The biggest behind-the-scenes news in the music industry these days concerns the recent $10.4 billion merger of two corporate behemoths, Polygram and Universal Music. The Universal Music Group--the handle placed on the enterprises' joint assets--is now the biggest label on the planet, bar none. But because the overseers of this Orwellian monster are still answerable to stockholders, they have a vested interest in eliminating duplicative services at the companies now under their umbrella. As a result, a handful of once-powerful imprints--A&M and Geffen among them--are now little more than names on letterheads, and most of their employees are now wearing pink slips. Moreover, the word has come down that the artist rosters of these companies will be hacked by as much as 80 percent. And last week, the knife fell on Denver's 16 Horsepower.
The band, whose most veteran members are David Eugene Edwards and Jean-yves Tola, was inked to A&M in 1995 and issued an impressive full-length, Sackcloth 'n' Ashes, for the company the next year. Rapturous reviews failed to lift the disc's U.S. sales above the anemic level, but Europeans proved far more susceptible to Sackcloth's charms, turning it into a sizable cult hit. This pattern was repeated for the group's follow-up CD, 1998's Low Estate, produced by PJ Harvey associate John Parish. However, A&M remained committed to the combo. Its pact with A&M only guaranteed two albums, but the firm picked up its option for a third last October, even though rumblings about takeovers and blood-lettings were already in the air. "It was great," Tola says. "And they said that no matter what happened with the merger, we would be fine."
Not quite. The musicians made plans to start cutting a new platter with local studio veteran Bob Ferbrache and engineer Victor Van Vutt, who works closely with Nick Cave and Mick Harvey; according to Tola, "We were going to do two weeks of pre-production in Colorado starting in the middle of January and then start recording on February 1." But just as Tola was about to head back to Denver (he's currently living in California), A&M was shuttered amid rumors that very few acts on the label would be retained by the incoming regime.
Given these circumstances, Tola was mildly surprised at the content of his first conversation with Tom Whalley, a high-ranking executive from the Universal Music Group. Instead of unsheathing his sword, Tola says, "he told me, 'We just finished dealing with all the personnel, and now we're going to start dealing with the bands. We have to listen to them all and make up our minds who we're going to keep.'" In reply, Tola mentioned the recording schedule and asked for a quick decision, which Whalley promised to provide. Two days later, one of the few surviving A&R staffers with whom 16 Horsepower had worked phoned and told Tola that Whalley and other bigwigs wanted to see the outfit live prior to determining its future. Tola promptly set up a showcase on March 9 at the Bluebird Theater. But after first agreeing to fly out for the gig, Universal reps decided the date wouldn't work for them and asked Tola to await further instructions. Then, on February 9, the death knell was sounded. "This guy we knew from being in the band-relations department at A&M told me we'd been dropped," he says. "He told me he did it because he didn't want me to hear the news from a stranger."
Tola is putting the best face on this situation. "It's a big relief, actually. Of course, there's a downside for any band to be dropped, but overall it allows us to start afresh and be free of any debt. And since A&M picked up the option on the third album, we should be able to get a little bit of money that will help keep the band's finances going until we find out what's going to happen."
To that end, Tola and others in the 16 Horsepower orbit are already putting out feelers to other labels, and several have let their interest be known. Current plans call for the performers to gather in Denver in mid-March to make a demo tape of new material that will then be shopped to indies and majors alike. (The group may also play a live show or two during that period, but nothing has been confirmed.) "I think the ideal situation for us would be to sign with a major label for Europe and the rest of the world and then try to get an indie label just for the U.S.," Tola notes, adding, "It's important for us to do this as soon as possible, but we will not rush into the first deal that comes along." If a decent contract isn't offered--and given the volume of groups flooding the market, one might not--Tola hints that the players may release an album on their own.
Meanwhile, Tola wants to reassure fans that 16 Horsepower isn't out of gas. "Ask Denver to be patient," he says. "We're not dead; we're just on hold. And we're trying to get everything going again."
Already in gear again is Slim Cessna's Auto Club. The band, led by (you guessed it) Slim Cessna, was a favorite of locals throughout much of the Nineties, but it collapsed last August, allegedly over a combination of frustration and exhaustion. Cessna soon began missing the stage, though, and within a matter of months, a revised lineup was set. So new is the configuration that even Cessna has trouble remembering the monikers of a couple of people in it: He refers to the guy playing banjo and double-neck baritone only as "Sean" and simply calls his drummer "Merle." ("I don't know their last names," he moans. "Jesus.") Also on board is organist/pedal-steel player John Rumley, from the band's previous incarnation; bassist Dan Grandbois, a veteran of Noz; and Jayson Thompson Munly, a singer-songwriter who has two albums out on Top Notch, a subsidiary of W.A.R.?--one as a soloist, the other as the leader of an act dubbed Munly de Dar He. "He's still doing that stuff," Cessna says. "But he's playing with us, too."
The shift from one Club to another hasn't brought with it a radical change in sound. "I suppose it's the same and different at the same time," he says. "There's a lot of different personalities involved, but structurally, it's not all that different from what we were doing. But I guess it's probably easier to describe it as country music now."
Following opening-act bookings with Jello Biafra and Cake, Cessna's latest creation is appearing for the first time as a headliner on Friday, February 19, at the Lion's Lair, and Slim is hoping even more folks turn out for a Friday, March 5, turn at the Bluebird. Still, he insists he's trying to keep the pressure low this time around. "It isn't our intention to worry about exposure and things like that. We want to relax with this thing and not worry about success on any level--to try and make songs we feel good about and play with people who are easy for us to deal with.
"I'm not meaning that as a knock on anyone else who used to be involved with the band," he continues. "But this version is so much easier. We just have a nice time together, and we do what we like. And what could be better than playing with my friends on a Friday night at the Lair?"
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Allow us Backbeaters to bid a sad farewell to a local institution: the bluegrass jam at Ralph's Top Service in Englewood. As noted in Marty Jones's profile of the sessions ("Ralph's Top Service," May 9, 1996), bluegrass experts and novices alike have been gathering at 2890 South Zuni since 1975, drawn there by the warm atmosphere created by cabinetmaker Ralph Haynie, the operation's owner and namesake. But Haynie, who's in his early seventies, isn't as spry as he once was, and business hasn't been all that good. So he sold the shop and then hosted one last jam, on February 4. For Bret Bertholf, who was there, the final evening was one to remember--just like all the ones that had preceded it. In his words, "Not only was Ralph's a focal point for good folks who like to pick and grin, but it also spawned several wonderful bands (including my own) and some great stories. The little carpeted room where Audie Baldridge sang Hank and Ernest Tubb and Ray Price will always be part of my life and the lives of many others. I was hoping you might be able to give some sort of elegiac mention to its passing."
Don't have to, Bret. You did a fine job of that yourself.
Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@ westword.comMichael_Roberts@. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com.