By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"I remember sitting and watching MTV when they were doing the college-chart countdown," Slutes says, switching to a clipped, "Downtown" Julie Brown-style British accent. "At No. 6, the Cult; at No. 5, the Sidewinders; at No. 4, the Cure.' I'm thinking, the Cult and the Cure, not bad."
The problem was that RCA was entering a slide that has made it the worst-run of the six major labels. In a nutshell, the label gave up promoting the album too soon. Although then-RCA president Bob Buziak liked the band--he called Hopkins "Richie"--the relationship began to sour when Witchdoctor stalled at No. 5. Convinced a second record would help, RCA ponied up $50,000. Auntie Ramos' Pool Hall was released in May 1990. A single from that disc, "We Don't Do That Anymore," got steady airplay. Representatives of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign wanted to use the song as background for a TV commercial. The band declined.
Again, the songwriting and playing continued to improve. Again, that album made it to No. 5 on the college charts before falling off. And again, RCA failed to promote it with much zest. Before Auntie Ramos was released, the band finally acquired professional management in the person of Alex Hodges, who was also Stevie Ray Vaughan's manager. But Hodges soon got into a dispute with the record label, and the band had to let him go.
Enter Mike Lembo. Owner of New York-based Mike's Artist Management, Lembo has a singular modus operandi: Attack. It's not surprising that he and Hopkins regularly have verbal slugfests. But he was what the band needed.
"The first thing he did," Slutes says, "was storm into RCA's headquarters and say, 'I'm takin' this band outta here. RCA stands for "Record Cemetery of America." We're outta here.'"
Lembo then cut a deal with Ensign, Chrysalis Records' exclusive custom label and home at that time to acts like Sin‚ad O'Connor, Blue Aeroplanes, the Waterboys and World Party.
In the summer of 1991, the band spent nine weeks in Los Angeles, making its third record. With a budget around $250,000, it was going to be the one that put the group over the top.
Unfortunately, no sooner was the album finished than Chrysalis, of which Ensign was a part, was sold to another company, EMI. The new owners decided they didn't like the Sand Rubies' album, and its release date was canceled. The entire project plunged into limbo. By the summer of 1992, Hopkins and Slutes were ready to hang it up. "There were a lot of dark moments when we'd look at each other and say, 'That's it,'" Slutes says. "But something would always draw us back."
"It's been seven years," Hopkins adds. "It always came down to it being important to stay together and see this record through."
Last summer the band got its first good news in a year. PolyGram, one of the world's six major record labels, created a custom alternative label, Atlas Records, whose president, Nick Gatfield, was a friend of Lembo. Gatfield decided Sand Rubies would be the label's first release.
In its January 16, 1993, issue, Billboard magazine described the new album as "a modern rock opus" featuring "pungent yet melodic guitar workouts." The "lost" album has a champion pedigree. It was produced by Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, longtime studio ace Waddy Wachtel, Neil Young producer David Briggs, Larry Hirsch and the team of Slutes and Hopkins. It also contains "Interstate," a previously unrecorded Neil Young song, given to the band with Young's blessing. And because $250,000 buys a lot of production value, it sounds superb.
Sand Rubies was recorded in eight different studios in L.A., including Campbell's house, site of Traveling Wilburys sessions. (Campbell unnerved Slutes by noting that Roy Orbison's saliva might still be on his microphone.)
Mixed in England, the finished master tape contained 22 songs. Ensign, the band and Lembo cut it to the 11 songs that are on the finished album. For some reason, the outstanding pop tune "Paper Thin Line" and the murky rocker "Primeval Love" didn't make the cut. Although there were five different producers of record--a prescription for a wildly uneven record--Sand Rubies turned out to be a coherent mix of power pop, loud rockers and meandering, feedback ballads.
That's not to say that the all-star lineup of producers hasn't put its stamp on the album. Wachtel gave tunes like "Your Life Story" a pop veneer. The Briggs-produced cuts, like "Drugged," have a raw, live feel. Most surprising of all, though, is "Guns in the Churchyard," the single Mike Campbell-produced tune that survived the cut. Hearing the Sand Rubies become the Heartbreakers, complete with strummed Rickenbackers, is a shock.
"Briggs was the most exciting person I've ever worked with," Hopkins says. "He got off the plane in L.A. and said, 'I've just come down from the ranch and Neil says you can do one or two of his songs.' We only did one, 'Interstate,' because we didn't have enough time. Neil's done it, in a bluegrass style, with his country band, International Harvesters, but he never recorded it. "I was always hoping Neil Young would call us up and say, 'Good job,' but it didn't happen."
Until this album, the Sand Rubies have been one drop in the sea of guitar-band music that's all lumped under the overworked heading "alternative." The new album is more mainstream. Tunes like "Santa Maria Street" have a bigger, hard-rock sound that AOR (album-oriented rock) radio may fancy. At least that's what the band's management and record label are hoping.