BETTER RED THAN DEADHOW THE SAND RUBIES SURVIVED A SNAKEBITE
As nightclubs go, Nino's in Tucson was one of a kind. Loosely defined as a steak house, the club's food was an afterthought, being both cheap and bad. But no one went to Nino's for the food. What drew people was music. A crazy idea--booking bands in a checkerboard-floored side room--had turned Nino's into Tucson's most happening scene.
In 1985, a young guitar-bass-and-drums garage band called the Sidewinders was onstage at Nino's, doing its best R.E.M. impersonation. Writhing in white angst, the vocalist ground his lips into the microphone, screaming more than singing. The lead guitarist was a Seventies rock clod, complete with karate kicks copped from Ted Nugent. The other guitar player, a dedicated shoe gazer from the first note, stood hunched over, occasionally bobbing to the rhythms. The woman at the drum kit was simply trying to keep up. The only true musician, the bass player, simply wanted to get it over with.
When it came to volume and speed, this band had it down. Everything else was a wash. Its days seemed numbered.
Zoom forward two years. The Sidewinders still existed, but some faces had changed. The poseur guitarist was long gone. The shoe gazer, Rich Hopkins, had ascended to the post of bandleader-songwriter. The lead screamer, David Slutes, had become a singer, and his lyrics had become the band's trademark.
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Along with an engineer and cigarette-smoking girlfriends, they sat in the control booth at Westwood Studios in Tucson, toiling to finish an album, their second. They needed one more song, and it had to be an original. It was late. The meter was ticking on their studio time.
Everyone was quiet until the guitarist began strumming chords he'd been working on at home. He shaped them into a tentative melody. The vocalist began scribbling on a legal pad and singing to himself. The engineer threw out some suggestions for bass and drum parts.
An hour after they started, they were ready to play it through together. Twenty minutes later, "If I Can't Have You" was recorded in one take. As so often happens with spontaneous tunes, it was one of the best this band has ever written. It emerged as the finest cut on an album titled Auntie Ramos' Pool Hall.
In an astonishingly short time, this once-doomed band had actually learned to play its instruments, write songs and make records.
In 1988, it signed with RCA, becoming the only band in Arizona at the time to be on a major record label. Its first two albums, Witchdoctor and Auntie Ramos, both made it to No. 5 on the college-music charts, the most accurate gauge of new music. Singles like "Witchdoctor" and "We Don't Do That Anymore" received regional and national airplay. Somewhat to its chagrin, the band also became a leading light in a genre of alternative music that rock critics everywhere (but the Southwest) refer to as "desert rock" or the "Southwestern sound."
Over time the Sidewinders became Arizona's most accomplished alternative act, leavening its loud, Neil Young-derived guitar sound with pop melodies and lyrics about broken hearts and Arizona's "Bad, Crazy Sun." The band was dominated by Hopkins' feedback-filled solos and some bashing-eighth-note bass lines, but vocalist Slutes became the consummate front man, his singing prowess surpassed only by his stage schmoozing.
A series of tours--one opening for the Replacements--sold out top clubs and spread the Sidewinders' name. Best of all, checks were arriving in the mail from the group's record label. The band had achieved every musician's milestone--living solely on music.
Unfortunately, that's when it was the Sidewinders.
@body:David Slutes remembers the first time he heard Rich Hopkins suggest the name "Sidewinders."
"I thought, 'God, it sounds so Tucson.' It bordered on being cool or really stupid--it could've gone either way. I did like it better than 'Hohokam,' however, which was his other idea."
Once Slutes, Hopkins and the rest of the band signed a record deal and began to tour as the Sidewinders, they began hearing about other bands with the same moniker.
At their first Los Angeles show as the Sidewinders, Slutes says, "There was this guy in a leather jacket looking up at me with these big ol' sad eyes. After the show, he comes up and says, 'Here, you should take this.' He turns around and it was a leather jacket with 'Sidewinders' on the back. He goes, 'You got signed first, man.' I'll always think that guy had character. Because the other ones just sued us."
The Sidewinders were sued by a Top 40 cover band from North Carolina called Sidewinder.
"We thought we could live with them and they could live with us--Sidewinder and Sidewinders," Hopkins says. "They live in one world of the music business and we live in another. They aren't recording, we are. We have a record deal, they don't."
In actuality, the Sidewinders' label at the time, RCA, picked the fight. Someone from RCA heard an ad for Sidewinder in upstate New York. Because the Arizona band was viewed as a hot property, RCA's lawyers demanded that the North Carolina band cease and desist. The Tar Heels, who had recently won a prize on Star Search, were not intimidated. RCA's ploy backfired when Sidewinder sued for exclusive rights to the name. RCA played along until early 1991, when the legal bills rose to $80,000. At that point, the Sidewinders moved to another label, Ensign Records, which immediately settled out of court, giving away $25,000 in cash. And the name.
Suggestions for new names rolled in. "Cicadas" was seriously considered. "Chestnut Men" was rejected on grounds that it would have required skinny ties and matching suits. Hopkins' brother-in-law left a message on the answering machine suggesting "Sacred Fears."
In the end, they became Sand Rubies.
When the band members officially buried the old name in October, something inside them died, too. "Sidewinders was the band," Slutes says. "Sand Rubies has been associated with a lot of very negative stuff. When I feel good about the band, I still call ourselves the Sidewinders. Sand Rubies has been hell."
Hopkins explains, "It was a security thing--it was our name, for Chrissake. We sold 100,000 records under that name. We're getting over it slowly."
The Sand Rubies' new record label, Atlas, won't bill the band as "Formerly the Sidewinders."
Hopkins: "They want to work us like we're a brand-new band. In some respects, we really are."
@body:For the first time in two years, the Sand Rubies--ne the Sidewinders--are rehearsing every night, preparing for a tour to back their long-awaited new album, which is to be released on February 28.
Back Alley Studios in downtown Tucson is a beautiful, underground complex, hidden beneath a building that once served as the original home of Tucson's influential community FM radio station, KXCI. The band is plugged into the studio's small but powerful PA system. Everyone wears earplugs. Guitar cases are strewn about the sides of the stage.
"You'd rather watch a fucking basketball game than do this?" Hopkins half-yells.
Slutes, a diehard University of Arizona fan, is dying to watch the studio's television set, on which the UofA Wildcats are tangling with Arizona State University.
"C'mon, Dave, we've got to get down and get this," Hopkins nags.
Slutes shrugs deferentially, repeating, "Okay, okay," as he aimlessly strums his guitar.
Although none of the other three band members has been with the band longer than three months, they look bored as the bickering heats up. This is de rigueur, part of the everyday ego tug that makes Hopkins and Slutes such a potent songwriting and performing team. The Sidewinders and Sand Rubies were always duo projects--The Rich and Dave Show." In a creative sense, the symbiosis has served them well. But practically, it has also been an impediment, fostering exclusivity, engendering jealousies and driving wedges where bridges should be built.
Hopkins resides at the vortex of the band's storm. The guitarist has a well-earned reputation for volatility and arrogance. But his tenacity has made him a guitar player, independent-label owner and songwriter. Save for a stint in the Peace Corps in the early Eighties, Hopkins, 34, has never done anything but play and produce music. He bankrolled the first EP by what was then Tucson's best-known alternative band, Green on Red. Today, he's the sole owner of San Jacinto Records, an independent label that has released albums by Devils Wielding Scimitars, River Roses, Gin Blossoms and Black Sun Ensemble. Hopkins also recently became a father. In December he and his wife, Lu, had a daughter, Bailey.
With his tousled blond hair, David Slutes, 29, is single, the band's female bait. He is a Tucson native, son of a prominent lawyer. Like most junior-high hellions of his generation, the then-dark-haired Slutes first made music on the air guitar. By the time he was 16, he was sneaking into a bar called Tumbleweeds to see local punk bands like the Serfers and the Pills. Slutes attended a Catholic high school and, for fun, he fronted a garage band called Billy Bowel and the Movements. He spent time studying history at the University of San Diego, Pasadena College and the University of Arizona before finally dropping out to pursue music full-time. He's a Civil War buff.
"Dave and I definitely have a love-hate relationship. People tend to play up the hate part, but that's only half the story," Hopkins says. "There are a lot of times when I've had to ask myself, 'How much longer can I work with this guy?' But we're married to each other in a weird kind of way."
Slutes says, "In the past year, you knew things were going wrong with the band when Rich and I stopped arguing. I mean, when we were nearly arrested for fighting, rolling around the parking lot of a 7-Eleven in Tempe, times were good."
Personnel has been a problem. Last spring both bassist Mark Perrodin and drummer Bruce Halper quit. Although both gave personal reasons, both also say they had grown weary of "The Rich and Dave Show."
Perrodin joined the band in 1987 after disbanding his own group, Skull Taco. He left mostly because he was going broke waiting for that band's new record to come out. In addition, he was never allowed to record his songs on a Sidewinders-Sand Rubies recording. When advances for songwriting came in, Hopkins and Slutes split them.
"It had been four and a half years, and I hadn't been able to get the band to do one of my songs yet. It was time to move on," says Perrodin, who watched the Hopkins-Slutes collaboration the longest.
"It's like an exclusive boys' club," he says. "I think they could work with other people, but at this point, they're kind of trapped in a web of their own making. This has clicked, and they're going to ride it until it dies."
Halper echoes those views, but his biggest problem was a case of tinnitus. After several attempts to overcome it with bed rest and quiet, the pervasive ringing in his ears continued. "But the ears were just the last straw," he says. "During the making of the record, it stopped being fun anymore. The word is 'negativity.' I'm really proud of the record and I have good friends in the group, but let's say that I prefer to play in a band that has positive energy."
Halper has been playing (at lower volume) with another Tucson band, Chris Burroughs' Misfit Toys.
Since Halper and Perrodin departed, the Sand Rubies have been on a personnel merry-go-round. For a time, the rhythm section from another storied Tucson band, Giant Sand, joined up. Although those two players were part of one of the band's strongest lineups ever, bassist Scott Garber and drummer Tom Larkins ultimately decided they didn't want to tour as permanent members.
Bassist Nick Augustine joined last November. A talented veteran of Tucson's eminent blues-rock trio Rainer and Das Combo, Augustine is in it for the money.
Replacing Halper has been a struggle. Gil Rodriguez, a jazz drummer, quit after he and Hopkins clashed. The current drummer is Dan Lynch, who played with Tucson pop-rock singer Bobby Taylor. His future beyond the upcoming tour is anybody's guess.
The most surprising addition to the band is second guitarist Dave Seger. Along with Van Christian, Seger co-founded the seminal alternative band Naked Prey. That group's mid-Eighties albums on the Frontier label were a big influence on Hopkins. Seger was brought in to give the Sand Rubies a bigger sound on the upcoming tour. Both he and Augustine will sing back-up.
Hopkins is comfortable with Seger, because they grew up together in Tucson. Seger taught Hopkins to play guitar. Because of their history together, both say there will be no "guitar ego" problems.
"Naked Prey was one of those bands where there are two songwriters and the band can't support both," Seger says. "I got disgusted with going over to Europe and drinking and playing. This is a new opportunity for me. Any other band, I wouldn't have done it."
The addition of Seger completes a circle that began to form on April 13, 1985--two days before Slutes' 22nd birthday. That night the Sidewinders played their first gig--opening for Seger's band, Naked Prey.
Covers of songs by Chris Spedding, Jefferson Airplane and the Blues Magoos composed the Sidewinders' repertoire. It wasn't long, though, before an original song, "I Should've Told You" (which became "I'll Go Home" on their first record), appeared in the set.
Until 1989, one of the most notable things about the band was that the drummers were women. Andrea Curtis, Hopkins' first wife, was also the band's first drummer. Though that marriage broke up in 1986, she stayed with the band for three years.
"I hate to say it," Hopkins says, "but the band was always bigger than the marriage." @rule:
@body:The Sidewinders' first record, Cuacha!, was released in 1988. Cuacha! (Latino slang for "shit") was the first album released on Hopkins' San Jacinto label. Although it was raw and the arrangements needed work, Cuacha! was better than most first records. The 1,000 LPs and 1,000 cassettes the band made up sold quickly. Today, some of these are advertised in the music collectors' tabloid Goldmine for as much as $30.
Cuacha! also inaugurated the band's trip down the legal-managerial highway to hell.
Tucson-music wanna-be Bob Lambert convinced the band that he'd get them a record deal in exchange for its publishing rights. He fulfilled his end of the bargain by placing Cuacha! with a small label in England, Demon Records. When the band later signed a real record deal with Mammoth/RCA, a lawsuit erupted and was not settled until 1990. The band's publishing rights now reside with Ensign Records.
In March 1988, a month after Cuacha! came out, the band played a showcase at Austin, Texas' annual South by Southwest music festival. Jay Faires saw that set and quickly signed the band to his fledgling label, Mammoth Records. Within a month, Faires had a deal with RCA, and the band's first Mammoth/RCA album, Witchdoctor, was released in April 1989.
Witchdoctor is a classic example of why this band has always been a tick smarter than its competition.
Recorded in Tucson at the Sound Factory and at Westwood Studios and mixed in Los Angeles, Witchdoctor was completed (cover art included) for $3,000, a paltry sum considering that RCA released it without changing a thing. In contrast, RCA spent $60,000 on the video for the first single, "Witchdoctor." The key to making a major-label-ready album that cheaply is that both Hopkins and Slutes enjoy tinkering in the studio. Over the years, it's made their records better and saved them money in studio bills. Witchdoctor brought the band its first real success. The driving title cut, the rock ballad "Bad, Crazy Sun" and an unlikely electric cover of Neil Diamond's "Solitary Man" all began receiving airplay. Some markets, including Boston, became pockets of support. New drummer Diane Padilla added fresh energy. A glowing review made the cover of the College Music Journal (CMJ), and during the tour that followed, critics dripped hyberbole.
"I remember sitting and watching MTV when they were doing the college-chart countdown," Slutes says, switching to a clipped, "Downtown" Julie Brown-style British accent. "At No. 6, the Cult; at No. 5, the Sidewinders; at No. 4, the Cure.' I'm thinking, the Cult and the Cure, not bad."
The problem was that RCA was entering a slide that has made it the worst-run of the six major labels. In a nutshell, the label gave up promoting the album too soon. Although then-RCA president Bob Buziak liked the band--he called Hopkins "Richie"--the relationship began to sour when Witchdoctor stalled at No. 5. Convinced a second record would help, RCA ponied up $50,000. Auntie Ramos' Pool Hall was released in May 1990. A single from that disc, "We Don't Do That Anymore," got steady airplay. Representatives of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign wanted to use the song as background for a TV commercial. The band declined.
Again, the songwriting and playing continued to improve. Again, that album made it to No. 5 on the college charts before falling off. And again, RCA failed to promote it with much zest. Before Auntie Ramos was released, the band finally acquired professional management in the person of Alex Hodges, who was also Stevie Ray Vaughan's manager. But Hodges soon got into a dispute with the record label, and the band had to let him go.
Enter Mike Lembo. Owner of New York-based Mike's Artist Management, Lembo has a singular modus operandi: Attack. It's not surprising that he and Hopkins regularly have verbal slugfests. But he was what the band needed.
"The first thing he did," Slutes says, "was storm into RCA's headquarters and say, 'I'm takin' this band outta here. RCA stands for "Record Cemetery of America." We're outta here.'"
Lembo then cut a deal with Ensign, Chrysalis Records' exclusive custom label and home at that time to acts like Sinad O'Connor, Blue Aeroplanes, the Waterboys and World Party.
In the summer of 1991, the band spent nine weeks in Los Angeles, making its third record. With a budget around $250,000, it was going to be the one that put the group over the top.
Unfortunately, no sooner was the album finished than Chrysalis, of which Ensign was a part, was sold to another company, EMI. The new owners decided they didn't like the Sand Rubies' album, and its release date was canceled. The entire project plunged into limbo. By the summer of 1992, Hopkins and Slutes were ready to hang it up. "There were a lot of dark moments when we'd look at each other and say, 'That's it,'" Slutes says. "But something would always draw us back."
"It's been seven years," Hopkins adds. "It always came down to it being important to stay together and see this record through."
Last summer the band got its first good news in a year. PolyGram, one of the world's six major record labels, created a custom alternative label, Atlas Records, whose president, Nick Gatfield, was a friend of Lembo. Gatfield decided Sand Rubies would be the label's first release.
In its January 16, 1993, issue, Billboard magazine described the new album as "a modern rock opus" featuring "pungent yet melodic guitar workouts." The "lost" album has a champion pedigree. It was produced by Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, longtime studio ace Waddy Wachtel, Neil Young producer David Briggs, Larry Hirsch and the team of Slutes and Hopkins. It also contains "Interstate," a previously unrecorded Neil Young song, given to the band with Young's blessing. And because $250,000 buys a lot of production value, it sounds superb.
Sand Rubies was recorded in eight different studios in L.A., including Campbell's house, site of Traveling Wilburys sessions. (Campbell unnerved Slutes by noting that Roy Orbison's saliva might still be on his microphone.)
Mixed in England, the finished master tape contained 22 songs. Ensign, the band and Lembo cut it to the 11 songs that are on the finished album. For some reason, the outstanding pop tune "Paper Thin Line" and the murky rocker "Primeval Love" didn't make the cut. Although there were five different producers of record--a prescription for a wildly uneven record--Sand Rubies turned out to be a coherent mix of power pop, loud rockers and meandering, feedback ballads.
That's not to say that the all-star lineup of producers hasn't put its stamp on the album. Wachtel gave tunes like "Your Life Story" a pop veneer. The Briggs-produced cuts, like "Drugged," have a raw, live feel. Most surprising of all, though, is "Guns in the Churchyard," the single Mike Campbell-produced tune that survived the cut. Hearing the Sand Rubies become the Heartbreakers, complete with strummed Rickenbackers, is a shock.
"Briggs was the most exciting person I've ever worked with," Hopkins says. "He got off the plane in L.A. and said, 'I've just come down from the ranch and Neil says you can do one or two of his songs.' We only did one, 'Interstate,' because we didn't have enough time. Neil's done it, in a bluegrass style, with his country band, International Harvesters, but he never recorded it. "I was always hoping Neil Young would call us up and say, 'Good job,' but it didn't happen."
Until this album, the Sand Rubies have been one drop in the sea of guitar-band music that's all lumped under the overworked heading "alternative." The new album is more mainstream. Tunes like "Santa Maria Street" have a bigger, hard-rock sound that AOR (album-oriented rock) radio may fancy. At least that's what the band's management and record label are hoping.
"It's the right time for a record like this," says Gatfield, president of Atlas Records. "It's not in-your-face Seattle shit. In fact, I think grunge can really be just an excuse not to write good songs.
"This is the best record Rich and Dave have ever made." The band's manager wants to go even further.
"I began working with this band because I thought I could take them to another level, move them out of alternative and into the mainstream," Lembo says. "We want to work this record to AOR radio and even Top 40."
@body:At Back Alley Studios, Hopkins rolls his eyes at the mention of Top 40.
Onstage, vocalist Slutes is clowning. "Now we'd like to cover a tune by that extinct Arizona band the Sidewinders," he says, all smiles. "We're about to sign with K-Tel any day now."
The Sand Rubies laugh--something they haven't done in a long time.
"The new record is coming to life again, because we're coming to life again," Slutes says. "It was associated with so much negativity that who wanted to listen to it?"
Hopkins agrees. "The creative process had stopped. We stopped writing songs. We still haven't written any new music. When it comes out, I'll believe it. We've been strung out so long.
"At least now there's a chance that something good could happen again.
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