One for the Show
And now a word about continuing higher education from Shamsi Ruhe, lead singer of the Tempe rock group One.
"Me and Shahzad are going back to school. No more of this slacker/dropout business." She grins before turning dead serious.
"It'd be great if the music thing worked out, but if it doesn't, I'm going to have to do something with my life. There's nothing else in music I can do. I couldn't be a songwriter or make videos. I know how to sing and that's pretty much it. I need another skill."
The smile returns. "So I'll become a career student and rack up government loans."
While Shamsi probably won't actually become that special brand of fugitive who state-hops to dodge payments on a useless philosophy degree, her band is seriously considering a move to North Hampton, Massachusetts, in the fall.
Six years ago, at college in the Bay State, Shamsi and her brother Jamal met a Pakistani student named Shahzad Ismaily, who would always walk around the Simon's Rock College campus cradling his bass guitar.
The threesome decided to form a group, and when the Ruhes' father got a job in the Valley and moved his family here, Shahzad eventually followed with One's original drummer (John O'Reilly Jr. currently trills the traps for the band).
Once she was here, Shamsi elected not to continue her studies in order to concentrate full-time on her singing. It's a decision she seems restless with. One recently cut a track for Breakin' Out, a local-music compilation sponsored by Scottsdale's Red Mountain Studios and The Blaze (FM 104.3).
The new song's title? "G-E-D"!
At an interview inside the Red Mountain Studios the night of the "G-E-D" session, Jamal succinctly explains the song's origin. "Shamsi had a dream about going back to her old high school, and it sucked."
An aggressively martial selection, "G-E-D" has little in common with the jazzy, adult alternative grooves usually associated with One. Rather, it leans closer to the old Pixies favorites the band is prone to dust off for Cover Me Tuesdays? nights at Nita's Hideaway. Unexpected stylistic twists include Shamsi rolling her Rs like Johnny Rotten while brother Jamal chimes discordant encouragements behind her like "who wants to know your stupid name?"
And closer inspection reveals that what initially sounds like a theremin or an old Philco-tubed radio warming up is actually Shamsi's peerless high-frequency voice and a bit of Fender-bending from guitarist Mike Butler. The singer also displays a healthy disrespect for folksy inclinations by mumbling a snatch of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" on the song's tag.
Listening to this boisterous track as it plows through monolithic studio speakers, it's hard to believe this young woman with the impressive pipes could ever be convinced it won't work out for her in the big, bad record biz. Maybe seeking refuge in a university's corridors seems so attractive because, as she says, shrugging, "school's so very not real."
All too real, perhaps, is the cycle of elation and dejection that's characterized the band's first year and a half of playing for the majors. One's been distinguished in local club ads as "Mercury Recording Artists" since last summer, but incessant rumors about the band's deal getting blown have led many to wonder if a question mark shouldn't be following that billing.
Fortunately, after shelving the band for nine months, Mercury has finally given One the green light to finish mixing the album it recorded last October at Memphis' legendary Ardent Studios (home of Big Star and recent host to the Gin Blossoms' sophomore effort). Despite this belated vote of confidence, Shamsi's still reeling from her first bout of what a disgruntled Graham Parker once termed "Mercury Poisoning."
Tonight, she's a fireball of negative energy, prefacing most of her sentences with, "Since they're probably not gonna put our record out," as if to shield herself from inevitable future disappointments.
The saga began in the spring of 1995, when then-A&R man for Mercury Dale Kawashima heard a One demo tape sanctioned by Atlantic Records (that label ultimately passed on the band).
"Dale came to see us at Boston's--the worst show we ever did," Jamal says, shivering at the memory (by contrast, sister Shamsi remembers the gig as one of the band's best).
"I was having technical difficulties and had to sing all my guitar parts for the last few songs," Jamal says. "I flipped out and started destroying my equipment, I was so mad. That was the only show I ever kicked my amp over."
Kawashima wasn't deterred by Jamal's foray into interior demolition. On the contrary, he convinced then-president of Mercury Ed Eckstine (yep, singer Billy Eckstine's spawn) to catch a hastily scheduled gig at Gibson's while he was in town to sign the Refreshments. "We were offered a deal that night," says Jamal, "the same deal we eventually signed, with a few minor modifications."
But an unforeseen, and unfortunate, modification occurred six months later. While One was making the recording in Memphis, Ed Eckstine got fired and, Shamsi deadpans, "the whole new regime at the label began."
Sayonara, Kawashima. And so long to anyone else who had been instrumental in One's deal. "The new president never liked our band. He thought our album was crap," Shamsi says.
Rather than push to be dropped and risk financial penalties, One patiently waited for the label to either honor or break its end of the contract. Shamsi believes the ax never fell because other labels were ready to sign them. "Even though the new guys at Mercury thought we were a worthless band," says Shamsi, "they decided maybe they should keep us."
Jamal credits Dana Milmen, a newly hired Mercury A&R rep who actually likes the band, with restoring One to active duty. Although the quintet now has to get reinvigorated about mixing 17 tracks it laid down nearly a year ago, lapsed membership does have its privileges--not the least of which is the 20/20 hindsight that comes from hearing the album's rough mixes hundreds of times in the interim.
Guitarist Mike Butler joined the group one month prior to the Ardent sessions, and hadn't "really settled in with the songs yet." Now, with the added benefit of having played the songs hundreds of times live, he says he's able to preserve more definitive guitar parts. "I just want to be able to hear the record someday and not cringe," he maintains.
Once the hurdles of completing One's debut and selling a whole new set of suits on the idea of releasing it are surmounted, there remains an elimination round of the name game. The band was originally called Water but changed its name to One about four years ago after discovering another band with the same name. "Now," admits Shamsi with a hint of annoyance, "there's millions of bands called One."
As far back as 1993, there were at least two other Valley bands called One (one of them eventually changed its name to Zone to avoid confusion). Amazingly, no one in this One has any recollection of them. Even more irksome is a band of Canadian musicians that for years was collectively known as The One, which, evidently feeling less definitive about itself, recently changed its name to plain ol' One.
Butler recalls the time "some Phoenix guy came to our show and served us with papers, claiming he had rights to the name since 1982. But since he wound up liking the band, he sold the rights to us for the appropriate sum of one dollar. The whole thing was bogus. It wasn't even a legal transaction."
According to Shamsi, the name represents "the oneness of mankind, the oneness of spiritual reality."
Well, why not just call the band Oneness, then?
"Oneness." She mulls for a spell. "I dunno, then you're gonna have some hippies show up at your shows." She's a little more receptive to a suggestion that the band call itself Loch Ness, but like the mythical Scottish creature, it probably isn't gonna fly.
It's been three weeks since the band last set its watches to Memphis time. Besides a triumphant return to the Electric Ballroom stage to buoy its spirits, everyone in the band seems confident in the quality of the new recording. "I don't think anybody will be disappointed," assures Jamal. "A lot of the songs are the way they should've sounded all along. And if Mercury likes our tape, they'll fly us out there and meet the band anew."
For the time being, Shamsi's worries that the label will release "bubblegummy songs as singles," market the band like it's "Hootie with a girl" or force song doctors like Eric Bazilian (author of labelmate Joan Osborne's hit "One of Us") on them have mostly been allayed. For the record, she has met with Bazilian and says they got along great, but have no plans to co-author a song. Finally, Jamal is mighty proud that there's no tambourine on the recording, a hallmark of the dreaded "Tempe jingle-jangle" that decorates most local exports.
When reminded of Shamsi's downright depressing prognosis, her brother brightens up enough to put an upbeat spin on a still uncertain future. "No matter what happens, we'll all still be playing music and loving it. Everyone in this band loves playing."
But what about the aforementioned plans to uproot the band to North Hampton come November so Shamsi can go back to school? "I'm still not so sure." Jamal nods. "I'll leave you with an old aphorism: 'If you wanna make God laugh, make a plan.'"
One is scheduled to perform on Friday, September 13, at Gibson's in Tempe; on Saturday, September 14, at the Mason Jar (all ages); and on Tuesday, September 17, at Gibson's for the CD-release party for the Breakin' Out compilation. Call for showtimes.
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.