The Label Dinner
The scene here in a back room of an upscale Mexican eatery in old town San Diego looks like "The Last Supper" gone indie rock. Margaritas are flowing instead of wine, and the disciples have been replaced with a dozen young record-label reps in band tee shirts and tinted green shades who line both sides of the long wooden table. It's the body language that really nails the parallel--the slouches, the whispers, the agitated gestures and the hint of intrigue. There is a record deal in the air tonight.
Tough to say, then, who is Judas. The company in question is Alias Records, a Burbank, California-based modern-rock label that's been courting the Phoenix band Trunk Federation for several weeks. The offer that's on the table--almost literally in this case--is essentially the same long-term contract the band will be ready to sign later that month. But for now, there are still minutiae to be worked out. And record labels--even white-hat, noncorporate "indie" ones--take contract minutiae seriously.
The owner of Alias has brought almost her entire West Coast staff to San Diego for the band's show later this night at Brick by Brick, a rock club near Mission Beach. The move is part wine-and-dine goodwill expedition, part power play. The etiquette for outsiders here is: Have a drink, but trust no one. Looking for any edge in the negotiations, the label's lawyer pumps an unsuspecting friend of the band for information before she can even order--what do they want with this, how low will they go on that? In another context, the lawyer's behavior would be outright rude. Here, it comes with the territory, and it comes with a smile.
Three of the four musicians in Trunk Federation are eating at the less crowded of the two banquet tables, along with Alias owner Delight Jenkins and several Alias retail and radio product reps. Grubbing on chips and salsa is bass player Mark Frostin, who looks like Son of Sam serial killer David Berkowitz with an Afro ("I do not," says Frostin. "His nose was thinner and he was bald. When you're about peace and love, it sure does suck being compared to a loony who killed people"). Next to Frostin is drummer Chris Kennedy, a social recluse who bangs the hell out of his skins ("The only way to bring out the sound is to hit the drums hard, especially in a live situation").
And chatting with Jenkins is guitarist Jason Sanford, a former Deadhead who holds a master's degree in international business management from the prestigious Thunderbird school in Glendale ("When I go to bed at night, I try to picture myself in a suit and I get a blank. Basically, I spent a lot of money to learn I prefer to play guitar").
The fourth band member--lead singer, sole lyricist and rhythm guitarist Jim Andreas--is currently puking in the bathroom. Jose Cuervo's not to blame--the strict policy in this band is no alcohol or pot until after the show, and Andreas doesn't drink, anyway.
But whether it's the result of a blitzkrieg stomach flu or too many herbal energy packets taken with too little food, Andreas is one sick puppy. He gets back to the table, but the sight of food just makes him more ill and he quietly asks Sanford for the van keys. His exit is deliberately subtle--no need to seem weak when you're on display--but he is obviously dizzy. It is 90 minutes to showtime.
Meanwhile, Frostin has spotted the lawyer grilling his friend and wrests her away for a debriefing outside. "Musicians want to believe that the indie-label attitude has nothing to do with money, but that's a delusion," Frostin said a few days before the San Diego trip. "Unfortunately, once you start working on a deal, you have to separate the music from the business, or else . . ." Sanford finished the thought for him: "You better climb up the learning curve pretty quick, and you better watch your back."
Things are not looking good backstage.
It is ten minutes until Trunk Federation is supposed to go on, the Alias people have positioned themselves near the speakers, and Jim is throwing up again. Actually, still might be more accurate. Whatever got inside him is big-time bad medicine--he is pale, shaking and weak on his feet. Brick by Brick's owner comes out to the alley, takes one look and tells Jim he doesn't have to do the show. The owner's tone of voice says there is no fucking way he thinks Andreas is going to do anything anytime soon except go to bed or fall over.
The other band members are nothing but supportive--it is clearly Jim's call. And his call is to do the show. Steeling himself, Andreas shoulders his guitar and takes the stage, choking back a spasm of nausea even as he steps into the floodlights.
Andreas knows all too well what it's like to be sick and have to fight it. From the time he was 19 until he was 24, the singer was a drug addict--hooked on alcohol, heroin and cocaine. He went through five treatment programs before finally kicking the habit cold turkey after overdosing riding on a Greyhound bus.
"I put two or three grams of coke in a can of Mountain Dew and drank it," he says. "I had a seizure. They pulled over the bus and I remember kind of coming out of it with the bus stopped. And I remember being on the bus for the whole rest of the ride with all these people staring at me, and I was like, 'Man, I have had it with this.'"
A few days after the band got back to Phoenix from San Diego, Andreas would say he thinks part of the reason he got so sick is that his immune system is in tatters from five years of abuse. Andreas says he has been clean since 1990.
Knowing the condition Trunk Fed's singer was in at the Brick by Brick show made watching it excruciating and exhilarating at the same time--like viewing a high-wire act. At any minute, you expected Andreas to fall on his face; you couldn't help but take joy in the spectacle, because somehow he was pulling it off. Andreas made it through six songs of the band's ten-song set, then hastily called "last song." The band burst into "Jello," its trademark show closer. After the last shouted chorus, Andreas muttered "bonsoir" into the mike and shuffled offstage. Once outside, he sank down and started dry-heaving. It would be 36 hours before he could eat. Inside, the unsuspecting crowd was abuzz. It had been a good set.
The Recording Deal
Trunk Federation's rise in the Valley music scene has been steady but hardly meteoric since it formed in the summer of 1994. Last year, the band cut two seven-inch vinyl singles that sold a few hundred copies each and got scattered college-radio play. By the late fall of '95, Trunk Fed had generated a critical mass of local fans, and started playing isolated shows in Tucson and Southern California. Then, in December, the band got its break. His name was Rajan.
Rajan was an intern for Alias Records at the time. He was also promoting a show in Phoenix by the Poster Children and Alias stars Archers of Loaf, and hired Trunk Federation to open. After the gig, Rajan told the band he liked its style and said he could get a tape to the right people at Alias.
"You play shows and it seems like every night someone comes up to you and says, 'Look, I know someone, you should give me a tape,'" says Andreas. "Which is fine--you give everybody a tape. We just happened across someone who actually gave it to someone who actually listened to it."
An Alias A&R rep called the band in early January, asking for a schedule of live dates. Trunk Federation was booked the next weekend for an L.A. club called the Fabulous Foothills, and Andreas invited the label out. The audience was small that night, the band remembers, but the show was tight and the vibe was good. Several women did cartwheels in front of the stage. Delight Jenkins was there. "They grabbed me," she says. "I sign only what I like, and I liked this band."
Two weeks later, Trunk Federation was looking at a "deal memo"--a draft document of proposed terms that's the first solid step to a contract offer. Under the advice of the band's manager, Gloria Cavalera, the band started negotiating. Then Trunk Fed landed a highly competitive showcase spot at South by Southwest, an annual rock conference in Austin, Texas, and other labels--including heavy hitters Atlantic and A&M--started putting out feelers. Atlantic later sent a deal memo.
Not that Trunk Federation ever wanted to play major-league ball--fatter advance money or not. "A major will offer you more money up front, but the thing is, if your record doesn't take off, they're like, 'Sorry, man, we can't afford you. You're dropped,'" says Andreas. "With an indie, say you do a record and it only sells 10,000 units. They're like, 'That's cool, let's try again.' They take the time and effort to grow a band. It's a custom job. And there's less of a chance that you were just a tax write-off to begin with."
Trunk Federation and Cavalera publicly played their cards close to the vest up to and after SXSW, but Alias was the band's label of choice from the outset. Whereas most labels today--major and otherwise--take a shotgun approach to signing bands (launch 100 and hope one hits the bull's eye), Alias plays sharpshooter. Jenkins says Trunk Federation will be the first band Alias signs this year.
The label struck gold last year with a smash album by the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, band Archers of Loaf, whose sound is in the same rough genre as Trunk Federation's eccentric brand of power pop.
Trunk Fed plays guitar rock. But it's extremely intricate, highly contagious guitar rock, motivated by multiple hooks, shout-along choruses and whiplash dynamics. The band is extremely tight, able to go from screaming loud to dead silence in a finger snap. When he's not firing off a heavy riff in unison with Andreas, Sanford accents a song with quirky wah-wah squawks and tracers of feedback. "You have to be nimble at the volume we deal with," he says. "But anytime you're turned up that loud, things are going to be a little sloppy, a little slack. You've got a genie on a leash."
In the wrong hands, Trunk Federation could easily be dumbed down into a competent but generic grunge knockoff that might sell more records, but would have less character. Which is why the band wanted to ink with Alias. "We think they understand the value of being charmingly fucked up," says Sanford.
Throughout February, the haggling continued. Deal memo; response. Deal memo; response. The poker game started to fray the band's nerves. "When good things first started happening, nothing was casual anymore," says Andreas. "It got serious in a hurry, and everyone started getting weird and edgy."
The point of contention was obvious: No one wanted Alias to take its toys and go home, but band members disagreed on how far to push it. The crux issues were standard recording-contract fare--publishing rights; "points," or the royalty percentage the band gets from every recording sold; and "perks," like whether the record label buys the band a tour van and, in Trunk Federation's case, whether it picks up the long-distance tab for Kennedy's calls home to his wife and 3-year-old son from the road.
"I love them both so much, it's going to be really rough," Kennedy says. Trunk Federation will start touring seven to ten weeks at a time this summer, with two to three weeks between circuits. "The way I see it is a trade-off. That's what I have to do to make a living in music, and I don't want to have some lame blue-collar job for the rest of my life, so I'm not about to give this up for anything. But it's going to be stressful . . ."
The most critical section of a recording contract, however, is often the "recoupables," or how much of the band's advance money and promotional, recording and tour expenses come off the top of record-sale profits.
It's the recoupables that can make a term like "six-figure recording contract" extremely misleading, and this is where many bands get burned. If too much of a band's profit is recoupable, it can have a hit recording and conceivably never see a dime. Think of hitting a jackpot, watching all the coins come down, and then having some guy in a suit walk up, point out the fine print and scoop them all into his pocket. Whether Trunk Federation's publicity costs would be recoupable was a primary stumbling block in its talks with Alias. "This process is necessary but frustrating," Jenkins says in San Diego, sounding impatient. "I just want to get them in the studio and get going."
Jenkins will soon get her wish. Trunk Federation is scheduled to record in Los Angeles next month, and the band's Alias debut--working title The Infamous Hamburger Transfer--should be out by Thanksgiving.
Trunk Federation's rhythm section is always late. Late for interviews. Late for practice. And, right now, late for the band's designated meeting time at its Tempe practice space to load up the U-Haul and get an early start on the road trip to San Diego. It is now 4:30 p.m. Frostin and Kennedy, who always ride together, are nowhere in sight. Sanford, the health nut in the band, leaves to get a hummus sandwich. "I knew it," he says, pulling back into the practice-space parking lot to find no sign of his tardy bandmates. "I'm giving them the silent treatment all the way to San Diego."
Frostin and Kennedy finally show up at 5:15, entirely unrepentant. "We're just slackers," says Frostin later. "We both live far from the practice space, we always car-pool, and we have other priorities. We like to get that extra wink before practice, get that last drink or go out to dinner. Usually I'm late because I'm on a date or something. And Chris is married and has a kid--if he gets off work and wants to spend some extra time with them, am I gonna say 'hurry up'? No."
By ten to 6, the trailer is loaded and Trunk Federation is on the road. Andreas, who works days as a courier, says the road time passes easily for him. But this band doesn't really know about road time. Not yet. Until the South by Southwest gig, Trunk Federation's road dates were all within a half-day's driving range from Phoenix. Hearing the band members complain about the grueling 16-hour drive to Austin makes one wonder if they know what they're in for.
"We tagged like an hour onto the trip because Mark and I got us lost," says Andreas. "Everyone else was asleep. We went looking for a shortcut and wound up on this back road between El Paso and Austin that was just lined with road kill. There were all these dead deer, and then all of a sudden there were all these live ones, just standing at the edge of the road. It was spooky, man. It was like they were going to organize and kamikaze us."
The singer jacks the new Flaming Lips album, Clouds Taste Metallic, into the tape deck. The first song, "Kim Shot My Watermelon Gun," starts off with a piercing, singsong guitar line that slowly builds to a peak, then slides into a crash of drums, bass, and jagged, high-volume guitar interplay.
The band members are quiet, and follow the process intensely. When the music swoops up into the more straightahead pop melody that propels the rest of the song, they start to talk again. "Man, I fucking love this band," says Sanford. "My dream is to tour with them." Asked the standard influences question, the band cites, in order of importance, the Flaming Lips, the Beatles and Archers of Loaf. Oh, yeah--and Devo and Kiss, for live shows.
"We're not one of those bands whose idea of dressing for a gig is deciding what tee shirt to put on," says Sanford. Trunk Federation stagewear ranges from matching Hawaiian shirts to gas-station overalls, and Sanford changes sunglasses about five times a set, Elton John-style.
The band also has a penchant for Easter Island-head Christmas lights and other odd stage props--like the silver-sequined mannequin head that spins in place on the top of Sanford's amp stack. And no critic will ever be able to slap Trunk Fed with the "shoegazer" label--the band plays barefoot, except for Frostin. "I have hobbit feet," he explains.
Trunk Fed has faced criticism from local musicians who've accused the band of eclipsing the music with its live show, but the band makes no apologies for the flashy presentation, or the high-gloss polish of its sound. Once the band is active in the national indie-rock scene, the two factors will likely bring it under even more fire for defying the no-frills approach and stridently anticommercial sound that determines a band's "indie cred." Kennedy could care less.
"Indie cred is bullshit. When punk rock started, it was like the bottom of the barrel hanging out together. And all the ugly girls went punk rock. And it got popular, and all the pretty women tried to make themselves ugly so they could be punk rock, too.
"That's what indie credibility is. Bands are supposed to make themselves suck enough that the music snobs like you. It's ridiculous."
Kennedy stops to point out the blue orb of Venus rising over a moonscape rock formation about a mile ahead. The conversation changes tack to the recent shift in the band's sound. "We're starting to move out of phase one--all those full, heavy-feedback pop songs--but we'll keep playing them, and we want to get them down on the first record."
Phase two, the band says, is turning out to be more mellow and experimental. "The kind of stuff where the first time they hear it, the audience will just be sort of standing there looking at us when we're done," says Andreas. "It's less immediate." There will still be hooks, Sanford says, they just won't be as huge or sharp. "We'll always stay on the perimeter of pop sensibility."
The word around the Valley music scene is that Trunk Federation is named after Winnie Ruth Judd, Phoenix's infamous "trunk killer," who in 1931 killed two women and dismembered one and packed the body parts into steamer trunks which she took with her on a train to L.A. (Judd got busted when one of the trunks started to stink and leak blood.)
But Andreas says he just stuck the words together at practice one day and thought they sounded good. Once the rumor got started, however, the band gleefully helped it along--Trunk Federation's first local single was titled "Winnie," and several Trunk Fed songs contain oblique references to the murders, such as "chop you up into little parts" from "Young Cherry Trees."
Andreas, who writes all his lyrics by free association, says he doesn't know where the word "trunk" came bubbling from. But "federation" was a clear nod to the band's tight interpersonal and creative bonds, which he says were an almost instant mesh.
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"It's been this lineup or nothing since the beginning," he says. "And now it feels pretty crazy. I mean, it's all working. We've come to the turning point where now we have to quit our jobs and say, 'Well, we got what we wanted. It looks like we're going to be together in a band for a long time."
Just past the California border, Frostin spots the lights of several off-road vehicles sparkling like fireflies on a distant set of dunes. He suggests the band use a version of the image for its first video. "It'd be a good excuse to rent some dune buggies."
Trunk Federation is scheduled to perform on Friday, April 26, at Hollywood Alley in Mesa, with Beatrice Nine, and Shallow. Showtime is 9 p.m.