KING HEROD OR ROCK 'N' ROLL JESTER?GALEN HEROD TAKES YET ANOTHER STAB AT QUITTING HIS DAY JOB
Galen Herod runs into his living room. He's got a microcassette tape deck with him. Herod smiles, starts waving his arms, dancing to the beat of the scratchy noise. He skips into the front room of the house and taps out the song's melody on an old, banged-up piano. He then clicks off the tape player and runs back into the living room, where he flops down on his couch.
"Don't mind me," he says, smiling. "I'm just vomiting."
Herod's doing more than that. He's killing time. He's trying to avoid talking about his new CD, Fix My Brain. It's taken nearly five years to get it released, never mind that the recording was engineered by megaproducer Butch Vig of Nirvana's Nevermind fame. And forget that Vig not only released the CD on his own label, but talked up Herod in Rolling Stone magazine.
Herod's still nervous.
"It's taken so long for this stuff to get out," he says of the disc. "It makes me look like the ultimate slacker."
With that cathartic interlude out of the way, Herod leans back and begins talking about himself. About how he first got interested in music "like everybody else," by seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. About how his childhood was shaped by his family moving 30 times in 15 years, mostly in and around New Orleans.
"I was the kid who always got beat up," he remembers. "The other kids would make fun of my name and the way I acted."
Herod's family finally wound up in west Phoenix, and stayed long enough for him to complete four years at Trevor Browne High School. It was, for young Herod, a settling experience.
"It was enjoyable not getting beaten up anymore," he says.
He began playing drums with a couple of Japanese-American brothers in a band named the Ethics, gigging at parties and dances. Which led to a growing, if slightly confused, interest in other things.
"For the first time, girls wanted to go out with me," he remembers. "But I never understood what was going on. I went out with this one girl and I never knew when we started going out, never knew when we broke up, never knew when she started telling people she hated me."
Herod survived. He went on to ASU and volunteered as an audio technician at the local PBS station, KAET. He and a couple of other employees shared musical interests, resulting in a band named Metal Monkey. It was an "industrial, New Age"-sounding group in the early-Eighties heyday of punk.
"We had things thrown at us a lot," Herod says of the band's local shows.
But the Metal Monkey experience did teach an important lesson--aside from how to bob and weave onstage.
"Those guys helped me understand that if you wanted to do something, you had to do it," he says. "I always kind of thought you had to wait for things to happen."
Herod didn't have to wait long for his first big-time brush with pop promise. In 1982, he and fellow KAET employee Greg Horn formed Tone Set, a synth-pop band that specialized in meshing dance songs with videos. Tone Set caused a minor sensation the following summer, packing Anderson's Fifth Estate in Scottsdale on Wednesday nights. Herod and Horn would stand onstage behind a pair of keyboards and play along to video clips projected on a large screen alongside the dance floor. The videos included audio tracks of prerecorded bass and drum parts, which helped coordinate a nifty combination of sight and sound.
Tone Set released a cassette, the excellent Cal's Ranch, and a six-song EP, Calibrate. Both included the novelty song "Out Out!", a percussive synth tune that featured audio clips of Gomer Pyle's Sergeant Carter repeatedly asking "What stinks?" before blowing his top. The song was good enough to get occasional airplay on local radio. It also helped attract other interest.
"There was this manager who wanted to sign us," Herod says. "The deal was for about 20 percent or something. We decided to turn it down. About a month ago, I ran into one of the guy's associates. He said at the time they'd had something all lined up with Warner's. All we had to do was sign. We never knew."
Of Tone Set's Wednesday-night spectaculars, Herod says the shows were "something we really didn't like to do. Dancing around up there in little black pants and black shirts--it was so embarrassing. We just wanted to sit in a studio and write songs."
Herod and Horn were also starting to get sick of each other. They broke up briefly and then got back together with Dumb but Happy, a full band that included bassist Steve Evans (stage name: "Mystical Hehdstock") and drummer Tim Mahoney. Both have stuck with Herod ever since.
Dumb but Happy was Herod's first venture into guitar music; his previous Tone Set songs were more like Kraftwerk and Devoesque ditties spliced with found audio and experimental noise. With Dumb but Happy, Herod discovered pop melodies and guitar chords akin to Let's Active and early dB's.
But another fallout between Herod and Horn split the two for good. Horn moved to San Francisco; Herod started churning out local tapes. The best was 1987's Bite the Wax Tadpole, a collection of goofy songs topped by Herod's strained, Neil Younglike vocals. Herod made 500 copies of the tape and sent 150 with response cards to record companies.
The reaction was, in a word, underwhelming.
Alias Records, for example, returned a card peppered with snotty comments from the band Too Much Joy, which happened to be in the offices that day. Herod says Bar None Records was only slightly more encouraging.
"They said, 'Oh, we've just signed someone named Freedy Johnston. We would've signed you if we hadn't got him first.'"
Herod was bemused but unbowed. Other things in his life were going well. He'd been hired to produce TV promos at local independent station KNXV. His career there was taking off. Still, he kept sending out Tadpoles. One of the tapes was addressed to a place named Boat Records in Madison, Wisconsin. "I picked it because I just liked the name," Herod says, shrugging.
Turns out Boat Records was run by a budding producer named Butch Vig. At the time, Vig was a couple of years away from production credits on Nirvana's breakthrough album, along with subsequent records by Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth and, most recently, the aforementioned Freedy Johnston.
Herod got there first.
"They flew me out for a week and put me up at the Hawaiian Motor Lodge in Madison," he says. "He [Vig] doesn't miss anything," Herod says of Vig's studio m.o. "He's a detail-oriented guy, total positive attitude all the time. He works the way I do in videotape."
Herod took 20 songs to Madison. He says Vig "didn't shriek at any of them," selecting 12 for the final cut. Herod left Wisconsin a happy guy. He figured some kind of break would happen soon. Before he left, he remembered hearing Vig say something about Sub Pop Records sending some tapes for Vig's studio to work on.
Two years later, Vig was the hottest producer on the planet. He'd played a major part in Nirvana's major-label debut, which was selling by the millions. Herod, meanwhile, was back in Phoenix.
"I was hung out to dry," he says of Vig's success and how it diverted priorities in Madison. But Herod adds that his suddenly popular producer always kept in touch and was always encouraging. Indeed, Vig did his part by mentioning Herod twice in Rolling Stone magazine, calling Herod's music "jangly, whiny garage pop that's really cool" in an April 1992 issue. A month later, Herod was noted as Vig's next big project. "Are you listening?" the magazine rhetorically asked major labels.
Herod wasn't waiting for a response. Upon returning from Madison, he put out some new songs on a tape titled Where the Heck Is Mr. Fun (or Up and Down the Donut with Frank). "I wasn't going to assume that because I had recorded an album, I could sit back and wait for it to happen," Herod says. "So I recorded another tape. And then after that, I did sit back. Because I was exhausted."
Herod eventually started playing out with a new band, Galen Herod and the Skin People. A series of gigs at Hollywood Alley and other occasional performances brought out the curious, but no legends were made.
"I did a solo show at Long Wong's," Herod recalls. "It was right after the Rolling Stone things. A local musician came up and shook hands before the show. When I started playing, he just stood there. You could tell he was thinking, 'Butch Vig likes this?'"
Soon thereafter, Herod figured "since the band wasn't doing anything that was going to make a difference in anybody's lives, we should stop playing out." With the Skin People scattered, Herod found other outlets for his music, sometimes with curious results.
"Mystical Hehdstock's daughter was in the Phoenix Symphony Junior Strings a couple of years ago," Herod says. "I had written a short classical piece called 'Lester's World.' I had asked the conductor if she thought the kids might like to play it, and she said, 'Sure.'"
But the Junior Strings didn't quite get it.
"They didn't get it at all," Herod says, laughing. "The piece was basically whole notes and slight syncopation. But that slight syncopation--therein lies the rub. A friend who was at the performance said it sounded like someone backing up over luggage in the driveway. Or sheep dying."
Through it all, the tapes for what would be Fix My Brain continued to miss contact with record labels. Vig eventually released one of the songs, "Mr. Frotian," as a single on his own Boat Records. That was last year. This year Vig went ahead and released the entire album, replete with knockout cover art by Madison artist Bill Rock.
The results are impressive. Fix My Brain is a collection of sideways pop songs skewed with synths and sophisticated chord progressions. The CD's highlights are the fourth and fifth cuts--"Mr. Frotian" and "Mediocre Compromise"--both of which are the kind of anthemic gems that the Smithereens could have written if they'd grown up listening to Yes.
Fix My Brain is also the most mature-sounding material Herod's released, and not just because of the beefy Butch Vig sound. Herod's lyrics used to be naive and childlike, of Forrest Gump proportions. He'd pen songs about how "fish always move" and how "everything is happy and nice." One of his earlier songs concerned the daily living patterns of three midgets named Bill, Dave and Jed. Fix My Brain includes a few similarly screwy subjects--the title character in the opening song, "Rock and Roll With Julie," for instance, is blessed with an "elongated head." But on other songs, most notably "Side by Side" and "All of the Time," Herod allows himself to get closer to real human emotions, something he never seemed comfortable with in the past.
Herod's now trying to get comfortable with knowing that Fix My Brain is finally in the bins. He says he's almost prepared for whatever happens next. He's putting the Skin People back together, and he's got "tons of new songs" ready to go. He also says he's willing to hit the road should the new CD warrant a tour, provided he and the rest of the band can find time away from careers and families.
Herod's own availabilities may have taken a hit recently when Channel 15 announced it was switching network affiliations from Fox to ABC. Until now, Herod's been able to balance music and TV to near blissful levels. He puts his promos together on an overnight shift, and spends his days working on songs at his home studio.
"There was a time when I hadn't played out in a while and I was down on my TV job," he says. "But when I went to play out, it was so humiliating and embarrassing, I couldn't wait to skedaddle back to the dark nighttime control room at the station, where nobody could laugh at what I was doing. There was a perfect point in there where music relieved the job and the job relieved music. That seems like a long time ago."
Still, Herod keeps learning.
A few years back, he was the director of a local late-night fright-flick show on Channel 15. The host was a guy who called himself Edmus Scarey. "One day he didn't show up," Herod says. "They told us he had hurt his back." In fact, Mr. Scarey was being held in Florida on child molestation charges. The TV ghoul was eventually convicted and served prison time. Co-workers were shocked. Herod took it personally.
"Here was an older guy who seemed to have it figured out," Herod recalls. "He'd have all these women picking him up at the station, everything. I was inspired. I would think, 'Finally, an older man, a single man in his 50s, doing his own thing. Maybe that'll stop people from thinking all people who go their own way like that are weird.'"
Herod shakes his head.
"Wrong again. I guess if you're not lock-step normal in this world, you really are doomed to failure. It's an incomplete story in my case. But I expect it. I expect doom and failure.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.