"I was stone-cold sober, and I still don't remember playing that night!"
Grant Fitch is straining to recall events from a weekend two years ago when he and his bandmates in Paw were the talk of Austin's South by Southwest music conference. After the band's showcase performance, one populated almost entirely by industry observers, this bearded, denim-swathed quartet from the college town of Lawrence, Kansas, became the object of a music-business feeding frenzy.
For three days, the band members were wined, dined and courted, pampered pawns in a contest of one-upmanship among voracious record labels hungry to sign the bewildered Kansans to a recording contract.
When the whirlwind sales job was over, the members of metal-punk-pop band Paw knew their careers in music had moved to another, more serious level. They knew, like Dorothy and Toto before them, they weren't in Kansas anymore.
"Here we were, these idealistic little babies about the music business, and suddenly people from major labels are saying, 'Hey, let's go ride motorcycles, let's go ride horses, let's go eat, have a beer,'" Fitch says over the telephone from a tour stop in Denver. "The night after our showcase, we were guests of a label at this big hot-tub party. Next morning, we're with another label, eating a $35-a-plate brunch at the Hilton.
"It was in Austin that the extent of the idiocy involved in this business really hit us."
After flying to Los Angeles and "walking through" six or seven labels, Fitch and his bandmates--vocalist Mark Hennessy, bassist Charles Bryan and brother Peter Fitch on drums--eventually signed with A&M Records. They did that mostly because they liked A&R rep Bryan Huttenhower, who also signed Tempe's Gin Blossoms.
Their greatest thrill, though, occurred when they "took a meeting" with one of the music business's towering figures, owner of his own label, David Geffen.
"We showed up for the meeting with Geffen, and there was our attorney," Grant Fitch says. "We said, 'Bill, what are you doing here?' and he just looked at us and said, 'Hey, I'm not missing this. I've never met David Geffen, either.'"
In retrospect, what strikes Fitch most about the band's head-on collision with the record industry is the contrast between the courtship ritual and what occurred after the deal was signed.
"The greatest major-label myth is that once you sign, you're rich beyond your wildest dreams," Fitch says. "At this point, if I didn't have a girlfriend that I lived with, I wouldn't have an apartment. And if this band keeps touring all the time, I'm gonna lose em both."
Except for the odd day or two between tours, Paw hasn't been home since the group signed last summer. After releasing two singles (Lolita" and "Sleeping Bag") on their own Nasty Pope label last spring, the members of the band spent the fall of 1992 in Madison, Wisconsin, at Butch Vig's Smart Studios. The resulting debut, Dragline, was released in June 1993.
A smart, assured collection of metal-punk-pop crossover tunes reminiscent of the Goo Goo Dolls, but with a harder edge, Dragline shows that the waves of hype the band generated in Austin were justified. Paw is more than just another noisy, screaming thrash band whose target audience is the Beavis and Butt-Head set.
Tunes like "Jessie," the band's surprisingly tender lament about a lost dog (also Dragline's first single), and the sexually explicit "The Bridge" have melodic sides that make them a listenable hybrid of pop and proto-metal. They excel at combining both thunder and beauty.
Along with turning up the volume, this band knows about arranging, songwriting and the other things it takes to get adults to listen. "Jessie" even has a pedal steel woven into the mix.
"We've considered adding a steel player permanently to the band," Fitch says proudly.
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Because they attempt more than the average bash band, these Jayhawks get riled when they're lumped in with their less-thoughtful brethren. In fact, Paw wants it settled once and for all: No matter how fuzzy its sound or how premeditated the rips in the band's jeans, Paw's not a grunge band.
"It's really insulting to have a journalist go for the easiest comparison they can find, which in our case is Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots," Fitch says, beginning to rant. "I just want to say to them, 'I worked my ass off on this record, can't you work your ass off on a three-paragraph column?'
"I'd like to think we're not that easy to dismiss just because of the aggressiveness of our music."
Now that he's rolling, Fitch brings up another beef he has with journalists. Much has been made of the band's being from Lawrence, a town that singer Mark Hennessy has referred to as making Austin's Slacker scene look like "Wall Street." Fitch says that just because this band is from Kansas doesn't mean its members are "inbred, corn-fed and brain dead."
"I'm from Kansas. I pay taxes there. But I'm not a farmer," Fitch says, half-laughing. "Geography influenced this band in one way--Kansas is so dead we had to rehearse. There was nothing else to do.