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Backwash

Last fall, Sean Kelly was ready to pump gas for a living; he felt like things had gotten that bad. The list of creditors to whom he and his band, the Samples, owed money had sprawled like Southern moss. And in November, three of his bandmates -- longtime drummer Sam Young, keyboardist Alex Matson and bassist Andy Sheldon -- quit out of frustration with the Samples' lack of momentum and with Kelly's inability to pay them back wages. When they left, they left angrily, and Kelly took the exodus as a sign of end times.

"I never thought that I would be in a tour bus again," he says. "I didn't think that the gear that was in our practice space would ever be brought out again, except maybe to go to a pawnshop. I mourned those guys leaving; it was like having a relationship end. And then things somehow got so outrageously out of control. It was like people could tell that we were having trouble, and some of them came out of nowhere to punch us down."

Seventeen years after the band formed in Colorado, and many years after it had established a modest but loyal fan base among the jam-band and college-rock contingents, the Samples were bordering on bankruptcy. Royalties from their thirteen records -- seven of which were released on the Boulder-based What Are Records? -- had never been the band's primary revenue source, and touring had become more of an expense than a money-maker: The band owed on its tour bus (a leathery liner that once carted around the Mariah Carey camp), owed drivers, stagehands, musicians, tech guys, even the Internal Revenue Service. At one point, the IRS even threatened to put a lien on Kelly's personal possessions.

But instead of filing for Chapter 11, Kelly and manager Ralph Pastordevised a last-ditch plan: They put the band up for a charity bid. Through written pleadings posted on www.thesamples.com, Kelly asked fans to place a value on what the Samples' music meant to them -- and to give accordingly.

"[It's] as if a mighty giant had little birds pecking at [its] ankles," Kelly wrote on the site. "The first one would be a nuisance, the second painful, but when there are new ones arriving everyday and pecking away, sooner or later the giant will fall. That is what our creditors are currently doing to us. We are on our way to profitability but we need your help to get there."

For their efforts at keeping the little birds at bay, supporters -- most of whom already provided the band with conventional fiscal support through CD and ticket sales -- would receive a laminated "Lifetime Pass," sporadic invitations to live performances and loads of thanks from Kelly. And so far, more than 500 individuals have given approximately $15,000 and offered volunteer help with publicity, legal and Web services. (The suggested donation amount is $50.) The Samples' Web site got a major digital facelift after the Lifetime Pass initiative got under way; on it, Kelly uploads regular "progress reports" and photos from performances, allowing now-financially vested fans to keep track of the band's health. In his postings, Kelly stops just short of thanking fans for rescuing him from certain death -- in a financial sense, at least -- even though contributions have barely dented the band's $100,000 debt.

"I didn't want the pass idea to come off as desperate, but at the same time, I couldn't just give up without at least trying one last thing to save it," Kelly says. "I just figured if the fans knew how fragile things were and how close the band was to just disappearing, that might mean something to them. I wanted to give them some choice in the matter. And as soon as I did, the response just started flooding in. It was obvious that we had to keep this thing going."

Aside from a few irritated e-mails -- mostly from former bandmates and managers -- the response has been uniformly positive, Kelly says. But his own allusions to the band's financial situation have been almost uniformly vague. How did things get this bad for the Samples? Who are these wolves -- er, birds -- knocking at the giant's door and pecking at his ankles? Kelly blames a series of bad management decisions and alludes to its poisonous parting with What Are Records?, from whom the Samples split in 1998 before forming their own imprint, Apache.

But Kelly also cites a now-familiar culprit -- namely, a group of insane hijackers who brought the world to a halt by flying jets into buildings in September 2001. And though the 9/11 connection feels a little like a too-easy out, Kelly swears there's a valid link: The band lost a high-paying "anchor" gig in Nevada when the promoters canceled the show in a post-attack panic; when that paycheck never rolled in, Kelly says he was stuck with a crew and a bus he still had to cover. That's the kind of thing that major labels can be handy for.

"We've never really been a band that makes any money or that is oriented around money. When we tour, we're just kind of barely in the black, so we weren't at all prepared to cover some massive loss like that," he says. "We're kind of like the Grateful Dead, in that we just give our heart and soul altruistically and never expecting anything in return. But ultimately, it just ran us into the ground."

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