"I tend not to read my own press," says singer-songwriter/guitarist Kevin Salem, from a standard-issue room at a Motel 6 somewhere in North Carolina. "That's death for musicians. To read articles about yourself is a little bit stifling and unproductive. It's like spending all your time staring at a picture of yourself. Besides, I'd rather hear the bad news than the good news."
If that's true, then it's fortunate that Salem has steered clear of the valentines that have greeted Soma City, his solo debut on the Roadrunner label. Journalists have been universally wowed by the disc--so much so that they've spent much of 1995 championing its creator. Salem isn't certain that this recognition is such a good thing: "When I hear those two words, `critic's darling,' it seems like there's a stigma attached to them," he allows. But then he reconsiders. "It probably doesn't hurt, I guess. As long as it's people writing honestly about their reaction to my work, then it's a good thing. I mean, writing honestly is what I try to do, too."
Of course, Salem's truth-telling isn't always easy to take. While Soma City, featuring material written during and after a serious illness that incapacitated the vocalist for an entire year, is filled with beguiling melodies and strong hooks, its lyrics don't exactly conjure images of the sunny side of the street. The first words out of Salem's mouth during "Lighthouse Keeper," Soma's initial track, set the stage: "Wave goodbye to Pollyanna/As she leaves your seashore town/On her back, on her grand piano/ Playing songs that bring me down."
Salem doesn't deny that the material on Soma is dour. "I think there's a place where every lyricist goes for lyrics," he says. "That's just the place where that album came from. But there's a point where the darker things become uplifting. I think of records like [Neil Young's] Tonight's the Night in the same way. So when people call me cranky and depressive, I almost take it as a compliment. I want to make things real for people."
Originally from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Salem first received attention while a member of Dumptruck, a Boston act whose 1987 album For the Country, released on the Big Time label, combined tough-nosed rock and well-crafted tunes. Salem claims that he enjoyed his time in the band, but his memories are shaded by the contractual shenanigans that ultimately spelled its doom.
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"It started with a phone call from a friend saying, `Congratulations, I just read in Billboard about the new record deal,'" Salem recalls. "And I'm like, `Huh?' Later, we found out that Big Time made all these plans to sell us off and didn't bother to consult with us--and in fact hadn't even picked up our option at that point. So we talked to the new label, Phonogram, and they had their legal department review all the documents, and finally they said, `You're free and clear from Big Time.' So then Big Time sued us both. This went on for like two years, and finally Phonogram sent us some money to cover our legal bills and disappeared."
According to Salem, this quagmire wasn't the reason he finally left Dumptruck. "I didn't feel we were growing, musically," he insists. "I was a goner no matter what happened." He subsequently moved to New York City determined to start a solo career, but his progress was slow: For instance, a batch of songs he cut in 1992 never saw the light of day, primarily because of a severe cash shortage. But even though his name wasn't known to the masses, Salem quickly built a sterling reputation among his peers. He played as a sideman with Freedy Johnston, Yo La Tengo, Miracle Legion and the Pooh Sticks and produced such acts as Madder Rose.
Still, Salem never considered becoming simply a behind-the-scenes type, and once he assembled his current band (keyboardist Dave Dunton, drummer Keith Levreault, guitarist Todd Novak and bassist Scott Yoder), New York club crawlers finally began to take notice of him. When he later shopped new material, he was greeted with offers from a dozen independent companies. At first glance, the imprint he picked--Roadrunner--seems an odd choice; it specializes in the loudest, most virulent death metal available. "My labelmates," Salem notes, chuckling. "Some writers had to be mailed a second copy of my disc because they just assumed it was metal and immediately traded it in at their local music store.
"But I liked Roadrunner, in part because they'd never done anything like this before. And I think they were kind of jonesing to do something like this. You walk into their offices and somebody's listening to Green Day, and somebody else is listening to Freedy or Uncle Tupelo or whatever. So I felt like saying, `Hey, you people are ready for a different type of music.' On top of that, they're not a boutique label or anybody else, which I think is a really bogus thing. Either you're independent or you're not, and Roadrunner is completely independent."
On the negative tip, Salem admits that Roadrunner isn't large enough to give Soma City the kind of push a bigger operation might. "I'm not going to lie--it's an uphill fight," he concedes. "But even though it's a fight, it's a fight I prefer. I'd hate to be part of the kind of corrupt political shit that goes on in the record industry so much of the time. I have no desire to torture myself or make things more difficult; if there was a way to make it easier, that's the way I would go. But I'd rather be a critic's darling than some payola boy.
"Besides, on a major, you'll basically be given a shot, and they'll send you out for three months. But if you're not a huge success by then, they'll take you off the road and that'll be it. You'll have your pile of money in the bank, but fuck, I could paint houses and make a pile of money. To me, it's not really about that." He hesitates before adding, somewhat sheepishly, "I think I have some old-fashioned values about how things should be done."
Indeed, Salem hasn't stayed at home watching critical accolades roll in; he's been on the road almost constantly since February, sometimes headlining, sometimes opening for better-known acts with his band, sometimes taking stages with nothing to keep him company other than his guitar. And unlike so many other Nineties performers, who'd prefer losing a limb to going out in public on a regular basis, he's not resentful about his wanderings. "I just happen to love playing live," he says. "It's really challenging to play for a small audience, or even a large audience that doesn't know who you are. It's inspiring; it makes me feel like writing more songs. And in industry meccas like New York and Los Angeles, I'm starting to get people who are actually into the music instead of all these record-company types. It's just so great to see people singing along instead of standing there tightening the noose of their necktie around their neck."
In spite of a growing fan base, Soma City's sales figures remain on the anemic side. But Roadrunner, a company not accustomed to dealing with an acclaimed artist, remains very much in Salem's corner. Within the next several months, Salem and his band are returning to the studio to begin work on a new CD they hope will captivate listeners as much as its predecessor charmed reviewers. Still, Salem isn't expecting an out-of-the-box smash. "It's not like I'm some elitist who wants to evade people's sense of connection with the music," Salem says. "It's just that it's hard for me to sound like Weezer. I could do it, but it just wouldn't feel right to me. So I've chosen to do things very slowly, and on my own terms. Because I've got time."
Junior Brown, with Delevantes and Kevin Salem. 8 p.m. Monday, August 21, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, 447-0095 or 830-
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