A Slow Deathray
One of Sacramento’s best pop bands seemed destined for stardom. Then the music business turned corporate, and everything started to go wrong.
It’s another Tuesday night inside the Capitol Garage on L Street.
The cavernous brick and glass structure, a boxlike former garage converted into a two-level coffee joint, typically pulls in a paying crowd of college students, Midtown bohemians and young scruffs to see bands, many of them local, play an eclectic mix of mostly original music—from hushed singer-songwriter stuff to noisy three-chord punk.
On this night, there’s no cover charge. A motley collection of musicians—from green amateurs to accomplished players, most with guitars in tow, show up before 8 p.m. so they won’t miss the raffle tickets that open-mike host Kevin Seconds will hand out to determine the evening’s playing order. Soon, after Seconds calls out the ticket numbers and fills a sheet of paper with names, the performers will shuffle on and off the cramped corner area marked off as a stage—two or three songs, 10 minutes or so … next!
On this warm spring evening in 1998, the house is full, which isn’t always the case on an open-mike night.
The crowd sits through five, maybe six acts. Then three familiar-looking fellows push through bodies and chairs toward the stage. A wave of recognition washes across the audience. The guy holding the guitar is Greg Brown, and the one with the bass is Victor Damiani, both former members of the Sacramento-based platinum-selling band Cake, and the tall one at the mike stand is Dana Gumbiner, formerly of the much-beloved local combo Little Guilt Shrine. (Coincidentally, on this night, John McCrea will introduce his new post-Brown and Damiani Cake lineup—billed as “Sportriot"—at a Press Club show a few blocks away.Brown plugs in, strums his guitar; Gumbiner opens his mouth, and suddenly the space fills with music. “I can dig a hole, dig a great big hole,” he sings, as Brown’s guitar and Damiani’s bass fall in behind, with their vocal harmonies lining up nicely behind Gumbiner’s vocals on the choruses.
The effect on the crowd is visibly electric. Cake-like the music isn’t—no grainy post-ironic folk-rock textures, no arch Woody Guthrie-isms for the wired-on-lattés generation. Instead, the tunes move with the acutely sharp melodic propulsion found on old Beatles, Kinks and Zombies records, framed by the kind of neurotic edginess perfected by the Cars in the late ’70s.
After a short set in which the audience seems to hang on every syllable, the Micronauts—as they’re calling themselves—disappear from the stage. Days later, a demo tape starts circulating around town, followed by another. The band goes through a couple of names: Misty, the Plastic.
By the time, a few weeks later, when the newly christened Deathray makes its fully amplified debut at Old Ironsides, with rhythm mercenary Michael Urbano, formerly of local ’80s hit-maker Bourgeois-Tagg, behind the drum kit, the news is all over town: This is a band to watch.
Then, the news spreads outside Sacramento and things start to happen. Music-industry scouts, hearing that a new band featuring two former members of Cake had at least an album’s worth of great songs, start to make offers.
But the stars in the musical universe start to shift. What the band didn’t know: Its future would be tied to a music industry about to go through a dramatic change, and the promise of success would be broken by a series of events.
Not only would Deathray suffer through the business-related ignominies that typically befall a new band. It also would be buffeted by those profound changes that were affecting the entire music industry.
Not long after Deathray signs with Capricorn Records, Brown and Damiani’s former band Cake—its three-album deal with Capricorn—fulfilled signs with the much larger Columbia label. Then Capricorn’s distributor, PolyGram, is bought by Seagram, which already owns Universal Music. Deathray records its debut album; people who hear the tapes are floored. That album is scheduled for a late August 1999 release, but after Seagram merges Universal and PolyGram into one huge company, the album is moved to January 2000. Meanwhile, teen pinups take over pop radio, and metal-hybrid bands hijack the alternative-rock stations. In January, Deathray’s album is pushed back to February, then April. It finally comes out in May, a year after it was finished. Deathray sees some of America in a van and endures a series of mishaps as painfully comical as those portrayed in the 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap and then returns home to Sacramento and starts writing new songs.
A couple of band members get day jobs. Life goes on. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Deathray’s current world headquarters and studio, formerly a Model T-era gas station, is innocuously situated on a bleak stretch of Folsom Boulevard, between a cinderblock charismatic church and a casket warehouse. It is a Friday afternoon in late November, 2000. Inside the door around back, Brown, Damiani and drummer James Neil meander about the studio’s small but cluttered control room. A battered 16-track mixing board is set up at the far end. Damiani explains that three tracks are damaged, so now it’s a 13-track board.
Brown—a reserved but intense fellow who can fix a stare that would make Medusa blanch—wanders into the studio, a Spartan, windowless room that looks like any number of band practice spaces, with its old carpeting and randomly placed amplifiers, mike stands, black cables, duct tape, equipment cases and chairs. Brown picks up his battered Guild hollow-body electric and quietly begins to noodle around with chord progressions. Damiani, a quiet man with a fiendish smirk that puts George W. Bush’s to shame, casually adjusts a few sliders on the mixing board before punching the “play” button to start a tape of a “My Bloody Valentine” cover the band has recorded, while Neil, in shape courtesy of his new job in San Francisco, where he rents bicycles to tourists, leans back on a stool to listen. They wait for Gumbiner, the band’s rangy singer, who is out getting a haircut.
Soon he ambles in, and the four of them sit down. There’s a palpable sense of something in the room. Despair? Frustration? Not exactly. It’s more like a steely determination. One of them suggests that they hole up in the studio and stay there until they write enough songs for the next album; the others nod their heads as if that sounds like a pretty good idea.
I know today is just another day
Another concession, another
It’s just another ordeal
Do you know how I feel?
Brown wrote those words; they open his song “My Lunatic Friends,” the first track on the band’s debut album, Deathray. The situation they describe is universal. Was he describing a failed personal relationship? His former band? The music business in general? His target is left undefined.
He and Damiani first became known to music fans outside Northern California when Cake signed with Capricorn Records, which re-released the band’s homemade debut, Motorcade of Generosity.
Two years later, when Capricorn signed a new marketing and distribution deal with Mercury Records in the spring of 1996, Cake’s second album, Fashion Nugget, just happened to be in the can and ready to go. At the time, Mercury was emerging from a long period of hair-metal stasis with a new president and a revved-up radio promotion staff that was champing to break a new act. And the distribution arm of Mercury’s corporate parent, PolyGram, was also primed to deliver a big hit. At the time, the stars were seemingly aligned quite nicely.
A song Brown had written for Fashion Nugget, “The Distance,” was what the label was looking for. Everyone loves a good car song, and McCrea’s deadpan delivery of Brown’s arch lyrics, set to a driving funk beat, was one that, once you heard it, stayed lodged in your gray matter. It was an obvious hit, and Cake’s second album took off. It eventually would sell more than 1.2 million copies.
Because of the oft-cited “artistic differences,” or perhaps chafing from McCrea’s hands-on style of band leadership, Damiani, then Brown, left Cake well before the follow-up, Prolonging the Magic, was released. By then the stars had really started to shift.
By 1998, the year Deathray came into being, the same forces that had transformed the rest of the corporate world—mergers, acquisitions, more mergers—had winnowed the worldwide record business down to six multinational companies. Bertelsmann (Germany), EMI (U.K.), Philips (Netherlands), Seagram (Canada), Sony (Japan) and longtime market leader Time Warner (United States) together accounted for 95 percent of all compact discs sold worldwide.
Each of these leviathans released its CDs on any number of the labels acquired over the years. Many of those record companies began life as small entrepreneurial outfits, but needed the clout of a more powerful distribution company to market their records as the music business became increasingly more corporate. In late 1998, Seagram announced that its wholly owned Universal Music Group (UMG) (Geffen, GRP, Interscope, MCA, Universal) would swallow Philips-owned PolyGram (A&M, Decca/London, Def Jam, Deutsche Grammophon, Island, Mercury, Motown, Philips, Polydor, Verve), which immediately turned Universal into the new 800-pound gorilla of the music biz.
But, as every kid who’s ever watched a snake get busy with a mouse knows, swallowing is one thing. Digesting is another.
By mid-1999, Universal was busy gutting some of its free-standing record companies and folding them into others. Executive heads started rolling. A&M and Geffen, both hugely successful pop and rock labels in decades past, were shoehorned into something called Interscope/Geffen/A&M. Erstwhile African-American success story Motown was absorbed by the recently established Universal Records. Jazz giant Verve was subsumed by UMG’s smooth-jazz imprint GRP, which adopted the better-established Verve brand. An unlikely trio that included hip-hop label Def Jam, British rock and reggae label Island and onetime Chicago-based mini-major Mercury got mashed into the Island Def Jam Music Group, and Mercury—outside of the Nashville division that releases Shania Twain records—ceased to exist. Capricorn, formerly half-owned by PolyGram, now was half-owned by Universal. It got moved under the Island Def Jam umbrella.
When big changes happen at the corporate level, artists under contract often remain blissfully unaware. Deathray, which recorded its debut album in early 1999 and turned it in to Capricorn that April, was no exception. “It felt like a grand, celestial shift was taking place,” Gumbiner recalls. “We didn’t know exactly how that was going to trickle down and affect Capricorn, or for that matter, us. We just felt like we made a really good record, and we were really happy with it. We were sort of blissed out at the time.”
Of course, ideally, corporate politics shouldn’t matter. A musician should be able to craft a fine effort and submit it to the record label, and whatever new executive regime is in place should be able to go out and make that record a success.
For Deathray, there were a few complications.
Originally, the band shared Cake’s manager, former Bay Area rock radio legend Bonnie Simmons. Not long after Deathray signed with Capricorn, the band switched to Huge & Jolly Management—Huge being former Gang of Four drummer and music-publishing executive Hugo Burnham, and Jolly being his wife, Carol.
The problem was that the Burnhams and Capricorn had some old business issues that Deathray didn’t know about, which eventually led to a breakdown in communications between the band’s management and label. And, because a band relies on its management to handle its business affairs and its record label to sell records, when one party won’t talk to the other, difficulties ensue. Burnham became persona non grata at Capricorn.
“It lasted a long time,” Gumbiner says of Burnham’s exile. “The first time lasted about five or six months, and there was this workaround that everyone was used to, whereby Hugo would speak to [label general manager] Mike Bone and get information to us, and then Hugo would have distinct allies within the Capricorn camp that he’d be able to get reliable information from.”
The situation escalated to Austin Powers-level intrigue. “They’d even go so far as to use code names when they’d call in,” Neil says, laughing. “It was just ridiculous.”
Despite the tension developing between Capricorn’s staff in Atlanta and the Burnham camp in Los Angeles, Deathray tried to stay above the fray. The band was living off record-company advances, as it would continue to do while touring to promote the album it was about to record. The downside is that living off advances can be like running up debt on a credit card, and when an act’s records do start selling, it may be quite some time before it sees any royalty checks as a result.
The group had chosen 13 songs to record with producer Eric Valentine at his studio in a semi-industrial Redwood City neighborhood a few blocks off U.S. 101. Valentine was picked for his work with Northern California bands Smash Mouth and Third Eye Blind. Brown was a fan of the grainy and loud but infectious sound Valentine was getting out of his funky little studio; his records, such as Smash Mouth’s “Walking on the Sun” and “All Star,” sounded great on the radio. Valentine took Deathray’s updated British-invasion vibe and pumped up the volume on the band’s quirky new-wave revivalism. The result was a stunning display of pop songcraft with a distinctly modern edge.
The self-titled record was mastered and handed in to Capricorn, and a release date was set for the end of August, 1999. To help build that all-important music industry buzz, in March of that year, Capricorn brought Deathray to the annual South by Southwest music fest in Austin, which is attended by many music journalists, radio programmers, record-company artists and repertoire executives and other taste-makers.
A couple of Sacramentans in attendance who were familiar with Deathray remarked at the time that the band seemed a little flat—a nervous Gumbiner locked into an incongruous English accent, the songs lacked their usual punch. But the sweaty crowd that packed the Steamboat, one of the many live-music bars that line Austin’s Sixth Street, seemed to embrace the music’s smart-pop immediacy, and the all-important word of mouth began to spread.
The first indication that the road ahead might include a serious obstacle or two came about when the album’s release date got moved to January, 2000. Perhaps it was because Capricorn’s new distributor, Universal, suddenly had too many new releases in its pipeline; adding the PolyGram labels’ catalogue to Universal’s already large product mix was a big shock to the system. True, the album might have a much better shot at success if it was held back for release until after the first of the year when the music business returns to normal after the holiday season. But part of the problem may have been that Capricorn was then trying to get out of its deal with Universal; the label had three years remaining on the contract it had signed with Mercury/PolyGram, and it was trying to sever that contract and negotiate a new deal with another company.
Then, in January, the release of Deathray was moved to February of 2000. What happened next probably made Frank Zappa spin in his grave.
Spent all my fucking money
And I still feel lost.
Interscope Records got dragged into some very public battles with conservative cultural warriors in the mid 1990s. To protest Interscope’s involvement with gangsta rap—it distributed Death Row Records, a major exponent of the genre—a group led by GOP scold William Bennett and black activist C. DeLores Tucker pressured stockholders of Interscope’s then part owner, Time Warner, to stop selling music offensive to conservatives. Time Warner capitulated and sold its interest in the label. Possibly chastened by that controversy, Universal Music Group, the company that bought Time Warner’s stake in Interscope, adopted a policy that any record whose lyrics contain even one profane word must carry a parental advisory warning on its cover.
“Scott,” track No. 9 on Deathray, contains one mention of the word “fucking.”
The problem is that, according to the band, no one knew about any zero-tolerance policy at Universal.
One solution was to release a censored, or “clean,” version to sell at certain accounts—mall stores, Wal-Mart—that won’t carry albums with parental advisory warning stickers. But it gets expensive to market two different versions, and Capricorn was blanching at the idea, insisting on only releasing the clean version.
“Universal will not put out a record with a cuss word without a parental advisory sticker,” Capricorn’s VP of Business Affairs Philip Walden explains. “And we’re going to pop radio; we need the major retail accounts—the Wal-Marts. And they’re not going to stock a record with the word ‘fuck’ on it.”
Nevertheless, the band chose to hold firm and defend its privilege to exercise its artistic freedom.
“It was important to us that the record come out in its original format,” Neil explains, adding that the band agreed that Universal should manufacture two versions of the album, parental advisory and clean. “And it was important to us that both be available at the same time.”
One reason that Deathray may have been so adamant is that it was lurching toward the end of a long tour—in Boise, Idaho—when the label sprang the news that it would only release a clean, censored version, and the directive came over the phone. “We had a big row with Mike Bone,” Gumbiner says, “and we stood our ground.”
Why do you act so surprised
To find my hands over my eyes?
The album’s release was postponed again, this time until April of 2000. The reason, this time, was that Capricorn had hired a new head of radio promotion, Barney Kilpatrick, and he had listened to Deathray’s songs and was convinced he heard a smash hit. He just needed time to bring it to the attention of some key radio programmers, and perhaps lean on them a little bit.
Nothing wrong with that. It’s just that the song he really flipped over was “Now That I Am Blind”—a mournfully paced, beautiful song, but not one that jumps off the album as an obvious hit single, like “My Lunatic Friends” or “What Would You Do.” Kilpatrick’s other novel idea was to push the record at Top-40 radio, a format ruled these days by acts like Britney Spears and ’NSync.
But not everyone at Capricorn was on the same page. The label’s other key promotion person, Nan Fisher, was convinced that Deathray should be promoted to alternative rock stations. There was considerable friction. “We got caught in the middle of that,” Gumbiner says. “It was like the band was ignored on account of this bullshit scene between these two people and their ideas.”
That said, Philip Walden, the son of label founder Phil Walden insists that the label put its best foot forward. “We had just hired Barney Kilpatrick,” he says, “who came here with a wonderful reputation, a great pop promotion guy. And he was convinced that ‘Now That I Am Blind’ was a top smash.”
Walden adds that the label also hired other airplay consultants to train the label’s staff on analyzing the numbers in broadcast data reports, which track radio airplay and how to put it to use. “Believe me, we went all out,” he says. “We bet the bank on that song.”
“Now That I Am Blind” was released as a single in late March 2000, almost a year after Deathray finished recording its album. Weeks later, on May 2 to be exact, Deathray was finally in the stores. Well, the clean version was; the explicit version showed up a couple weeks later.
Deathray had been on the road playing small clubs to support the album’s impending release. Damiani and Neil had been booking the band’s live dates, but now it was moving up in the world; it was time to seek the help of professionals.
“The record was coming out,” Neil recalls, “so all of a sudden this booking agent was interested—like flies on shit. ‘You got a record coming out? We’ll book you.’ ”
It’s a good guess that the agents were either geographically challenged, as though they planned a tour by throwing darts at a map on the wall, or they were seriously lazy.
“It was a six-week tour,” Damiani says. “And a week before we went out, they had something like five shows booked. They got us to Chicago, and that was it.”
“I remember playing, like, three or four shows in a row,” Neil says. “We hit Corpus Christi, El Paso.”
“It was incredible,” Damiani adds. “We even had the Firestone tire blow-out. We didn’t even realize it at the time. We had two Firestones blow out on us within two hours.”
“Scary,” Neil says, shuddering.
The tour’s low point came in Texas.
“That was where everything came to a head,” Neil says. “At some sports bar in Houston where we’re not even on the marquee out in front of the bar. It’s like, 50-cent shots …”
Gumbiner jumps in: “It said, ‘Cheap Screws and Pitchers.’ ”
“I remember thinking, obviously, there’s so little thought put into the fact that we’re here; they put us here in a sports bar, and we’re not even on the marquee,” Neil says. “The drink specials are on the marquee. I just thought, this is fucking ridiculous.”
Despite the lousy booking, Deathray was winning over a new fan base in the clubs it did play—even Houston sports bars with an Australian outback theme. “We still get e-mails from people who saw us on that leg of the tour,” Gumbiner says. “They’re still avid Deathray fans, rabid Deathray fans, even though we had these crappy shows.”
That the band’s members managed to keep sane, even though things kept going haywire, testifies to their resilience. It helps when you still like to play in front of an audience. And if you can maintain a sense of humor, even better. We were having fun with the absurdity of it all,” Gumbiner says, laughing. “It’s hard to really describe our psychology at that point, because, literally, every day there was just some new and entirely comical situation to deal with, whether it was speaking with the general manager of the company or playing for cheap screws and pitchers.”
“That was a glorious night—Greg changed the marquee, and we got a picture,” Neil says.
Gumbiner’s laughing hard now. “He got on top of the van, and we drove the van over to the marquee, and he changed the marquee to read: ‘Screw Cheap Bitches. Which was entirely accurate, what the sign was really saying. But then he had, like, his conscience wouldn’t let him keep it that way, and he made us drive him over there and change it.”
Promoting a new album isn’t just careening around the country in a van, eating crummy road food and playing club after club. If you really want your record to be played, sometimes you must genuflect before the people who can make that happen.
“We were stopping at all these radio stations and doing little promo spots,” Gumbiner recalls, “and there were DJs blowing smoke up our asses about how great the record sounded, and how they wanted to play it, but it just wasn’t fitting into their format, which is all about testosto-rock. And pretty much seven days a week we’re playing shows or doing radio tie-ins.”
To add to the atmosphere of chaos, the band would hear rumors about Capricorn’s ever-changing quest to find a new home. The information changed weekly, according to Gumbiner. “I think we were being told at the time that they were just about to close a deal with Company X, and the next week they were about to close a deal with Company Y.” Record company employees thought the record was just about to break. “And, truth be told, ‘Now That I Am Blind’ got a lot of airplay; that was pretty amazing. It was really looking kind of cool; it looked, to us at that point, like we were just about to step over a hurdle or cross the hill,” Gumbiner said. “And we were just about to get to Chicago when we were told that the entire radio promotion staff was fired with the exception [of two people]. Like, nationwide—all these people that we’d been working with, all these people who had previously been dragging us out to radio stations and clubs.”
Walden disagrees; he says that some, but not all, of Capricorn’s field promotion staff were pink-slipped. “Quite a few,” he admits. “But at that point, I don’t think it was playing much of a role on whether this record succeeded or not,” adding that the company gave “Now That I Am Blind” support for as long as it thought the record had a chance to be a hit. That window of that opportunity was closing.
However you slice it, the end of the tour was a debacle. Understandably, the band called the label and said, “We’re going home.”
“It was embarrassing,” Brown says.
Bailing on the tour was, in Neil’s opinion, the most reasonable way of protesting what the band thought was a ridiculous situation. “Which is, ‘Jesus Christ—you’re trying to work our record, you’re trying to work us to radio, and you just fired everyone who works radio?’ It was like, there’s no reason for us to be out here punishing ourselves.”
Capricorn did ask Deathray to fulfill an important concert date in New York, and the band—by this time back in Sacramento—asked for plane tickets and new road equipment cases in return. It got them. Deathray played the gig. Then it returned home.
So why didn’t Deathray, the promising band with the great album, happen? How did a record that reviewers described as brilliant fall between the cracks? Burnham chalks it up to the ever-accelerating shifts in tastes and styles, along with the radio-programming strategies that accompany them. A lot changed between 1999, when the music was recorded, and 2000, when the album was released; delaying the record’s release for eight months really hurt its chances. By the time we did get it out,” he says. “there was no room anywhere—at least on alternative radio—for this sort of act. Everything was hard rock, which is what alternative became.
“They made a stunning pop-rock record,” Burnham adds. “But the timing of the release was very unfortunate, given everything else that was going on in radio.”
These days, Deathray isn’t playing much, and when it does, it’s usually at clubs in Sacramento or the Bay Area. The record is, for all intents and purposes, what’s called a “catalogue item”—it’s distributed by Universal and is available in stores, but it is no longer actively being promoted.
It’s still not clear what’s happening with Deathray’s future as a recording act. One scenario has the band leaving Capricorn owning the masters to its debut album, which it will be free to shop to another label or put out independently. Another has the band signed to Volcano for one album, a joint venture between Zomba Music and rock-band übermanagers Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch, which recently signed a letter of intent to purchase Capricorn’s roster and post-1991 catalog. Neither choice is a bad one.
As for the band members, they’ve settled back into California life. Brown has been commuting to Los Angeles to work on a record with Matt Sharp, of Weezer and the Rentals fame. Hart is also in L.A., and Neil continues to rent bicycles to tourists in San Francisco. Damiani has been hard at work putting the new studio together; he’s built an entire room just inside the walls of the main room, which effectively soundproofs it for recording.
Gumbiner’s got the most traditional day gig. “Doing tech support at Apple,” he says. “Sitting on the phone: ‘There’s smoke coming from my computer!’ ”