper" or "Four Leaf Clover," many locals believe any investment in local music is a good investment. In this light, perhaps nobody is more happy to see this year's hectic release schedule kick in more than the five members of the Class of '97 who got held back last year and thus became members of this year's class: David Garza, Sixteen Deluxe, Monte Warden, Meg Hentges, and David Rice.

Try, Try Again

Appropriately enough, the Class of 1998's story begins exactly where it did last year, with David Garza and Sixteen Deluxe. Both local acts spent the majority of 1996 embroiled in bidding wars, with Garza eventually settling on Atlantic and Sixteen Deluxe on Warner Bros. By the start of 1997, each was fine-tuning a debut scheduled for late summer release. Neither happened. Why? It appears the easy answer is also an unusual one: Both acts reportedly became such priorities with their labels that pushing them back to 1998 and spending more time developing an orchestrated marketing campaign made more sense than throwing them out to the public sight unseen.

For Garza, the plan was simply for him not to get lost in corporate machinery still milking Jewel's 1995 debut and successfully nurturing a string of multi-platinum debuts from Matchbox 20, Duncan Sheik, and Sugar Ray. "Their success is singularly what held me back and should ultimately open up more doors," says Garza today.

With the experience of having self-released nine independent albums, Garza says he understood early on that his patience might eventually pay off. By year's end, it did, with Atlantic showing its appreciation with two gestures: the first, allowing Garza to release an EP of demos, and the second, inviting him to contribute a track to the soundtrack for Great Expectations - alongside Jewel, Chris Cornell, and Scott Weiland. While being included on the soundtrack to a highly-anticipated movie marks Garza's official Atlantic debut - and could well generate some healthy publishing royalties for him if either is a hit - the real coup for the former Twang Twang man has surely been the indie release of his 4-Track Manifesto.

Using five songs he originally prepared at home to pitch to another Atlantic artist, Garza's 4-Track Manifesto not only prepared the local's existing fanbase for a fairly radical rock crossover, it also made college radio inroads with "Disco Ball World." Even better, Garza spent nearly two months on the record store circuit, playing in-stores for members of the Independent Retail Coalition - stores that could play pivotal roles early in the retail promotion of Garza's full-length debut.

Milk does a body good: Monte Warden

photograph by Toff V. Wolfson

Said debut, originally produced by Stiff Johnson (G. Love & Special Sauce), and currently set to feature tracks remixed by Craig Ross and perhaps "Disco Ball World," is no longer the debut Garza planned on releasing just a year ago. "Not only isn't it the same record," explains Garza, "it's kind of like my second record. In fact, we've even toyed with the idea of self-releasing the original record at some point. Just for fun - just because it's so different."

What hasn't changed is Atlantic's plan to push the album towards Alternative and AOR radio while Garza tours relentlessly through the spring and well into next year. And although the album is now set for an April release, Garza will spend much of February and March supporting Matchbox 20 in theatres - shows that will not only put him in front of large audiences, but also in front of radio programmers that could make a difference come April.

At this point, the bulk of Sixteen Deluxe's marketing plan also hinges around touring. "We've just got to keep them on the road," says Randy Kaye, the Warner Bros. A&R rep who signed Sixteen Deluxe, Soul Coughing, and Grant Lee Buffalo. "Here, it actually took the radio department seeing them live for them to go crazy for the record."

That John Croslin-produced album, Emits Showers of Sparks, hit stores January 13 after college radio received a sampler last December. Kaye says the label plans on letting alternative radio sit with the album, helping choose a single by playing the songs they're most interested in, and thereby also deciding which tune to turn into a video. For the band's part, their patience with the whole process appears to be payback for their label's surprisingly hands-off approach to their album's recording.

"We signed them because we like them, not because we thought we could turn them into something else," says Kaye. "A lot of times, if you leave a band alone, they step up and progress anyway without prodding. That's what happened here. They could have turned [Emits] into a feedback festival, but they realized you don't need so much noise to be noisy. I think they wanted this album to be more about songs and melodies. It is."

By contrast, it appears Meg Hentges' long awaited debut has taken nearly two years to produce almost wholly because Robbins Entertainment, a BMG-distributed label headed by Profile Records founder Corey Robbins, is so small and thereby hands-on. Robbins discovered Hentges during '94's South by Southwest when he heard her "This Kind Of Love" on KNACK's Homegroan sampler. Signing her nearly a year later and declaring Hentges the first rock artist on a label almost entirely dedicated to dance and hip-hop, Robbins later rejected the John Coslin-produced tapes she gave him in October of 1996.

Back at the drawing board last April, Robbins and Hentges finally settled on Fountains of Wayne guitarist Adam Schlesinger to give the album another go. Touring in support of his own record as well as recording his side project Ivy for Atlantic, Schlesinger managed to record three individual sessions, spread throughout last year in four-song chunks. Although the album still needs to be mixed and mastered, Robbins says the process should be complete by March in time for the album to see June or July release.

"Meg's been very patient," says Robbins of the artist behind what is still his label's maiden rock & roll release. "But I know she considered Adam worth the wait. The result is a record we can not only bring to alternative radio, but also a record that has very mainstream crossover potential. Now, our job is just to get it to radio and retail, which if we're right and this record's as good as we think it is, ought to prove itself also worth the wait."

Monte Warden says he too believes being held back for the Class of '98 will prove worth the wait, and he takes full responsibility for the delay. "The fact is that I felt I had better songs and everyone else agreed," says Warden of an album that is now due in August or September.

After a pair of albums for Watermelon, Warden signed to River North, a Polygram imprint with Chicago and Nashville offices, in 1996. By last year, Warden and River North's A&R chief, Joe Thomas, had produced an album they planned for a summer 1997 release. When Warden suddenly got divorced, he naturally ended up writing a whole batch of new songs that he calls his most "inspired" songwriting yet. After cutting those tunes, and replacing songs mined by Ricochet, Billy Ray Cyrus, and LeAnn Rhimes, Warden says that only three of the original album's tracks made it onto the new album's final sequence.

"It was my call," says Warden, who's currently spending most of his pre-release time on a radio tour full of meet 'n' greets and industry showcases. "And loosing those songs to other artists can only help. At this point, everyone's selling more records than I am, and if - Lord willing - one's a hit, everything's going to be that much easier when we go to radio with my stuff; able to tell 'em they're already playing my music."

Houston native and Austin transplant David Rice already has a song at AAA radio, "Father," the first track from his Columbia debut, greenelectric. That album, two years in the making and due February 24, features tracks from sessions in Fredericksburg with locals like Rafeal Goyel and Michael Ramos, and work at Peter Gabriel's Real World studios in England, where Austinites such as Chris Searles and Will Taylor played alongside Gabriel's guitarist, David Rhodes, King Crimson's Trey Gunn, and Page/Plant alumni Nigel Eaton and Charlie Jones.

Like Warden, Rice says most of the delays came from his end as he opted to switch management and recut parts of the album after he returned from England. In the meantime, Columbia developed a marketing plan that has already brought a single to AAA radio well before the album's release, and includes full promotional launches in February at the Gavin convention and at SXSW in March.

Bruce and Charlie Robison plan to use SXSW showcases to bring attention not only to themselves, but also to their fledgling label, Lucky Dog, a Sony imprint that's using the two brothers' albums as its maiden run at the alternative country market. A reissue of Bruce Robison's previously self-released Wrapped is up first, due in April, with a single - most likely "Angry All the Time" - going to Americana radio in February. Sony's new database of tertiary radio markets - 1,500 stations that have shown a propensity to play country music outside the Top 40 - should help this endeavor. On his end, Robison will be adding a pair of new tracks to the album and spending almost a year on the road in support.

"The advantage of bringing them a record already finished is that they know what I'm about," says Robison. "The freedom comes from that they liked what I was doing already. Plus, I think I've been careful to set some obtainable goals - keeping my debt low, making cheap records, touring, and just selling more every time I put one out."

Charlie Robison says he signed to Lucky Dog recently in part because he has goals similar to his brother. Lloyd Maines will co-produce an album tentatively titled Life of the Party, a song-cycle that Warner Bros. found too strange and depressing when he submitted several of its songs to their Nashville office last year.

"At Warner, it was the same old story," says Robison. "They wanted more commercial stuff, and if you don't want to play ball, the radio department tells them they don't feel like they can do anything and the deal's off."

Just like his brother, Charlie says he isn't putting too much pressure on Lucky Dog to make him a big country music star overnight. "If they'll get it in stores, that's all I care about," says Robison, who hopes to finish the album in time for an early summer release. "A lot of people look for a bunch of video and promotion dollars, but this isn't music you can stuff down people's throats. Folks just have to warm up to it themselves. If I go out and play, I won't have to depend on a label just because I'm in debt to them and looking to them to keep my career afloat. I won't be out wasting a lot of their money."

The Class of '98's oldest freshman, Don Walser, also says that he isn't looking for big budgets and high debt, just that his new Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In reaches more retail shelves than his previous Watermelon efforts. "I still get lots of calls from people that try and find my stuff and can't," says Walser, who's happy that Watermelon's new partnership with Sire means WEA's distribution arm now works for him. (In contrast, Damon Bramblett's Watermelon debut, very tentatively due in late summer, will instead utilize Sire's smaller distribution arm, ADA, reserved for developing artists.)

Distribution aside, Walser's new album is without question the local country icon's most diverse offering yet. Not only does it track a rockabilly tune and two duets each with Larry Gatlin and Mandy Barnett, it also features guest appearances from Ray Benson and the Kronos Quartet - plus a pair of songs Walser calls "soft rock." Soft rock? Why not? Since country radio isn't supporting Walser's traditional type of country, the sixtysomething musician says he feels there's actually more freedom than ever to push the envelope and chase goals outside of radio.

"Sooner or later, radio's going to come back to embrace my kind of stuff," says Walser, who has songs featured in two upcoming films, The Horse Whisper and Hi-Lo Country. "I've been all over the country for the last three years and this is the kind of music people tell me they want to hear. They have nothing good to say about the other kind of country. I'm not that worried."

Twice Around the Block

Don Walser may not be that concerned about airplay this time around, but the bulk of the returning sophomores from the Class of '96 say that their experiences with major label debuts taught them the hard way that radio is everything. Without it, finding management, getting retail, press, and tour support gets incrementally harder. In fact, 1996's sole success story, that of the Butthole Surfers, was almost entirely based on radio.

After 15 years and 12 albums, the first single issued off Electric Larryland, "Pepper," undeniably changed everything for Austin's post-punk godfathers. Single-handedly pushing their 1997 release towards gold sales status (500,000 units sold), "Pepper" was a monster hit, and one the band failed to follow up, which ultimately hurt the album's chances of further sales - even, some say, derailing a theatre tour designed to capitalize on the success of "Pepper." A year later, the Buttholes go into 1998 with a new album awaiting an April release date. And while the as-yet-untitled album will be the band's third for Capitol, having to capitalize on the success of Electric Larryland technically designates it as a sophomore release.

"If there were any mistakes with the promotion of the last record, we've all learned from them," says Sandy Epps of Houston's TAB management, which handles the Surfers. "We'll definitely take steps to make sure all of our efforts are orchestrated and timed better from the outset."

Most likely to succeed: David Garza
photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

That's the same approach Hollywood Records A&R rep Rob Seidenberg says he has planned for Fastball's second album, All the Pain Money Can Buy, which is due March 10. For Make Your Momma Proud, the band's major label bow in 1996, Hollywood waited for a live buzz to develop before shipping a single to radio. Today, Seidenberg admits their strategy was a bit off as Fastball's successful tour with Matthew Sweet, in addition to a well-received track on the Lounge-A-Palooza compilation, may have occurred too late in Hollywood's marketing and radio promotion cycle to impact the album's sales. This time, a single, "The Way," is already at alternative radio, with a video on the way as well.

"It's not some mysterious science," says Seidenberg. "It's essential that radio and video is made aware of this band, because it's getting harder and harder to actually cultivate a grassroots, solid, and loyal following through touring without video and radio. In that sense, the focus has been reversed in that now we want to secure radio and video and then go out and support it with a tour."

In a slightly different manner, Storyville's manager Mark Proct says his band hopes to promote its as-yet-untitled second album with a simultaneous push on the road and at radio. Storyville's 1996 Atlantic/Code Blue debut, A Piece of Your Soul, sold close to 100,000 units and sustained nearly constant AOR radio play throughout most of '96 and the first half of 1997. This time around, says Proct, expectations at the label and from the band are much higher.

"Artistically, I think they've stepped it up a bit," says Proct. "With the first one, we accomplished a lot in terms of establishing ourselves at AAA and AOR radio and on tour. This time, we're going to be sure that the single's out at the same time retail's pushing for end-aisle placement at record stores. Last time, every department at Atlantic got excited and worked hard, but at different times. This time, the key - outside of the quality of the record itself - will be the timing and coordination at retail, on the road, and at radio."

"Radio is going to be our friend, too," says the Ugly Americans' Bruce Hughes. "I have to tell myself that every day." Although Hughes' band will tour in support of Boom Boom Baby, their second album for Capricorn, the local bass player says he and the label believe the Ugly Americans may have laid a solid enough foundation with the first album - on the road and at radio - to find success at alternative radio with Boom Boom Baby's title track.

"We're an older band now, with more developed songwriters," says Hughes. "It's not Southern rock. It's not Austin rock. It's something else. But it's definitely a groove record, and a dense record that radio's going to be able to dig into and find songs from." That could happen as early as May 10, when the album, produced by Hughes and T Ray (House Of Pain, Helmet) and mixed by Jack Joseph Puig (the Black Crowes, Weezer), is released.

Although spoken-word meister/Asylum Street Spanker Wammo says what's tentatively being titled either Faster Than the Speed of Suck or Monkey Semen, Monkey Doodoo, his second album for Mercury's Mouth Almighty imprint, will be a concept album, he nonetheless maintains staunchly that he, too, has plans to release an album with more radio potential.

"This one will be very, very different from the last one," says Wammo, currently in the studio with local producer Brian Beattie. "It's going to have more songs, more musical diversity, more commentary, and more satire, but it's also going to be much more accessible to the mainstream without being a mainstream record. In fact, it's so cynical towards the mainstream that it's mainstream accessible. Either way, the concept lends itself to producing singles very easily."

In every class, there are always a couple of students who won't share their homework or let you look over their shoulders at their tests. In this class, it's Wammo because he won't reveal the concept of his concept album, and Craig Ross and Spoon, because they won't confirm exactly who will release their sophomore albums.

In 1996, MCA put out Ross' major label debut, Dead Spy Report, and if lack of promotion and label interest made noise, Dead Spy Report would have been the soundtrack. Nevertheless, last October found the label mailing advance copies of Report's follow-up, Everland, to national press. Around that same time, Ross asked MCA for permission to look elsewhere for a deal. And although Ross doesn't deny reports of his negotiations with Sire, at press time a deal hasn't been worked out. As hesitant as he is to discuss his new album's potential home, Ross still says he expects a spring or summer release for Everland.

"I just hope people get a chance to hear it," says Ross, "because in a way it's my first record. Artistically, it feels like my 10th, but from a marketing side, the truth is that whoever releases this is going to have to start from square one in terms of helping me develop a fanbase. At the same time, whoever releases this record will know exactly what they're getting, love what they're getting, and be that much more motivated to help."

Spoon also has an album ready for release, co-produced by the band's Britt Daniel with John Croslin, but Daniel is hesitant to confirm reports that his group has left Matador for Elektra until pen hits paper. In the meantime, he'll only say, "It wasn't an easy thing to not be working with Matador again." After making 1996's Telephono and last year's The Soft Effects EP for Matador, Daniel says he's fully aware that jumping to a major label means more pressure.

"I'd continue to be surprised if we go on to sell a million records or get all over radio," says Daniel, "but a major label is a bigger machine that we will have at our disposal. And by now, we know we'll have to show them we're willing to be an equal partner. Not in having to make creative concessions, but in showing we're willing to make this record happen at the largest scale possible."

Welcome Back, Welcome Back

Because Jimmie Vaughan will technically be releasing only his second solo album this year, for the sake of the Class of '98 analogy Vaughan technically belongs in the sophomore class. Better yet, he stands grouped with a couple of other veteran guitar players making returns to the marketplace this year, Eric Johnson and Ian Moore. Either way, it's hard to argue with the assessment of Vaughan's manager, Mark Proct: "Jimmie Vaughan is Jimmie Vaughan, a unique artist."

Vaughan's still untitled follow-up to 1995's Strange Pleasure is complete and due on Epic in May. With a pair of songs co-written by Dr. John and Paul Ray, plus a Nile Rogers cover, Proct says he believes the album showcases Vaughan at a point in his solo career where he's choosing the right material and where roadwork has evidently toughened his voice. Proct also asserts that in the time since Vaughan's last release, radio has actually evolved in his direction. "With the last record, AAA was just beginning," says Proct. "While there were maybe just a dozen stations to target last time, there are now maybe 40 in larger markets that embrace Jimmie. Triple A's evolution can only benefit Jimmie."

The growth of the AAA format (best known locally as KGSR) may also help Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, both of whom have albums slated for 1998. Although Ely's Twisting In The Wind, due from MCA in May, is reportedly his most rock-oriented album in some years, reports from MCA's radio department indicate they'll likely try a AAA push first. Details on Gilmore's follow-up to '96's Braver Newer World are even sketchier, but advance word has it that it too should be released by Elektra before summer.

Because Ian Moore's latest set still hasn't been titled or sequenced, Moore's manager, Jan Mirkin, says she isn't ready to begin guessing what direction the Capricorn radio department is headed, except to indicate that the album includes rock tracks, ballads, and a selection of mid-tempo tunes - leaving one to assume they're targeting AOR, AAA, and all points in between. What Mirkin will say is that Moore will be touring before and after the album comes out, with plans to showcase at SXSW for the Capricorn brass and a potential tour with Tito & Tarantula closer to summer.

The most information about albums hailing from veteran local artists is available on the two artists with the loosest of release schedules - Kelly Willis and the Sexton Sextet. Despite rave reviews garnered by her 1996 EP, Fading Fast (A&M), Willis says that because she had some trouble finding a new label she opted to start and finish her new album on her own - in both San Francisco and Austin, with funding from Rough Trade UK's Jeff Travis. And while it's somewhat unclear whether Warner Bros. has right of first domestic refusal, because of Travis' European deal, Willis nonetheless believes she'll have a significantly easier time shopping for a deal now that the album is done.

"Before, I just wasn't able to find anybody with the resources I felt I needed willing to take a risk on me," says Willis, who co-wrote half the album and admits it heads further into the alternative country direction than her previous Nashville-courting releases on MCA. "I didn't want to sign just to sign, or take what would amount to a step back. By recording myself, I didn't have to explain or promise what it would be like. So now, whoever likes it, likes it."

Jim Phalen, the A&R rep that brought Patti Griffin to A&M, says he's known and liked the Sextons for 15 years. Phalen says he was quick to enter into negotiations with Tim Neece, the Sextons' manager, after Neece invited him to see the brothers' SXSW showcase last year. Now, the Sextons are due in the studio by summer to record their debut. But can a Sexton album, in any configuration, be considered a debut?

"I believe it's most certainly a debut," Phalen says. "I think what originally attracted me to this was how the sum of Will and Charlie's contributions are so much greater than their individual efforts. They complement each other vocally, as songwriters, and onstage. I see this as a new situation that nobody's tried before. And although they each bring a great deal of depth and what I call `point of view,' I don't see any of their pasts necessarily musically influencing what happens here."

Collectively, on paper, Austin Music Class of '98 is not only larger than those before, it also evinces much stronger potential. Indeed, no Austin class has ever started its year with plans for albums from so many immediately recognizable names. Sure, by the end of the year talk of the "Austin Curse" is bound to surface, but what does it say about the Class of '98 that so many of its artists have already experienced the "Curse's" sales plague firsthand and now seem poised to return to the marketplace as if unscathed.

After school special: Don Walser and Meg Hentges

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

While it's definitely too early in the year to say which, if any, of this year's class roster will end 1998 on radio, MTV, or simply high on a critic's Top Ten, at this time last year, few could have guessed Kacy Crowley would become the darling of SXSW and release her Atlantic debut by year's end. Even now, nobody knows if new singles just reaching radio from Crowley, Abra Moore, the Derailers, or Chris Duarte may not just become the Austin music story that overshadows the Class of '98's achievements and disappointments.

It's also far too early to close the Class of '98's registry. Naturally, there will be some who, like last year's freshmen, fall out of the Class of '98 and push their efforts back into 1999. Just the same, there are also several artists that seem likely enough to become late entries into the Class of '98, including Pushmonkey (Arista) and 81/2 Souvenirs (RCA). To be fair and add independent labels to the Class roster, Trance Syndicate alone will offer four more local names by May: Paul Newman, Trail of Dead, Furry Things, and Monroe Mustang. Meanwhile, artists like Anna Egge, Trish Murphy, the Damnations, Breedlove, El Flaco, Reckless Kelly, the Wannabes, Kris McKay, Jon Dee Graham, Billy Harvey, and the Gourds are actively shopping for deals of their own.

Yet even with all these artist names, multi-national labels, marketing plans and radio dreams, very little is guaranteed other than the fact that more Austin albums will hit store shelves in 1998 than ever before. For three years in these "Class of" pieces, Craig Ross has repeated a mantra: "I just want to make records and tour." This year, almost every artist in this piece echoed those sentiments. Wisely, most seem to have entered into deals or made albums that should facilitate them meeting at least that goal's minimum standards. Perhaps the rest, as Ross has also been known to say, "is just a crapshoot."

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