Tempe on a Friday night. Mill Avenue, the main drag, is a warm, yeasty environment, alive with frat rats, gang wanna-bes, packs of young women from the dorms and mom-and-pop tourists in the kind of ugly madras shorts that only Ohioans bring to the desert. A shaggy transient toting a garbage bag perches on a wall and rolls a cigarette. Cruisers look expectantly out of car windows while 15 different car stereos thump like artillery. Although the Tempe music scene is a shadow of its former self--more clubs closed than open--music still echoes down Mill.
Inside Long Wong's, at the corner of Seventh Street and Mill, Dead Hot Workshop has lurched into its set. There's no stage at Long Wong's. Everything--band, PA system and one large bouncer with earplugs--is crammed into the front corner of the shoebox. Above the band, ceiling panels are covered with graffiti, some of it memorializing the Gin Blossoms, who once held court here. Behind Dead Hot Workshop, there's a window with a view of Seventh Street and the 6 East Bar, an infamous dive where bands working at Long Wong's go to slam drinks between sets.
The rest of the place is packed with humanity, contorted in every shape imaginable, trying to see the band.
Squeezing into Long Wong's for a Dead Hot show is the quintessential Tempe-music experience. For nearly a decade, this closet has been the locus of the Tempe scene. And for the past few years, Dead Hot has been that scene's most promising act.
"Sometimes," guitarist Steven Larson, 27, muses, unsmiling, "it seems like Long Wong's is the only place we've ever played."
On this night, the band starts in its usual way--slowly. The musicians seem scattered, half-awake, half-stoned, not together. Although the juices begin to flow near the end, the first set is stillborn.
After the break, vocalist Brent Babb, 25, gets on a roll. His outbursts are a band trademark. Usually depending on the quantity and quality of pot he's just smoked, these extemporaneous harangues can be hysterically funny, slyly sardonic or really stupid. Tonight's stream of consciousness mixes George Bush-bashing, Russian political upheavals, whole-wheat tortillas, profanity, the perils of vocalists who talk too much and the wisdom inherent in Frank Zappa's autobiography. On a good night, Babb's spiels balance the verbal boners with hit one-liners. This particular rant is working. Even the band is laughing. Babb concludes with a hillbilly-inflected "Don't fergit to tip them waitresses."
The ice is broken. Babb's straining tenor segues into the opening line from a song titled "A," the band's best pop tune: "Walked from here to hell today. . . ."
After "A," bassist Brian Griffith tears into the figure that underlies the most requested of the band's "jam songs," a bass-driven, almost-metal mosh driver called "CHOAD" (pronounced "CHO-AD"). The exercise in irresistible rhythm picks up speed when drummer Curtis Grippe joins in, followed by both guitarists. The band achieves the kind of groove that only comes from hours onstage together. On top of that, the members are smiling. It's not that these guys have to pose. They like each other, and they love playing together.
"Sometimes, we hear bands bitch about needing a couple months off," Griffith explains. "Man, we go crazy if we only play once a week."
No one knows how many gigs Dead Hot has played in its five years together. "Hundreds," says Grippe, who, at 29, is the old man of the group. "Thousands," Griffith, 27, counters. "Nine and a half zillion," says the genetically hyperbolic Babb.
Whatever the exact number, Dead Hot Workshop is easily the workin'est live act in the Valley: three to four nights per week, three to four sets per night. The pace has turned this quirky alternative-punk band into a powerful, well-oiled live machine that never fails to draw a crowd and is ripe for the record-label picking.
But it's a fine line between ripe fruit and rotting fruit. After years as a big apple on the Tempe scene, Dead Hot has yet to find any takers, or--to hear the members tell it--to take any finders.
Despite the band's healthy indifference to corporate dues paying, success appears to be creeping up on Dead Hot Workshop. Two small artist-management firms, Louis Levin Management and Mike's Management Limited, made serious offers. The band has talked with both the Epic and Interscope labels.
Dead Hot Workshop is approaching a crossroads. The band will either finish its current CD project, stop playing hard-to-get, get its management act together, sign with a label, make an album and become a national act or, by default, its members will keep their day jobs and become the house band at Long Wong's for the remainder of this millennium.
@body:Brent Babb leans over a counter, grinds out a cigarette for effect, and begins to recount the tale of how Dead Hot Workshop got its name:
"I used to work with my brother as a pipe insulator. We had to get up at 3 in the morning. So I'd sleep in the van and he'd drive. He'd play Mtley Cre. One morning I fell asleep and I had a dream that I was going to work, and my buddy and I were smoking pot and blowing it in the face of this guy that we hated, this old bastard. Every time we blew it in his face, he disappeared a little more. And the whole time, we were watching this big, white-haired metal band, an Ace Frehley, jumpsuit-type thing, and they were called Dead Hot Workshop."
Years later, the dreamer was in a Valley band that needed a name. When a campaign for "Jilted Suitors" began to gain ground, Babb knew he had to come up with an alternative. He remembered that dream sequence. The other band members agreed to give it a try.
Babb is Dead Hot's creative engine. Besides being vocalist and second guitar player, he writes all of the lyrics and the music. His look is deliberately sloppy--graying tennies, ragged jeans, backward ball cap. Stubbly hairs sprout on his chain. He usually needs a shower.
Like the band he leads, Babb is a bundle of contradictions. A moody, detached, rock n' roll iconoclast on the surface, he's amiable and astute underneath. He distrusts rock stars, major labels and the music business in general, yet he likes being the front man, and possesses enough ego to imagine seeing posters of himself in Tower Records. Babb is also at the center of the band's lethargy. He's often incommunicado; he won't get a telephone. He says he doesn't want responsibility, but as the songwriter and lead vocalist, he already has it. If Dead Hot Workshop is going anywhere, it will be on Brent Babb's back, and he, of all people, knows it.
One thing that's brought Dead Hot's future into sharp relief is the explosive success of the Gin Blossoms, whose members are among Dead Hot's biggest supporters. Blossoms' vocalist Robin Wilson even wore a Dead Hot Workshop tee shirt during one of the Blossoms' appearances on David Letterman's show.
"We're not surprised or jealous about the Blossoms," Babb says. "I mean, how could it miss? It's a fuckin' great record."
Dead Hot stands out as the best alternative band in the Valley for several reasons. Babb's songs have developed an effective style that's somewhere between sloppy, twangy cow-punk and bellowing metal. It's space-rock with a garage attitude, and with a harder-edged sound than the Gin Blossoms' pop confections. Babb is also versatile, able to crank out everything from solo ballads about Jesus having to get a job (Jesus Revisited") and sensitive alternative odes like "Fuck No" to hooky pop tunes like "A" and thrashing instrumentals like "CHOAD." Lyrically, Babb can venture off into nonsense or the I-need-a-half-rhyme school of word craft. But he can also be evocative, as in this verse from "A": "I'm too tired for sleepin'/Fast asleep but I'm not dreamin'/Look for truth in aberration/Sinned too much to be forgiven."
Most of all, Dead Hot is a tremendous live band. Bound by an unshakable chemistry and powered by a fierce rage for performing, the band plays straightahead shows in which the usual overtures toward somehow becoming the Replacements are kept to a minimum.
Like most guitar bands of its generation, Dead Hot got the idea for its style and sound from watching and listening to the storied Mats. Using Paul Westerberg's canon as its foundation, it's softened the pop-punk blows with a twangy touch from the Byrds-R.E.M. jangle axis. Dead Hot's other major influence comes from a fondness for Seventies cheese, la Sabbath, Skynyrd and, yes, Kiss. Among Babb's dreams is affixing the Dead Hot band members' heads on Kiss' bodies, so he could use the famous cover art for Kiss' Destroyer on a Dead Hot album.
Perhaps this band should use the Lynyrd Skynyrd flame cover instead, because when it comes to branching out, Dead Hot has done a fair job of shooting itself in both feet.
Why is Dead Hot still playing Long Wong's while its running mates, the Gin Blossoms, are off collecting gold records and touring the world?
Some possible answers: too much steady cash from playing live, the comfort of being big fish in a small pond, streaks of irresponsibility and indecisiveness, reluctance to rehearse with any consistency. Babb can also be a lazy songwriter. Many of his songs are half-finished or half-arranged. All of this has combined to dilute the band's ambition and keep it local.
Then there's the ganja factor. Following an Arizona tradition best exemplified by the Meat Puppets, Dead Hot has been known to smoke a lot of pot. Babb has been busted for marijuana possession several times, once spending a night in jail. The experience inspired a song: "They'll stick you in a cage for smoking dope outside of a bar at any time," he sings in "Race in Your Face" from the cassette Dead Hot Workshop. Although no one in the band wants to say much about weed, none of the members denies that it's slowed their progress.
Dead Hot has let golden opportunities slip by. The band's two appearances at Austin, Texas' South by Southwest showcase came to naught. In 1991, the band played in a horrible location. But in 1992, Dead Hot played a good set in a decent club. After the show, when several talent scouts were clamoring for business cards and demo tapes, the musicians discovered that they (and their former local booking agent, Sara Cina) had left their tapes and cards in their hotel room.
That's a job for a real manager, but Dead Hot has been determined to go it alone, without management or legal advice. Given the nature of the music business, that is a risk. Sign one wrong piece of paper and kiss your financial, not to mention emotional, future goodbye.
So far the band has not made any fatal moves. It just hasn't made many moves.
"We're not going to get an attorney to get a record deal," Babb says. "And right now, if we sign with a management company and then we get signed, they get 20 percent whether they helped or not. I feel like if we learn how to make records and tour, no one will ever be able to pull any shit on us later about how much things cost."
Grippe adds: "We just want to make decisions as long as we can. But we know that once we get to a certain point, we're going to lose control."
The two management deals they were offered fell through, because the band, not the managers, said no. In the case of Louis Levin, the band wanted to rewrite parts of the contract. When Levin refused to negotiate, the band walked. The other management offer was from Mike Lembo, cantankerous owner of New York-based Mike's Management Limited and manager of Tucson's Sand Rubies.
"They're a very, very talented band," Lembo says of Dead Hot Workshop. "But I really think Dead Hot needs more work than they were willing to do."
@body:Perhaps one welcome by-product of remaining a local act is that the members of Dead Hot Workshop are best of friends. For a while, all four lived together in one house. Even their girlfriends get along.
Rumor has it that Dead Hot Workshop was formed in the bathroom of the Sun Club, a funky Tempe club that has since closed. It's a tale the band does little to discourage.
Brent Babb came to Phoenix from Murray, Iowa, six years ago, driven by what he now labels a "lack of foresight." He actually came to see relatives who live here. Although he had played in bands in Iowa, Babb first got involved in music here when he met Steven Larson.
A Phoenix native, Larson had played guitar in a band called Mind Over Matter, which eventually evolved into the better-known Lime Green. Babb and Larson formed a band called Instant Karma. Another Phoenix native, Brian Griffith--who had played bass in a succession of Valley acts, including Rhinegarden, Blitzkrieg, Max Factor and Acid on Ann--soon found his way in.
"I'd seen those guys at the Mason Jar and they were good, but the name pissed me off, cause I like John Lennon so much," Griffith says. "But I joined anyway when their original bass player went overseas."
Babb interjects: "That is, if you consider Milwaukee overseas."
In 1991, Curtis Grippe was manager of the aforementioned Sun Club, a favorite Dead Hot hangout, when Dead Hot's original drummer, Scott Palmer, quit. The Prescott-raised Grippe, who had played drums for the local band Strange Love, signed on.
Besides drumming, Grippe brought some business acumen and a sense of urgency to the band. Today, he does all the booking, handles the money and is the contact for all band business.
Grippe immediately pestered his bandmates into making a tape. Recorded at AB Studios in Tempe and released on its own Bong label, Dead Hot Workshop was the band's first and only full-length cassette. It was finished in January 1991, the day before war broke out in the Persian Gulf.
Unfortunately, the cassette sounds like a soundtrack from the Gulf War. Although the songs and performances are decent, the sound is murky and dim, as though it had been recorded inside the casing of a Scud missile. Part of the sound problem was that it was a live recording. There was no multitracking, no overdubbing, no second takes. The band simply set up and roared through a 26-song set, ten of which ended up on the tape.
"The idea was to record our songs, just so we could hear what they sounded like on tape," Grippe says. "From there we were going to pick out the best and do a multitrack recording.
"What happened was through long periods of procrastination by both the engineer, Andy Barrett, and the band, we never got any further than that. Finally, I said, 'Let's just release some of these.'"
The session's sound problems were compounded by the company that duplicated the tapes. Cheap cassettes somehow made a poor-sounding tape even worse. The low-fi sound didn't seem to affect sales, however. The band sold all of the 1,000 cassettes in a year.
Recognizing the problems with the first tape, the band returned to AB later that year and cut 26 more songs. However, except for five-song self-bootlegs the band has sold lately to raise cash, the songs from that session remain unreleased. There's also a preproduction tape for Dead Hot's current CD project that has unreleased material on it.
Overall, Dead Hot has nearly 90 songs in various states of arrangement, an astounding number for a "local" band with one tape. With that much material hanging around, there must be at least one good album worth of songs.
Hopefully, that album will be the one the band is currently trying to finish at AB. Although the musicians began work last June, the project is only half-done. A partial song list includes "257," "Mercedes," "Feel," "E Minor Inc.," "Burger Christ," "Sodomizing Hussein," "Last Train Rising," "Final Advice," "Sex With Strangers" and a new song with the working title "Oliver Stone." "The dilemma with this band is how to make a record that sounds like their best night at Long Wong's," says producer Andy Barrett, who also worked with the Gin Blossoms on their Up and Crumbling EP. "I've tried not to disturb the natural 'Dead Hotness' in their music."
Asked to define that term, Barrett struggles. "The roughness, the realness of the music. Their fans don't love their music because it's correct, but because it's right."
It's no surprise that the CD is bogged down in delays. So far, the drum tracks, a portion of the guitar work and a few of the vocals are done. The musicians' day jobs--Griffith delivers pizzas, Grippe works at Blue Jean Buyer, Babb is a cook at Gentle Strength Co-op & Deli and Larson is a carpenter--have cut into studio time.
"Working 60 hours a week and trying to make it to recording sessions is nearly impossible," says Larson, who rises before dawn.
The project will be further delayed now that the band is about to embark on its first-ever tour. Booked by Grippe, the tour is scheduled to begin on Halloween and stretch to Seattle. The band should be back in the Valley by Thanksgiving, and hopes to have the CD completed by January.
If the band ever finishes it, the untitled CD will be available for sale at local record stores and from the stage. But its most important use will be as a marketing tool for record labels, press, out-of-state clubs, management companies. If it's good enough, an economy-minded label might even release it as a first album, although no one in the band is counting on that. The plan at this point is to get the disc out, shop it and see if anything develops.
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"I feel it coming now," Grippe says. "I've been very optimistic, but I never felt it until now. We know it's time for us to fulfill our potential."
As usual, Babb's outlook is a mixture of savvy and naivet.
"It would be really cool if we could make this CD, pay for it and make enough money to do it again. And then tour.
"We want to do as much as we can without involving a corporation that also sells cheese and toilet paper. . . . You can limit your exposure to it and your being hurt by it.
"To us the record is a product, and to them, we are a product. That's wrong, I think. Or at least it's too bad. It's not evil people, it's just the nature of their business.
"The music business can easily destroy a band and destroy people. There's no chance of that happening here.