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Heritage Hump Day: Undertow - "Candybox"

Every Wednesday is Heritage Hump Day! That's because every Wednesday from now to the end of the year or before someone really big stops us, Heritage Hump Records (a temporary subsidiary of Onus Records) and New Times will be bringing you a limited edition collector's item of a much beloved Phoenix band that walked the scorched earth of Arizona before the year 2000 A.D. We will honor that band with a commemorative digital single that you, the digital public, will have only seven days to download to your computers and smart phones before this single gets marked up to an exorbitant price as determined by the mp3 collector community. When that happens, a new Heritage Hump subject will be chosen and the free-for-a-limited-time-only cycle begins anew.

This week we examine a band whose membership reads like a Who's Who of our local music scene. Converging at one time or another in this alternative, goth, hard rock, and metal band (are we leaving a genre out?) called Undertow were members of Crushed, Gentlemen Afterdark, Dead Hot Workshop, Saints of Van Buren, Ritual, Mighty Sphincter, Rabid Rabbit and Jagged Rocks.

When this Brian Smith profile on Crushed ("Crushed: We're an American Band") ran in New Times on December 16, 1999, singer Matt Lauer was asked by Atlantic Records to write some radio songs for Crush along the line of Sugar Ray or Smashmouth. Of course that didn't happen.

See also: The Phoenix Music Scene Bucket List

Buried in that article is a capsized history of Undertow, the band that preceded Crushed, with some of Lauer's pre-Undertow history thrown in for good measure:

"Lauer has been playing in Phoenix clubs nearly as long as Bruce Connole. Like Connole, he was born and raised in Phoenix. Lauer's first band of any note was a mid-'80s pop combo called Mental Pictures. Mental Pictures did shows supporting Doug Hopkins' pre-Blossoms quartet Algebra Ranch.

"I remember standing outside Anderson's Fifth Estate talking to Doug Hopkins," Lauer chuckles, "and he has to excuse himself to go throw up. Then he just comes back and starts talking to you again."

From the dust-heap of Algebra Ranch rose the pop tones of Undertow. Undertow was a cadre of local celebs and included drummer Alan Ross Willey, ex-Gentlemen Afterdark guitarist Robin Johnson, Lauer on bass and Harry McCaleb on guitar.

Seven years and various lineup changes later (exit Johnson and Willey, enter Rich Contidino, Mark Cady and Jerry Stevens), Undertow varied its poppy Wire Train/Replacements stance and adopted a heavier UK-inspired metal sound. The band dissolved in 1992, after much love and demo money from Sire Records, and building a huge and loyal local following.

"Really, Sire was the only thing we had going, and we were really close to getting the deal done [with them] but it never came through," Lauer says. "Sire Records' interest came at the tail end of our time together, and it just let the air out."

That final Undertow lineup of McCaleb, Contadino, Lauer and Stevens recorded an album called "No Wonder" from which this week's Heritage Hump single was culled from.

Harry McCaleb, now axe-wielder with Saints of Van Buren, recalls Undertow in its last throes.

"We recorded that album live in one take from beginning to end. 'Candybox' is a simple love/lust song, I think it's pretty powerful and holds up pretty well. Mark's vocal is plaintive and full of emotion. I like the contrast between Mark's treated acoustic and my electric guitar. Rich's drumming is pretty sick. Jerry was an amazing bass player as well. I also think that the very minimal production gives this song a very present, immediate feel. Kaos Recording was in the basement of a house in central Phoenix; Cheery Lynn and 3rd Street with Johnny Belluzzi recording. I also like my guitar stuff on this song, pretty raw and angry."

Come 1993, Undertow was just the name a best-selling Tool album but no longer that of a working Phoenix band. And everything in 1993's post grunge world was pretty raw and angry. But none of it sounded anything like Undertow the band.

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic