“And Ye Shall Know the Truth, and the Truth Shall Make You Free”
—wall inscription from the lobby of C.I.A. Headquarters
“Ye Shall Know the Truth, and the Truth Shall Make You Mad.”
Languid: Presently, this is the only adjective my sun-addled mind can rally, poolside at a luxury hotel in downtown Austin, Texas. The temperature hovers in the “bearable” low 90s; and having just traversed eleven molten blocks down Trinity St., under a languid lone star sun during the early endings of an afternoon, I sit on the edge of a large pool, legs dangling, plumbing the shallow depths for a cold respite from the Texan heat, and some questions for an interview. It’s 5:17 PM on a Saturday night here at SXSW 2009, and I should be down at Beerland getting drunk and watching the Human Eye freak out the crowd. But I am here in the mesquite badlands in search of something else: The Truth.
My fact finding mission had begun, quite accidentally, months earlier at a Spits gig. For the uninitiated, The Spits are a punk band hailing from, well, all over the place, by way of Kalamazoo, and then Seattle. Dubbed by some as the “Kings of Moron rock” and “demented cavemen,” The Spits blend equal parts punk and “wave,” into an aurally addictive, synth-inflected, brew. When you listen to a Spits record you’ll fall helplessly, hopelessly, grinning all the while, down the twisted sonic rabbit hole their music provides. And when you meet a member of the band, you’ll be met with a jovial smile, a firm handshake, and an easy, genuine amity. Like the Black Panthers and biker gangs of the ‘60s, The Spits and their fans (read: friends) are a loosely gathered, yet tightly nit, band of brothers. In short: When you meet one of the Spits, you will find a comrade in arms.
Which is why, months earlier at that fateful show, the tale of how their first record came to be was so troubling. A conversation backstage between Erin (bass for The Spits) and a record store owner started innocuously enough but got interesting when talk turned to the Spits’ first CD and the label that put it out, Nickel & Dime Records. It seemed the store owner was chummy with Nickel & Dime owner David Gray, a fact he repeatedly reminded Erin of, which was met with baleful sidelong glances between band members and increasingly agitated “We don’t talk to that guy anymore …” responses from Erin. While I didn’t know the full story at the time, I had heard some industry mumblings of a deal gone sour between Nick’ & Dime and The Spits. The tension during the backstage exchange was becoming palpable when I finally interjected, turning to the record store guy, and said, “Look: Dude burned ‘em. Talk about something else.” My friend Erin looked relieved, and rebuffed, the vinyl dross merchant dropped it and skulked away.
Erin turned to me and said, “Thanks brother.”
“What did happen with Nickel & Dime and that first record?” I asked, probing furtively.
“Oh … it’s a long story man,” replied Erin.
“Yeah, very long and …” added Sean (Erin’s brother and Spits guitarist) before trailing off.
Intrigued but sensing the band was in no mood to talk, I said, “You guys should tell that story. People need to know the truth.” Before switching to subjects of less importance, like the price of opium in China, and the chances of a Raiders Superbowl appearance in ’09.
That was last Fall; and now it is Spring, as I find myself down by the pool, at the same luxury hotel the Spits are lounging in for SXSW, waiting for the band to join me and hammer out an interview. The subject: The truth about what went down, lo those many years ago, between David Gray, of Nickel & Dime notoriety, and The Spits, when they decided to work together on Spits #1.
As I wait for the guys to arrive, I sit and ponder the fact that things are looking particularly good for the band of late: They’re simply “vacationing” at this year’s South By’ (complete with luxury suite; invitations to the most exclusive, drug-fueled, King Kahn & the Shrines-induced, orgies; and of course, VIP passes beyond every velvet rope in the greater metropolitan Austin area) so the harried “Ten Gigs in Two Days!” schedule is not their nightmare this year; they’ve finished work on their best album to date, with plans to release it this summer; they’re enjoying a renewed vigor, having played several mini-tours in the past couple of years, both here and abroad. So, yeah, things are looking decidedly up for these professionals of weird.
The guys finally amble down to the pool, after switching into trunks for a dip, and mill about the elegantly designed Olympic-size swimming pool, deciding which spot will be best for the interview/tanning-sesh. Smiling, and a little tipsy from the Beerland show they’ve just witnessed, a mock indignant Erin greets me first, asking, “What the fuck man? Why weren’t you down at that Human Eye show? It was fucking insane! What are you even here at SXSW for?” The following transcript contains the answer:
Shawn: How did you guys get involved with Nickel & Dime records for the release of the first album?
Erin: Through a friend of ours who was half owner of the label. We thought, at the time, that he had full ownership of the label. So, he came and asked us if we wanted to do it.
Lance (drummer): Yeah, and his buddy, David Gray, was the guy that ran Nickel & Dime. He kind of connected us and, in the end, basically vouched for Dave and assured us that everything was going to be cool.
Shawn: Was that back in ’99?
Lance: I don’t remember what the year was but sometime there in the ’90s, sure.
Erin: I think it was in ’97?
Sean: Yeah ’97.
Shawn: Wow. So why did it take so long for the record to hit the streets?
Lance: Well [sighs] first things first, we weren’t very happy with the recording arrangement, just because the engineer was a Seattle kind of rock, grunge, type of guy and, as we were recording and listening to the stuff, it wasn’t really sounding the way that we had hoped; it was sounding really digital and really produced.
Erin: Yeah, we pretty much just didn’t want to have it put out. We thought it sounded horrible but they (Nickel & Dime) just went ahead with it.
Shawn: You guys didn’t even want the thing released!? When it came out were you pissed?
Erin: I was really bummed with it. We all were. The band was just really, really unhappy with it.
Shawn: Did you know it was coming out? Did the label defer to you at all?
Lance: What happened was, we were so fucking unhappy with how the record sounded, that we didn’t want to release it at all, but we were sort of obligated to release it and he was going to release it anyway. So everything about it we were going, “Oh well, let’s just put this artwork, let’s just do this ‘cause it sucks and who cares, whatever…”
Erin: They just pretty much said, “We put this much money into the record …” which was some unknown figure, but they claimed it was a lot. And they said that they were just going to go ahead and do it.
Shawn: At that point you have no legal recourse, in terms of stopping the material from being released?
Erin: No…. But at the recording session, they approached us with a contract. It was some one page deal. Of course, we had no knowledge of contract law or anything.
Lance: Well, Dave had shown us a contract which we really didn’t want to sign because the wording of it was such that it kind of eluded the fact of whether or not we were signing away all the rights to the songs and stuff. When we questioned our friend and Dave about it, they said, “Oh that’s just a formality. We would never do anything to screw you guys over. Even though it says that, it’s not really that way…” And …
Sean: We just thought that since our friend was part of the business we weren’t going to get screwed.
Lance: Anyway, we kind of put our foot down about not signing it and then we got to the studio and they were saying, “Okay, well, you guys are not going to record unless you all sign this.” There was much arguing and then, basically, it was them saying, “Don’t worry, everything’s gonna be fine. You’ll own all this music and all we really are saying [with the contract] is that we’re putting it out.”
Shawn: Oh, man.
Lance: So, it was our first record; we were fucking inexperienced and we’re there at the studio …
Erin: They pretty much trapped us into this contract at the recording session. It was a total shady move. I did a little research into music publishing and I didn’t know… I thought it was a vague term. But it isn’t. When you sign over your publishing, that’s uh …
Shawn: It’s iron clad once you sign on the …
Erin: Right, exactly. Well, apparently it is, but that’s if the contract is even valid and that’s a whole different story.
Shawn: But in retrospect you feel that, Dave Gray at least, was clearly misleading you guys about the contract?
Lance: Oh yeah, I think he knew exactly what he was doing. If we’d had more experience we would’ve just bagged the whole thing and said no way, but we were so eager to put out a record and everything.
Shawn: Did he David pay for the recording, totally?
Lance: Yes he did.
Sean: Yeah, well, he claims he did.
Erin: But then we talk to the guy years later and…
Sean: [interrupts] The guy who recorded it.
Erin: Right. And he says that, no, they didn’t.
Sean: They never paid him.
Erin: They paid him just half.
Sean: They paid him half of the money that was agreed on.
Shawn: So the Nickel & Dime guy is nickel and diming the engineer?
Sean: Yeah, but also they told us they spent something like $3,000 on the recording, or whatever, and when we talk to the guy that recorded…
Erin: [interrupts] But that’s hearsay and we have no idea how much was actually spent, but that seems about right.
Shawn: And where did you record the album?
Sean: In the back of some dude’s basement in Seattle.
Shawn: Really, you guys recorded that in a basement?
Lance: Yeah, this guy that Dave apparently worked with there in Seattle had a studio in his house.
Shawn: That’s just the three of you on that record then?
Shawn: So you guys do all the keyboard stuff, or [to Erin] is that your department?
Lance: Well, there was this other guy on that record. I used to live with him. Actually, he was my roommate and he played keyboards with us shortly.
Erin: Yeah, that was a guy, Darren, we knew.
Lance: He played for a short time and ended up recording on that first album with us.
Sean: He bailed halfway through the recording, though.
Shawn: Really, why?
Sean: I don’t know. He just disappeared and flaked on us.
Lance: Yeah, he did. Well, I think what happened is he started basically just not showing up and that was the deal.
Shawn: [laughs] That can happen sometimes with musicians. But getting back to … Initially, how were the business dealings with Nickel & Dime? Was everything on the up and up for a minute, or was it just ramshackle from the start?
Sean: For a brief minute. Because, like I said, we thought that since our friend was half of the company, we were okay.
Shawn: Have you since had a falling out with that friend?
Erin: No, he’s still around.
Sean: No, he says he feels bad. He keeps talking about maybe having a benefit to raise money for us to take the other guy to court. I don’t know. He says he doesn’t talk to him anymore, but I think maybe he still does and just doesn’t want to tell us.
Shawn: So, the contract was just a one page willy-nilly contract and you have no idea how many CDs this guy has sold to date?
Shawn: How many times do you think he’s pressed that first Spits CD? How many copies do you think he’s made?
Sean: Fuck, I don’t know, man! We have no idea of how much money he’s made or how many copies he’s sold. We received one batch of eighty CDs and that was it.
Lance: Which I think was our initial thing right when it was released. I believe he gave us some CDs from the initial pressing, which we took on tour with us, but then after that the guy became very fucking hard to get a hold of. And now there’s been this ongoing feud and battle with him and his label.
Shawn: Eighty CDs that you had to sell on tour, and that’s it!?
Sean: That’s it, man. Then we were playing at Al’s Bar in L.A. and he came to the show, ‘cause it was when we had first put the record out. So, anyway, the door guy comes up to me inside and says, “… Dude, there’s a guy screaming outside, pissed at you!” I’m thinking, “What the fuck?” right? So I walk outside and it’s that David Gray with a box of fucking CDs in his hand, trying to get in and he’s yelling, “How come I’m not on the guest list?” and I just said, “Whatever …” Finally, I get him in and he starts selling our CDs—going around, selling our CDs to people and fucking not giving us any money or any copies, dude! When we first put that out we had no money. We were poor, man. We couldn’t afford to buy more CDs and sell ‘em. [Incredulous] So the guy would come to our fucking shows, sell our CD, and then keep the fucking money!
Lance: We don’t know how many times—how many records he’s sold. We don’t know how many fucking digital copies of those songs have gone out. We have no idea. The guy has been making money off selling the record. He’s been making money off the digital rights to the songs and The Spits haven’t seen a fucking dime!
Shawn: You’re not getting any money, he’s given you eighty CDs, and it’s just bad right after the start. Basically then, right after the CD comes out, the fallout occurs.
Lance: We were, basically, led down a rosy path and I think all of us knew, in the pit of our stomachs, that it was bad, but we figured …
Erin: Yeah, it was pretty much bad right from the start. Then he kept pushing this contract on us all the time. He would keep bringing up the contract and say things like, “Well, you guys owe me another record…you guys can’t do this or that…” He’s saying all this different shit and we’re like, “Man, this guy is …” It [the record] wasn’t in any magazines, there was no promotion, and it was just like such a joke. And then we also hated the recordings! It was just bad from the start. We started butting heads (with Nickel & Dime) right from the beginning.
Shawn: When it comes to how much money is owed to The Spits, you really don’t know because this guy hasn’t been forthright about how many times he’s re-pressed the CD, or the amount of copies he’s sold. But you have to imagine it’s been a lot, or a lot in terms of punk rock. I mean, if you sell 5,000 records in our world, that’s a lot. Every punk rock audiophile I know has a copy of that thing.
Lance: Sure. I would guess that it’s been, in terms of punk rock sales, pretty substantial.
Shawn: Speaking of how the band thought that it was a bad recording, were you surprised at the response it received? Because a lot of people I know really freaked out over that disc.
Sean: Yeah, it’s not really my favorite, but I’m not really that surprised, I mean, I don’t know.
Erin: I am surprised, actually.
Shawn: Well, like you said, you weren’t happy with the production. But songs like “Die Die Die,” “Black Kar,” and “Saturday Night”—those are just fun songs and I think that’s what people responded to.
Lance: And it’s too bad for a couple of reasons because over the years we have thought about re-recording a lot of those songs. It was really something that we didn’t not want to come out, and looking back on it now I don’t feel as painfully ashamed of it as I did at the time; but still, that initial record could’ve been a lot fucking better. It sucks for a variety of reasons, but the main one is: somebody else is making money off our—even if it is just a hundred bucks—whatever, it’s not his fucking hundred bucks!
Shawn: Yeah, it comes down to the principle of the thing. So, to that end, where are you guys currently legally?
Lance: Oh, I don’t know. That’s Sean and Erin’s department. I have no idea. But there are attorneys that say he did not live up to his part of the contract, so the contract is void.
Sean: [visibly agitated] Ah, it’s fucking…
Erin: [interrupts] We’re currently examining all of our options right now and let’s leave it at that.
Shawn: So, for all intents and purposes, it’ll likely cost as much money to drag his label into court, as he probably owes you, right?
Sean: Yeah, whatever he owes.
Erin: Or what he could show sales records for, which is a joke.
Sean: And I know, I guarantee, that if someone went to his fucking house, all those CDs would be gone. He claims that he could never sell ‘em; he just “sits” on them. Also, a while back, we contacted him, and I just can’t even talk to the guy on the phone, man…
Shawn: I can see right now it’s a drag for you just to be talking about it.
Erin: Oh, it’s terrible.
Sean: Anyway, we contacted him to get things settled and he said, “Okay, well, I got two contracts for you …” He was trying to trick us into signing another contract! He goes, “If you sign this contract, I’ll owe you guys X amount of money.” And I’m thinking, “If you owe us the money why don’t you just pay us? Why do I have to sign a contract to get this money?”
Lance: Well, the guy is … he’s a real kind of … shifty kind of a guy.
Sean: Yeah, man!
Shawn: And he’s so blatantly shady, that he names his label Nickel—
Sean: [adds in unison with Atli]—and Dime, man!
Shawn: What a dick! This is the oldest story in the record business. It’s like what happened to all the original blues artists in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Lance: But, you know, it’s like the story of fucking bands all over, especially of punk rock bands, being exploited.
Shawn: Well, what do you guys plan on doing, moving forward from this whole debacle? Is it just onward and upward with new projects and better labels?
Erin: Like I said, man, we are examining, and discussing, all of our options at this point in time.
Sean: Yeah, and then just praying to god that something comes up. I kind of really put my faith in our friend who used to be his partner, in hoping that, man, maybe someday he’ll say the right thing to this guy and we’ll get our shit back and we’ll get the money that is owed to us.
Lance: Well, for instance, on this latest album that we’re getting ready to finish, we’re basically putting it out ourselves; and as soon as we publish something, we spend the money ourselves to copyright our own songs. And now, mostly anybody who we deal with is basically a verbal agreement.
Shawn: You guys have learned a hard lesson, basically, but has it gone better with some of the subsequent labels you’ve worked with?
Sean: [Waits a beat, in thought] Yeah.
Erin: Uh, yeah because it’s a handshake deal. I mean it’s a…
Shawn: [interrupts] With people that have, uh, “character”?
Erin: Sure. Everybody will make their money back, everybody’s happy. They want to make us happy and, yeah, it’s great.
Lance: Yeah, I mean, we haven’t had too many problems, but we haven’t really dealt with any heavy-duty labels. The Spits is very much a fucking DIY kind of outfit. People come along and say, “Hey, I’d like to put out this album and I wanna put my name on it,” and that’s about what they do. They put their name on it and they may pick up some costs for something, but in the end, it generally ends up being Erin, sitting at home and working hard, mailing out copies of albums and stuff that we sell on tour at our shows.
Shawn: Okay…. So you guys are releasing the next record yourselves?
Erin: I think we are, yeah.
Shawn: Well that’ll be cool.
Erin: Yeah, I think so. It’s looking good. At least the vinyl we’re going to take care of.
Shawn: When I interviewed you guys a couple of years ago, I asked you a question you probably get dogged by your fans with all the time: “When’s that record coming out?” And it was funny. Lance said, “How ‘bout 2009.”
Shawn: It was 2007 at the time and…
Erin: Oh, really?
Shawn: Yeah, so it was a prescient quote from Lance about the future. But he seemed annoyed with the question at the time, like it was a question you guys have been getting asked a lot.
Erin: Well not only that, but just … nothing was happening. The distance was killing all the power.
Shawn: But you’ve got it in the can now and it just needs to be mastered?
Erin: Yeah, it’s being mastered.
Shawn: Alright, so … [Fixing Erin with the eagerly inquisitive raptor’s stare of a man deep within the throes of a serious record collecting habit] next couple of months?
Erin: I’m hoping so.
Shawn: [Atavistic predator pupils aglitter and dilating] Colored vinyl?
Erin: [Smiling knowingly at the collector’s mask] There’s gonna be some special ones.
Shawn: [Drooling] Save me some special ones.
Sean: You kind of want to release it around a touring season and we’re a little late in the game for that. I’m kind of wondering maybe of keeping it until Spring. I mean, fuck, come down, put out a new record, hit SXSW, hit some tours, and then hit Europe.
Shawn: So, to any young punks, or young musicians, putting out a record for the first time, your words of advice would be?
Sean: Be careful.
Shawn: Go in with a lawyer?
Erin: If you have to sign a contract. My advice would be: never sign a contract. Honestly, yeah.
Sean: [Maniacally cynical laughter] Yeah.
Erin: Unless it’s a really good fucking deal, you know what I mean.
Sean: And still, have somebody look at it man, somebody, you know? Fuck, put out a MySpace bulletin that you need help looking at a contract. We have people help us out now, here and there, looking at different contracts and shit.
Erin: The bottom line is, when you write and record a song, the music is yours, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. As a band, you own your music. DIY, man!
Shawn: Cool. Well, I think we got it, I think we got the gist of the story. I just wanted to get your guys’ side of the story on your experiences with David Gray and Nickel & Dime records. It’s a cautionary tale that needs telling so other bands might learn to just enter into a handshake deal with a label that’s on the up and up, rather than signing a contract. Thanks guys and I appreciate your time.
Lance: No problem, anytime.
Sean: Well, thank you man.
It’s 11:15 AM in Playa Del Tortuga, five weeks later, as I sit rapt at my living room window watching an oblivious Pacific Ocean roil in a white capped indigo tumult; I am waiting for a phone call. When I arrived home from SXSW and began sifting through the detritus of queries and counters that made up the bulk of the discussion I’d had with The Spits, rummaging for the Truth, a most curious thing happened: I found more questions. I realized I would never slay this cantankerous beast of a story without flipping the coin to the other side and talking to David Gray. So I called Gray, e-mailed the same interview questions I had asked the Spits in Austin, and waited.
Gray calls just before noon and we talk briefly about the questions I had e-mailed him and he says he’d rather not talk about it, that he’d rather the Spits get a hold of him, and deal with the situation directly. In other words: End of interview. I thank him for his time, he thanks me for the interest in his label, and we hang up.
So… what do I think really happened between band and label during the recording, production, and subsequent release of Spits #1? What is the Truth of the matter? Who knows? But, I’ve got a pretty good idea. I’ve been on the beat long enough to know that if it walks like, barks like, and looks like a jackal, it’s probably not a duck.