By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
For years, Lord of Word and the Disciples of Bass has been considered one of the local bands most likely to sign with a major label and burst into national prominence--but it's not going to happen. After shows at Denver's Bluebird Theater and Boulder's Fox Theatre on Friday, April 10, and Thursday, April 23, respectively, the group's members, led by rapper Theo Smith, aka Lord of Word, will be going their separate ways.
On the surface, the reasons for the split add up to a typical local story in which a combo becomes a big draw in Denver but is unable to reach the next level of popularity. However, things are a bit more complicated than that. The band has spent much of the past two years on the road, and in the process has built up sizable followings in San Francisco, San Diego and a number of other cities. Moreover, the act's booking firm, the powerful Tahoe Agency, never lost faith in the act; to the contrary, representatives wanted the musicians to tour even more energetically. But when label interest that was generated by showcases at the Hard Rock Cafe in Los Angeles and a Las Vegas date opening for James Brown added up to little more than casual compliments and hot air, exhaustion set in. Finally, according to bassist John Hamala, "Theo called a meeting and said he was really tired and that he felt like he'd lost the feeling you need to have. He wanted to call it quits."
Smith isn't quite as explicit about his reasoning. "It's just something that I've kind of been contemplating for a few months and talking myself out of," he says. "But I ended up deciding that I should take a break, save some money, buy some equipment and maybe even put together my own label and release music on that. I guess I just wanted to have a little more control over things and oversee things a little bit closer. But there's no animosity between the members of the band or anything. It's just something that I felt I needed to do."
The Disciples of Bass have undergone a myriad of lineup changes since the band's formation in 1992; Smith estimates that 37 musicians and dancers have been part of the ensemble over the years. Notable players such as drummer Count D and guitarist Maurice Avatar, who were on board when Westword first profiled the collective ("Word of Mouth," July 28, 1993), eventually gave way to Hamala and ax-man Tim Miller, both previously with the late, lamented Jonez, and keyboardist Jeff Lipton, a onetime part of Love Lies. But despite such membership shifts, the band never lost its local following. It won Westword Music Awards Showcase prizes during each of the event's first two years and earned solid reviews for Positive, a CD that hit stores last year.
Behind the scenes, though, the situation was more erratic. Promoter Bill Bass signed on to oversee the group, but Hamala says the musicians abandoned him when another manager he declines to identify offered to take them under his wing. Unfortunately, these plans soon fell through, leaving Smith and company on their own. The agreement with the Tahoe Agency provided a timely boost, but it also created additional pressure. "We would do two or three weeks at a time every couple of months," Hamala notes, "and that wasn't enough for them. But because the band is so big, touring was expensive. I was the road manager and did all the finances, so I can tell you that we made money at home. But even though we got good crowds on tour, we didn't make anything. And that was hard when you'd be out there playing sixteen shows in sixteen days in sixteen different places, especially if the routing wasn't right. Sometimes we'd get into a place, load, play and get to sleep at two or three in the morning, then have to be up at six in order to make a ten-hour drive to the next place. In some ways, that's typical of what bands have to go through, but for someone like me, who's been doing it for eleven years, it gets to be kind of a drag."
These experiences have convinced Hamala to try on a normal life for size; he's accepted a job at a family business in Dallas and plans to relocate there soon. Doing so will allow him to spend more time with his wife and 22-month-old daughter, Madison. But at the same time, he's already gotten in touch with the musicians in Hellafied Funk Crew, a Denver act now headquartered in Dallas, and expects that he'll be back on a stage before long. "I was with the Jonez for eight years and thought they'd get signed, too, so this has been a really harsh dejà vu for me," he allows. "But the music is part of me, and I know I'll be doing it again."
Other Disciples are casting about locally for opportunities; don't be surprised if Miller, Lipton and their bandmates wind up in new outfits shortly. As for Smith, he makes it clear that retirement is not on his mind. "I'll probably be going back into the studio before the summer is over," he says. "And I think doing everything will give me a chance to challenge myself a little more. I think I have the ability to do it musically and business-wise--to maybe do a little Ani DiFranco kind of thing."