human radio...a brief history by Ross Rice
They say timing is everything. They couldn’t be more true about Human Radio. Both the good and the bad timing. Often simultaneously. In hindsight it’s an odd chapter, almost like it was someone else living it, and I’m just reading it over again. But I was there, all right. Smack dab in the middle.
Kye Kennedy and I have been friends since high school. Our fathers worked together at the University of Memphis, in the theatre department, so it was kinda inevitable. When I suddenly found myself transplanted to Overton High School in the middle of February of 1978, he was the only guy I even halfway knew. We were pretty inseparable through high school, but I graduated a year before he did. While I was at U of M, he was touring the world with a band with the Dept. of Defense. He ended up in a famous Memphis band called Calculated X, the first real 80’s sounding band in the area. Their ascent coincided with the advent of MTV, and mirrored the second British Invasion of the early 80’s. He took off to San Francisco around the time I was in the Coolers (see bio), and returned around the same time I quit.
We had done a bunch of demos over at the university studio during my "tenure," so we actually had some stuff to start with. One of the engineers we worked with, Dan Pfieffer, ended up landing a job at the brand-new Memphis Sound Productions, on Beale Street. He was overheard playing one of our demos by one of the partners, Tim Goodwin, who liked it, and had a meeting with us. We were still assembling the band, having recruited Steve Ebe for drums and Steve Arnold on bass, both of whom were very well known and respected locally. MSP offered Kye and me a production deal, and we saw no reason at the time not to take them up on it.
We got into demo mode over there, finally finding the missing piece with Peter Hyrka on violin and mandolin (truthfully, I had originally envisioned the 5th guy being a keyboardist/horn player, but Peter was too good to pass up). We started a regular Wednesday night at a little downtown Memphis joint called the South End, and surprisingly quickly we had a good regular crowd. I didn’t have a lot of new tunes yet, so we augmented our three-set nights with selections from artists we liked: Zappa, Fishbone, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, Squeeze, etc. We slowly made our way up the Memphis pecking order.
One day, Tim Goodwin suggested we check out an up-and-coming manager type by the name of Larry McKeehan, a fast-talking, hard-working, pointy-toed-boot wearing guy who seemed like the hustling type to do the job. We were getting interest on a national level, our club gigs were reaching critical mass, and we were writing new stuff. The local production companies got together, and organized a SXSW-type showcase for their acts, pooling resources and contacts. This was 1989, and there was a major signing glut afoot. Everyone seemed to be getting signed to major deals. Well within a year of our inception, we were playing private showcases for major labels. We also were the only group in town who seemed to take production values seriously; we had the best light show in town, thanks to Pat Thomasson, and we were notoriously picky about our sound (ask any local sound guys). Things were cooking along.
Paul Worley from Sony/Tree publishing was an early advocate of the band, as was John Briggs from ASCAP. We started playing Nashville a lot, garnering a sizable following amongst the local pros (which didn’t hurt our overall buzz). Word got around, Larry worked the phones, an eventually Larry Hamby from Columbia (Los Angeles) flew in for a noon showcase. He left without saying a word. The next day we got a call from his office: he was blown away, and would we be interested in meeting David Kahne about the production helm? David was high on our list (due to Fishbone), so we gladly agreed. David caught a sweaty, July, no-A.C. gig at the old Pyramid Club. He nearly suffered heat stroke, but he liked what he saw. Thus it came to pass that Human Radio became signed by Columbia Records, and simultaneously, we were picked up by CBS (soon to be Sony) Music Publishing.
Shortly after that, Larry’s management company merged with Massachusetts-based Broadbeard Management (Tom Willets), and after being courted by several agencies, we chose the venerable William Morris Agency. This shit was happening so fast, we were completely disoriented. We were also a long way from building any regional touring base. The geographical nature of Memphis makes touring cost-prohibitive, especially to a group with high overhead and no rich relations. Somehow, we had managed to bypass these obstacles, and score the big deal. To most people (including yours truly), this all seemed somewhat premature, and just plain lucky. Did we care? Hell, no. Looked good from here. We’re in with the BEST IN THE BIZ.
David came to Memphis for pre-production. One of the things about Human Radio that we enjoyed, and also made us special to our fans, was our sense of musical anarchy. We jumped genres like rabbits with ADHD. We also had an alter ego band called Nairobi Trio where we took it even further, composing spontaneously, while being more physically outrageous. In other words, we were the music industry’s worst nightmare...no focus, no known definition. David saw it as his job to provide that focus in hopes of making us more accessible. We were happy to oblige. Hell, we didn’t really care as long as we were getting into the game somehow. Plenty of time for entropy later. David selected, tinkered, slashed, and re-organized us. Things got tightened up, pared down.
Then, off to LA. The vehicle: a custom job white van with big ol’ orange VOLS logos prominent aft and stern, port and starboard. So much for a stealth arrival. 30 hours to Hollywood. A rock and roll crib in West Hollywood, to be exact. We had 10 days at Ocean Way, Studio B, with David Leonard engineering and co-producing. We cut live on the floor in a great sounding room. Some of the songs were built from sequenced drum tracks, much to Ebe’s dismay. Leonard had the cutting-edge of triggering technology: the Forat machine. So all our great drums sounds were augmented by the latest sounds. The irony here is that what makes the record sound dated today was us using the latest, greatest devices in an attempt to be "modern."
Still, we had a great time ordering in Thai and Indian food, rescuing David Kahne after he got sideswiped riding his bike home from the session (he had a concussion, so we kept him awake all night), moving over to Skip Saylor's studio for overdubs, having Rick James come over from the big side looking for a siren sample (!). All told, two and half weeks in Hollywood, then back to Memphis, into Memphis Sound Productions to finish overdubs and vocals. I almost killed Kahne when he had me working on ONE line in "Me & Elvis" for almost three hours. The third time we’d completely cut the vocals, Kahne was still not happy. I cussed him out and announced that I was going back into the booth to sing the fucking song all the way through, then I was outta there for the day. I spat it out, changed the phrasing, and nailed the take. Mind games? Who knows...it worked. It should also be noted that the band was against recording "Electromagnetism," as we were sick of it, and the sucker never worked live. Though it was on the record, due to Kahne’s opinion of it, we never played the song after late ’88, until our official last gig in ’93. Not once. No one ever requested it, either.
The record was finished, and we did a "welcome home" gig at the New Daisy, packing the sucker. We had a lot of new fans due to good press, and our "being signed to a major label." We did the songs with the new arrangements for the first time for the home crowd. A lot of our old fans seemed disappointed in the direction the band was taking: more streamlined, less loose and humorous. We didn’t really agree with them; our evolution made perfect sense to us. We had to be Ready for Radio. We started paying more attention to our attire, helped Pat pay off the notes for more special lighting, better sound, more office personnel. Larry started handling several other Memphis bands looking for the magic touch that got us off the ground. Things were moving.
The record finally came out in May 1990. "Me & Elvis" was the first single, a decision we did not like very much. Our concern was that the song would get us tagged as a novelty act, and no one would be able to take us seriously. Columbia didn’t seem to care about that; they just figured it was the most immediately accessible song, tying us in with being from Memphis. It did pretty well at radio though. We got a lot of adds from morning jocks, and some from music directors that got deeper into the record. I got a call list every morning from Larry listing the stations that picked us up, as well as feedback, pro and con, from the personnel. I really enjoyed the personal interaction; some of the guys were really pleasant and knowledgeable. Most of our airplay seemed to be on the perimeter of the country, none at all in Florida, very little in the Southeast (except for Tennessee), and a good amount in New England. A coast-to-coast tour was worked out. No good opening slots were available, so we lined up a club tour, which unfortunately didn’t hit a lot of the markets we had airplay in. We were pretty confident that we could win ‘em over regardless, and looked forward to the road. But first, the video.
The first script/directing team we liked wanted permission to use Elvis’ likeness in the video. To achieve this required a meeting with the gatekeeper for Elvie Presley Enterprises, who at that time was Jerry Schilling. Larry and I wangled a meeting at his office, where we played a CD of "Me and Elvis." When it got to the line "on my mantle sitting next to Jesus Christ," he reached over, flicked off the CD player and said, "I’m not ready for Elvis to be on the mantle just yet," which we took as a no. On the way out, I turned to him and said, "it’s too late...he’s already there."
No biggie. We just changed perspective a little, and had the Elvis Point-of-View cam, which would be trained on a kid/sidekick (the "Me" in "Me and Elvis"), occasionally showing the bejeweled hand, the girls crowding the camera, the gun shooting the TV, etc. The band was basically driven around downtown Memphis on the back of a flatbed trailer. Our one big caveat: at NO TIME MUST ANYONE SEE THE TRAILER. Sadly, on the final cut, it is seen, but who gives a shit anyway? It was a fun and exhausting couple of days. Scary too, crossing the river on a flatbed doing 30 mph with slippery shoes and nothing to break your fall but bridge. Plus we loved working with Alex Winter of Bill and Ted fame. Later, we heard that one of the NY Columbia A&R guys hated the video. He thought that I looked too "scruffy." I think he passed on Nirvana a year later. The video turned out pretty cute, got shown in "medium" rotation on MTV (once between 2 and 5 AM), and will probably never be seen again! Except maybe here.
We rented just about the cheapest bus available, a ’76 Silver Eagle known as "the Grizzly." It had a bullet hole in the ceiling of the back lounge; rumor had it that Porter Waggoner himself had fired the shot. This resulted in a steady drip from the AC unit, usually on someone’s head. We hit Nashville, Knoxville, then took a right into Georgia and Florida, neither of which had given us any airplay. After a week, we finally got to Texas, where our local label rep was doing a much better job. Unfortunately, we lost the Grizzly in Houston; it just gave up the ghost. We switched to rental cars and a truck for the rest of Texas (yee haw), then hooked up with the second cheapest bus available, the "Hornet," in Lubbock.
The shows in general went pretty well. The first week was rough, because we really didn’t FEEL like we were on a big label. The gigs pretty much sucked - weekday club gigs with little or no press, sometimes someone coming out to check us out, but it was usually regulars who couldn’t give a shit (one pair of jokers in Winston-Salem actually told us to "stop playing that n***** music"). After Texas, things were improving. The Southwest went well, with the exception of us losing the AC in the bus whilst going through Arizona in July. We opened for the Allman Brothers in Phoenix, where we actually had a lot of folks receive us well. We got to LA, and that’s a day we’ll never forget.
We had a full day of LA stuff to do, so we got up early. We went to CNN where we cut an interview, as well as played 3 songs (pretty sure it never aired). Then off to Century City, where we spent a few hours at the Columbia office. Since we were signed out of LA, we had a very nice reception and treatment, met folks, schmoozed, raided the tape vault, and headed back to meet the bus at the Roxy via limousine. Traffic seemed to be getting more and more problematic as we got closer to Sunset. Our deadpan Russian limo driver ingeniously found every possible short cut through increasingly dead traffic, and we pulled up to the Roxy via a side street to behold the source of the jam.
It was, of course, our bus. The Hornet, while being backed into the parking lot of the Roxy, dropped its engine out of its mount right onto Sunset Boulevard. This effectively blocked all but one lane from 4 to 6 PM on a Friday afternoon, and caused massive frustration from local law enforcement, who were powerless to change it until a bus tow could be maneuvered in through the traffic. We sheepishly grabbed our shit off the bus to choruses or irate honking and curses, and for a brief moment contemplated putting our banner on the top of the bus for the free publicity. We came quickly to our senses in the name of self-preservation, and loaded in.
Lucky me, one of my sound modules had been left in Phoenix. One of the guys from the venue had it, but couldn’t get it to me in time. We quickly rented another one from SIR, and I spent all available time programming it for the show. So I missed the industry meet-n-greet and was generally a wreck for the show. Afterwards, I felt pretty good about the gig, considering. Still, I didn’t feel like the connection was being made. I wondered if it was us. Could we touch on the zeitgeist if we just tried harder, or was it the audience? Was it gonna take time for them to get around to appreciating the band? Still, I felt optimistic. We were just getting started.
We had the best show of the tour in Santa Barbara. The town had just been ravaged by fire, so there was this very strong survivor vibe present with everyone there. We played an outdoor street party, in a tiki hut that was oddly constructed there. Pat, the light man, sat behind the band, and performed his entire light show by flicking the sole 60 watt light bulb on and off (can’t believe we paid him for that!). The main radio station was 3 songs deep into the album, so there were a lot of real fans there, mouthing the words. We had a great show, but sadly had to leave immediately to make a noon gig the next day in Santa Cruz. We made our way to San Francisco, took a day off, then worked our way across Colorado, then back to Memphis. Coast-to-coast.
The New England branch of the label agreed to take us on for a month-long residency. We drove up there and stationed ourselves outside of Boston in Waltham. We then put in a good solid month to try to break New England, opening for area favorite Max Creek. We did a $2-off-with-tye-dye night opening for Blues Traveler, and chased Phish around the club circuit. We were sorta hit-and-miss up there; I think we were too structured at a time that folks up there wanted a looser Dead-related vibe. We even played at the end of a Louie Louie parade in Providence, another town that oddly had an affinity for us.
The month ended with a gig at the Lone Star Roadhouse in NYC, playing for the whole Columbia staff. I’d be a lyin’ ass dog if I said I wasn’t a little nervous for this one. I had a hard time figuring the crowd. In some ways, they were warm and receptive, but I couldn’t help feeling like we were missing it. I know I was trying my very best to do the best fucking show possible, and I felt like my boys were doing the same, but it nagged at me. Afterwards, we met pretty much everyone at the NY label, including, finally, Don Ienner. We had a very polite, quick conversation, we took a big picture with the staff, then Paul Rappaport (our strongest ally in NY) took us "out on the card." All misgivings were quickly forgotten, as Paul treated us like everything had gone incredibly well, have some more champagne!
The next day, we went by the Columbia offices (a big black building at 666 5th Avenue). At some point, we were supposed to get to see Ienner briefly, but it never happened. Things were a lot chillier over at the NY office compared to Columbia LA. We finally got out of there and headed home via Appleton, Wisconsin (again, one of those far-flung towns that GOT us). Shortly after that trip, the feeling from the label changed dramatically. What made this odd to me was that they had been test marketing the next single ("My First Million"), and it was consistently in the top 5 phones in every market tested. We had already approved a video script and director, and had a shoot scheduled. This, of course, got "unscheduled." William Morris Agency came through with an opening slot on tour with...Meatloaf! When we balked at this, we were basically shamed into taking it ("you guys are fuckin lucky to get a tour with this guy...who do you think you are?"), only to have Columbia shoot it down by not kicking in support. Ill winds were blowing from the East.
We returned home to ponder the future. Things were happening so fast. Everything was falling apart as quickly as it had assembled. We felt that a radical change of scenery was in order: as a band, we made the full move to Nashville. We had several compelling reasons: we wanted to get geographically closer to the East Coast, with more towns within a sustainable radius, we would have access to free studio time at Sony/Tree (desirable since our relationship with Memphis Sound was deteriorating rapidly), we were well respected individually and as a band there, and, to be honest here, we were just getting tired of the hometown folks ragging us about the second record.
We were still trying to really break the Southeast (why to this day, I’ll never understand!), so we were hitting the road in a 14’ Ryder truck, so chosen due to the cab opening to the cargo area. We’d spread all our gear on the floor, then put Ebe’s drum riser on top, then cushions and sleeping bags. Kye rigged a dryer hose, which we duck taped to the vent panel to send air back into the truck. I’m pretty sure we sustained some carbon monoxide poisoning, coz you’d go back there, and just pass out until arrival. It was the most cost effective way to travel, though. It was pretty rough on the band’s collective psyche, especially after having had a taste of the next level. We kept on as best we could, broke and getting broker.
We made use of the free studio time. I was given the permission and the means to produce the band, a position that I felt was earned, having written the songs and been rehearsal bitch the whole time anyway. We seemed to find a comfort zone with this during the recording process. We had a good quality demo that the band and management felt good about. There was a sense of desperation that started to seep into the group consciousness, however. Management was concerned with our visual image. Hair and clothing were becoming more closely scrutinized and criticized. Meetings were becoming more strained, and sometimes pointless. Still, we had a good slot at the coming NEA (Nashville’s version of SXSW) showcase, so we got into the woodshed.
The Ace of Clubs was full. Pretty much every A&R person that was in town for the showcases was there. We filled out the rest with good friends and loyal fans. By what I was told afterward by those in attendance and in the know, it was one of the best performances we ever did. 35 minutes, great sound, killer lights, the best of the new material, great response, then...nothing. The general vibe, as I found out later, was "yeah, the band’s good, but if Columbia couldn't make it happen...good luck kid." We kept our heads up and got back into the van, but that was really the beginning of the end. Crowds were starting to fall off at all of our good venues, bad reviews were popping up, guarantees were slipping. Human Radio was our main source of income, and we were starting to go under. Kye finally called a meeting to call it a day. The rest of us thought briefly of trying to get someone else and carry on, but we were too psychically exhausted, and agreed to close it down. Final dates were set (without fanfare or finality) in Memphis and Nashville, and we said good night.
Over the years, people who knew the band generally commented that we were not of our time, either too early or too late. It’s really hard to time the zeitgeist; I was pretty sure we had missed it when every club we were loading into near the end had Nirvana cranked. It became clear that a modern synth-power-pop band with a lead violin and clever topical lyrics, was gonna miss that fork in the road. I took the demise of the band very personally, and spent a lot of time absorbing (as well as distributing) blame. But, I can honestly say that every decision I made was the best provided, and yes, I’d do certain things a little differently, but inevitably for the same reasons. We didn’t do too bad though. I still hear occasionally from someone who heard the record and it resonated with them. Most people who saw the shows when we were in our prime tell me they were pretty special.
We’ve done a few reunions since. The first one at the South End was pretty huge - 1500 people in the street drank a Bud truck dry, and left the bar with nothing but blue Curacao and Rumpleminze. The others were fun, but increasingly less relevant. The last was very much the last for me. It was a great little run, and me and the guys are still good friends. Thanks for enjoying us.
- Ross Rice, 2000