In the half-dozen-odd years since the germs of what would become Dexter Freebish first began coming together, the members of the group have gone pretty much nowhere. At least geographically speaking.
Relaxing in the air-conditioned comfort of a freshly refurbished tour bus parked outside the new Sixth Street "big event" club The Metro, hours away from the record release for their new Capitol Records debut A Life of Saturdays, I remind guitarist Scott Romig and single-named vocalist Kyle that we're speaking some three blocks from a now-long-gone little dive called Pop's, the local burger joint where familial ties netted the young, inexperienced band a place to gig. Kyle blinks unbelievingly, and turns to look up the street.
"Wow, you're right. I hadn't even thought about that," he replies distantly.
Given the frantic pace at which the band has been rushing about all day, it's not surprising the notion escapes him. The distance they've covered physically may be barely measurable, but at 7:15pm, Friday, Sept. 29, 2000, they're worlds away from the first night they performed to a crowd of friends and curious Sixth Street onlookers.
As they prepare to breathe life into A Life of Saturdays, an album of songs reveling wide-eyed at the passage of time through the eyes of young America, they've already spent much of the day rushing from radio station to radio station, taking time out for some print interviews and a sound check. Of Freebish's five members, only Kyle and Romig have managed to squeeze in a few minutes in the back of the bus with me -- two-fifths of a band heard by a number of musical superstars who voted the group's song "Leaving Town" No. 1 in a contest named after one-fourth of the greatest pop band of all time, the Beatles.
Backtracking a bit, the group's origins are typical of most Austin pop/rock acts. Kyle says he answered an ad in the paper placed by Romig and bassist Chris Lowe, though their first meeting did little but hold up the band's formation.
"Chris and I started doing an acoustic thing, actually," says Kyle. "Scott started doing his own thing. We stayed friends through it all, though -- there were never any hard feelings. Then we started doing the acoustic thing down at Pop's place."
Under the name the Twigs, the group began searching for an identity, a chemistry -- and a catchier name. Kyle recalls the band's first gig as Dexter Freebish -- taken from a now-disassembled roller coaster at Houston's Astroworld -- as himself, Lowe, guitarist Charles Martin, and a drummer no longer with the band performed at the Acropolis, current site of the Austin Music Hall.
"There was a battle of the bands going on," he reminisces. "It was funny, we got offstage and we were like, 'We rocked, man -- we're gonna win this thing!' and of course we didn't even make it past that round. Of course, now we look back at the videotape, and we're like 'What were we thinking?!'"
He and Romig both share a long laugh over the memory, even as I suggest they best keep the tape hidden from the prying producers of VH1's Before They Were Rock Stars.
Whatever Dexter Freebish were thinking in 1995 as they performed, recorded, and produced their self-titled debut, it's certainly a far cry from what the band thinks and records now. At the time, this reviewer described the local release as "shamelessly positive, pre-grunge pop, clean of tone both in the lyrical and guitar senses, with an occasional dollop of proggy dissonance thrown in," adding that there was "nothing really new here, just a middle ground between Eighties-radio New Wave and Austin New Sincerity." For his part, Kyle can barely count the band's myriad style changes on two hands.
"We went from a down-the-street acoustic thing to a little more rock," he explains. "Then we went heavy. Now we've found the medium where we like where we're at."
At the time, Kyle was playing guitar and looking ahead to a future playing gigs at local hangouts like Hondo's and Steamboat. Hondo's took a liking to the band, so Freebish continued garnering a modest following. It wasn't until Romig joined the band some 18 months ago, however, that Dexter Freebish found its identity. Searching for a way to rise to the next level, Kyle and Scott discovered that some of the material they'd been writing outside of the band was suited to the new lineup; "Leaving Town" was actually penned before Romig was even in the band.
"That freed me up to move around a little," explains Kyle. "[Romig's] come in and filled in the gap, songwriter-wise, and texturally. Live, we're not just all power chords any more, so adding Scott just really worked out well."
"A lot of bands in Austin are more jammy, more funky," adds Romig. "I dig that, but Dexter Freebish has always been more focused on songwriting."
According to the band, Freebish is more focused than the average Austin act in general.
"We've always had a vision that we could do this," insists Kyle. "There was an Arista demo deal we got denied on, then there was an Atlantic guy who said no, then Arista again, and then MCA. We pinned those on the wall of our rehearsal room, [notices reading] 'Sorry,' 'Not This Time,' 'We'll Keep You In Mind.' That was always the thing that pushed me more."
Ironically, it was that nibble from MCA in 1998 that led to the band's big break with Capital.
"We were in the middle of doing the demo deal with MCA," says Kyle. "We took that demo and entered it in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. Well, over time, the two things were still ongoing, and MCA said no. A month after that, we were in the Top 25 of the [contest's] pop category."
A friend of theirs in Dallas, meanwhile, met Capitol's Steve Schnur at a party in Nashville and said, 'Come out to the car, I want you to hear this song,' which he'd heard through the contest. Schnur liked "Leaving Town" enough that he jetted off to see the band the next day.
"Capitol signed us a week before South by Southwest 1999," Kyle remarks casually. "About a week before. They didn't want a huge bidding war on their hands."
Two months later, the band's original demo of "Leaving Town," financed by MCA, won the whole songwriting contest, being named Best Song out of all categories.
"MCA didn't think 'Leaving Town' was good enough," says Kyle incredulously. "Voted on by Elton John, John Popper, Wyclef Jean and being picked as song of the year -- that [A&R] guy's gotta be kicking himself right now!"
"Leaving Town" has yet to prove itself as a hit, though it's only been worked at rock radio for about a month. Capitol also began working it to pop radio two weeks ago, about the time the band finally got to make a video. In other words, what may seem like overnight success to an outsider is actually the culmination of slow, steady progress by five local musicians who have followed a strict "battle plan" that's finally beginning to produce successful results.
"The slow build is good, I think," says Kyle. "It helped us keep our heads on straight. We worked our crappy, crappy day jobs for so long while doing the band thing at night. We love our fans, and we'll come back, whether we have to pile in a van or drive this bus back down here ourselves."
Landing on a major label isn't the end of the story, naturally. In fact, there are those like Austin's Butthole Surfers who would probably give the Freebish boys a stern warning about Capitol Records. The Butts found themselves at war with the label in recent years, emerging from the battle without a follow-up to their hit "Pepper." The Freebish lads are aware of this history, but aren't especially worried about it.
"Capitol had just undergone a massive management changeover from the top down," Romig points out. "We were the first band signed under the new regime, so we weren't overly concerned about that."
For that very reason, the group considers signing to Capitol at the point they did a coup.
"They had just gotten the new people there," notes Kyle. "We thought, 'Okay, we're gonna be a priority!' That didn't mean that was gonna happen, but that's what we thought; that that might be a little bit of an edge for us -- all these people wanting to make a name for themselves. Capitol had been a little down, and we hoped that would be to our advantage."
Looking around at their brand-new bus -- signed over to the band just six hours before -- Kyle and Romig agree the plan has pretty much worked out just the way they hoped.
"We got a good deal on it," shrugs Kyle. "Capitol considers us a high priority and they've really backed us, so they were nice enough to do this for us."
On our way out, Kyle glances at the bunk and mattress about to become his own personal bedroom and lets one more little fact slip out -- the bus used to belong to Mötley Crüe.
"All that stuff's been cleaned out, of course," Scott adds quickly with a a nervous twitch. We all try our best not to let the mental pictures get the best of us.
As Saturday, Sept. 30, 2000 begins, the band's live performance in front of a packed house demonstrates that neither the Crüe nor their old bus have ruined a good thing. Dexter Freebish plays confidently, though later they reveal their exasperation with severe monitor troubles that plagued them throughout the set. There's no way to tell for sure how many in the crowd are longtime fans, or how many have been introduced to the band via A Life of Saturdays, but there's no shortage of mouths in the audience singing along.
The same goes for the girls in the T-shirt booth, one of whom says she doesn't get paid, but gladly works the booth in return for free admission. The band first spotted her at an out-of-town show, and noticed she was the only person out of some half-dozen in the audience who knew the words.
"They're the nicest guys in the world -- for rock stars," she smiles.
Whether they've graduated to the status of "rock stars" may still be in question, but they have managed to fill one of Austin's largest clubs, become labelmates with the Beatles, and won an award named after John Lennon. To top it off, just hours before our interview, Yoko Ono has invited the band to perform at the opening of a new wing in Lennon's honor at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. With their new LP produced by John Travis (Kid Rock, Sugar Ray, Social Distortion), and a claim that the album satisfactorily embodies their vision, rock stardom may be the only thing missing from this picture. Fortunately, the Metro crowd acts like that's just what Dexter Freebish are.
As the band launches into "Leaving Town," the audience cheers with abandon, the group relishing every second. When the "sing-a-long" portion of the song comes along, it's unforced, not a prerequisite pseudo-bonding "moment." It's joyous, almost comical; both band and crowd appear to be on the verge of laughing despite the seriousness of the lyrics:
But when you're broken down,
And there's no one else around,
You'll come running back to this town,
And I'll be there, I'll be there.
"It was inspired by a girl I went out with," Kyle had commented earlier. He and Romig "sat around and busted out the lyrics one night, but then the more we thought about it, it's something that, really, so many people -- girls and guys alike -- can relate to. Who hasn't thought like that? It's a universal theme."
Indeed it is, especially for the twentysomethings who largely comprise the band's audience. The band follows the song with a capable rendition of Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," but when they finish, it's still "Leaving Town" that's stuck in my head!
"You can say, 'I'm gonna leave town and I'm gonna make it!'" Romig notes, "but you may get there and be way more lonely than you were, or be worse off when you were here. You can always go back to where you were, that's the thing."
Some might argue with that sentiment, but Dexter Freebish have the right to argue their side. As far as whether it's true or not, someday, if they run out of ways to move forward, the band will find out. For now, that's the last thing on their minds, of course, because as bar time ushers in Saturday morning, the band settles in for one last good night's sleep in their life of Saturdays.
When they wake, the culmination of years of hard work comes to fruition with the beginning of their tour, first with Nine Days, then Sister Hazel. That's when Dexter Freebish, their brand-new bus, and their songs, hopes, and dreams, are truly leaving town at last.
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