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Seems Like Old Times

Tonight is a homecoming.

It's been three and a half years since Dead Hot Workshop's classic lineup has played together, more than that since it's taken the stage at Long Wong's, the last remaining vestige of a scene it helped create.

For a decade it was the most respected group in town. Other bands may have enjoyed greater fleeting popularity or fame, but no one earned more enduring affection. The queue of rabid patrons snaking around the corner is testimony of that.

Inside, it's a crackling, noisy atmosphere, as people are already standing, packed 10 deep onto the club's small floor. The blinding light of a TV news camera and the 40-foot antenna hoisted outside speak volumes; this is as close to an event as you're going to find in local music circles.

The faces of the fans tell an equally important tale. Many of those here are onetime scenesters now resigned to the rare night out. A thirtysomething paunch is starting to show on their frames, gray hair creeping in at the temples. But there are the younger ones, too. A few years ago they were the underage kids who stood outside the club, peering in from the window.

On this cool October evening they've gathered for a bit of nostalgia, or maybe to find something of themselves in the music that once meant so much.

Just after 10:30, the band members take the stage. They're showered with the kind of affection reserved for conquering soldiers or long-lost friends, not the low groan that greets most rock reunions.

And then, they play them all -- or at least as many as they can fit in before last call. The surreal poetics of "Jesus Revisited," the strangulated blues of "E Minor," the sullen beauty of "Red Sovine" all blare with a stunning resonance. Steve Larson's febrile guitar bluster and Brent Babb's pastoral wail greet each other like old comrades. Bassist G. Brian Scott and drummer Curtis Grippe propel the rhythm with the kind of understanding only time can bestow.

Two sets and 20-plus songs prove the band's signature twang 'n' bang has lost none of its brilliant luster.

The night ends in a cacophony, as a shambolic rendition of "Ray" brings the proceedings to a close.

As the final barmy notes ring silent, a swell of applause washes over the band. The cheers linger; screams and hollers punctuated by piercing whistles. As the din of affection continues unfettered, you get the feeling that the crowd would throw flowers if they had them. But this is Mill Avenue, not the Met. The band will have to settle for a celebratory round of Budweiser instead.

Behind the club, Grippe is beaming. His face, dripping with sweat, is filled with a strange mix of satisfaction and relief, the look of a man who has seen a decade of toil and torture, of failure and triumph, crystallize before his very eyes.

Dead Hot Workshop has come back to claim what was once theirs, and they have not left empty-handed.

Viewed at a distance, Dead Hot Workshop's career can be seen as a mile-long ribbon of rock clichés. But dig a little deeper and you find that the band's story -- its ascent, triumph, plummet and rebirth -- is one of the more labyrinthine yarns in local music.

In the early '90s, just as Tempe was securing its position as a fertile breeding ground for rock 'n' roll, Dead Hot and the Gin Blossoms were gaining a reputation as the city's two leading lights. Though Phoenix was not quite on the same level as the swinging London of the '60s, the pop-oriented Blossoms were cast as the Beatles to Dead Hot's more edgy Rolling Stones.

By 1991, the Blossoms had already secured a contract with A&M Records and released a debut EP. With a strong regional following, a massive catalogue of original material and an exciting live show, similar success was predicted for Dead Hot Workshop.

When DHW eventually signed in mid-'94, it was by a music industry eagerly searching for the "next big thing" in the wake of grunge. Success had already started to come for a string of melodic, post-punk pop outfits like Soul Asylum and Toad the Wet Sprocket. The latest in this line, surprisingly enough, was the Gin Blossoms. Despite a poor initial showing, the band's 1992 full-length New Miserable Experience had refused to die, becoming a belated hit. The album would eventually spawn a quartet of hit singles, earn the band MTV Buzz Bin status and more than two million in sales. Hoping to find a new Seattle, the A&R contingent set its sights on the rapidly growing college town of Tempe.

"Everyone kind of descended on this place because they thought they could make some money," says Babb, laughing. "But they soon found out that was not the case."

Caught up in the wave of the Blossoms' success, DHW inked a deal with Seed, a fledgling Atlantic-affiliated boutique label run by A&R whiz kid Craig Kahlman. Seed was supposed to have been operated as a genuine indie label, and merely supported by Atlantic's promotion and distribution muscle. But shortly after DHW's signing, Seed was folded into another Atlantic imprint, TAG Records. While TAG's roster boasted a clutch of estimable talents -- the Lemonheads, Bottle Rockets, Fountains of Wayne -- Dead Hot quickly became a neglected commodity. Releasing its debut, 1001, in the summer of 1995, the band found itself faced with lack of promotional support and a label in the midst of financial chaos and executive turnover. After touring for much of the following year, the album died an ignominious death. The group severed its ties with TAG just before the company ceased operations.

"We were glad to get out of that deal because things were such a mess over there," says Babb ruefully. "We were the first employees there and the last employees to leave."

Complicating matters during its tenure with Atlantic was the group's propensity for turning up its nose at a number of potentially lucrative opportunities. Babb, in particular, took aggressive stands against anything he viewed as an artistic compromise, rejecting offers to play the H.O.R.D.E. tour, or having his songs appear on Melrose Place.

"We turned down things any band in their right mind would've done," says Scott. "But in retrospect, I don't know that those would've been the best things to do anyway. Even if we had done the things Brent didn't want to do, I don't know how much further that would've taken us."

Regardless of its unwillingness to play the requisite industry games, the group had been signed under a false premise, expected to appeal to the same audience that had made classically crafted pop fare like "Hey Jealousy" and "Found Out About You" staples of FM radio. It should've been clear to anyone listening to Dead Hot's music that 13-year-old girls weren't going to be filling up arenas to sing along to corrosive anthems like "Burger Christ" and "Fuck No."

"We weren't anything like the Gin Blossoms," notes Larson adamantly. "Brent used to call us 'Sabbath and Garfunkel' -- how the hell do you market something like that? You've got these hard-rock songs and then you've got these mellow ballads with really difficult, amazing lyrics; they couldn't define our sound."

Licking its wounds, the group settled back into Tempe, where, despite an explosion of new bands, Dead Hot remained peerless local stars.

In the fall of '96, the group self-released its third full-length, Old Favorites & New Ones Too. The disc, composed mostly of leftover tracks from the 1001 sessions (and mixed by Vintage Studios honcho Billy Moss), would prove to be the group's most satisfying effort, but it was only supposed to serve as a stopgap. DHW was already deep into preparations for a double album of new material. But cracks within the band were already starting to show.

"We were having internal squabbles and were at each other's throats," admits Grippe. "At that point it had been like seven years nonstop. We probably needed to take a break; we never did."

A further strain came from the group's hectic live schedule, which found it playing upward of four nights a week. "For about two years after the deal, we were playing out too much," says Larson. "We became a bar band, and we shouldn't have done that. When you play four times a week selling beer, it becomes less of an 'event.' We thinned out our following." Exacerbating Larson's exhausted frustration further was the fact that he maintained a full-time construction job during this period as well.

More damaging was the feeling that the band's chemistry -- once so cohesive and magnetic -- was changing dramatically. Because of Dead Hot's split from Atlantic (and from its handlers at Bill Graham Management), Grippe was forced to become the band's de facto manager. Meanwhile, Babb's increasingly prolific output was allowing him to take even greater control over Dead Hot's creative direction. Larson was quickly becoming marginalized, and he couldn't help but feel like the odd man out.

"It was kind of strange," says Larson. "I always felt like it was a band that I had formed. Obviously, it's Brent's band 'cause he writes all the songs, but I was the one who dragged him into Tempe in the first place. I had his first beer with him when he turned 21 at the Sun Club.

"I told him, 'There's something starting to happen here, and we can be a part of it. Let's put a band together,'" he continues. "There might not have been a Dead Hot if I hadn't done that. We brought in Brian and Curtis. So, yeah, I kind of felt like it was mine and Brent's band. And to feel like I'd lost control of it, that was kind of a blow to me. It's like, 'How did that happen?'"

In the summer of 1997, Larson announced he was quitting the group. Grippe admits he was "totally surprised" by the decision, but the guitarist says his physical and mental states were growing increasingly desperate.

"I had to go. There was nothing left in it for me. I didn't see a future in it," he says. "There was a time when I believed; I didn't believe anymore."

Adds Grippe, "We had hit a peak a few years before. And everything that goes up must come down. It wasn't an easy pill to swallow for any of us. You couple that with some personal things and I see why Steve felt like he had to leave."

Larson claims he never dreamed his departure would herald the beginning of the group's slow death march. "You see, Brent's an incredible guitar player. I thought maybe with me gone he was going to come into his own. In a way, I sometimes sensed that's what he really wanted," he says. "I had a weird feeling in my gut that they would take off, that maybe I was the thing holding them back."

That prediction would, sadly, prove false.

As 1998 dawned, Dead Hot Workshop wasn't pining over the loss of Steve Larson. The band was too busy putting the finishing touches on its new CD, Karma Covered Apple. The sprawling, 18-song affair was recorded as a trio, with a parade of local luminaries (Michel Johnny Walker, Emily Curtis, Robin Wilson) aiding in its completion.

The collection proved that whatever losses had been incurred, it had not diminished Babb's gift as lyricist, nor the group's ability to fashion ineffably memorable songs.

A star-studded CD-release concert in March of '98 and the attendant publicity gave the false image of a band in a state of good health.

Although the disc sold well -- close to 3,000 copies (a solid figure for a local title) -- the galvanizing effects of its release were short-lived. Soon, it was back to a grinding schedule of local club dates, playing to apathetic and rapidly shrinking audiences.

"It got to where it dwindled to doing shows at Sport Rock [Cafe] for, like, one person," says Babb.

For Grippe, the period was especially bitter. "Despite the fact that we made the best record of our career, that was a really tough time. It was totally embarrassing."

But worse was yet to come.

In mid-'97, Scott had signed on to play with singer Robin Wilson's post-Gin Blossoms outfit, the Pharoahs. His wallet fat with a record-company advance, the bassist began a protracted slide into personal and chemical excess.

"I got into it with a crowd of people that was not really conducive to what I was supposed to be doing, music-wise," confesses Scott. "I got involved with different people, different things. You can read into that as much as you want -- and you'll probably be right."

With Scott (and even Babb) frequently missing gigs, Dead Hot's reputation suffered further. The group, once heralded for its uncompromising integrity, had been reduced to a sad, almost pathetic shell of its former self.

With its fortunes waning, the band's personnel crisis reached a head. In April '99, Scott parted ways with the group. Shortly after, he would be forced to leave the Pharoahs as well.

It seemed a convenient moment to bury the band and start anew. But much to Grippe's chagrin, Babb insisted on continuing under the DHW moniker.

"I'm spiteful at heart, I'm spiteful," says Babb, only half-jokingly, of his reasons for maintaining the decade-old combo. "I just figured I . . . I didn't want it to die."

The band, now just a duo, fell back and regrouped. In late '99, after a six-month hiatus, DHW redebuted with a new bassist, Steve Flores (Dialectrics, Royal Normans), and a new lead guitarist, former Satellite six-stringer Chris Whitehouse.

While the "comeback" effort yielded a spate of well-attended local shows and a high-profile appearance at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, it was clear that something was missing.

"People were asking for songs we couldn't play anymore, songs that maybe the other guys didn't even want to play," says Grippe. "If someone's asking for 'Burger Christ' and you can't play it . . . well, that's not Dead Hot Workshop anymore."

Babb is more succinct in his assessment. "It did not work. I loved those guys, but we just didn't have the same chemistry."

With the group mired in a state of creative limbo, guitarist Whitehouse quit, moving back to his native Colorado. The band, which had maintained a solid lineup for nearly a decade, had suffered its third loss in less than three years. Dead Hot Workshop, once again, was in shambles.

There is a moment near the end of the 1999 Clash documentary Westway to the World where singer Joe Strummer is lamenting the group's breakup. As he relates the "bitter lessons" he learned from the experience, an amazing thing happens: Strummer begins crying.

The crusty old punk, who once sang with such vitriol of "Hate and War," was reduced to tears at the memory of what had been lost. The peculiar human alchemy that occurs among rock 'n' roll bands -- especially the great ones -- is a thing of such moving power. As Strummer came to recognize 15 years after the fact, it's also a delicate balance, not to be trifled with or betrayed. A few months ago, Curtis Grippe came to the same realization.

"I've always had a reverence for Dead Hot Workshop and always felt it should be Brent, Brian, Curtis and Steve," says Grippe. "I always wanted it to be that, but things happened that caused that idea to fall apart."

"When a chemistry between four people takes a life of its own, it's a special thing -- people notice it, they become drawn to it, drawn to the power of that," he says, echoing Strummer's words. "We had that, but by the same token, that kind of power can get out of your control."

That raging chemistry led Steve Larson to Seattle after his departure from DHW in 1997. Upon returning to the Valley after nine months, he briefly hooked up with underrated roots combo the Dialectrics. Larson was busy piecing together material for a solo project early last year when the call came to join former Refreshment Roger Clyne's new combo, the Peacemakers.

Since signing on with the popular Valley outfit, Larson has attained the kind of commercial success and mainstream adulation that had eluded him before.

Buoyed by the experience and freedom of his new band, Larson finally felt comfortable enough to forget, or at least set aside, his lingering reservations and consider a reunion with Dead Hot Workshop.

In the interim, much had changed for the other members as well. Babb, for one, found that his overwhelming desire to perform -- something that had nearly cost the band its hard-earned reputation -- had subsided. "After we stopped playing with Whitey and Steve, I thought I'd miss [playing out]. And, to tell you the truth, I really don't," he says.

Part of this newfound view is born of his increasing involvement in the world of desktop recording. Babb's unbridled creativity has found a fresh outlet in composing hard-drive symphonies and blending his traditional songwriting with the flourishes of electronic music.

Meanwhile, Grippe sought out Scott to reestablish their once-solid bond. Jamming together, hanging out, the drummer helped his crestfallen friend emerge from the ghetto of addiction and back into the world of music.

And so, when an offer came in earnest to stage a one-off reunion, the four men accepted. Quietly, a November 4 date was announced for Nita's Hideaway, with a secret warm-up gig planned for Long Wong's a few weeks earlier.

Personally and professionally, the decks had been cleared. The members agreed that there would be no conditions to this reunion, no game plan to adhere to. The only goal would be to erase the lingering memory of the group's long fall. And to give it, as Babb might say, "the old college try."

It's early Monday evening and Nita's Hideaway is freezing cold. Outside, a light drizzle is softly pelting the roof of the club. Weeknight business is usually slow. The regular happy-hour clientele -- a smattering of carnies and construction workers -- has been chased out and the doors locked. All that remain are a couple of curious onlookers flashing broad smiles at what they hear.

Onstage, Dead Hot Workshop is in the midst of a final rehearsal before its official reunion date.

For the next three hours, they will run through a catalogue of 40 songs, honing individual parts and solidifying their sound, occasionally collapsing in fits of laughter or debate.

They end with "257," one of their earliest numbers. Amid the wall of cascading guitars, the piece shows what daring mélangists they are, combining dystopian country with oracular rock. The spiraling architecture of the songs, the dissident themes, the acid whir of wit remain intact. Watching it unfold is enough to make even the most sour-faced skeptic feel alive with the power of the music.

The rehearsals and tune-up gig have given the band renewed confidence. Further plans have been made. The upcoming show will be recorded for a live disc. There is also talk of working on a studio album, a second volume of Old Favorites & New.

Much of this, and any future efforts, depends on Larson's hectic schedule. The Peacemakers will be making their own record soon; extended touring is expected to follow.

While he ultimately holds the cards to the group's activities, the guitarist knows the real attraction of the band doesn't rest in the hands of any one member. "When people come to see us now, I know they're not coming just because I'm playing -- they want to see the four of us. It's the four of us being together that's really important. I don't have any illusions about that."

Much of the talk surrounding the group has focused on its local legacy -- one that's grown exponentially with time. Even 12 years after forming, Dead Hot's sound and style -- low-slung guitars, minor-key ruminations, crunching country chords -- are still being copied by each successive generation of Valley bands.

Larson's assessment of Dead Hot's stature is predictably guarded. "I never thought we were a great band. I thought we were a really cool, unique band with some really great moments. Maybe one out of every five or 10 shows would just stick out and I'd think, 'My God, this is it. This is why I play music.' That's why I stayed with the band so long -- because of those great moments. I guess that's part of why I'm doing this."

For Scott, the band's meaning has not been sullied by concerns of what might've been.

"The big thing is we're all still together and still alive -- and that the music's still intact. I consider that a success," he says. "Sure, it's too bad it didn't work out the way it's supposed to in the fairytale books, but that's all right."

"For us, the band was a dream come true in some ways and the heartbreak of our lives in other ways," says Grippe. "It's a very sentimental thing. But I would feel perfectly fulfilled and at ease if it ended tomorrow."

"That last gig at Long Wong's had a lot to do with that. I felt like we had something to prove, and we did. It really hit me at the end of the night listening to the audience's response. I realized they weren't just applauding for the last 45 minutes, they were applauding for the last 12 years. That was the difference . . . ," he says, trailing off. His voice choked with emotion, Grippe repeats the last part in a hushed whisper, "Yeah, man, that was for the last 12 years."

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Bob Mehr
Contact: Bob Mehr