Not Dead, Just Hot

Highly regarded rockers make a much-anticipated return

Within the Valley music scene, few artists or songwriters enjoy the kind of universal admiration of Dead Hot Workshop's Brent Babb. So it comes as no surprise that the city's musical cognoscenti are abuzz at the prospect of seeing the band perform for the first time in several months -- and for more than two years with a full, two-guitar lineup.

The "comeback" show is set for October 16 at the Green Room.

Although Dead Hot Workshop has enjoyed more acclaim among critics and peers than commercially, Pistoleros' guitarist and longtime local vet Mark Zubia argues that such factors are unimportant. "When you come right down to it, record sales and record deals are meaningless. The mark of great music or great art isn't really that it's well-received by everybody. They're a shining example that sometimes even the best music doesn't sell."

Rising up from decline: Dead Hot Workshop's new look. From left, Steve Flores, Chris Whitehouse, Brent Babb and Curtis Grippe.
photos by Paolo Vescia
Rising up from decline: Dead Hot Workshop's new look. From left, Steve Flores, Chris Whitehouse, Brent Babb and Curtis Grippe.
The kids are all right: Dead Hot, still makin' noise.
The kids are all right: Dead Hot, still makin' noise.

As for the prospect of new material from Babb and Dead Hot, Peacemakers' front man Roger Clyne draws a fitting analogy. "Music people in this city in general get as excited about what Brent Babb does as people did about what Dylan was doing in the '60s. They regard it with the same kind of anticipation."

As well they should. Through its decadelong, six-album career (two with major label Atlantic and four self-released titles), Dead Hot Workshop has established itself as a singular musical collective, its esoteric stylings and anthemic twang-and-bang odysseys serving as the medium for a singularly gifted writer.

"It's a testament not only to Brent's talent but his originality that people around here don't try and copy him. In a way you really can't," says Clyne.

It's difficult to measure Babb's creative output over the years. Dead Hot drummer and leader Curtis Grippe estimates the bands' catalogue of songs in the hundreds, with an even greater number of pieces existing as works-in-progress.

"[Brent's] had so many ongoing songs through the years that it's hard to tell what was started 10 years ago and what was started 10 days ago. There's so much I don't even think he remembers," adds Grippe.

The announcement of the re-formation is the first bit of truly good news for the band after a series of disappointing personnel setbacks beginning with the departure of original guitarist Steve Larson in June 1997. Larson's defection was an unquestionable blow, but the group managed to bounce back with its most fully realized effort, its 1998 opus, Karma Covered Apple.

Operating as a trio, the band gained a boost from the album's release and performed to enthusiastic and appreciative crowds for several months in early 1998. But a relentless and often dead-end performing schedule began to slow the band's momentum, which suffered yet another blow with the loss (in June) of bassist G. Brian Scott, also late of the Pharoahs/Gas Giants.

"He pretty much said, 'I don't think I can do this anymore, and I don't want to be a burden on the band,' says Grippe. "So, it was pretty much a mutual thing, or really it even came more from him than us. But I had a great time with him all the years we played together."

The band moved into action almost immediately, recruiting Dialectrics bassist Steve Flores and former Satellite axman Chris "Whitey" Whitehouse.

Although Whitehouse guested on a handful of Karma Covered Apple tracks, his admiration for the band predated his 1995 move to Phoenix.

"I heard these guys in 1994 in Colorado at a place called Alibis. There I was in one corner and the Dead Hot Workshop fans were all on the other side. By the end of the show, I was on the other side with them," says Whitehouse laughing. "I thought they were quite unique even then, so when I got this opportunity, I joined up."

Whitehouse, who hasn't played with Satellite in more than three months, says he's left the Stephen Ashbrook-fronted band to fully commit to Dead Hot.

"I wasn't happy anymore in Satellite, and I want to have fun playing music. I don't want to get too carried away with all this other [commercial] crap. Have fun and enjoy myself, that's all I want to do. I don't think I was reaching that with [Satellite] anymore."

Considering the two groups' divergent styles, bringing in Whitehouse might seem an odd move. But even a cursory listen to the new lineup reveals otherwise. Freed from the pedestrian trappings of Satellite's material, Whitehouse brings a lyrical, almost bluesy feel, complementing Babb's intricate song structures and unconventional melodies. Listening to Whitehouse work out on such Dead Hot staples as "Hanging Out With Ray" and "A," it becomes apparent what a capable stylist he is -- as well as how much has been missing from the group's sound during its tenure as a trio.

Flores, a longtime member of the Dialectrics (who also splits time with Greg Simmons' Royal Normans), has an altogether different task, trying to match the signature melodic playing of the departed Scott while achieving a rhythmic simpatico with Grippe.

Grippe is effusive in his praise of both men: "Steve and Whitey have been really heavy in bringing their own thing to the band and what they've brought so far has been amazing."

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