"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."