Rock and a Hard Place
Twenty Dollar Vibe
While we watched all our other friends slowly progress into the adult world, there were times we sat around asking, `Shit, what do we have to show for ourselves?'" says Brady Hughes of some of the darker days he and Erik Larson spent at the helm of Johnny Law. "Living in a toolshed will break your spirit a little bit, that's for sure." That toolshed may serve the role of punchline, but it's no joke. After Hughes and Larson returned to Austin two years ago from what they now term an "ill-conceived" sabbatical in Atlanta, they did indeed find themselves living in separate, but equally unpleasant, local toolsheds. In fact, Larson even had a roommate to go with his toolshed.
That was 1996, and despite their temporary living conditions and subsequently gloomy conversations, Larson and Hughes still insist that Johnny Law's comeback always seemed more viable than their breakup. "You can believe it or not, but we never even came close to quitting," says Larson. "We've had our ups and downs like anybody else, but we never had to question whether to continue or not. That said, it's taken a long time to get back to feeling okay."
Independence Day is the primary reason Larson says he's feeling alright. Released last week, the album marks only the duo's second recording in eight years and the first under a new moniker, Twenty Dollar Vibe. And though much of the album's lyrical focus is very much rooted in the frustration of their shaky Austin/Atlanta/Austin transition, it's nonetheless a project Larson deserves to be hopeful about.
First, there are the songs, material with raw hooks and emotional depth far better developed than the tunes on Johnny Law, the band's 1991 debut for Metal Blade. Independence Day also unveils a new rhythm section, bassist Dave Ray and drummer Alan Reizner. Considering Larson and Brady's failure to find a reliable rhythm section was the main reason they moved to Atlanta - and then back again (empty-handed) - that the two now consider Ray and Reizner essential to the band adds a subtle air of confidence to Independence Day.
Then there are the all-star cameos, from Champ Hood and Ian Moore to Bukka Allen and Independence Day's producer, ex-Georgia Satellite Dan Baird. Yet for all the well-intentioned lip service Larson and Hughes pay to their new bandmates and their host of guest stars, Independence Day is still best served by Larson and Hughes themselves.
"Our bond is two-fold," explains Larson. "First, we're friends that happen to work well together and have since childhood. Secondly, neither of us is sure anybody else would have us. And even if they would, we've worked on this partnership so long that it would be insanity to give it up for some other project that would probably just fall apart and leave us with nothing."
Larson and Hughes' bond stretches back into their El Paso childhoods, where the pair shared air-guitar and lip-sync duties for their entry into the fifth-grade talent shows. A few years later, in 1982, the pair launched their first real band, the Colours. "We were so into the British thing that we thought spelling it with a `U' would make us cool and credible," laughs Hughes. "But we were also really into Neil Young so we'd freak out all the bikers at the seedy El Paso clubs we played. I'm not sure they knew what to make of a bunch of 17-year-olds running through `Ohio.'"
In 1985, the Colours graduated from high school and made their pilgrimage to Austin - their idea of Mecca, if only for Stevie Ray Vaughan. And with the experience of four or five nights a week at Joe's Generic under their belts, the Colours graduated again; this time to a residency at the Black Cat, where they later changed their name to Johnny Law.
Although they were plagued more by comparisons to the Black Crowes than Guns `N' Roses, Hughes sheepishly admits that the Gunners' rise was influential in changing Johnny Law's direction. "The heavier stuff was really popular, and we fell for it a bit," says Hughes. "But our favorite writers were always Elvis Costello and the Stones, so we had those influences tugging at us as well. But for better or worse, we did get heavier."
Heading into the Nineties, Johnny Law also became more popular locally. Not only did they fit Steamboat's guitar shop, they also met the Back Room's crunch requirements - giving them access to the Dangerous Toys and Pariah's large and loyal audiences. By 1990's South by Southwest, Chrysalis and Atlantic's Atco imprint had expressed interest in the local band. It was Metal Blade, however, and the appearance of the indie label's vice president Mike Faley at the band's showcase that became the night's focal point. Hearing the band's outdoor set at the World from the street, Faley ducked into Johnny Law's gig - one he had no plans to attend.
"Mike apparently heard us, and whipped a U-turn," says Larson. "And at that point in the set, we were playing our only cover, Alice Cooper's `Eighteen.' If he had heard one of our songs first, he probably would have kept on walking."
Maybe so, but Metal Blade's then recent distribution deal with Warner Bros., and the theory that a label then and still best known for their impeccable taste in death metal was looking for a commercially viable act to push through the new system, made their offer too good to turn down. Before long, Metal Blade sweetened the deal by agreeing to pitch in for producer Brendan O'Brien - a hot engineer who was allowed to freelance the Johnny Law job, despite his exclusive deal with Rick Rubin.
"They found us in March, got us Brendan, and had us recording in Atlanta by August," recalls Larson. "It was a shotgun debut and we were young and really unprepared. In retrospect, Brady and I would have looked at the situation more carefully. The songs didn't get a chance to develop or the attention they needed. We did the best we could, but it certainly didn't reflect the best we could have been at the time."
That said, Johnny Law was still an impressive debut, featuring a single penned by Baird, "Too Weak to Fight," a rousing cover of Ron Wood's "We All Get Old," and guest appearances by O'Brien admirers like Baird's band mate guitarist Rick Richards and Kansas' Steve Walsh. Yet after pushing back the album's release to avoid confusion with a Paul Rodgers project (the equally ill-fated Law), Johnny Law's debut got lost in a shuffle of Black Crowes comparisons that could have been avoided with an earlier release.
Meanwhile, after touring with Drivin' and Cryin' and Steve Morse, Johnny Law jumped ship for a coveted slot on the Gathering of the Tribes tour, a Lollapalooza forerunner that featured X, King's X, Steve Earle, KMFDM, and Primus. The entire 40-city tour was canceled after two dates.
"At the same time, the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson called us his favorite new band on the Howard Stern show," Larson says. "We thought we had everything made and just two weeks later we're back in Austin, without a tour or Metal Blade's support, to ponder our next decision - alone."
By 1994, well after severing ties with Metal Blade, the pondering continued - yielding a batch of new songs for a second album, but few labels interested in releasing them. "We were still into doing this, but without a record or a label, we knew that packing out the Steamboat every once in a while didn't mean shit," says Hughes. "And it got so frustrating that we both said we'd be damned if we were going to sit around and become complacent in Austin. We were itchy and nervous to get the hell out."
Atlanta wasn't much better. The rhythm section they planned on teaming up with didn't pan out and despite a series of shows as Peacemaker - again with Drivin' and Cryin' - Hughes and Larson never broke into Atlanta's insular music scene. "We moved there purely for musical reasons and we really couldn't seem to get things started," says Larson. "Meanwhile, relationships we had here in Austin were falling apart and I got in another relationship there only to have to turn around and come back. Believe me, I'd have rather gone to Tahiti than Atlanta if I knew that was going to happen. And yet, for as unfortunate as our situation was, we got some good material for this record. But all we really did was step away from one rut into another."
Indeed, the majority of Independence Day features songs written during Larson and Hughes' last year in Atlanta and first year back home. In fact, a loose neo-folk song appropriately titled "Austin Homesick Blues" is undeniably the album's centerpiece. The song's narrative is plainly an autobiographical metaphor, down to the name-drop: "At the end of the line there was nobody waiting for me, so I befriended a bottle of old Tennessee/ They cut me off and Johnny Law was waitin' outside, good God Almighty I should have never taken that ride."
Back in Austin, the future of Peacemaker or Johnny Law was less certain. Although the plan had been to record with Ray and Reizner under a new name, Hughes says they needed to bill gigs as Johnny Law just to raise money for the studio time. Dan Baird, who drove in from Atlanta to produce the summer sessions at Ben Blank Studios, actually came up with Twenty Dollar Vibe. Apparently, Ben Blank had the gear the band wanted, but not much in the way of atmosphere.
"The studio was really sterile," explains Larson, "so I was complaining about a lack of vibe. I suggested candles and we sent Dan to pick up 20 at Everything's a Dollar. He got back and said, `I just bought you a $20 vibe.'"
Aside from the name, Larson says Baird also brought some much-needed focus to the new project. Whereas Johnny Law often bordered on Southern boogie, Twenty Dollar Vibe has just as many Americana moments. "Americana? Southern rock? I guess we never see our music like other people do," Larson says. "There's apparently some kind of twang that we're probably too close to see."
However it's categorized or compared and contrasted to the Johnny Law debut, Independence Day wound up, according to Larson and Hughes, not only a more mature work than its predecessor, but also a far more personal set. "Because we took so much control and the songs are so much more closer emotionally, it feels like our first record," says Hughes. "And that's more personal, because if this was to do well it would grant us far more personal satisfaction. And after the blood, sweat, and tears, if people like the music, we'll be happy and fulfilled. Obviously we've never been in it to make money."
Money aside, it's still obvious Larson and Hughes won't be fully satisfied by Independence Day if it stays self-released. While the band is currently assembling management, booking, and distribution, Hughes and Larson are quick to point out that not only does Independence Day feel like a debut, but that Twenty Dollar Vibe ultimately feels more like a young and developing act than it does a vehicle for a Johnny Law comeback.
"Over the years, we've had to forsake a lot of things," says Larson. "And when you forsake everything and wind up back to making what feels like your first record, it can get trying. But also invaluable. We're much more appreciative of the clubs we play, the musicians that hang out, and have a better appreciation for the bridges we've built and the ones we kept intact. All this lets you cherish and appreciate the little things a lot more. I guess we've just been cursed and blessed all along the way."