LAWYERS, GRUNGEAND MONEY ARIZONA'S ALTERNATIVE STARS WIND ON | Music | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona
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LAWYERS, GRUNGEAND MONEY ARIZONA'S ALTERNATIVE STARS WIND ON

When you step from the Tucson sun into the Sidewinders' darkened practice room, you're temporarily blinded. Once your eyes adjust, you think you've stumbled into some way-hip postmodern rock 'n' roll video shoot. Located just off Tucson's downtown railroad tracks, this sprawling warehouse looks like something Demi Moore and Patrick...
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When you step from the Tucson sun into the Sidewinders' darkened practice room, you're temporarily blinded. Once your eyes adjust, you think you've stumbled into some way-hip postmodern rock 'n' roll video shoot. Located just off Tucson's downtown railroad tracks, this sprawling warehouse looks like something Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze might turn into a yuppie loft. Moody light spills in from the cracks in the doors and roof and from multicolored lamps beneath ceiling fans. The band members, dwarfed by the room, stand and sit on stools in a circle, playing to each other. The only things missing: a camera, some grainy black-and-white film, a fog machine and the groupie on medication who used to sit on the floor in the middle of the band.

Soon, buzz saws and bells fill the air. It's a sound instantly recognizable as the Sidewinders' trademark garage pop-rock gyrations, but the material is unfamiliar. Some, maybe all, maybe none of this stuff will show up around August on the band's new album. Judging from the ideas the group bounces around, the disc'll probably be as solid as its first two major-label outings. In fact, all the optimists who still think rock 'n' roll isn't dead could probably use the Sidewinders as proof. The band, which occupies the postpunk everyman's land between Sonic Youth and R.E.M., plies the genre with as much art and sincerity as any grungy quartet to have made a living in a U.S. garage during the Reagan-Bush era. On the Arizona scene, the Meat Puppets may be more visionary, the Gin Blossoms more accessible, and the Host more lyrical, but no one is as beefy as the Sidewinders.

The band's linebacker vision starts with guitarist Rich Hopkins, the self-proclaimed leader who mixes up a hearty stew of chimey picking, snarling rhythm and rich, wailing leads. The primary sources are the Byrds, and legendary Tucson garagesters Naked Prey, but think of R.E.M. on steroids, and you've got the essence of Hopkins and the Sidewinders. Like the Velvet Underground, the band can sound as good being pretty as it can getting ugly. At this midafternoon practice, Hopkins is playing guitar hero and arranger, shaping working-class rhythms for bassist Mark Perrodin and drummer Bruce Halper. Singer David Slutes sits opposite, writing lyrics on a legal pad, digging for the emotional code to the guitarist's songs. He colors in the songs' lines with everything from husky crooning to a reverberating screech near the end of the practice. As rock 'n' roll goes, it's a pretty happy scene.

In fact, this band might be a little too happy, considering all that's happened recently. In the past couple of years, the Sidewinders have had their chains yanked repeatedly by the record industry.

A deal in 1988 with Shrimpsongs, an L.A. publishing company, backfired when the group signed with RCA Records shortly thereafter. The major label wanted publishing rights to the group's songs, Hopkins says, and he and Slutes ended up paying $40,000 to buy the tunes back. The band was also unable to take full advantage of a six-figure signing bonus from RCA. That's because shortly before the Sidewinders inked the deal with the major, they'd signed with North Carolina indie label Mammoth Records. The group's 1989 album Witchdoctor ended up being released as a joint Mammoth/RCA venture, and the group had to share its bonus money with Mammoth, says Hopkins. And when it came time to record their 1990 album Auntie Ramos' Pool Hall, the Sidewinders got only $10,000 from Mammoth to work with initially, says Hopkins. That led to agony in the L.A. studio they chose. Hopkins and Slutes worked nearly around the clock to finish the record under budget and slept in short stints on a friend's cement floor.

But this was just a taste of what was in store. The group's two RCA albums have sold about 50,000 copies apiece, but Hopkins and Slutes say the label never gave the band as much support as it could've.

Label president Bob Buziak, who'd personally flown from New York to North Carolina to check out the band before RCA signed it, was eventually fired. What's more, the Sidewinders learned they were the target of a lawsuit. An RCA corporate type stumbled upon a North Carolina Top 40 group called Sidewinder, and the label tried to get the act to change its name. That "pissed off" Sidewinder, and RCA wound up spending about $80,000 in lawyers' fees trying to hang onto the Sidewinders' name. Before anything could be resolved, the Tucson group switched to Ensign Records, which decided to drop the case, telling Hopkins' band to start fresh with a new name.

Ensign has promised the band that "formerly the Sidewinders" signs will follow the band everywhere. "To be honest with you, legally, right now, we're probably not supposed to be using it," says Hopkins of his band's old name.

The group's already brainstorming a new name. The front-runner is the Chestnut Men, but Hopkins says the group's new manager Mike Lembo doesn't like the new I.D. "It's like, fuck you. We just want to pick our own name. It's hard enough picking a new name as it is."

Hooking up with Lembo, who's worked with the Church, and Miami group Nuclear Valdez, helped turn the tide. Lembo, Hopkins recalls fondly, quickly got the band out of its contract in the fall. "He went into RCA, talked to the new president and said, `Listen, the Sidewinders aren't happy, I'm not happy, you guys haven't done shit in two years. We want off.' He made enemies everywhere. Mike's good at that. He's insulted me in front of my wife to make a point."

The manager wasted no time taking his new project to Ensign president Nigel Grange, whose U.K. label is distributed in the U.S. by Chrysalis and has a small roster of acts including Sinead O'Connor, the Waterboys, and World Party. "They're a real exclusive label," gloats Slutes.

It wasn't long before the prez flew to Tucson to check out the band. Grange liked what he heard, and the deal is now in its final paperwork stages.

Even after the spirit-deflating rigamarole that's accompanied the Sidewinders, Hopkins doesn't appear to be bitter. "I don't think we're dumb, by any means," smiles the guitarist, sprawled out on a couch in the practice room. "I just think that it's the school of hard knocks in the music business. We're not really crying about it. We kind of laugh about it."

"We're so naive," says Slutes, pacing around to keep warm in the chilly warehouse. "We just wanna write music," he adds in his best Beverly Hillbillies voice. "We've lost our name, we've lost all our money."

But why aren't they at least a little world weary? Probably because they can still close their eyes and get downright dreamy about how far they've gone.

"These are the problems we'd always dreamed we'd be having," smirks Slutes.

At the start in 1985, Hopkins just wanted a group that would be popular locally. And when recalling how excited he was when the group decided to record its first album (1988's Cuacha!, released on Hopkins' own indie label San Jacinto Records), Slutes talks like he still thinks it's a big deal. How humble are the Sidewinders' roots? The first vocalist that Slutes wanted to emulate was homeboy Van Christian of Naked Prey--"'cause he couldn't sing."

In part because of the business troubles surrounding their first three albums, the group didn't have a chance to explore musical realms far beyond the garage. Former labelmates the Cowboy Junkies got all the hype for recording their debut album on a three-figure budget, but the Sidewinders spent just $3,000 on Witchdoctor, an album as gloriously noisy as the Junkies' debut was intensely quiet. Last year's Auntie Ramos' Pool Hall was another exercise in two-minute-drive rock 'n' roll, thanks to the meager recording budget. It sounded, necessarily, more like Witchdoctor II than anything. Even so, Hopkins doesn't mind the seeming lack of progress the Sidewinders made with Auntie Ramos. "We wanted to develop our sound," he says, "and we've done it at that level."

It's anyone's guess--the Sidewinders' included--how the group's Ensign debut will turn out. Worked out in the practice room, their new songs do a good job of maintaining the quality of Witchdoctor and Auntie Ramos. But the group is eager to avoid a Witchdoctor trilogy.

Hopkins reports that he's got a couple of acoustic numbers on tap for the next LP, and the group's looking for inspiration in new instrumentation that'll help expand the four-piece format.

It's possible, though, that the Sidewinders themselves won't be the ones determining the most major changes. Most bands have to claw and kick record execs to get the kind of artistic control the Sidewinders have had with Hopkins and Slutes producing the band's two most recent albums. But the pair say they're through producing.

"We've reached our skill level as far as production," says Slutes. "We know now what we can do. And now we know there's people out there who know more than we do. We're probably going to have wars with these people, but right now, we're looking forward to it. Our ambitions for the next record outstrip our talents for making it."

Candidates for the producer's spot include Patti Smith Group alum Lenny Kaye, who recently helped put together the massive and eclectic Elektra Records 40th anniversary compilation. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell is even interested in knob-twisting for a song or two when the band hits the studio.

"I get afraid when people say we're gonna make a real commercial record," admits Hopkins, "but I keep on thinking, `Hey, we're still the Sidewinders.' Or maybe we're not the `Sidewinders.'"

But the Sidewinders, or the Chestnut Men, or whoever they are, remain open enough to new directions. They've even okayed Ensign's decision to pick the songs that'll be on the album. "That's how they developed Sinead," says Hopkins, trying to convince himself of the idea.

"We just don't know what we're getting into," allows Slutes, "because having a producer and this kind of control out of our hands is a really odd thing. There's a mix of excitement and fear."

The Sidewinders will perform at Chuy's in Tempeon Friday, February 1. Showtime is 9 p.m.

In fact, all the optimists who still think rock 'n' roll isn't dead could probably use the Sidewinders as an example.

The Meat Puppets may be more visionary, the Gin Blossoms more accessible, and the Host more lyrical, but no one is as beefy as the Sidewinders.

"I don't think we're dumb, by any means," smiles the guitarist, "I just think that it's the school of hard knocks in the music business."

"These are the problems we'd always dreamed we'd be having,

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