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You're Dead Hot Workshop. You're a hometown hit in Tempe. The locals consider you the Valley's next prime music export. You've recently signed a major-label deal and you're starting out on an extended tour designed to introduce yourself to the great American masses.
That's you, a day and a half out of Phoenix, huddled and shivering in your broken-down van outside snowy Oklahoma City. That's you with your guitar player on crutches a couple of days later in Columbia, Missouri. And that's you being forcibly removed from the club where you've just opened your swing leading to an East Coast tour with a major headlining act.
Welcome to the road beyond Mill Avenue.
For the record, Dead Hot survived the van breakdown in OKC. But only after tour manager Jim Swafford wandered down the snow-blind interstate, thumbed a ride from a trucker and returned to what looked like a scene from the film Alive, with hungry, freezing band members eyeing each other in the van. Guitarist Steve Larson recovered from the badly sprained ankle he suffered two nights later while horsing around at the Blue Note Theater in Columbia. And the tour continued despite the band getting kicked out of its first gig supporting Blue Rodeo. The reason for the bum's rush at the Birchmere club in Virginia:
"The place was carpeted and somebody put a cigarette out on the floor," says singer/guitarist Brent Babb. He shakes his head. "The manager, stupid shit, wound up pouring a bottle of beer on it to put it out."
Dead Hot's recent road adventures are being laughed at, waved off and otherwise considered at the house Babb and drummer Curtis Grippe share in the back of an auto-parts store in Tempe. It's a late-spring day, warm with sharp sunlight, but inside the house, things are smoky and cramped. The band's practice space is crowded with drums and assorted equipment stacked next to a pair of utility-vehicle bench seats that serve as an ersatz sofa/love seat pairing. The walls are decorated with everything from portraits of Christ to pictures of Kiss.
Babb and Grippe look sleepy. Even more so than usual. They played at Hollywood Alley the previous night. The show was a typical Dead Hot affair. Babb, the front man, was decked out in his usual slacker-ready wardrobe of untucked flannel shirt, backward baseball cap and torn jeans, his scrawny image howling angst-riddled songs. Larson was alongside, cranking out ragged chords and solos with little apparent emotion behind the hair that hides his face. Bassist G. Brian Scott, Dead Hot's most visual member, altered his usual "pilgirm" look of knickers and tights for a simple tights 'n' tee shirt ensemble. And Grippe, hulking and ponytailed, anchored the band's look and sound with a controlled, steady aggression.
The show was well-attended, with some new faces sprinkled in among the usual Dead Hot attendees. Afterward, the band hung out with friends until well after dawn. Babb and Grippe now look like they got all of 15 minutes' sleep as they wander out for a 3 p.m. interview. As if on cue, the phone starts to ring. Various friends and visitors begin stopping by. The band's been home for a few weeks, and it's heading back for another tour in a few days. Babb, for one, can't wait.
"Between the door and the phone and the gigs, I haven't had time to do anything," he says, his pointed facial features assuming a look of resignation.
"It's relaxing to be on the road," adds Grippe. He's leaning forward, elbows on knees, his eyes fixed on the floor. "You've got just one thing to do every day, and that's all you have to do."
"Plus," says Babb, "you get to meet people and make friends--and then split."
Dead Hot may grouse about hometown social responsibilities, but it's a dance card the band passed around itself. Dead Hot Workshop shows have become social events, especially in Tempe. A line of locals wrapped around Gibson's for the band's return engagement from the road. Yet two weeks later, the turnout was exceedingly modest for a show at the Mason Jar, an apparent world away in Phoenix. Such is the insular nature of the Mill Avenue biosphere.
"It's the same with any popular local band," says Babb. "You go because you know all your friends are going to be there. At the bars around here, it doesn't even matter who's playing. You just go to a place like Wong's because you know who you're going to run into."
That kind of ritual can lead to laziness from both a band and its audience. Babb says it's "annoying as hell" to hear bar talk and chatter when the band's performing, though he says he'll sometimes eavesdrop from the stage if he hears a particularly interesting conversation between songs. As for Dead Hot's taking its flock for granted, Grippe says he couldn't be blas‚ if he tried.
"I'm nervous to death if there's anyone out there," he says. "If there's only two people there, it's even worse."
Dead Hot's first-ever show was in front of a passing crowd in the parking lot of the 6 East bar across from Long Wong's in Tempe. It was 1987, and Dead Hot was one of the many side shows during one of Tempe's biannual arts fairs. Babb and Larson had played together in a band called Instant Karma, and Scott (then known as Brian Griffith) came over from the trippy Acid on Ann. After a couple of years, Dead Hot's original drummer left the band to join a Buddhist monastery. (He's since traveled through much of China, and still keeps in touch.) Grippe, who'd been drumming for Strangelove, eventually signed on in 1990.