Dead Hot Workshop’s personal appearances could rival the groundhog for infrequency.
Like that reclusive rodent, the local legends have one guaranteed day when they emerge from hibernation to cast their long shadow on the local music scene. In a town that bulldozes anything before it can become a tradition, Dead Hot Workshop have managed to host an annual Thanksgiving Eve show for 23 years.
It’s a custom that, according to the band’s drummer Curtis Grippe, “just sorta happened.”
“It had been the night that everybody came back into town,” he continues. “And we always play it with The Pistoleros, so Mark Zubia said we should just do this every year. We used to do it at Nita’s Hideaway. When Charlie Levy bought the Crescent Ballroom, he said, ‘Keep doing your thing here.’ And it got big.”
This year, Dead Hot Workshop may exceed their annual four- or five-show quota because the band keep getting honored for their storied past.
It should be noted that the band aren’t lobbying for this immortalization. These things “just sorta happened.” In July, they were inducted into Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame in a ceremony that also honored Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, and The Pistoleros. A week after their Thanksgiving Eve gig, the band are getting a sidewalk plaque from the Downtown Tempe Authority and the Tempe Festival of the Arts.
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Grippe says, “I told my wife I think some of the people that used to come to our shows have drifted into the city council and they’re going, ‘Well, what about (giving it to) Dead Hot?’ Those kinds of things are neat. To me, it’s a band recognition.”
With all this increased visibility, some new Dead Hot music would seem in order. Rest assured, the band indeed have been working on an album.
How and why it’s taken so long for the band to release something (their last album was 2010’s Heavy Meadow) all stems from Grippe’s popular home studio, STEM Recording, and the time it affords him and Dead Hot songwriter Brent Babb, the man who Robin Wilson of the Gin Blossoms called “the single-most visionary and prolific songwriter of our music scene” at the Arizona Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
Grippe and Babb have been working at it every Monday night for about four years. “We’ll be in here from 7 o’clock till 1 in the morning, and we have fun,” he beams before shaking his head. “I wish timeliness was more of a factor. Sometimes he’ll come in and say, ‘I’ve got this demo.’ What he’s trying to recreate is a guitar delay malfunction that occurred years ago in some archaic recording. And we’ll use all this time going down that rabbit hole, and maybe discover four other cool things along the way.”
STEM Recording is a far cry from how he and Babb began their self-recording career together. “I had a 16-track reel-to-reel and 16-track board. Me and Brent wore that thing out. We wrote a lot of stuff in those days we ended up working on later. That studio was at Farmer and University, where Brent and I lived together for eight years until 2000.”
In 1994, the band signed with Atlantic Records subsidiaries Seed and later Tag Recordings. This was back when major labels weren’t considered cool by alternative rock circles, so they all had phantom indies. Some Tempe bands were snapped up in the “next Seattle” signing frenzy, just to prevent other labels from signing them first.
However, Grippe maintains that “Atlantic put us on the road, paid us to make records. We toured with the Gin Blossoms twice, Joan Osborne, Blue Rodeo twice, Dishwalla. We’d stop with one tour and get on another. Some of the best years of my life were touring, but we were done by 2000.”
Grippe admits that Dead Hot Workshop never broke through big enough to tour nationally on their own. “For us, the lack of radio airplay kept us back,” he says. “I don’t know how to do that. More poppier songs? There are heartbreaking points along the way in a career like ours. Losing your record deal is one, and there’s the realization you’re not getting another one. But from that point on, we’ve been on our own and make our own records.”
Grippe didn’t build STEM Recording as a commercial venture. He did it because trying to find a studio with a drum room to his liking was near impossible.
“As always everything I do in my musical world, Dead Hot weighs heavily on the decision. I wanted a place for us to make a record and not always worry about time. Brent’s never liked anything we did, and one thing that’s always been a factor was ‘I always wish we had more time.’ And now we have it. I don’t think the outcome will be any different,” he laughs.
“It’s nice to spend time without the pressure,” he continues. “Every time I get a new guitar or amp for the studio, we’ll go back and re-track all the songs again. And I just think Brent’s a genius. He’s not driven by ego, and it’s kind of a weird thing to encounter. I get to work with a lot of different types of talent, but working with him is just a completely different bag of tricks.”
Because the studio is synonymous with Tempe bands (Los Guys, Banana Gun, Ghetto Cowgirl, Japhy’s Descent, Tramps & Thieves, The Black Moods, Stephen Ashbrook, Wyves, and Sara Robinson to name a few), it comes as a bit of a surprise that the studio is located in Paradise Valley, in the house Grippe lives with his wife and daughters.
“I have friends who do this, and [they] told me, ‘You’re gonna burn out. You’ve gotta do national acts. You can’t just do local bands.’ And I get nationals in here,” says Grippe. “But I don’t advertise, I don’t try to manipulate things so I come up higher on Google. I’ve never asked anybody to like my page. But the studio gets plenty of work. I’ve always been a straight shooter with everybody. I have a history here and a reputation.”
That enduring reputation has been a magnet to attracting a new generation of talent on both local and national levels: Steph Griffin, The Joeys, Sliced Limes, Future Exes, and Jay Poole, as well as people from the old Mill Avenue heyday like Truckers on Speed and Shawn Johnson.
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Grippe’s cultivated reputation recently became something of an eye-opener for Grippe’s 17-year-old twin daughters. “My kids have never seen Dead Hot Workshop perform. They had kids in school that said, ‘My dad likes your dad’s band.’ But their first gig ever was the Hall of Fame thing. Ninety percent of the people had old Dead Hot shirts. It was neat for them to see to understand our band. They’ve known Brent all their lives and think of him as their uncle, not as a frontman.”
And when Grippe and his wife sent one of his daughters to start school in the ASU dorms, they encountered faculty members who were fans. During a visit to Postino near campus, the Grippes spied a Dead Hot poster right near their booth.
Becoming the next big thing would’ve been cool. But Dead Hot Workshop have managed to become part of our cultural landscape. And like Thanksgiving Eve, it’s something that “just sorta happened."
Dead Hot Workshop are scheduled to perform on Wednesday, November 27, at Crescent Ballroom. Tickets are $10 via Eventbrite.
Editor's note: In a previous version of this online article and the print edition, Brent Babb's name was misspelled and incorrectly stated the year that the Gin Blossoms were inducted into Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame. We deeply regret these errors.