Up in Smoke

Dead Hot guitarist quits, but band plans to persevere

Only a nascent Valleyite like myself, with a mere two weeks in Arizona under his belt, would be unfamiliar with the impact Dead Hot Workshop has exerted on the local music scene over the past decade.

All but the grievously uninitiated--like me--could tell you that this quartet has provided one of the few connections between the power-pop era of the Gin Blossoms, the party-rock reign of the Refreshments and the jigsaw puzzle of wild eclecticism that is the current Tempe music scene. They've offered high spirits and continuity in a world where few bands last long enough to blow out the candles on their first anniversary cake.

But the price for such commitment is the inevitable self-doubt that grows with the years of battling music-biz obstacles. Music is too often mistakenly viewed as the sole province of youth, and musicians approaching 30 often begin to worry that their creative clock is ticking. It's what Dead Hot guitarist Brent Babb refers to as the "Am I too old to be playing in clubs?" question.

It's a question that band guitarist Steve Larson apparently confronted a couple of months ago when he decided to leave Dead Hot Workshop after nine years of local acclaim--including New Times' Best Alternative Rock Band awards--but national frustration. Larson played his last gig with the band at Gibson's on Saturday, June 28, punctuating the enormity of the moment by pulling a Hendrix-at-Monterey--setting fire to his electric guitar at the crescendo of the final song. Three days after the gig, Larson headed off to the outskirts of Seattle for what may or may not be a temporary stay.

Meanwhile, bassist Brian Scott has joined an as-yet-unnamed new combo with ex-Gin Blossoms singer Robin Wilson. While none of these events necessarily threatens the future of Dead Hot Workshop, they do raise questions about what shape that future might take.

"Let's just say we're going through some personnel changes," Babb says after playing a fine acoustic set Wednesday at Long Wong's. "We're looking around for other guitar players. We can't quit. I wouldn't know what else to do."

Babb says Larson's departure had nothing to do with personal or musical differences, and everything to do with unfulfilled career expectations.

"We're still friends," Babb says. "He just said, 'I don't want to be doing this anymore.' He's disappointed that we didn't become famous and all that crap. I mean, as far as I'm concerned, it'd be nice to pay the rent, but that's about it."

At one time, fame probably seemed a decent bet for the band, which met at the legendary Sun Club--drummer Curtis Grippe booked there at the time--and soon dominated the music scene along with the Gin Blossoms. Their loopy wit, found in songs like "Burger Christ" and "Sodomizing Hussein," became a trademark of the Tempe scene. Two self-produced releases, and innumerable opening slots for national acts, caught major-label attention.

In 1994, they signed with Seed Records, a new affiliate of Atlantic Records that Babb accurately brands "a fake indie label." An EP on Seed was quickly followed by a full-length CD, 1001, but by this time the label had re-formed into TAG Records, and the band's support system had disappeared.

"From the time we got signed, it just went downhill from there," Babb recalls. "Everybody at the label got fired. We were some of the first employees and some of the last employees there. It took us a long time to get out from under that contract."

Even with a recording career in some disarray, Dead Hot got considerable radio exposure in the last year via the Refreshments' lyrical tribute to the band in the song "Down Together": "We could all wear ripped-up clothes and pretend that we're Dead Hot Workshop."

Currently, Babb would prefer to pretend that the industry doesn't exist, and that his band can concentrate on playing music for the purest of reasons.

"Everyone's in such a hurry to be a success, and I'd rather just live," Babb says, with just a hint of exasperation. "I'd be happier if we could afford to make our own records and just play. And if people wanted to buy them, they could."

Babb says label interest in the band has waned since the TAG debacle. "No one's really interested right now," he says. "'Cause we don't really shop anything. That's how I like it. But we have arguments about that all the time."

For the time being, Dead Hot will perform as a three-piece and scout for a new guitarist. If the band survives this period of transition, local-music fans might just be able to go into the next millennium wearing ripped-up jeans and pretending to be Dead Hot Workshop.

Hans Across the Water
Local blues institution Hans Olson planned to celebrate his 45th birthday on July 3 by playing the Phoenix Art Museum Concert. Instead, he spent it laid up in bed, recuperating from a severe boating accident that caused him to break beaucoup bones in his left ankle.

While boating with friends on Saguaro Lake on June 25, Olson was thrown into the dashboard when the boat hit a submerged rock. Olson--who has six pins in the ankle--planned on seeing the doctor Monday, July 7, and says he doesn't know when he'll be able to perform again. "As long as I stay in bed, I'm all right," Olson says with a laugh.

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