THE WONG AND WINDING ROADDEAD HOT WORKSHOP MAKES THE JUMP FROM A TEMPE BAR TO THE REST OF THE WORLD
You're Dead Hot Workshop. You're a hometown hit in Tempe. The locals consider you the Valley's next prime music export. You've recently signed a major-label deal and you're starting out on an extended tour designed to introduce yourself to the great American masses.
That's you, a day and a half out of Phoenix, huddled and shivering in your broken-down van outside snowy Oklahoma City. That's you with your guitar player on crutches a couple of days later in Columbia, Missouri. And that's you being forcibly removed from the club where you've just opened your swing leading to an East Coast tour with a major headlining act.
Welcome to the road beyond Mill Avenue.
For the record, Dead Hot survived the van breakdown in OKC. But only after tour manager Jim Swafford wandered down the snow-blind interstate, thumbed a ride from a trucker and returned to what looked like a scene from the film Alive, with hungry, freezing band members eyeing each other in the van. Guitarist Steve Larson recovered from the badly sprained ankle he suffered two nights later while horsing around at the Blue Note Theater in Columbia. And the tour continued despite the band getting kicked out of its first gig supporting Blue Rodeo. The reason for the bum's rush at the Birchmere club in Virginia:
"The place was carpeted and somebody put a cigarette out on the floor," says singer/guitarist Brent Babb. He shakes his head. "The manager, stupid shit, wound up pouring a bottle of beer on it to put it out."
Dead Hot's recent road adventures are being laughed at, waved off and otherwise considered at the house Babb and drummer Curtis Grippe share in the back of an auto-parts store in Tempe. It's a late-spring day, warm with sharp sunlight, but inside the house, things are smoky and cramped. The band's practice space is crowded with drums and assorted equipment stacked next to a pair of utility-vehicle bench seats that serve as an ersatz sofa/love seat pairing. The walls are decorated with everything from portraits of Christ to pictures of Kiss.
Babb and Grippe look sleepy. Even more so than usual. They played at Hollywood Alley the previous night. The show was a typical Dead Hot affair. Babb, the front man, was decked out in his usual slacker-ready wardrobe of untucked flannel shirt, backward baseball cap and torn jeans, his scrawny image howling angst-riddled songs. Larson was alongside, cranking out ragged chords and solos with little apparent emotion behind the hair that hides his face. Bassist G. Brian Scott, Dead Hot's most visual member, altered his usual "pilgirm" look of knickers and tights for a simple tights 'n' tee shirt ensemble. And Grippe, hulking and ponytailed, anchored the band's look and sound with a controlled, steady aggression.
The show was well-attended, with some new faces sprinkled in among the usual Dead Hot attendees. Afterward, the band hung out with friends until well after dawn. Babb and Grippe now look like they got all of 15 minutes' sleep as they wander out for a 3 p.m. interview. As if on cue, the phone starts to ring. Various friends and visitors begin stopping by. The band's been home for a few weeks, and it's heading back for another tour in a few days. Babb, for one, can't wait.
"Between the door and the phone and the gigs, I haven't had time to do anything," he says, his pointed facial features assuming a look of resignation.
"It's relaxing to be on the road," adds Grippe. He's leaning forward, elbows on knees, his eyes fixed on the floor. "You've got just one thing to do every day, and that's all you have to do."
"Plus," says Babb, "you get to meet people and make friends--and then split."
Dead Hot may grouse about hometown social responsibilities, but it's a dance card the band passed around itself. Dead Hot Workshop shows have become social events, especially in Tempe. A line of locals wrapped around Gibson's for the band's return engagement from the road. Yet two weeks later, the turnout was exceedingly modest for a show at the Mason Jar, an apparent world away in Phoenix. Such is the insular nature of the Mill Avenue biosphere.
"It's the same with any popular local band," says Babb. "You go because you know all your friends are going to be there. At the bars around here, it doesn't even matter who's playing. You just go to a place like Wong's because you know who you're going to run into."
That kind of ritual can lead to laziness from both a band and its audience. Babb says it's "annoying as hell" to hear bar talk and chatter when the band's performing, though he says he'll sometimes eavesdrop from the stage if he hears a particularly interesting conversation between songs. As for Dead Hot's taking its flock for granted, Grippe says he couldn't be blas if he tried.
"I'm nervous to death if there's anyone out there," he says. "If there's only two people there, it's even worse."
Dead Hot's first-ever show was in front of a passing crowd in the parking lot of the 6 East bar across from Long Wong's in Tempe. It was 1987, and Dead Hot was one of the many side shows during one of Tempe's biannual arts fairs. Babb and Larson had played together in a band called Instant Karma, and Scott (then known as Brian Griffith) came over from the trippy Acid on Ann. After a couple of years, Dead Hot's original drummer left the band to join a Buddhist monastery. (He's since traveled through much of China, and still keeps in touch.) Grippe, who'd been drumming for Strangelove, eventually signed on in 1990.
A self-released cassette and a couple of trips to the South by Southwest soiree in Austin systematically increased Dead Hot's profile. By 1993, the band was inked by Bill Graham Management, the same Bay Area heavy hitters who handle the Gin Blossoms' itinerary. West Coast tours last year led to this year's more extensive road trip, including the aforementioned East Coast debut opening for Blue Rodeo.
The teaming with Blue Rodeo put Dead Hot in an unfamiliar position. The band found itself playing in front of a more sedate and often not entirely interested audience.
"It was older people that were there to listen to the music, not hang out and pick up chicks," Babb says of the Blue Rodeo crowd. "They were there to see that band, and we played while they waited. They were gracious. They'd sit there and clap at the end."
It's hard to tell what kind of an impression Dead Hot made on Blue Rodeo's fans. But Babb's pretty sure he and his bandmates "scared the hell" out of Blue Rodeo itself, especially early in the partnership. (Grippe: "I mean, their first taste of us was to hear a little bit of our music and then, while they're playing, watch us get escorted out by a cop.")
By the end of the tour, Blue Rodeo's slide guitarist and keyboard player felt safe enough to join in on a few Dead Hot songs, and the two bands wound up buddies. So much so that Babb was thinking of a special parting gift at tour's end.
"I wanted to get an obnoxious, middle-aged hooker and bring her on their bus and introduce her as my mother and then split. Have her get drunk and raise hell with them."
The plotting of pranks aside, Babb says Dead Hot learned a lot watching Blue Rodeo on the road. He says the Tempe tour virgins couldn't help but pick up pointers.
"We learned just by watching us getting our asses kicked every night by a pro band. There were shows where they'd come off all upset and we were thinking, 'Hey, great gig.' It made our good nights seem kind of weak."
One of Dead Hot's best nights was in Charleston, South Carolina. The band headlined a sold-out show in front of a Carolina crowd familiar with its songs. The reception was the result of radio play, specifically from one Charleston deejay who a few months ago played "E Minor," from Dead Hot's River Otis EP, and discovered a hit on the request lines. Band members rolled into town as minor celebrities. They say they were recognized in local restaurants, and Larson was considered a big deal when he registered for an open-mike night at a small club the night before the show.
"It's nice to know something's going on somewhere," says Babb.
Dead Hot plans on hitting South Carolina again on a tour that began only a couple of days ago. Indeed, Dead Hot plans to relocate to Charleston for the next couple of months. The idea is to use the city as a home base for ventures into Florida and other parts of the Deep South. There had been talk of hooking up with Charlie Sexton for a ten-week North American tour, but that one's still iffy.
Regardless of where Dead Hot winds up this summer, it'll be playing in support of a new CD, 1001. The disc, named after the street number of Tempe's long-gone Sun Club, is set for release June 20. Babb sighs and says he's heard that's the same release date for Neil Young and Pearl Jam's much-anticipated collaborative CD. "See ya in the bargain bin, Curtee," he says to Grippe.
1001 is a 14-song set recorded over the winter in Los Angeles with former Tom Petty engineer Jim Scott producing. The new disc differs from last year's River Otis EP in a variety of ways, most notably in tempo and mood. River Otis was somber and dark, a low-key, reflective effort heavy on introspection and short on energy. It was an effective piece of work for locals versed in recent Tempe history--the CD was dedicated to former Gin Blossom Doug Hopkins and two other locals who also died sudden, tragic deaths--but the disc's low energy levels made it less than scintillating for band and fans alike.
"Originally, the EP was kind of quiet because those were the songs that sounded best out of the ones we recorded," Babb explains. He adds that because Dead Hot was signed in the middle of the EP's recording session, the label started getting picky about which songs would make the final cut. Says Grippe, "After a while, we knew it was too somber, so we desperately tried to find a faster song. We had to stick on a recording of '257' that we didn't like. We had to do it just to give it a little bit of balls."
"The whole thing sounds stale now," Babb says of the EP.
1001 in some ways starts off mirroring the mood on River Otis. Babb sounds worn and weary on "A," 1001's opening cut: "Walked from here to hell today/World is young as it is wild/With every step you plan to take/Plan to walk another mile." From there, Babb's sociopolitical tunes steadily increase in energy, topping out on the fifth cut, "Choad," a Spinal Tap-type stomper and live-show highlight. The CD version, though, is hindered by an irritating wash of reverb on Babb's vocals. It's the only noticeable intrusion from producer Scott, who otherwise kept Dead Hot's mix of country and alternative guitar rock straightforward and representative.
Because of a recent consolidation at Atlantic Records, 1001 will be released on Atlantic's subsidiary Tag label, which swallowed Seed Records, the imprimatur on River Otis. Babb says Atlantic is promising a big push considering 1001 will be Tag's first release. He's heard the record company plans, among other things, to target different songs for varying radio formats. Dead Hot's also supposed to have a new song appear on the soundtrack to Empire, a Breakfast Club kind of film set in a record store. The soundtrack disc should also feature a new Gin Blossoms song co-written by Marshall Crenshaw.
The pairing of Dead Hot and the Blossoms on the Empire soundtrack continues a relationship the bands have shared for years: The two often performed together on bills at the Sun Club, where Grippe used to work booking local and national acts; the cover art for River Otis featured a photo of a naked Doug Hopkins meditating on a rock; GB singer Robin Wilson plays with Dead Hot bassist Scott in the Tempe cover group The Best David Swaffords in the World; and Wilson wore a Dead Hot tee shirt in front of a national TV audience when the Blossoms made their David Letterman show debut three years ago.
The familiarity has led some critics to find Gin Blossom tendencies in Dead Hot's songs. Babb doesn't buy it.
"It's like comparing apples and bricks," he says. "It's just a narrow way of looking at things. If we were from Minneapolis, everyone would think we sounded like Soul Asylum, or if we came from Georgia, like R.E.M."
Babb says he gets questions on the road about the Gin Blossoms--though he says there seemed to be more interest in the Meat Puppets, especially in major cities back East. Is the rest of the country taking an increased interest in Tempe bands, new and unknown? Are out-of-towners conducting a Mill Avenue Block Watch in search of the Next Big Scene?
Babb, again, isn't buying it.
"No, not at all," he says, leaning back, exhaling another mass of cigarette smoke in the air. "Trust me. A lot of people out there don't even know where the hell Tempe is.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.