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"We were glad to get out of that deal because things were such a mess over there," says Babb ruefully. "We were the first employees there and the last employees to leave."
Complicating matters during its tenure with Atlantic was the group's propensity for turning up its nose at a number of potentially lucrative opportunities. Babb, in particular, took aggressive stands against anything he viewed as an artistic compromise, rejecting offers to play the H.O.R.D.E. tour, or having his songs appear on Melrose Place.
"We turned down things any band in their right mind would've done," says Scott. "But in retrospect, I don't know that those would've been the best things to do anyway. Even if we had done the things Brent didn't want to do, I don't know how much further that would've taken us."
Regardless of its unwillingness to play the requisite industry games, the group had been signed under a false premise, expected to appeal to the same audience that had made classically crafted pop fare like "Hey Jealousy" and "Found Out About You" staples of FM radio. It should've been clear to anyone listening to Dead Hot's music that 13-year-old girls weren't going to be filling up arenas to sing along to corrosive anthems like "Burger Christ" and "Fuck No."
"We weren't anything like the Gin Blossoms," notes Larson adamantly. "Brent used to call us 'Sabbath and Garfunkel' -- how the hell do you market something like that? You've got these hard-rock songs and then you've got these mellow ballads with really difficult, amazing lyrics; they couldn't define our sound."
Licking its wounds, the group settled back into Tempe, where, despite an explosion of new bands, Dead Hot remained peerless local stars.
In the fall of '96, the group self-released its third full-length, Old Favorites & New Ones Too. The disc, composed mostly of leftover tracks from the 1001 sessions (and mixed by Vintage Studios honcho Billy Moss), would prove to be the group's most satisfying effort, but it was only supposed to serve as a stopgap. DHW was already deep into preparations for a double album of new material. But cracks within the band were already starting to show.
"We were having internal squabbles and were at each other's throats," admits Grippe. "At that point it had been like seven years nonstop. We probably needed to take a break; we never did."
A further strain came from the group's hectic live schedule, which found it playing upward of four nights a week. "For about two years after the deal, we were playing out too much," says Larson. "We became a bar band, and we shouldn't have done that. When you play four times a week selling beer, it becomes less of an 'event.' We thinned out our following." Exacerbating Larson's exhausted frustration further was the fact that he maintained a full-time construction job during this period as well.
More damaging was the feeling that the band's chemistry -- once so cohesive and magnetic -- was changing dramatically. Because of Dead Hot's split from Atlantic (and from its handlers at Bill Graham Management), Grippe was forced to become the band's de facto manager. Meanwhile, Babb's increasingly prolific output was allowing him to take even greater control over Dead Hot's creative direction. Larson was quickly becoming marginalized, and he couldn't help but feel like the odd man out.
"It was kind of strange," says Larson. "I always felt like it was a band that I had formed. Obviously, it's Brent's band 'cause he writes all the songs, but I was the one who dragged him into Tempe in the first place. I had his first beer with him when he turned 21 at the Sun Club.
"I told him, 'There's something starting to happen here, and we can be a part of it. Let's put a band together,'" he continues. "There might not have been a Dead Hot if I hadn't done that. We brought in Brian and Curtis. So, yeah, I kind of felt like it was mine and Brent's band. And to feel like I'd lost control of it, that was kind of a blow to me. It's like, 'How did that happen?'"
In the summer of 1997, Larson announced he was quitting the group. Grippe admits he was "totally surprised" by the decision, but the guitarist says his physical and mental states were growing increasingly desperate.
"I had to go. There was nothing left in it for me. I didn't see a future in it," he says. "There was a time when I believed; I didn't believe anymore."
Adds Grippe, "We had hit a peak a few years before. And everything that goes up must come down. It wasn't an easy pill to swallow for any of us. You couple that with some personal things and I see why Steve felt like he had to leave."
Larson claims he never dreamed his departure would herald the beginning of the group's slow death march. "You see, Brent's an incredible guitar player. I thought maybe with me gone he was going to come into his own. In a way, I sometimes sensed that's what he really wanted," he says. "I had a weird feeling in my gut that they would take off, that maybe I was the thing holding them back."