SPELLBOUNDWILL SPELL FINALLY PUT DENVER ON THE ROCK-MUSIC MAP? CASTING A SPELL
Garrett Shavlik can't help himself.
Drummer Shavlik is talking about Spell, a trio believed by practically everyone who's heard them to be the latest, greatest hope to come out of the Denver music scene. But instead of promoting his group, which just signed a multi-album deal with Island Records following a vigorous bidding war, he's psychoanalyzing himself. Hype be damned: This man has something he needs to say--something that the approximately 83 beers he's poured down his gullet this evening compel him to say.
"This is family, man," Shavlik declares, gesturing at bassist Chanin Floyd and her husband, guitarist Tim Beckman, who are seated near him in the living room of their northwest Denver home, "and it will not be fucked with. We know what we do, and what we do we love. There's no fucking plan here. It's just being with each other and having a beautiful time. If people get off on it, that's fabulous, but these are my friends. So this is long-term. This is my life."
At last, Shavlik takes a breath and looks accusingly at his latest brewski. "That sounds so fucking hippie," he says to it, a crooked smile creasing his face. Floyd and Beckman laugh, and so does Shavlik--but the next time the conversation returns to questions about the relationships in the band, so does his intensity.
Not that the members of Spell are at risk of turning into James Taylor; the band's music is loud, raucous and dangerous, a sound that combines punk-rock basics and hard-rock fundamentals with vocals by Shavlik and Floyd that convey equal measures of emotion and aggression. These ingredients aren't unique; Shavlik's previous band, the Fluid, utilized many of them, and so have X and Sonic Youth, two groups to which this one has been compared. But Spell makes the elements seem new again because of the passion of the people involved. Thanks to the Island deal, they've got as good a chance as any homegrown Denver band that's come before them to put their mark on the national music landscape for years to come. But the pressure this status implies is nothing like the pressure they put on themselves.
Floyd nods at Shavlik and volunteers, "He used to puke a lot before shows."
"I did," Shavlik concedes. "Thanks a lot for mentioning that."
"He said he never used to puke in the Fluid, but he pukes in Spell," Beckman notes. "I don't know why that is."
"I just have too much adrenaline," Shavlik says. "I can't hold it down. In this band, everything comes out."
You can see plenty of miles of road, good and bad, on Shavlik's face. He's only in his early thirties, but he's been a part of the Colorado music scene since at least age eleven, when he was the only kid at a Boulder arcade to know that the freak with the multicolored hair who just walked in was named Tommy Bolin, who became the most famous guitarist to emerge from Colorado during the Seventies.
By 1978 Shavlik was in a high school cover band called Editorial, playing new-wave songs by Elvis Costello and his contemporaries. He enjoyed himself, but it wasn't enough; two years later he moved to Los Angeles. "It was one of the most vibrant music scenes I've ever seen. Seattle pales by comparison," he claims. "The first night we got there, we saw D.O.A. and Black Flag at the Whiskey A Go Go, and there was a riot on Sunset Boulevard--they'd oversold the show, and when people tried to press their way in, the baby blues pulled out the nightsticks. And here I was, some fresh-faced geek from Boulder going, `Wow, man, punk rock.'"
In short order, Shavlik returned to Colorado eager to spread the punk doctrine. He formed a hardcore band called White Trash that included two other future members of the Fluid, bassist Matt Bischoff and guitarist James Clower. Personnel changes doomed that group, but Shavlik, Bischoff and Clower stuck together. They subsequently joined forces with vocalist John Robinson and guitarist Rick Kulwicki, formerly of the Frantics, a Denver punk band best known for the EP My Dad's a Fucking Alcoholic, named by Spin magazine as one of the 35 most collectible punk records ever made. This fivesome, dubbed the Fluid, emerged in 1985, and through a series of happy accidents soon found themselves signed to the West German label Glitterhouse in Europe and Seattle's Sub Pop imprint in the U.S. "Everybody thinks we were second-generation Sub Pop, but we weren't," Shavlik notes. "We had the third release on Sub Pop. There was a compilation record, and then there was Soundgarden, and then there was us."
Soundgarden wasn't the only one of the Fluid's Sub Pop peers to go on to fame and fortune: Other alumni of the label include Green River (which served as the basis for Pearl Jam), Mudhoney and Nirvana, an act that sometimes opened shows for the Fluid. Shavlik knew Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain during this period, and feels his recent suicide with particular force. "It's very sad to see somebody clock out like that," he says. "He was the best hook-master we've had in our generation so far. But to relish him as an icon is kind of pathetic, especially when you think of the music he was making. He had such mass appeal, but he wasn't cut out for fame. He was too frail--a very sad, lonely person."
In Shavlik's mind, the distance between Seattle and Denver had a lot to do with why the Fluid failed to cash in on its Sub Pop pedigree. "Mudhoney and Nirvana could go down there every day and be in their faces, but all we could do was call on the phone," he notes. "We'd have to book a tour to be there to talk to whatever British cat was supposed to be the hottest thing in rock writing at the time, but when we'd get there, he'd be burnt out after already interviewing everybody else. He'd ask, like, `Are you a bunch of hicks from Colorado?' So we kind of got screwed."
As a result, the Fluid's many fine records, including 1988's Clear Black Paper and 1989's Glue, an EP produced by Butch Vig (who also manned the boards for Nirvana's Nevermind), sold modestly. Sub Pop still wanted to keep the band under its umbrella, but when it drew up a new contract in 1990, Shavlik says he and his compatriots found its provisions so onerous that they asked for their freedom. It was granted, but after a flurry of major-label interest came to nothing, the Fluid seemingly vanished. Among the ridiculous rumors that swirled around the Denver rock community during this period was the contention that one or more of the bandmembers had died of a drug overdose.
In fact, the Fluid was producing new material that soon caught the ears of record-biz types. One dalliance with a label (Virgin) ran dry before papers could be signed, but the group had better luck with Hollywood, a music company owned by Disney--or, as Shavlik calls it, "the mouse." Contracts were exchanged in late 1992, and by early the next year, the Fluid had completed an impressive disc entitled purplemetalflakemusic and was preparing to go on the road for an extended trek. But this nine-week tour was a disaster compounded by poor album sales and the seeming disinterest of Hollywood staffers. Tempers frayed and, in Shavlik's case, interest waned.
Today Shavlik still feels uncomfortable discussing the events that led him in the fall of 1993 to leave the Fluid, a decision that foreshadowed the final dissolution of the band by several weeks. "I fucked up," he mutters. "I fucked up in the respect that I didn't appreciate it as much as I should have. It got monotonous and constraining, and I feel bad about that because I let the guys down--because other people were depending on me. But I had to go, God help me. I had to go."
Fortunately, Shavlik had somewhere to go. The drummer had known Tim Beckman, 27, for years, thanks in part to Beckman's rabid enthusiasm for the Fluid. From an early age, Beckman had been attracted to punk rock, in spite of the efforts of a neighbor who fancied himself a musician to sway him in another direction. "I jammed with him, and he tried in vain to turn me on to Blue Cheer," he says. "But I was, like, fourteen, and I said, `Fuck that.'"
Instead, Beckman began haunting White Trash and Frantics shows, and once the Fluid was formed, he accompanied the band on a few road trips, during which he hauled equipment and manned the T-shirt counter. Back in Denver, Beckman picked up a bass (then his main instrument) and joined a band that, two incarnations later, is now called El Espectro. After a year or two, however, he began to look around for other musical challenges. In early 1991 he found one--with Shavlik, whose band shared a practice space with Beckman's.
"We'd go down there on weekends," Beckman notes. "I had a shitty guitar, and I said, `I don't really know how to play it.' And Garrett said, `Yeah, and that's what's great about it.'"
These informal jam sessions produced a handful of songs so good that Shavlik and Beckman decided they should get together with a bass player and flesh them out. Although Beckman and Floyd were already an item and were planning to marry, he didn't immediately think of his beloved as the perfect person to complete the trio. "I'm like, `Who should we get?'" he says, laughing. "I didn't want to say, `Hey, babe, let's be in a band just because we live together.'"
When Floyd finally was asked to play bass with Shavlik and Beckman, she didn't hesitate. After all, she was doing the same thing in '57 Lesbian, a tremendous power trio that featured drummer Dave Stewart and Fluid member Matt Bischoff. Being in two bands with two different members of the Fluid didn't seem like a problem, Floyd notes, because '57 Lesbian (which Floyd left after Spell took off) was merely a Fluid side project, and the newly named Spell hadn't even played a gig yet.
When a conflict did arise, it was for unexpected reasons. Spell recorded a six-song cassette that Shavlik gave to a few friends. One of those found its way to the offices of CMJ New Music Report, a national college-radio tip sheet. "I was unemployed at the time," Beckman notes, "and this person from CMJ calls and says, `We want to put you on the cover. Do you have a photo?' And I'm like, `Are you kidding me?'"
Spell didn't have a photo, but CMJ didn't care: For its February 1992 issue, the mag's editors put the band's name on the cover anyhow. Inside the publication, the tape was chosen as CMJ's "Jackpot!" pick, with the unnamed reviewer writing, "Spell is simply fresher and more fun to listen to than those whose time in the rock underground is beginning to show wrinkles."
"The day after CMJ came out, our house was inundated by calls from every fucking weirdo in the record business," Beckman says--and because the Fluid then was in heavy negotiations with a label, the attention Spell attracted caused what Shavlik concedes was "a major rift" in his main band. This sore spot didn't heal even after the Fluid signed the Hollywood deal; during the 1993 road trip from hell, Shavlik received at least one faxed copy of a contract from a company desperate to lure Spell into its stable. Shavlik left the Fluid before Spell had been signed, but there was the clear sense among everyone involved that it was only a matter of time before Spell went nationwide.
By the spring of 1993 the schmoozing was getting out of control. Spell's most serious suitors had been winnowed down to four labels--two mid-size companies sporting distribution agreements with majors, and two of the larger music conglomerates on the planet. Beckman, who was employed at a 17th Street law firm making photocopies, made the mistake of giving his work number to label representatives. "There would be times when I'd have one of them on the blower here, and another one on the blower over there," Beckman says. "And I'd be running back and forth between them when somebody would say, `I've got another one on the phone for you.'" He adds that he recently quit the job because "I would've gotten fired if I hadn't."
Nonetheless, no one in the band wanted to simply leap into the deal without checking it out thoroughly in advance. Shavlik's experience with Hollywood (which kindly released him from his contract when he left the Fluid) had been a bitter one they weren't eager to repeat. So they kept the two smaller companies wondering even as one megalabel was planning to fly them to Los Angeles and Island was offering to jet them to New York.
The designated Spell-pursuers at Island were A&R director James Dowdall and his wife, A&R manager Rose Noone. The pair was driving cross-country in 1993 when they received a tip about Spell and finagled a tape, which was strong enough to convince Dowdall (whose Irish descent is appropriate, given the origin of Island's biggest band, U2) to fly to Denver for a Spell performance. "It was a snowy night," Shavlik remembers, "and he's like [affecting an Irish brogue], `I'm not going to bullshit you. If I don't like you, I'm not going to sign you. You won't see me again.'"
But they did. Dowdall was so impressed by the show that he and Noone immediately pushed for serious contract negotiations--and while those were going on, they returned to Denver frequently as a tangible symbol of their continuing interest. Their persistence paid off: Although the competing record-company finalist promised to beat any deal put forward by a competitor, Spell went with Island primarily because they felt more comfortable with the people there.
Moreover, Island gave the bandmembers everything they wanted. Spell is getting a healthy advance (Shavlik and company decline to talk money, but observers are guessing in the $200,000 range); a seven-album deal, with the first two discs guaranteed; and permission to use a thirteen-song tape recorded at Denver's Time Capsule studio with local engineer Kirby Orrick as the basis for its debut, set for release in late summer or early fall of this year. The band currently is recording three new songs--"Bring the Old Men," "Original Fucker" and "Lexicon Devil," the latter a cover of a number originally cut by the late, lamented hardcore band the Germs--and is redoing a few vocal tracks, but otherwise plans to do nothing more than remix the rest of its material. "We made that completely clear up front," Beckman says. "We told them, `We aren't going to re-record some of this stuff, because it captured what we perceive to be the moment. We don't care how shitty you think it sounds.' And they agreed it shouldn't be fucked with.
"When we finally signed, we weren't all that elated. We just knew that we had to get to work."
A fall tour is in the offing, and Shavlik and Beckman have been pricing vans in anticipation of a long, hard journey across the country in support of their album. Right now, though, life remains fairly normal. Beckman, who has volunteered to handle band business (Spell is self-managed), is not working, but Floyd still works as a hair stylist at the Oxford Spa and Salon (Shavlik also works at the Oxford, doing laundry; he calls himself "Towel Boy"). Floyd has just started to break the news of her retirement to her regular clientele, which includes a fair share of local celebrities. "I do Bea Romer's hair," she notes in reference to Colorado's first lady, "and I mentioned to her that I wasn't going to be around all the time, because I had this band. And she said, `Oh, do you play violin?' And I'm like, `Kind of. It's a really big violin. You wear it over your shoulder.'"
If Spell hits, Floyd likely will receive the lion's share of attention; after all, videos are part of the Island contract and, as a grinning Shavlik points out, Floyd is "a foxy babe from the badlands." The thought that her sexual presence might dominate the public's perception of the group is both amusing and somewhat mystifying to the bandmates.
"It's just weird," Floyd says. "It's like, why do people think I have to be out front? One of the guys from another record company said I'd have to be."
"Yeah," Beckman interjects, "somebody said, `Is Garrett going to be freaked out if Chanin is thrust into the frontwoman position?' thinking that Garrett's the kind of person who's going to be envious and pissed off. Like, `Goddamn it, where's my fame time?' And we're like, `Screw you. Obviously, you don't know us at all.'"
"Chanin's going to get it, though," Shavlik predicts. "She's going to get it hard, because marketing departments do that shit. I mean, she's a fabulous-looking chick--she has amazing teeth. But this is a band. Besides, there's more balls in the Breeders with Kim and Kelley Deal than there are with most of the male bands out there. Dicks have nothing to do with it. It's people."
Even before Spell's members have to worry about these issues, they are grappling with another: the expectations of bands in the Denver scene. Although Big Head Todd and the Monsters, who call Boulder home, have earned a gold record for Sister Sweetly, their first album on the Giant label, this success hasn't translated to the signings of any local performers associated with them, in part because the Monsters don't have close ties to many area bands. But Spell is intimately linked to a slew of the best acts Denver has to offer, including 16 Horsepower, Grimace, the Rok Tots, Baldo Rex, '57 Lesbian (undergoing personnel problems because of the recent departure of drummer Stewart, but still strong) and ex-Fluid guitarist Clower's new band, whimsically named Lana Turner Overdrive. If label scouts start prowling the city in search of the next Spell, they won't find one--but they'll find a slew of Spell-endorsed groups deserving of greater exposure.
Although Beckman raves about the bands mentioned above, he is understandably reticent to carry their futures on his shoulders. "If our record does great and some other bands get deals, that's wonderful," he says, "but we're in this to write songs. There are some really cool bands here, but we can't spend all our time being flag-wavers for the scene." He looks at Shavlik and Floyd and swallows hard before adding, "We've got enough to do dealing with everything else.
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