Thanks to a current tour and a new CD (New Dark Ages) on a new label (Boulder's W.A.R.? imprint), the Radiators have been busier than ever--so busy, in fact, that the government has taken notice. "The IRS is on my back about my '94 taxes, which I still haven't filed," complains drummer Frank Bua from a San Francisco hotel room presumably strewn with 1040-EZ and W-2 forms. "With all that's going on, I just haven't had the time."
For the most part, however, Bua and the rest of his bandmates (Dave Malone, Ed Volker, Reggie Scanlan and Camile Baudoin) aren't complaining. Instead, they're approaching their music with renewed enthusiasm and cautious optimism that they may finally receive their due. And they certainly deserve respect: Although you wouldn't know it from their record sales, the Radiators are collectively one of the best jam-oriented groups around. Their music is a hybrid of styles--influences include the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, Blues Traveler and Little Feat--that's infused with New Orleans-style blues and the second-line bounce of the Meters. But like, say, Phish, the act hasn't been able to produce anything in the studio that's lived up to its excellent concert appearances.
"That seems to be the word on the street," Bua admits when asked about the Radiators' apparently split personality. "I've always felt that the studio doesn't really catch the same feeling as our live shows, although at the same time, I felt we made some really good albums."
The first three Radiators platters (1988's Law of the Fish, 1989's Zig-Zagging Through Ghostland and 1991's Total Evaporation) were issued by Epic as part of a six-disc deal. But the members subsequently grew disenchanted with Epic. "Live, they wanted us to stick close to the play list--and the play list they wanted was the new album," Bua recalls. "They were reaching into our lives and into our connection with the audience and telling us what to do."
In short, the Radiators wanted gigs to be completely spontaneous, record sales be damned. But in the world of major labels, saying as much can be as detrimental to job security as admitting to a fondness for downloading snapshots of naked twelve-year-olds. Before long, the Radiators' only ally at Epic was Michael Kaplan, who had signed the combo years earlier. "He loved the band, and he even went out to the Epic convention and stood on his head in front of the whole company and said that he was going to stay on his head until the Radiators had a successful album," Bua reports. "So at the end of Total Evaporation, we gave them an album we thought had a lot of good stuff on it--and it got zero interest from Epic. At that point, Michael asked us if we'd rather go off and do our own thing."
The only choice at that point was to leave. Still, Bua remembers this decision as a difficult one. "When you get to that point in your career, you think you've finally gotten somewhere," he admits. "It's hard to say, `Hey, we're going to get off a national label.'"
Fortunately, the divorce from Epic afforded the Radiators the musical freedom to make SNAFU, recorded live at a Tulane Halloween party and released on Bua's own Croaker label in 1991. "People at Tulane like us when we get crazy," Bua says by way of explaining the project's genesis. "So some kid came to us with a list of songs we hadn't done in ten years and said, `Will y'all relearn some of this stuff and play it at the gig?' So we did, and caught it on DAT, and that's how the album came about."
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The Radiators followed SNAFU with Bucket of Fish, a second live offering that outsold its predecessor sevenfold. It was Bucket (and the exhortations of the ever-faithful Kaplan) that ultimately attracted the attention of W.A.R.?'s Rob Gordon. "At first I kind of didn't want to go with W.A.R.? because I thought that Bucket of Fish had opened a lot of doors for us--and maybe we didn't need to," Bua concedes. "But these guys impressed us because they seemed like hard workers and go-getters, and we got a really good feeling from them."
After signing a three-record deal with W.A.R.?, the Radiators last month launched New Dark Ages, a studio album that Bua claims "is getting closer to the way we feel live." And that's not all: The players already have recorded ten tracks for another studio album. As for album number three, Bua says, "It might be live--but I don't know if W.A.R.? wants a live album. One thing I found at Croaker while trying to get Bucket of Fish played is that radio stations were saying they didn't like playing live stuff.
"We're not looking to be the next Michael Jackson or anything," Bua concludes, "but if we're going to get airplay, we need a certain amount of success in order to keep the trip going."
The Radiators. 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, September 22 and 23, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $17, 447-0095 or 830-