Instant Karma

Veteran Tempe band Dead Hot Workshop stares down its own mortality with Karma Covered Apple

When guitarist Steve Larson celebrated his departure from Dead Hot Workshop last June by setting fire to his guitar at a Gibson's farewell gig, many assumed that the veteran Tempe band's future had likewise been reduced to a pile of smoldering ash.

After nine years of ups and downs, a screw job at the hands of the major-label big boys and signs of defection within the ranks, the members of Dead Hot Workshop could be forgiven if they decided enough was enough.

But drummer Curtis Grippe, long the driving force and chief motivator for this group, felt that a breakup would have been premature, that Dead Hot still had something to offer musically. So the band immediately plunged back into the local-club scene as a trio, with singer-guitarist Brent Babb ably adjusting to the new demands of a lead guitarist. And as strong, new material started emerging, Grippe pushed the band to get these songs on tape while they were still fresh, and enthusiasm was high.

"It takes so long to scrounge up the cash to pay for a recording, or in our case, it takes so long for the last one to pay itself off, I've always been hesitant to release a new one until we've paid the last one off," Grippe says. "So because of that, we always seem to be writing to catch up. We're playing new songs, then we release a record, and we're not even playing those songs anymore, since we're writing new stuff. So I said, 'We need to get this stuff out right now while we're playing it.'

"Steve had left the band, I was worried about morale, and to me, the only thing you do when times are hard is you put your nose to the ground and get to work."

The band settled into ex-Gin Blossom singer Robin Wilson's Mayberry studio in Tempe (Wilson and Dead Hot bassist Brian Scott are playing together in The Pharaohs). The project, which began with modest ambitions, sprouted into an 18-song collection which will be released later this month as Karma Covered Apple. Perhaps more than any other recording, this album captures the rough-edged dynamism of a Dead Hot show, with Babb's voice in fine, raspy form throughout. In addition, the band brought in several guests to add splashes of vocal harmonies and keyboards, without disrupting the live, unfettered feel of the tracks. In particular, the quirky harmonica break by Hans Olson on the downbeat "Beach Dog" turns that song on its head. Dead Hot will try to bring together many of these guests at a free March 21 CD-release show at Gibson's.

Among other heartaches, this band weathered a hard-luck experience with the majors, which included an EP on Atlantic affiliate Seed Records, before the label reformed into TAG and the band's full-length release, 1001, got buried in the corporate confusion. That might explain why Grippe and his bandmates are quite content to release Karma Covered Apple on their own, preferring to own the album, rather than giving up control to an indie with little to offer them in the way of distribution or tour support.

Grippe also didn't want to tie the band's hands, in case it gets another shot at the majors. Dead Hot's sound has always been a bit tough to market, because the band was too pop for the grunge explosion, too heavy for many pop fans, and too subtle for most of the lunkheads who program rock-radio in this country. Ultimately, the band has no gimmicks to offer, except a cache of sharply turned phrases and highly hummable melodies. But it's hard to say whether that will ever be enough for music-industry power brokers, who seem unable to discern a good song amid the piles of rubbish out there.

Those with a high regard for well-written songs will find much to devour on Karma Covered Apple. The album begins with a deep breath from Babb, who rips into the opening line, "Everything's so confusing," with all the desperation it deserves. This introduction establishes a mood that only builds over the 18 tracks, as the band uses gallows humor to ward off the sadness and frustration lurking in the shadows. Along the way, Babb aims his songwriting scalpel at such targets as a sexually ambiguous fashion plate who always gets the best drugs, in "Hangin' Out With Ray," possibly the catchiest song on this hook-laden album.

An unexpected key player in the making of the album was John Hampton, the much-lauded producer-engineer at Memphis' Ardent Studios. Hampton had worked with Wilson on the two Gin Blossoms albums, and when he heard the rough tapes of Karma Covered Apple, he offered to mix it. Grippe, always the conscientious heart of the band, took it upon himself to fly to Memphis for a week and tweak Hampton's final mixes.

Grippe concedes that he's a bit worried about Scott's involvement with The Pharaohs, adding, "Everything makes me nervous." But if Grippe occasionally tires of being the band member who organizes each new project, he says Karma Covered Apple makes all the hard work worthwhile.

"I think it's kinda fresh," he says. "We were kinda frustrated and upset, you know, it's been a tough career. Things haven't gone great for us all along, yet we have plenty to be thankful for. I think there's a lot of frustration involved in what we do, and that's a chance for it to come out in a cool way.

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