Name Game

The former REO Speedealer learns you can't fight the feeling or a big-name band, but with a reissued record and a new label, the group is rolling with the changes

Texas rawk quartet Speedealer has endured its share of hassles, legal and otherwise. First there was the cease and desist order. Then there was the bankruptcy. And tonight, lead singer and guitarist Jeff Hirshberg is trying to shake some unpleasant bug he woke up with this morning, plus the cell phone keeps cutting out. But the band plays on, as it did for a solid year with no label and no albums to distribute.

Speedealer's about due for a change of luck, away from the kind that's cursed them for much of the past couple of years. One of the group's main problems began when they formed in 1995. This seriously hard-punk-rock band out of Dallas decided to dub itself REO Speedealer, and began gigging and doing some home recording. Band members rehearsed like madmen, built up a local fan base, played as much as they could, and in general began making a name for themselves.

And then -- if you can imagine a '70s/'80s hair bland taking itself too seriously -- the humorless prigs in REO Speedwagon took offense.

Speedealer: From left, Rodney Skelton, Eric Schmidt, Harden Harrison and Jeff Hirshberg.
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Speedealer: From left, Rodney Skelton, Eric Schmidt, Harden Harrison and Jeff Hirshberg.

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"They were completely in the right," says Hirshberg, with no rancor whatsoever, from a cell phone in Youngstown, Ohio, where the band is sharing a bill with stoner-rock linchpins Fu Manchu. "There's really no great story. They filed the cease-and-desist order about two and a half years back. They said they'd take us to court if we didn't quit using the name, which they did own. So we quit. That's pretty much what happened. I'm not really sure how they found out about us; Kevin Cronin's son is a fan, maybe it happened that way. I don't know."

Even though no one with even a single functioning eardrum is going to mistake Here Comes Death for Hi Infidelity, the band found the cease and desist to be a blessing after all. "We were glad to give it back, truthfully," says Eric Schmidt, who shares guitar duty with Hirshberg. "The name had become kind of a problem. We were getting these really wasted old-timers showing up, thinking we were a cover or tribute band. People lump you into a certain category, like your band isn't anything but a cute name. So we were done with it. There's absolutely no hard feelings there at all."

In 1998, the renamed Speedealer released its self-titled debut on Royalty Records, and followed it up with a strong second album titled Here Comes Death in 1999, at which point Royalty promptly went under.

Drummer Harden Harrison, along with bassist Rodney Skelton (a five-year band vet and, like Hirshberg, an original member of REO etc., etc.) forms the rhythm core of Speedealer. He recalls getting something like 200 copies of Here Comes Death to sell on the road after Royalty went bankrupt. "The plan was for 10,000 pressings, I think. A lot more than the 1,500 that eventually got run, anyway."

But Speedealer very likely lucked out in getting as many as they did. Says Hirshberg, "[Royalty] went bankrupt almost immediately after Here Comes Death was released, but they continued to ship [copies] out, for some reason. And those 1,500 copies got bought up really quickly. You can still find them, it's just a tremendous hassle."

So there they were, Speedealer, having been good eggs about the whole REO thing, having practiced their craft diligently and fine-tuned the band into a riff-heavy hard-guitar outfit, winning converts on the road. And they found themselves unceremoniously dumped into a position where they had no record label, no album to tour on and nothing to offer fans to take home after the show.

"It was a little scary," offers Schmidt, in a voice that suggests it was more than a little scary. "There was a moment, just a moment, where we thought, 'Well, this is it. We have no income and we have nothing to sell.' We didn't have a label for about a year, all we had was a booking agency, and we were on the lowest end imaginable. The agency respected our work ethic, though, and what they did was send us as many places as possible for the bare minimum of payment. We'd go out and play shows, trying to keep ourselves in people's heads, and we just barely broke even over that year. We eventually played, I think, 300 shows in 1999, hoping that someone would pick up on it."

According to the band's official itinerary, it was a total of 309 shows last year for Speedealer. And someone did, in fact, pick up on it.

Palm Records A&R man Michael Alago -- who brought Metallica to Elektra and White Zombie to Geffen -- had been a fan of Speedealer since he'd seen them at the SXSW conference while they were signed to Royalty. When he found out they were between labels, he pushed for Palm to snap them up. "Michael said he wanted to do an album with us, and they brought a bunch of people up to Brownie's in New York, where we were playing," recalls Hirshberg.

So Here Comes Death, produced by Daniel Rey (Ramones, Misfits), is finally getting its first solid distribution on Palm; the rerelease comes only one year after the initial run. Plans are already in the works for a new album in 2001.

"We're hoping for a limited vinyl release along with the CD run this time. The album was never really released properly in the first place," Hirshberg adds.

For his part, Schmidt has high hopes for the disc's second coming, which is scheduled to hit stores on September 12. "When we play shows, people come up to us and ask about the record, and we just have to tell them it's coming. But those people tell us that their friend has a copy of the first run of the album, that it never leaves the CD player. So it's still circulating. We've gotten really good responses everywhere we've played."

On this tour, in fact, Speedealer has fattened its playlist with about 50 percent new material, in addition to the 17 songs on Here Comes Death, which clocks in at just over 37 minutes with titles like "Hit It and Run," "Nobody's Hell Like Mine," "No More," "Tweeked," and one epic track, "California Tumbles Into the Sea." Like British punk minimalists Wire, Speedealer's talent lies in writing short, memorable songs that resist verse-chorus-verse structure, getting the point across and finishing at precisely the moment they should.

"We're gradually getting away from the shorter songs, though, the quick-blast stuff," says Harrison. "We're branching out to two- or three-minute songs."

The evolution of material is due, in part, to the near endless road grind the band has endured over the last two years. "We're playing out pretty much every day. In a month of touring we'll take maybe two days off, and when we get off the road we're practicing or writing. We're planning on going into the studio in January for the next album, but we don't know where we're going to record or who's producing or anything like that. Right now we're doing a lot of writing. About half the new album is written at this point."

Harrison's enthusiasm to return to the studio no doubt stems from the extensive time Speedealer spends touring with very little in the way of support; however, the band doesn't seem to be too anxious to leave the road behind just yet. Plans immediately after this leg of the tour are up in the air, but there's been talk of a European jaunt with Mötorhead and a short U.S. tour with either Lemmy and Co. or Nashville Pussy, both of whom Speedealer has traveled with before.

As you might imagine, given the acts they've been paired with, Speedealer's live shows are generally raucous and sweat-drenched affairs. "Not a lot of punks, really," says Harrison. "The music is really mostly guitar-based hard rock."

Schmidt concurs. "Blue-collar hard rock. Loud blue-collar hard rock. We're using Fu Manchu's equipment on this tour, since the breakdown time between bands can get a little long, and we always turn all the levels way up. Usually Jeff's guitar and mine double the riffs, so the guitar work is really layered. My parents used to wear out the needles on all that guitar rock: Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, ZZ Top, all that stuff. But we listen to a lot of different stuff; Jeff, he mostly likes classical music" -- Hirshberg himself reports that he's been listening to a lot of Bach on this tour -- "but we listen to pretty much anything: '80s metal, country stuff, jazz, some European space rock, everything."

"Not that you'd necessarily hear it in the music we play live, but that's what I love about being a musician," continues Schmidt. "If you switch out a guitar part, or move the drums around, you'd hear a country rhythm. It's all there. Everybody lifts from everybody else."

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