Car Talk

Jesus Chrysler Supercar prepares to take on the industry big boys at South by Southwest

Jesus Chrysler Supercar has never played at South by Southwest before. But the Mesa rock quintet doesn't approach this week's trip to Austin, Texas, with anything close to virginal innocence.

They've been at the band thing too long (more than five years) and experienced too many music-biz letdowns to believe that A&R people will be rolling out red carpets and stretch limos for them as soon as they come off the stage at Babes on Saturday night. Probably wisely, they look at SXSW as just another gig, or, as singer Mitch Steele sardonically puts it, "another gig where people don't know your songs."

Steele says the first time the band ever played a big national showcase, New York's CMJ festival, they were highly psyched about it, but that sense of wide-eyed wonder has passed with time. Even so, the band expects to have a good time in Austin, and it's fairly certain that the show can't possibly be as grueling as what it encounters on a regular basis.

"If we can play at a racetrack, or somewhere where people just walk by and look at you and point, or stare, or laugh, this is a lot easier crowd than playing to a NASCAR crowd," says Steele, whose band has made an unlikely name for itself on the Pennzoil/STP circuit over the last couple of years.

"We're not gonna go there and get a record deal, obviously," he adds. "But the people that are interested in us, hopefully will make some kind of step toward deciding."

"The hardest thing is being invited to the dance, and nobody wants to dance the mambo with you," says Matt Collins, drummer for the band. "They want you to come and hang out, but they don't wanna dance with you. It sucks. I'm 30. Nobody's gonna dance with me." Suddenly conscious of the industry implications of his revelation, Collins smiles and says, "What I meant is, I'm 25. And so are my compatriots."

Collins' frustration is understandable in light of the parade of bands these guys have shared a bill with, and seen move on to something approaching stardom. Over the years, they've opened for Radiohead, Korn, the Deftones, Goo Goo Dolls, Frank Black, Citizen King and Dovetail Joint, to merely scratch the surface of a seemingly endless list. It's kind of a band in-joke that, by acting stupid and unprofessional at all times, Jesus Chrysler has made its headliners look like stars.

Actually, one of the most refreshing things about Jesus Chrysler is that the members are relentlessly candid about their ambitions. They make no apologies about the fact that they want a major-label deal, they want national success, and--most important--they want to be able to quit their day jobs.

These goals seemed well within reach six months ago when Sony flew the band out to New York to showcase at CBGBs. The band was reaching the end of a one-year demo deal with Sony, which resulted in a four-song Jesus Chrysler demo, recorded in Los Angeles.

The CBGBs gig marked the point at which Sony reps would decide whether to follow through and actually sign the band to a record deal. Initially, things looked promising.

"The VP came out and he said, 'I love it, the uniforms, it's great, I can't wait 'til you guys play with us,'" Steele says. "Apparently, he went back to our A&R guy and said, 'Give me a week to review the stuff and make sure it's exactly what we want. I totally dug the live show; the guys all seem nice and they've got their head on their shoulders; I'm ready to go.'

"But Kevin Patrick, our A&R guy, said, 'I need an answer today,' 'cause he was going to England for 10 days. So the VP said, 'If I can't have a week, then the answer is no.'"

Sony's thumbs-down was a tough blow, but it was mitigated somewhat by the serious consideration the band was also receiving from Island Records. However, the Universal-PolyGram merger soon put the kibosh on that option, with the band's A&R advocate at Island getting fired.

So Jesus Chrysler is back to ground zero, albeit with a clutch of potent new songs and a sizable local fan base that seems to include half the musicians in the Valley. You could sense this peer-respect factor at work when the band played the Green Room in Tempe on March 11. A veritable who's-who of local music filled the Tempe club to see Steele and his cohorts blast through a too-brief set that began with the propulsive "Cross Curve" (recently released on the Edge's Locals Only compilation) and skidded off the racetrack with a deliberately ramshackle rendition of "Freebird."

The gig served both as a warm-up for SXSW and a preview of the group's forthcoming six-song EP, Land Speed. The band expected the EP to be out this month, but mangled artwork ("the Chrysler curse," Collins says) has pushed the release back to May. In the meantime, Jesus Chrysler will again engage in a game of musical chairs with the record-company big boys who've ripped their hearts out before.

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