Dumb but Happy was Herod's first venture into guitar music; his previous Tone Set songs were more like Kraftwerk and Devoesque ditties spliced with found audio and experimental noise. With Dumb but Happy, Herod discovered pop melodies and guitar chords akin to Let's Active and early dB's.
But another fallout between Herod and Horn split the two for good. Horn moved to San Francisco; Herod started churning out local tapes. The best was 1987's Bite the Wax Tadpole, a collection of goofy songs topped by Herod's strained, Neil Younglike vocals. Herod made 500 copies of the tape and sent 150 with response cards to record companies.
The reaction was, in a word, underwhelming.
Alias Records, for example, returned a card peppered with snotty comments from the band Too Much Joy, which happened to be in the offices that day. Herod says Bar None Records was only slightly more encouraging.
"They said, 'Oh, we've just signed someone named Freedy Johnston. We would've signed you if we hadn't got him first.'"
Herod was bemused but unbowed. Other things in his life were going well. He'd been hired to produce TV promos at local independent station KNXV. His career there was taking off. Still, he kept sending out Tadpoles. One of the tapes was addressed to a place named Boat Records in Madison, Wisconsin. "I picked it because I just liked the name," Herod says, shrugging.
Turns out Boat Records was run by a budding producer named Butch Vig. At the time, Vig was a couple of years away from production credits on Nirvana's breakthrough album, along with subsequent records by Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth and, most recently, the aforementioned Freedy Johnston.
Herod got there first.
"They flew me out for a week and put me up at the Hawaiian Motor Lodge in Madison," he says. "He [Vig] doesn't miss anything," Herod says of Vig's studio m.o. "He's a detail-oriented guy, total positive attitude all the time. He works the way I do in videotape."
Herod took 20 songs to Madison. He says Vig "didn't shriek at any of them," selecting 12 for the final cut. Herod left Wisconsin a happy guy. He figured some kind of break would happen soon. Before he left, he remembered hearing Vig say something about Sub Pop Records sending some tapes for Vig's studio to work on.
Two years later, Vig was the hottest producer on the planet. He'd played a major part in Nirvana's major-label debut, which was selling by the millions. Herod, meanwhile, was back in Phoenix.
"I was hung out to dry," he says of Vig's success and how it diverted priorities in Madison. But Herod adds that his suddenly popular producer always kept in touch and was always encouraging. Indeed, Vig did his part by mentioning Herod twice in Rolling Stone magazine, calling Herod's music "jangly, whiny garage pop that's really cool" in an April 1992 issue. A month later, Herod was noted as Vig's next big project. "Are you listening?" the magazine rhetorically asked major labels.
Herod wasn't waiting for a response. Upon returning from Madison, he put out some new songs on a tape titled Where the Heck Is Mr. Fun (or Up and Down the Donut with Frank). "I wasn't going to assume that because I had recorded an album, I could sit back and wait for it to happen," Herod says. "So I recorded another tape. And then after that, I did sit back. Because I was exhausted."
Herod eventually started playing out with a new band, Galen Herod and the Skin People. A series of gigs at Hollywood Alley and other occasional performances brought out the curious, but no legends were made.
"I did a solo show at Long Wong's," Herod recalls. "It was right after the Rolling Stone things. A local musician came up and shook hands before the show. When I started playing, he just stood there. You could tell he was thinking, 'Butch Vig likes this?'"
Soon thereafter, Herod figured "since the band wasn't doing anything that was going to make a difference in anybody's lives, we should stop playing out." With the Skin People scattered, Herod found other outlets for his music, sometimes with curious results.
"Mystical Hehdstock's daughter was in the Phoenix Symphony Junior Strings a couple of years ago," Herod says. "I had written a short classical piece called 'Lester's World.' I had asked the conductor if she thought the kids might like to play it, and she said, 'Sure.'"
But the Junior Strings didn't quite get it.
"They didn't get it at all," Herod says, laughing. "The piece was basically whole notes and slight syncopation. But that slight syncopation--therein lies the rub. A friend who was at the performance said it sounded like someone backing up over luggage in the driveway. Or sheep dying."