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"What the hell was the name of that band?"
Nine Volt singer-songwriter Andy Mitchell is stumped. Sitting in a booth at downtown's Chez Nous lounge with drummer Andy Mendoza and bassist Stevie Flores, the three are desperately trying to recall the name of the national group they recently opened up for at the Big Fish Pub.
"Damn, they that did that 'Popular' song," says Mendoza. "You know, the one where the guy talks through it?"
It's hard enough trying to remember any '90s alt-rock radio hit, especially when there's an R&B act picking at the bones of the Temptations 20 feet away. Not even complete silence helps when we move the guessing party to a quiet apartment nearby.
Of course, the guys in Nine Volt wouldn't hold it against you for wondering, "What the hell was the name of that band?" when hearing the strains of their song "Stupid." Once the fifth most added record on college/alternative radio, the track propelled the local three-piece to the fringes of rock 'n' roll success, before a combination of label woes and an ill-fated move left the band in a state of shambles.
Front man Mitchell formed Nine Volt (originally named Sauce) in 1996 when his previous group Dish (originally named Verona) morphed into Gloritone (which -- you guessed it -- was originally named Vitamin).
"Nine Volt never really blew up that big early on," recalls Mitchell. "We were never a headlining band in town -- we used to play 10 o'clock slots. Then all the sudden, we got a record deal and as soon as we got a song on the radio -- bam! We had a shitload of people at the shows. We went from playing to 40 people to 240 people. We'd play 'Stupid' and the audience would go nuts. It was great."
The deal in question came with Crash Records, an imprint of NMG/Pavement (home to locals Windigo), which relocated from Chicago to the Valley in 1997. The label had the advantage of owning a distribution pact with Private I, a company with ties to Mercury Records.
Mostly a wholesaler of heavy metal catalogue titles, NMG/Pavement seemed eager to break new artists and promote local Arizona talent, releasing Nine Volt's self-titled debut in 1998. Ironically, after signing, Nine Volt almost immediately relocated to San Diego. The move put the band in the precarious position of having to pretend to still be a local act since they were getting loads of airplay on all three major rock stations in the Valley.
"We wanted people to buy our record because we were a local band you could see at clubs on the weekend," Mitchell says, "and local radio was really supportive of local music at the time. We tried to keep it low key, but the truth is we were in San Diego for three years. We came back at least once a month to do some shows. That went on for about a year and it was cool. Then the whole thing with the record company fizzled.
"What happened was Private I wasn't paying our record company a dime for CDs shipped or CDs sold," he continues. "They pretty much cut off Crash and just wouldn't return their requests for statements. [Crash] had put in, I would guess, about 30 grand by the time we did our record, that's including promotion paid out to radio, just to go around trying to get the song "Stupid" on the air. At one time, we were on 14 different radio stations. It got picked up on a shitload of college stations, too."
Although payola is still a dirty word in the music industry -- unless you're Limp Bizkit -- the practice is still common, albeit in a thinly disguised form. "Crash was having to pay off about 500 bucks per radio station," notes Mitchell. "You gotta pay out. It's like, 'Yeah, we'll add the record but we have this promotion coming up -- do you think you can kick in a few hundred bucks?' But Crash wasn't getting any money back from Private I and wouldn't sue them for whatever reason. They were very nonconfrontational."
Amid the financial turmoil between the label and its parent company, Nine Volt's CD got lost in the shuffle, with Crash unable to help follow up on the success of "Stupid." The band eventually rereleased its debut with three new songs, an alternate title (Swimming in Gasoline) and artwork on the DNA imprint, another Pavement offshoot. DNA, however, also did little to promote the album. And just as its relationships with label benefactors had soured, the group fell out of favor with Phoenix radio programmers, who had quickly abandoned the local-music boosterism of the mid-'90s.
Meanwhile, the San Diego scene proved to be equally disheartening for band morale. "We were playing with all the skater punk bands in that scene and it just sucked. We were playing to maybe 15 people most nights. There's no scene down there, and I'd always heard it was so cool," says Mitchell, shaking his head. "The dance clubs, dance bars are what's happening in San Diego. If you want to go where everyone's at, it's there. I was going to fuckin' dance clubs and I don't even dance."