The Rocket 1/89
The Art of the Deal: How Mother Love Bone got one of the biggest record deals of the year
by Richard T. White
The scene could be a film director's dream or a sociologists nightmare. The audience, in its best cowboy-vampire-biker finery, is sardine one on top of another. The entire room -- walls and ceiling included -- seems to be pulsing and sweating, and if there were a barometer in the place the rising humidity would have taken it off the scale by now; a storm warning would be in order. The music howling out of the P.A. is bone-crushing, locked in just slightly below the threshold. On stage an obdurate rhythm line, best described as a mongrel amalgamation of punk and funk, forms the fabric for the melody, which two guitars lace together in a psychedelic Middle Eastern flamenco. The singer has just annointed the faithful with the contents of his beer glass, his pouty outrageousness, balanced on the edge of pretension, is focused in his hiss and snarl delivery of the lyric, "I'm the instigator of the me generation/The official seminator of the female population." Lewd, loose, and lascivious the entire assemblage proceeds to jump, thrust and howl for the next 45 minutes until neither the band nor the audience has another ounce of energy to drain from each other.
This pandemonium is more or less your typical evening with Mother Love Bone, the Northwest's latest entry into the major label rock 'n' roll circus. Since the band formed nine months ago they have been on a haphazard but determined trajectory for an inevitable joust with that bitch goddess "success." Determined and inevitable, because they are constantly able, and willing, to push themselves and their audience beyond the ordinary. They probe that musical edge and return with that essence that, for the lack of a more accurate description, is often referred to as the "x-factor." The core of this band is unbridled confidence, a certain egocentric braggadaccio, and a cavalier insistence that "we will succeed" which becomes the energy driving the Mother Love Bone machine.
Since last May Mother Love Bone has been arduously courted by a succession of major label interests. Representatives for Capitol, Island, Atlantic, A&M, Polygram and Geffen have all actively sought to sign the band. In fact something of a bidding war erupted between the labels. The tension and uncertainty this created, for and around the band, served to amplify the precarious and desirous nature of the position. After a seemingly endless series of negotiations the band signed with Polygram in November. Some critics and industry insiders view them as the Seattle entry into this year's Guns N' Roses sweepstakes. Still others see them as the most marketable distillation of that elusive spectre, "The Northwest Sound." As is often the case with such odds-making, the truth, the promise, and the potential that is Mother Love Bone lies both within and beyond those parameters.
Unpredictable, capricious, problematic, the eventual fact of any new act is riddled with uncertainty. How a young band develops and reacts to the powerful influences that business, success, and growing popularity can impose is critical to their continued survival. The people who are "The Music Business" don't make just music, or business. A great deal of their time and effort is spent on creating the myth and illusion that are what we accept as rock 'n' roll. Mother Love Bone is a band immersed in all these phenomena, and their tale is fairly typical of many newly signed acts. Business and myth are already tugging at their sleeves.
Mother Love Bone was formed from the remnants of three seminal Seattle bands. Drummer Greg Gilmore comes from Ten Minute Warning; singer Andy Wood, a.k.a. "L'andrew, the love child," was the former frontman and bass player of Malfunkshun; while Bruce Fairweather, Stone Gossard, and Jeff Ament played guitars and bass respectively for Green River. How did such a diverse collection of talent come to be Mother Love Bone? Bruce Fairweather says, "The Gods were smiling." God, or fate, the unseen muse that protects rock 'n' roll was definitely working overtime. Originally Gossard and Ament had planned to move down to Los Angeles around February of last year. "It would have been a bad move," Gossard says. Instead they ended up forming a band with Fairweather and Wood. They auditioned a number of drummers but the chemistry wasn't quite right. Then Gossard stumbled onto Gilmore. Jeff Ament credits Gilmore with getting the band members to "re-think and clarify" their musical direction, defining what was important to them as a band.
Now all of this was occurring at a time when the Green River LP Rehab Doll, released on Sub Pop after the band's break-up, was gaining critical recognition and popular acceptance. "What we discovered in Mother Love Bone," Stone says, "was taking it easy, letting things happen naturally and really jamming on stuff a lot more."
With their line-up filled out and rehearsals producing substantial results, Mother Love Bone took the next step -- they made a tape and went shopping for some gigs. They ended up with something quite different, not just the tail, and not just the whole tiger -- what they got was the whole rock 'n' roll circus. Now, since there are several different versions to the next part of this story, you'll want to get our your programs and keep scorecards handy.
Ament starts the tale off like this: "We were sending out tapes to get some shows in L.A. We wanted to play and we knew that you can't play enough shows in Seattle to keep it interesting. We wanted to go down the coast, play some shows, and maybe someone would see us and help us take the next step. I thought this woman who worked at Slash Record, who I'd met a couple of times, could maybe help us get some shows. So I sent her a tape, and like two days later she calls me up at nine in the morning, screaming over the phone that she loves the tape. I didn't know what to think about it because people in those positions can say 'I really love your band, I think you're the greatest,' and then you never hear from them again. It can be very hard to weigh what they're saying. But in this case she kept calling me all week, every day."
Ament's friend at Slash Records was Artist and Repertoire representative Anna Statman. While at Slash, Statman had been involved with the signing of the Bo Deans, the Violent Femmes, and the Del Fuegos. When Jeff Ament contacted her with Mother Love Bone's tape, Statman had already left Slash to begin working in the A&R department at Geffen.
So it was Anna Statman of Geffen Records who was calling Jeff Ament with regard to Mother Love Bone, and that was a very different colored horse indeed. Having already been frustrated in an earlier attempt to sign Soundgarden, Statman moved quickly to investigate the possibilities in Mother Love Bone. Statman called Kelly Curtis at Mark Alan Productions to see if he would go with her to see the band at an upcoming date scheduled for the Vogue. Curtis was already familiar with the band because Ament hand sent one of Mother Love Bone's tapes to Curtis' partner, Ken Deans, in hopes that Deans would be interested in booking or managing the band. At the Vogue show -- the band's second -- Curtis was re-introduced to the band.
Kelly Curtis describes his initial interactions with Mother Love Bone tentatively. "We weren't originally intending to work with each other as a management thing. I wasn't that interested in it and I didn't think the band was that excited about having me do it. But we were willing to help them out and let them use the office. As things started to progress, it worked out, it clicked."
Several other things "clicked" as well for the band at this time. Statman liked what she heard and saw at the Vogue enough to offer Mother Love Bone $5,000 to go into the studio and produce a demo tape, from which Geffen would base a contract offer to the band. The band recorded their demo in June at Lawson Studios in Seattle and in early July flew down to Los Angeles, with Kelly Curtis as their manager, to meet Geffen President Eddie Rosenblatt.
While in L.A., Mother Love Bone "worked the building" calling on various members of the music profession, agents, publicists, and music attorneys. The band retained as their legal counsel Stan Diamond, who has represented, among other notable clients, David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Satisfied with their first meeting with Geffen and the new contacts they had established, they returned home, awaiting what they thought would be their contract with Geffen Records.
What happened next may never be completely clear to anyone. Whether it was the original tapes that Ament had sent circulating about gigs, whether word got out in Los Angeles that Geffen was onto something hot, or whether the general "buzz" about the band that was percolating in Seattle somehow attracted notice, Mother Love Bone as they say, became a "hot property." The band's next three gigs, two at the Central and one at the offbeat Skate King in Kent, looked more like conventions for A&R reps and music industry insiders. It was impossible to move around at any of the three performances without running into the national director, senior vice president, or assistant to the head schmooze of one record company or another. Mother Love Bone gigs began to look like teas for Walter Yentnikof.
Curtis speaks about this period with a mixture of dismay and incredulous disbelief. "There was some initial excitement about the band and then everybody else jumped on the bandwagon. Suddenly people were flying up here to take the band to dinner who had no idea, no clue, as to what the band was about. They heard I don't know what, and I don't even know why they flew up here, but this was not the type of band that going to sign with the big schmooze guy."
I think part of what attracted all the attention was that it was something that was not happening anywhere else. Mother Love Bone in a sense leading the scene. They are the best of what was once. They got the funk edge, the punk edge, and the hard rock edge -- their potential is untapped. They really do get better every time they play."
As more and more record companies began to take an interest in Mother Love Bone, the band's relationship with Geffen cooled and finally fractured into open hostility.
"Up until mid-July," says Curtis, "we thought we would be signing with Geffen, and we told everybody that we were signing with Geffen. But then people who were originally involved got out [Anna Statman] and Tom Zutaut became involved. [Zutaut was instrumental in getting Guns N'Roses and Rock City Angels to Geffen.] At first he wasn't sure he would sign us, then he was sure, then he wasn't again. I don't know what happened. Geffen never really made an offer until mid-September on the street outside a gig at the Central, and that was when a lot of other labels were there to see the band for the first time, and knowing that they were available. It was a whole new ball game at this point because we felt we owed it to all these people who had come up to listen to their rap. The last time we talked to Zutaut we told him we were calling him in a week; we called to tell him we were signing and we never heard back from him."
Zutaut at Geffen was unavailable for comment but other sources with the label report that Geffen ended up feeling like the groom left waiting at the alter. "Their britches became too large for their body very quickly," says a Geffen source. "They tried to get as many labels, as many booking agents, as many scumbag parasitic people as there are in the business, to be as interested in this band as possible and then they blew the whole thing out or proportion."
The band, of course, argues this point but you can be sure they probably won't be signing with Geffen when their deal with Polygram ends. After the Geffen thing blew up the band began what Andy Woods calls "The Mother Love Bone restaurant tour of Seattle." "We weren't interested in starting a bidding war, like a lot of people from L.A. seem to think, we were just trying to find out how committed people were, and that doesn't necessarily come down to a dollars and cents kind of thing," Fairweather adds. They began to meet extensively with representatives from a number of major labels. They started looking for what they call "the best relationship" with a label. And whether you think the band treated Geffen right or not what was clear is that they managed to have almost every label in the business hot on their tail. Whether they are as good as everyone claims really makes no difference. Less than a year after forming the band was in the ultimate power position -- they were choosing whose phone calls to return.
They eventually returned the calls of Polygram Records and signed with Michael Goldstone, the label's new hired gun, in late November. According to industry sources it is one of the year's largest signings, reportedly with an advance of over a quarter of a million dollars. The deal is rumored to be for seven albums with heavy escalating points, which is the percentage on the dollar that the band makes for each LP sold. Goldstone has met the band's request to help them put out an EP prior to their major label debut, so during Thanksgiving weekend the band began work on their first vinyl project. They've been recording at London Bridge Studios with engineer Mark Dearnly (who has worked with AC/DC) at the helm. The record should be out in March, just about the time the band will hit the road for their first major tour. Until then the group continues to play various gigs around town (they recently opened for Jane's Addiction at the Paramount). And for now you can catch most of them members hanging out in local clubs.
What will happen when Mother Love Bone leaves Seattle, hits the road and takes one of the more cranked-up high energy shows imaginable to the limits? "Well," Andy Wood says, "I've been training for this all my life. I have always been a frontman. I remember when I was nine or ten in my bedroom, I'd wait till my folks were gone, then I'd put Kiss Alive on really loud and I'd use my bed as a drum riser and a tennis racket for a guitar. And at the end of the album I'd smash my tennis racket, my guitar, start the album over for the encore, and walk out on stage with a brand new guitar. You should have seen it. The Andy Wood Band." He pauses and grins, "We were really big in the '70s."