When Earps frontman "Hotwheels" McGregor compares his band to Spinal Tap, he's not referring to his band's music (although a song like "Hoggin!" might owe at least a small debt of gratitude to Tap's "Big Bottom"). It's just that the Earps' recent travails remind McGregor of the near-constant onslaught of bad luck that befalls the fictional heavy metal band.
After a productive 2007 that saw The Earps ink a deal with Colorado indie label Big Bender Records, release their debut album, Here Come The Earps, and tour the country, last year was "the fuckin' worst year for us, ever," says McGregor. With gas prices hovering around $4 per gallon, The Earps couldn't afford additional touring to support the album. To make matters worse, the band learned in late 2008 that longtime lead guitarist "Ump" was moving to Oklahoma for family reasons. With no money to tour and no guitarist to even play local shows, some fans assumed the band had called it a day.
"There's been a couple people who were like, 'Are you guys still a band? What's going on?'" McGregor says. "Out of sight, out of mind, I guess."
Marquee Theatre in Tempe
The Earps are scheduled to perform on Friday, April 24.
The band placed an ad on Craigslist and auditioned several potential guitarists, but ultimately, it was a recommendation from Ump himself that led them to their newest member, "Denver" Dane. Dane, who has honed his chops playing for local acts Oktober, and Chad Freeman and Redline, and has even sat in with national artist Jason Ringenberg (of Jason & the Scorchers fame), turned out to be a natural fit for The Earps. Dane was drawn to the band's blend of glam-metal distortion and debauchery tempered by old-school country twang.
"It works out perfect for me, 'cause I can play straight-up country, like real traditional country, and I can also play Zakk Wylde, fuckin' hardcore metal," Dane says. "So it works out great 'cause I get to go all over the board . . . As a guitar player, this is probably the happiest I've been."
Onstage and on their album, The Earps embody the hard-partying, devil-may-care attitude of vintage '80s cock rock. But behind the tongue-in-cheek stage names — McGregor and Dane are joined by bassist "Buckshot" George and drummer "Marvelous" Matt Maverick — and paeans to women, wine, and whiskey ("Devil's Bed") and hookers and blow ("I Love Las Vegas") lies a band with legitimate marketing acumen. They may be loath to admit it, but The Earps actually put a lot of thought into looking like they don't give a shit.
During their search for a new guitarist, image was nearly as important as talent. With George already playing the role of '70s glam rocker and Maverick channeling Hollywood hair metal, the band was wary of moving too far in the butt rock direction. The new guitarist needed to replace not only Ump's guitar licks, but his "good ol' boy" image as well.
"We needed another 'Bubba,'" George says. They found him in Dane, whose cowboy hat and jeans ensure that The Earps will retain their country heart.
The band also believes in the old-fashioned methods of earning fans one at a time, through constant touring and word of mouth.
"You see these MySpace bands," McGregor laments, "and it's like 'All right, 10 million plays, guys? Fuckin' 80,000 friends? What program did you buy to collect all those friends?' We signed up on MySpace like five years ago and we've barely had 100,000 views."
But touring doesn't always pay instant dividends either.
"We've been to the East Coast and back," McGregor says. "It's kind of humbling, 'cause you think you're gonna do this and that and all these people are gonna come out and see you. It definitely gives you the experience, and I think that gives you more of an advantage over a lot of other bands. But playing Springfield, Missouri, on a Tuesday night to five people and the sound guy? Dude, you don't even understand how fuckin' humbling that is."
The Earps are fortunate to have jobs that allow them to tour. George and Maverick both say their "rock star" status is a novelty around the workplace, while Dane has a musician's dream day job: working for Scottsdale guitar-maker Fender. Fender subsidiary Gretsch is providing Dane with a guitar for upcoming tours and is considering adding him to their roster of sponsored artists.
McGregor works as a bus mechanic and also moonlights as a Marquee Theatre security guard, which indirectly led to one of The Earps' biggest gigs to date. McGregor says he was expecting the worst when he was summoned to the LuckyMan offices before a recent shift. But instead of firing him, his bosses asked him if The Earps wanted to open for Reverend Horton Heat.
"I was like, 'Let me think about that for a second. Uh, yeah!'" McGregor recalls.
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The job has also given McGregor a unique perspective on the music industry and has reinforced his belief in The Earps' party band image.
"There's a lost entertainment element that nobody does anymore," McGregor says. "I've seen that a lot lately, working at Marquee. I've seen a shitload of bands come through — and these are like heavy-hitter acts or whatever — and these guys, I'd say nine out of 10 bands come in there, the guys look like they just got done mowing the lawn. I'm like, 'Are you fucking kidding me? I know you've been on the road. I know that you're tired and everything, but you know what? You've gotta suck it up. You're a fucking entertainer. The crowd seeing you that night expects you to look like how you did in an interview (or) in a video.' You don't go see a Mötley Crüe concert with Vince Neil and those guys wearing sweatpants and oversized T-shirts."
With a new guitarist, a new album in the works, and a high-profile gig this weekend, it would appear that The Earps have finally put their bad luck behind them. Even gas prices have dropped significantly in the past year, allowing the band to return to the road for shows in Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Albuquerque. But Spinal Tap moments persist. In recent ads for the Horton Heat gig, the band was listed as "The Ears."
"We've seen our name fucked up before," McGregor laughs, "but it'll be like E-R-P-S, or fuckin' A-R-P-S, or maybe even A-R-E-P-S, but nobody's ever left out the "P," ever."