27th May2009

History Lesson: Sixteen Deluxe

by Todd

Remember that American band that made more quality records than My Bloody Valentine? ….Of course you don’t, loser.  That’s why Sixteen Deluxe didn’t play Coachella and isn’t sitting at the top of the “I wish they’d reform” list of everyone working at NME.  MBV made one incredible/genius/to-die-for record.  Sandwiched on either side of it, was a passable first record and decades of failed promises and money grabbing tours.  If you tell me I can only take one bands’ shoegaze music, I’d take Backfeedmagnetbabe, Emits Sparks and a bundle of good ep’s on the desert island without a second thought.

In the 90′s, Austin was the home of Trance Syndicate Records.  Run by King Coffey of the Butthole Surfers, they sheparded a scene that no critic wanted to invest in because they’d already bought their tickets to Seattle.  If you can track down a copy of the amazing ‘Cinco Amos’ compilation you’ll find punk music that shreded with a passion unmatched on either coast.  You’ll also find the shoegaze brilliance of Starfish, Furry Things and….the leader of the pack, Sixteen Deluxe.

We tracked down bass player Jeff Copas (who tracked down the rest of the group) and were treated to more than a manual on how to set your analog Boss chorus pedal to stun.  You can read lame interviews with bands like Art Brut, who are in the business of getting you to buy their records (fail!) or you can read the story of band that has nothing to gain, other than to offer a cautionary tale of major label savagery.  We often ask new bands if they’re worried about being cast aside once the hype dies down.  The next time you read the ‘shrug’ answer from one of these bands, remember this amazing tale as told by Sixteen Deluxe.

TDOA: The Austin scene seems like it’s moved forward in lurches. There were some other great bands around the same time SD existed and there seem like a bunch now. Did you find the “scene” to be supportive at the time? Although the bands at the time had a wide variety of styles, did the Trance bands hang out?

JC: I think the Austin scene moved ahead quite dramatically during the time we were active, due to a kind of critical mass that had been bubbling under the surface since the mid-late ‘80’s. What Trance did was really crystallize the whole scene – for every local band on Trance, there were half a dozen others that were mining the same territory. There were a lot of Ed Hall-type bands, a lot of Crust-type bands, a lot of loud, psychedelic acts in general…and Trance skimmed the cream of the crop, so to speak. They provided a national and international platform for a style of music that had pretty much been local and underground up to that point. There weren’t any Austin-based labels before that time that had any kind of similar impact beyond the region.

It was a little different for us, because we were like the freshman class, getting to hang out with the cool seniors. Before Sixteen Deluxe, I sold t-shirts for Ed Hall and volunteered at the Trance office, stuffing envelopes and going to the post office; Carrie first met King when she interviewed him for a university paper she wrote on Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty”; and we all had our minds blown in various ways by the Butthole Surfers as impressionable youngsters. So we were approaching the whole thing from the perspective of young fanboys and girls. We never had any illusions, and still don’t, that we were peers or equals of those guys; we looked up to them. Ed Hall, in particular, were very crucial to our development – we shared a drummer, Lyman Hardy, at various times, and when we first started, our stated goal as a band was to open for Ed Hall at Emo’s. That was, quite literally, the extent of our career goals circa 1994. Those guys mentored us right from the start, and we all admired them (still do, in fact).

Later on, with bands like Furry Things, Starfish, and Trail of Dead, we definitely socialized, played gigs together, toured together, etc., but there was more of a rivalry going on, I think. We had rather quickly become the name band for the label, and those guys were all, quite rightly, looking to make a name for themselves, and they were sick of hearing about us everywhere they went. We were sick of hearing about ourselves, after a while. So, there was some sniping and jealousy, but all in all it was good-natured, and I think it pushed everyone to play better, louder, weirder. But Trail of Dead, in particular, we had a good relationship with – Chris and I saw them very early on, when they were still a two-piece, at Electric Lounge. One of them threw a glass beer pitcher at the audience, chaos ensued, equipment was smashed. We were standing there watching, laughing, thinking, “these guys really know how to put on a show”. The music at the time was secondary to the confrontational theatrics, which can be really refreshing sometimes. And Chris approached them pretty quickly about recording. We were just starting to set up a proto-studio situation, and Trail of Dead was one of the first projects Chris did (their first self-titled album on Trance). We toured together, and got to see them develop as a powerful live act…and see them infuriate a few soundmen along the way, which was always entertaining. And they created this incredible sound, and made a great record. We were on Warners by that point, and it was really important to us at that time that we try and continue that local tradition of helping out younger bands.

We had benefited greatly from a lot of help from people in the scene early on. Our first two recordings were produced by Trance veterans: Cherubs front man (and ex-Ed Hall drummer) Kevin Whitley essentially produced “Backfeed Magnetbabe” (uncredited, listed as “cheerleader”…but much of the record is his concept); and “Pilot Knob” EP, which was engineered and produced by the guys in Crust in their studio. And a lot of film and video people, many of whom had worked on or appeared in “Slacker”, were really supportive and helped us out with making the “Idea” video and doing films at shows. We also had a lot of fans in the gay and lesbian community – our first club gig was at a lesbian bar, Chances, and we played house parties put on by our queer friends. Randy “Biscuit” Turner, of the Big Boys, was really supportive, we played shows together with his band, Swine King, and he really inspired us. So we were kind of adopted early on by all of these artistic, eccentric, wonderful people, and they really helped spread the word very quickly about us.

We were very fortunate at first, in that a lot of people were really hoping that we would succeed. We had a shocking amount of support locally, from the press, the clubs, our friends and fellow musicians…it seemed like “hype” to some people, but it was pretty genuine. Trance seemed, to outsiders, much bigger than it actually was: there was no master plan, or marketing guru behind it; it was organic and word of mouth. Naturally, there was somewhat of a backlash – even before we put out the first album – but we always laughed that off. People around town calling us “rock stars”, and here we were working at the hippie co-op, stocking groceries…

Babyheadrush (early mix)

[audio http://thedumbingofamerica.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/baby-headrush-early-mix.mp3]

TDOA:  Your sound resembled the music that was coming out of England at the time (MBV, Ride, etc.). Did you feel like the American press and music industry was prepared for an American band trying to capture what was clearly a successful formula?

JC: In a word: no.

Everett True, who was a writer for Melody Maker, and helped introduce Nirvana to the U.K. and Europe, came to Austin in 1995 for SXSW and covered the Trance (non-SXSW) showcase. We got to hang out, over cheap booze and late-night shenanigans, and he was the first writer I was aware of to point out the obvious, Anglophile connection to our sound. Prior to Everett, most writers referenced the Flaming Lips (who were indeed a big influence), or the usual Trance stable. But after the Melody Maker piece, we started seeing more frequent references to MBV, Ride, JAMC, et al, and that was further solidified by Charles Aaron in SPIN, who was an early champion of ours. Outside of those guys – as influential as they were – most American writers would commonly fall back on the cliché of “Chick Singer = Chrissy Hynde / Debbie Harry / Breeders”, ad nauseum. Not that all of those references aren’t valid on some level…but it didn’t tell the whole story, in terms of musical inspiration.

As far as the music industry goes…they were searching for the next Nirvana, or something. In America, I don’t think the shoegaze formula was necessarily viewed as “successful”; MBV hadn’t exactly set the country on fire (outside of those of us lucky enough to see them on tour in the U.S.), much less Ride, or any of their impostors. I think most of the labels that were looking at us were thinking to themselves, “with a little work, they could be the next Veruca Salt. Or, Nirvana. Either way, we get rich.”

In all honesty, when we started, we had a very simple formula: Cheap Trick meets MBV. Guitar rock and power pop was always equally important to us as psychedelia and shoegaze. We were successful musically when we struck a balance between the two, but eventually things got out of whack.

TDOA: SD covered Eno’s ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’ on Backfeed Magnetbabe. At the time, covering an Eno song was a pretty radical concept. Can you tell me about the genesis of the cover?

JC: The first two Eno records were something that Chris, Carrie, and I bonded around very early on, and were very important building blocks of our sound. We understood those records on a chemical and musical level…probably due to listening to them on chemicals, of course.

Carrie had just come from playing in a band project that covered “The True Wheel”; she and I had been roommates a few years before the band, and Taking Tiger Mountain and Here Come the Warm Jets (and Big Star 3rd, for that matter) were in permanent rotation around our house. And when we met Chris and started talking favorite records, that one came up. You know how it is – you make an instant connection with someone that way.

I’m pretty sure the idea for the cover came from Chris; we started out, the three of us, doing quiet rehearsals in the living room at his house in south Austin. Chris had figured out the chords, or at least a raw approximation of them – I don’t think we ever played it “correctly” – but we came up with our own take on it. It is definitely meant as an homage to someone who opened up our musical brains and re-arranged things a bit. I think he’s really underrated as a pop songwriter.

For the three of us, Eno was a lingua franca, a way to communicate ideas about sounds in ways that were hard to verbalize. Learning that song, delegating the guitar parts, the dynamics, etc., laid the foundation for a lot of what came after. Covers are handy that way – if you’re short on original material, and it’s a new project, you can get a pretty good idea of what a band is going to sound like. And, we went on to open just about every gig for a few years with that one. It’s a nice way to break the ice.

TDOA: Warners put out one record during the bands’ existence. Can you tell us about the experience? I remember being pretty disappointed that it didn’t seem to change the amount of exposure the band got. I’d also be interested to know how King reacted, if at all.

JC: We signed to WB in October 1996, after what seemed like the longest dalliance with major labels in rock history. We started getting major label attention before we even left Texas, in early 1995, when we had been a band for all of nine months. Dave Jerdine, who was the producer for Jane’s Addiction, and had engineered My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, was a producer/A&R guy at Atlantic, and various people from that label had been following us around all throughout the summer of 1995, which we spent on tour behind Backfeed. We thought it was funny, of course…we were on tour in my $1500 van that burned a quart of oil a day, making $100 a night, and happy to be doing so…and Atlantic people would show up at our gigs, offer to put us up in hotel rooms, and pay for dinner for us and whatever friends we had tagging along. Which, in all honesty, we were happy to take advantage of, as $100 a night will get you a parking space and a hot dog in New York City. We thought it was all a joke, and that it would all be over by the time we got home.

It wasn’t. They kept calling us after we got home. Me and Chris were working at the hippie co-op, stocking groceries, and we would hear over the PA every day, “would a member of Sixteen Deluxe please pick up line 1”…And we’d answer the phone, and it’s the president of, like, Atlantic Records, or Warner Brothers, or Slash Records, etc…we were actually getting in trouble at work, because we were spending too much time on the phone playing music business…

We had a couple of trips out to Hollywood, meeting with Atlantic and Capitol and A & M, and God knows who else. We asked a lot of questions, got a lot of wrong answers, and spent as much of their money as we could. We really felt no shame about trying to swindle some of these people out of as much as we could get away with. It wasn’t their money, anyway – they had ripped it off from the record-buying public, peddling their horrible crap, so he had no qualms about some good old income redistribution. We knew we had something they wanted, and we just didn’t see any reason to give it away.

But we kept running into a guy at Slash Records who we really liked. Randy Kaye, who sadly recently passed away, had been at Slash Records since the early days of LA punk, and was friends with the Germs, and people like Joan Jett and Deborah Harry. He seemed like a good match for us. But he was leaving Slash and going to Warner Bros., where he would oversee bands like Built to Spill and Grant Lee Buffalo. We liked WB already, because the Flaming Lips were there, and they had nothing but good things to say about it, and they had artists like REM and Robyn Hitchcock. So, what’s not to like?

And then…Steven Baker, the president of WB, the guy who signed REM to WB for $80 million, flew to Austin to attend our drummer’s birthday party, and regaled everyone with stories about following Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers around in the early 70’s and seeing Television in 1976. I, for one, was impressed. These guys, it seemed to us, were just as cool and tasteful as any indie rock person; they just had more money. Ha.

What we didn’t know was that behind the scenes, WB was committing suicide. Mo Ostin, the legend of Warners, had just left in a huff, and his deputies (like Steven Baker) were on the way out. Rule number one in signing to a major label: make sure your A&R guy’s boss, and his boss, are still going to be around when your record actually comes out (there’s some good books written about this chapter in American music history.)

After a year of this kind of cat and mouse game, there was simply too much pressure to ignore the offers. At one point, we were offered $1 million, cash, to sign to a certain label that shall remain nameless, with the catch that they would own us for 7 albums, and possess total creative control over every aspect of our careers. We found ourselves hanging out with Rick Rubin, riding around in his Bentley, and being chased around Texas by the president of Slash. We didn’t sell out so much as we just finally gave in. We thought, “maybe if we sign with one of them, they’ll leave us alone and just let us make music.” That may sound self-serving, or hopelessly naïve, but it was honestly how we felt at the time.

So we chose artist-friendly WB. It was the smallest deal out there, money-wise, but the biggest in terms of total artistic freedom. We had complete control. And in all honesty, the folks at WB treated us great, and never once interfered with any decisions we made. They worked really hard for us, got us great press, and gave us pretty much whatever we asked for.

What soured the relationship, and doomed Emits, was the fact that we had internal problems eating away at us. I won’t go into the personal details here, but we had to cancel a co-headlining tour with Spoon in the spring of 1998, which included a bunch of record promo stops and radio work. They stopped working on the album and cut off any future tour support. It was just a business decision on their part, cutting their losses, but it was a rather cold-blooded lesson in the realities of major labels for us. It was unclear at that point, three months after the record came out, if we were even going to be a band at all, much less tour and promote the record. I wasn’t so much concerned with the record at that point as I was with seeing all of us just survive during this time. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it actually was a matter of life and death.

We did eventually re-group, and toured throughout the summer with basically no support from the label, but more out of a sense of personal obligation, and a desire to keep moving. We had a record out, and we were going to tour one way or the other, and we had secured some great dates with Jesus and Mary Chain (which was an incredible experience) and Swervedriver.

Towards the end of ’98, when WB wasn’t returning our calls, and the management there was in flux, it was clear the relationship was doomed. Randy was completely MIA. Rick Gershon, who is the world’s greatest publicist, was the only person at the label still taking our calls. But, thanks to our smart lawyer, we did actually have a solid two-album deal. Rather than record another album for them that they were probably going to deep-six as soon as it was pressed, we asked to be let out of our contract, which included a guarantee for one more record. So, in addition to Emits Showers of Sparks, we were actually paid to NOT record a second album. And we used that money to build a studio, record “The Moonman is Blue” EP, and continue touring and recording for the next year and a half.

As far as King goes…by 1996, our relationship was in decline, but not by any intentional choice of ours, to be certain. His band was finally experiencing real success: 1996, of course, was the year of “Pepper”, the biggest hit in the Butthole Surfers’ career. And, as a result, he just wasn’t around as much, and neither were we. They toured relentlessly, and we were constantly on tour as well, and that didn’t leave much time for face-to-face conversation (and no e-mail or cell phones…for most people at least). And the fact was, everybody knew we were destined to jump ship; it was just a matter of when, and how.

During the peak of all of this major label madness, before we signed with WB, we recorded the “Pilot Knob” EP, with the guys in Crust. It was a way for us to forestall the decisions that were looming, and get back in the studio, and see where we were going next. We paid for the recording, and wanted to tour behind it, so we offered it to Trance, with the assurance that we would tour behind it through the year, but then after that, it was obvious we were going to finally sign a deal. Not surprisingly (from my perspective in 2009), Trance turned it down. But at the time, that decision hurt us all in a way that we weren’t quite prepared for. No doubt those guys had been hurt as well – they were hearing about us in the local gossip columns, and fielding rumors left and right. I’m sure we had become more of a burden to them than they wanted. We had become this monster they had helped create, and I think they were a little embarrassed by the whole thing at that point.

At one point, we tried to get King to “demand” some kind of payment from whatever label was going to sign us. We offered to sign something that says “we are signed to your label” (because all Trance deals up to that point were verbal), so they could cash in on us.

But King, being the kind of person he is, wouldn’t have any of it. He refused to take money from a band in that kind of way. He could have named his price for us, but he didn’t. There are very few people in the music business who are that ethical. He’s an exceptional person, and we could have used more of his advice and his experience. But things were happening so fast, and we were really kind of lost, looking back on it. I think we all wish now King had just slapped us around a bit and set us straight. But, it was hard – he was having what looked to us like great success at Capitol. So, why not sign to a major label? It was difficult to take advice on the evils of major labels from someone who was having exactly the kind of success on a major label that we were hoping to have. I’m afraid our naivety on that topic really knew no boundaries.

Click to continue reading

TDOA: Please tell me about the experience of touring. Detroit (my hometown!) had a pretty strong reaction to SD, but I wonder how things went in the rest of the country given the lack of label support. Did you ever make it over to England?

JS: I would say our best experiences as a band were on tour. We had the chance again and again to play with so many great bands: Jesus and Mary Chain, Medicine, Swervedriver, Luna…and we made some great friends, many of whom we’re still in contact with today. Spending five years in a van with people, criss-crossing the U.S…there’s not many experiences that are like it. You get so close to people, in ways that you never do at a job, or any kind of endeavor where, at the end of the day, you go home and sleep in your own bed.

We somehow managed to appeal to people in the most unlikely places, like Tuscaloosa, AL, or somewhere in West Virginia. We may have seemed, on the surface, noisy, spacey, and way too loud, but Carrie’s personality always managed to win over people in situations where, before we would go on stage, we would be convinced we were probably going to be shut down, or worse, completely ignored. Her charisma usually saved us. And some people were always intrigued by whatever it was Chris was doing…launching a nuclear rocket, or performing some kind of strange alchemy with the effects. People would quite often stare at us in confusion, then later, buy us drinks and tell us how much they liked it.

Our best cities were places like San Francisco (where we went to record Emits, and played more than anywhere outside of Texas), Denton (TX), Seattle, and Chicago. And, for some reason, Youngstown, OH. Detroit, let’s see…we played there with Cub in the basement at St. Andrews. And with Luna at the Magic Stick, which was a particularly memorable gig – great crowd, packed house, and a lot of kids. I believe there was a brawl downstairs that spilled out into the street. We also had some fun times in Traverse City one night – I think we played there with Pansy Division and Ed Hall? We were always wary in Detroit – we were all small-town kids, always slightly in awe of the Big City, and Detroit’s got quite a reputation. I think we were always grateful to have just survived without incident.

We actually had a two-month European / UK tour booked opening for Steel Pole Bathtub, which we had to cancel, due to lack of funds…just one of many reasons why we eventually ended up firing our management at the time. They weren’t able to help us get the plane tickets, and we were really let down. In retrospect, that tour could have really changed the future of the band. Had we established a foothold in Europe, it could have helped us down the road when were burning out on touring the U.S., and it certainly would have raised our profile a bit and garnered some good press.

TDOA: The dreaded, “why did the band break up?” question….

JS: I quit the band in November of 1999, while on tour in Kansas. We were on the second leg of a tour that, I felt, was ill conceived and not really worth our time or effort. We had zero label support, we were spending our own money out of our pockets, and I had been dissatisfied with the direction of the band for some time. During and after Emits, we had moved gradually away from our original sound, and into a harder, heavier rock sound that was just less interesting, really, than the fruity and over-the-top sound we were known for, and it seemed like we had been deliberately running away from the shoegaze, psychedelic side of the band, which is what people really liked, it turns out. I think we misjudged exactly who and what are audience really was at that time.

Add to that, small crowds, no press, and no real plan for the future, and it was easy to get demoralized. I almost quit before the second leg of the tour, but decided I would try and tough it out. But, I really felt then, and I still feel now, that our time had come and gone by that point. We were on the downside of the curve, and nobody else was ready to admit it.

And of course, due to a lot of personal issues, there had been real dysfunction at the heart of the band for some time, and it didn’t look like that was going to change anytime soon, and I don’t think I was alone in feeling trapped between differing factions in the group. So, I bailed in the middle of the night, and caught a bus back home, which was rather impetuous of me, but necessary. They continued on for another six months, and finally, Carrie quit. She told me later that she was pissed at me, not because I had quit, but that I had quit before she had the chance.

Our time was just up, really. When you launch off like a rocket, at high speed and with a lot of noise, the comedown is usually rapid, and destructive.

TDOA: Any chances of the group ever getting back together to play some shows?

JS: I’m not certain, but it looks possible. We were just asked a few weeks ago to re-unite in August for a one-off gig. To everyone’s surprise, I think, we were all open to considering the idea. Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts got in the way for this particular gig. But I think the fact that it wasn’t immediately shot down is a sign that it will probably happen at some point in the not-so-distant future. It’s been nearly ten years, so…who knows. There are a lot of unresolved issues, even after this long.

I think everyone would do it if there were some kind of decent motivation, like a benefit or fundraiser. A lot of our friends our probably going to need organ transplants in the years ahead, so that could possibly keep us rather busy…

I think it would be fun; those songs are a blast to play live, and easy (for me, anyway). It’s a bit more problematic for the guitarists, for a lot of reasons, not the least being they would need to round up about 33 effects pedals, for starters.

TDOA: When My Bloody Valentine re-formed, it seems like that genre of music was revived. With the internet playing a huge role in music and bands not as dependent on labels, how do you think SD would have done in this new “world”?

JS: I think around late 1998-99, we were just waiting for something like the Internet, which was in its infancy then as far as music was concerned, to come along and help us reach out to our fans around the world. Our fanbase is wide, but not deep: from Louisiana to Sweden, Brazil to Estonia. We have a pretty tiny MySpace presence, but I’m always flattered and surprised by the notes we get from fans around the globe. We were a good example, really, of a band that could benefit from that kind of model: we weren’t ever going to sell 100,000 records, or get 5,000 people out to a show…and in the 90’s, that meant you were not successful, as far as the music industry was concerned. But the Internet has shown that you can sell 5,000 records, and play to 200 people a night, and still have a legitimate presence in the music world, and tour, release albums, and promote yourself with some modicum of dignity and self-worth as a musician.

And really, that’s always been true. But now it’s much more the norm, rather than the exception, which is great. Before the internet, the norm was, if you’d sold 5,000 records, somebody was waiting in the wings to convince you that you could sell 5 million. To a certain extent, those days are over, and we’re all the better for it, frankly.

At this point in an article, I provide links for you to learn more.  In this case, I’ll provide their myspace link (http://www.myspace.com/sixteendeluxe).  Now….a) “befriend” them. b) post a comment begging for a reunion show.

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