Treading in the Ether

Robin Wilson and the Gas Giants have a phantom hit

Bless his heart, but Robin Wilson is a strange guy. It's not just the Gas Giants front man's manner of speaking -- a tone that has the slickness of a used-car salesman and the perpetual chipperness of a TV weatherman -- or his conversation -- an unrelenting jackhammer of self-promotion. It's that in talking to Wilson, you sometimes forget the man lists his occupation as "musician." Instead you feel you're being harangued by some marketing demagogue more interested in crunching numbers than strumming chords. With the exception of the Gin Blossoms' New Year's Eve reunion, Wilson has kept a pretty low local profile since the Gas Giants released its debut, From Beyond the Backburner, on upstart indie/online label Atomic Pop last fall. In that time, Wilson and company have been busy making the rounds of radio stations and clubs and completing work on a pseudonymous album called Poppin' Wheelies -- a Josie and the Pussycats meets The Jetsonsconcept record for kids.

Calling from Indianapolis, where the band is opening dates for radio hit-makers Train, Wilson spends most of the time talking about how the "math" indicates that the Gas Giants' first single, "Quitter," is actually a minor national hit, even though distribution troubles have kept sales figures at a paltry 5,000.

It's only the latest in a series of difficulties that have plagued Wilson's post-Blossom band throughout its turbulent three-year history. But his focus, at least momentarily, isn't on his own troubles, but on the local music community and the impending release of Uranus Presents: New & Used Volume 1, a compilation featuring seven Valley acts; Wilson is financing and releasing the disc on his own Uranus Laboratories label.

Ironically, the compilation bows on the two-year anniversary of the death of Zia Record Exchange founder Brad Singer. Singer's Zia compilations in the '90s were a crucial vehicle for many local musicians and something that up-and-coming Valley mainstreamers have been missing in recent years. Wilson says the goal of the project is to help revive the tradition.

"With Brad gone, there's been a hole left behind and it just seemed like the thing to do," Wilson says. "I wanted to offer something that was a snapshot of our musical community."

Featuring tracks from a stylistically diverse cross section of combos (though geographically it pretty much sticks to the East Valley), Uranus features alt-rockers the Royal Normans, mix master DJ Radar, pop-punks Pollen and the trash blasts of the Sonic Thrills, among others, including Wilson's friend and collaborator Steve French, the only non-Arizonan to appear on the disc.

"I think all the bands on it are terrific. Just to have the opportunity to do something with so many deserving local acts is a great feeling. And it's good for me personally because I'm getting involved with the local music scene in a way I haven't been for years."

The chirpy Wilson seems to deflate only when discussing the litany of distribution difficulties the Gas Giants record has encountered since its release. First, a national coalition of independent record retailers, angered by Atomic Pop's unprecedented digital release of Public Enemy's There's a Poison Goin' On, initially resisted the disc in protest. Then an expensive wholesale price tag made it prohibitive for shops like Tempe's Eastside Records to stock the disc. Most recently, according to Wilson, Atomic Pop's distributor, Alliance, is "dropping the ball."

"The project is in a crisis state right now," sighs Wilson. "We should've sold 30,000 records based on the airplay we're getting. We're getting over 650 spins a week. About a month ago, we had the No. 1 song on a station in Chicago. Right now we've got the No. 3 song on a station in Tampa, and there are several other markets -- Reno; Sacramento; Birmingham, Alabama -- where we're getting a lot of airplay. But the record sales don't reflect the amount of airplay we're getting because the stores aren't stocked."

Wilson's complaints, though valid, are pretty common; almost every other struggling band has a distribution horror story. Even groups on well-heeled major labels sometimes can't find their albums in stores on the road.

The situation became so dire recently that Wilson went so far as to call the president of the distributor in an effort to "embarrass them into trying to make some changes in the way the thing is being handled."

Wilson adds that his frustration with the distributor notwithstanding, he's satisfied with the efforts and expense that Atomic Pop has poured into the project over the past months.

It hasn't been all bad news for the band, as their association with powerhouse radio-promotion firm McCluskey and Associates and Bill Graham management have helped them get out of the alt-rock chitlin circuit. In recent weeks, the Gas Giants have hooked up with a number of bigger-name acts (Lit, Tonic) for a series of large club and theater dates. But the best reaction came from their recent pairing with Train.

"It's a perfect audience for us," notes Wilson, "because there's so many Gin Blossoms fans out there. With this tour we have a shot at stealing Train's audience, or at least borrowing them for a while."

Which, Wilson says, is infinitely better than playing support for white blues rocker Kenny Wayne Shepherd. "After those shows we'd have like, maybe two people come up to the merch booth and buy stuff from us. It wasn't a real ideal pairing."

The band has been out on the road for two- to three-month stretches and hopes to pair up with another name headliner before hitting as many summer radio fests as possible.

But Wilson acknowledges that after nine months of effort and little in terms of tangible numbers, both he and the record company will have to consider giving up and moving on to the next projects -- the release of the Poppin' Wheelies record and a follow-up to Backburner. Heartening for Wilson's cause is the fact that tour mates Train were in a similar situation, touring and promoting their current album and single, "Meet Virginia," for more than 15 months before finding success.

"We're not going to give up on "Quitter' until the last possible minute," says Wilson adamantly. "We have enough signs that it's researching well enough to justify us keeping after it. The record-company people and the people at McCluskey and Associates, they use all kinds of mathematical formulas to calculate if something is working or if something is a hit or not. And all of the math says we've got a hit on our hands. The only problem is actually selling records."

The Uranus PresentsCD release party is scheduled for Saturday, May 13, at Long Wong's in Tempe. The concert will feature performances by Sonic Thrills, Haggis, and Ghetto Cowgirl. Showtime is 9 p.m.

Cable Ready: Rap-metalers Bionic Jive, fresh off their performance at the New Times Music Showcase, were invited to perform on Jimmy & Doug's Farmclub.com, a program on the USA Television Network. Admittedly, we were unfamiliar with the show (when my TV's tuned to cable it's fixed on Lifetime. Call me a sally, but the Golden Girls tickle this writer's funny bone -- and the tarty Rue McClanahan is oh so easy on the eyes). So we decided to do a little checking, and it turns out that Farmclub.com is a new concept in television programming -- kind of like Star Search for the interactive age. The live-music program features unsigned bands performing in a talent competition with the online/viewing public serving as judges. Episode content is split between music from competitors and guest spots by established national acts. The Jivers traveled to Los Angeles last weekend to tape their appearance. Group leader Larry Elyea reports the trip was a success that saw them share a Farmclub.com bill with big names Juvenile and System of a Down. The episode is set to air on Monday, May 22, at 8 p.m. on USA.

And the Winners Are . . . : We got a nice chuckle when the Rep recently questioned the relative "meaning" in winning a New Timesshowcase award, quite a damning condemnation when you consider the source. After all, who knows more about being meaningless than the folks over at the Rep? But for the 13,000-plus who turned out for the event and the thousands of others who voted, this year's showcase was the biggest and, dare we say, best ever. After a week spent tabulating ballots, the winners were finally revealed at a ceremony held at Alice Cooper'stown last Thursday. The awards were handed out by yours truly, and fortunately, this year's trophy (which kind of looked like a giant penny with a severed ear on it) was far less scandalous than last year's decidedly phallic-looking hardware.

To the victors. Leading off were a trio of champs defending their crowns: Sistah Blue, Cousins of the Wize and Barrio Latino all got return wins in the blues, hip-hop and Latino categories, respectively, while local icon and all-around good guy Walt Richardson was once again the top vote-getter in the reggae/ska department. Haggis was also a back-to-back victor, though this year's kudo came in the newly constituted pop grouping.

First-time entrants Ghetto Cowgirl, Subterranean Jazz and DJ Lego took the rock, jazz and DJ awards. Punk glamour gals the Peeps also earned the nod in their debut appearance, while newbies the Rumble Cats took home top honors in the roots division.

Twang artistes Flathead were hard-fought winners in an Americana tussle that saw them edge out the young and hungry Truckers on Speed, while another group of youthful upstarts, Tolerance, actually did claim the prize for best hard/modern rock band. And in a showcase first, the band voted most likely to make it big, Victims in Ecstacy, lost in the industrial category to repeat champs Radio Free America.

The ceremony itself was a thoroughly enjoyable affair that saw rock winners Ghetto Cowgirl play an opening set before surrendering the stage for a free-for-all jam session featuring Haggis, Truckers on Speed (who ripped through a cover of Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" and "Lightnin' Speed" by fellow locals the Piersons) and the nattily dressed Sonic Thrills -- who, falling short in the rock category, decided to play a tongue-in-cheek version of "Born to Lose." Mini-sets from punkers the Impossibles and future big shots Victims in Ecstacy followed. By the time the last chords rang out, the event, much like the free open bar, was but a memory with talk already turning to the 2001 showcase.

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