Most local, independent record labels are labors of love--small outfits such as Arnie Swenson's Prolific company (lauded in this space last issue) that struggle from day to day and month to month to remain in operation. But Pro T.U., a Denver imprint that makes its bow this week, is quite a different species. As co-owner Mike Urbana puts it, "We're, in layman's terms, well-capitalized. We're going from the top down rather than the bottom up, because we have access to a lot of funds."
He's not blowing smoke. Urbana is the principal owner and president of Capitol Preservation, an investment-banking firm that's been in Denver since 1982. "We manage pension profit-sharing and endowment and foundation money, both public and private--about $400 million worth right now," he points out. "And that's primarily where the seed capital is coming from for this effort."
The other man behind Pro T.U. is Eddie Turner, who has a musical background that rivals Urbana's financial one. A well-respected guitarist, he's best remembered in these parts for having replaced the late Tommy Bolin in Zephyr. He and Urbana have been pals for many years, largely because of their shared interest in axes; Urbana identifies himself as "probably one of the four largest collectors of vintage guitars in the nation. I've always been on the periphery of the national music scene, supplying vintage guitars and amps for people." Over the years, they'd talked about putting together a label, but they finally got serious about the notion within the last year. "I just turned forty and Eddie just turned forty, and we decided to follow our passion," Urbana points out. He adds, "It's that midlife crisis thing." Among the other people involved in the project on one level or another are Mickey Hoolihan of Boulder-based Wind Over the Earth (a clearinghouse for exotic recording-studio gear), a computer guru known simply as Windham, and Todd Mohr, of Big Head Todd and the Monsters fame.
After marshaling these varied forces, Urbana and Turner needed a band to make the inaugural Pro T.U. release. The one they chose was Vinyl Oyster, featuring guitarist Paul Ghioldi (formerly a member of the Original Rabbits and Strange Parade), ex-Fear of Sleep bassist Chris Rogers, and veteran drummer Bob Rupp, a timekeeper with oodles of previous bands, including the Rumble, and owner of Rupp's Drums. "Mike used to buy rare drums and guitars from my store," Rupp says. "When we put this band together, we did a little four-song demo that Mike heard, and he really liked it and decided there was some kind of future with the band. So we met with him and Eddie and inked a three-album contract right off the bat." Turner confirms that his and Mike's previous relationship with Rupp had plenty to do with the deal: "It was like, 'Let's record our friends.'"
The Pro T.U. twins didn't skimp on the production of the Vinyl Oyster full-length debut, Angels on Horseback; it was engineered by Stephen McNamara, whose credits include AC/DC's Back in Black, Def Leppard's Hysteria and platters by Bryan Adams and Tina Turner. Given McNamara's background, it's no surprise that the final package has a slight air of the Eighties about it; it occupies a middle ground between old-style corporate rock and a glammier, more modern sound. Cuts such as "Lost in My World," "Sometimes" and "Your Eyes" are chunky, tuneful and melodic, and while there's nothing particularly fresh or inspiring about them, they've got their catchy moments.
The folks at Passport, the largest independent music distributor in the country, were impressed enough with Angels to make it part of an overall contract with Pro T.U. The discs will be in stores up and down the Front Range beginning July 25, and they're slated for racking in fifteen other markets that Vinyl Oyster will be visiting during an eight-week tour set to start sometime in September. A video of the single "I Told You So" has also been completed. Directed by David Haskell and featuring scenes shot behind the clock face inside the Daniels & Fisher Tower, where Capitol Preservation maintains its offices, the clip has been sent to MTV; Urbana claims that the network has accepted it for broadcast as part of its 120 Minutes program.
In the meantime, Pro T.U. is moving full steam ahead on several other fronts. The company is already in the planning stages for a Christmas disc featuring Colorado artists to be announced at a later date. ("Since we're close to the boys in Boulder, you can guess at least one band that will be on it," Urbana teases.) Conoco, Copper Mountain and TCI have already pledged support to the seasonal package, which will benefit the Special Olympics. Also, Urbana reveals that he has contacted, or is in actual negotiation with, a number of local indie labels, with an eye toward purchasing them. "Our arrangement with Passport was that we will continue to feed them product on a pretty regular basis, and that's forcing our hand to go out and try to build our catalogue that way," he says. Signing bands to Pro T.U. is part of the agenda, too. Urbana notes, "We're in discussion right now with Lord of Word, Chaos Theory and 2 A.M. And Eddie may do a project for us, too. He hasn't done one since the Zephyr days, so that would be great." (Other musicians interested in being considered by the label should send materials to Pro T.U., care of Capitol Preservation, 1601 Arapahoe Street, Suite 1200, Denver 80202.)
To say the least, Urbana and Turner have ambitious goals. We won't know for quite some time whether they'll actually succeed, but as Urbana points out, he's got more money to pour into his label than any Denverite in recent memory. Still, he insists he's not interested in committing fiscal suicide. "We're looking at this as the least risk for the most reward possible," he says. "And I think it's going to work. Hopefully, by this time next year we'll be the largest independent label in the region."
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The times, they have a-changed. Whereas the Grateful Dead regularly sold out local stadium dates within hours, the July 20 Further Festival, featuring ex-Dead members Bob Weir and Mickey Hart, failed to attract a capacity crowd to Fiddler's Green even after a couple of months of persistent advertising. However, the folks who bothered to drop by were generally glad they did. (I'm guessing that the attendee who died of a heroin overdose was an exception to this rule, but I can't swear to it.) Especially toward the end of its run, the Dead won praise from the true, uncritical believers simply for showing up--but the portion of Saturday's show that I caught was notable for the actual effort expended by the participating performers. The music wasn't always transcendent; despite the presence of bassist supreme Rob Wasserman, Weir's Ratdog proved to be as tepid a (mostly) white blues band as you can imagine. Still, on this night, everyone seemed to be trying. And that in itself was a pleasant surprise.
Other excuses. On Thursday, July 25, Austin's Sister 7 counts at the Fox Theatre, and the Girls congregate at Cricket on the Hill. On Friday, July 26, the Denver Salsa Club gathers at the Sloans Lake Event Center; Little Fyodor appears with That People's Sleep at the Lion's Lair; Martha's Wake hits Area 39; and Terrance Simien and the Mallet Playboys cruise at the Boulder Theater. On Saturday, July 27, puddlelucious splashes at Seven South, with Sissy Fuzz; the String Cheese Incident stretches at the Fox; and Sundance and the Men in Blues kid around at Brendan's. On Monday, July 29, Jawbox bites down at the Mercury, and Biohazard joins Manhole at the Fox. On Tuesday, July 30, Man or God provides a choice at the Lion's Lair; Fe puts its mark on Caffe Mars; and Barkmarket growls at the Mercury. And on Wednesday, July 31, Dishwater flows at Boulder's Round Midnight, and the Sex Pistols fire at Red Rocks, with Stabbing Westward, Reacharound and Gravity Kills. No future, indeed.
Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@ westword.comMichael_Roberts@