Back in the early 1990s, one of my closest friends at the University of Delaware was a kid named Scott Capro.
As freshmen, we lived across the hall from one another. As juniors and seniors, we roomed together. Scott was (and still is) terrific, because he was blessed with a truly detailed knowledge of my two favorite subjects—sports and music.
While I was pretty strong in the one area (sports), my musical range was somewhat limited to 1980s hip-hop and Hall and Oates. Well, thanks to Scott, I came to know the music of Elvis Costello and Pearl Jam; of John Wesley Harding and … Human Radio.
Yes, Human Radio. Back in the day, Scott would regularly stroll down to Main Street and spend hours inside Rainbow Records, seeking out the next great thing. He’d listen and listen and listen and listen before ultimately plopping down $20 for a couple of CDs. On one particular day he randomly picked up Human Radio’s eponymous 1990 release, then brought it back to the dorm. I remember little of the album, save for a song named, “These are the Days”—which I have probably listened to, oh, 700 times.
I digress. Because of Scott Capro and Rainbow Records and life’s random weirdness, today’s 277th Quaz Q&A is Ross Rice, the lead singer and keyboardist for (the recently reunited) Human Radio and a man who can speak on the highs and lows of the music business; on the beauty of a well-constructed song; on returning from the depths and playing out of love (as opposed to seeking profit).
Ross Rice, you’re the hairiest (and coolest) Quaz to date …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Ross, so one of my all-time favorite songs is “These Are The Days”—which has been a staple in my life for the past 25 years or so. What can you tell me about the tune? The origins? The meaning? Do you dig it as much as I do? Are you sick of it?
ROSS RICE: Love that you love it, Jeff. Despite it’s precocious cleverness, I’ve always felt that that tune had some legs to it. That was one of those really nice sunny mornings on the stoop in Memphis, coffee and cat, got a good little guitar progression going, got a little visit from some nice young fella from the neighborhood Jehovah’s Witness church (I think our house was something of a finishing school for them, we could be quite merciless, especially on LSD), and out it popped out nice and fresh. Don’t really know what it means actually, just a little slice of life with a side of Nietzsche. I’ll still pick it publicly now and then, it’s worn much better than most of the others…
J.P.: Your band had one hit. “Me and Elvis,” which came out in 1990 and reached No, 32 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. And I wonder whether you were at all like the baseball player who wins the World Series as a rookie and presumes it will always be this way. How did y’all respond to having a hit? Did you assume there would be more to come? And are you at all haunted/dismayed by a “one-hit wonder” sort of pegging?
R.R.: Weeellll, I wouldn’t really call it a “hit” per se, it got some love from morning jocks who with the gentle prodding of our esteemed label pushed the rock up the hill a ways. Let’s just say I do kind of regret writing the tune, which originally was a goofy little ska thing we had some fun with our Memphis peeps doing. But lo and behold our producer David Kahne (whom I still admire greatly) saw it as some kind of existential treatise on the demise of youth and rock ‘n’ roll. So he tarted it up while serious-o-fying it. Then of course the label went Memphis=Elvis, and we had our first single chosen thusly. Can’t blame em, makes sense from the marketing standpoint! But it would require a follow up too keep us from “the pegging.”
“My First Million” was scheduled for a second single, had video treatment and director lined up, got top five phones in every test market, but then the president of the label saw us in New York City, and reportedly said “Who the f*** are these guys?” So we didn’t get to find out if there could be more to come, it was shortly thereafter all tour support dried up, and we were offered a graceful exit. At that point we were damaged goods, nobody else would go for us. Such is the harsh reality of our groovy little industry!
J.P.: Your band is from Memphis. I started as a music writer in Nashville in the mid-1990s, and it was near-impossible for rock bands to emerge from the city, because the suffocating cloak of the country industry was overwhelming. How about the rock music scene in Memphis? Was it strong back then? Did you have to overcome musical perceptions of the town?
R.R.: At that time (late 80s/early 90s) there was a crazy signing glut going on in Memphis, and I think all over the country. We did a producer showcase at one point where four out of 12 bands were offered major label deals. And yeah, there were some really great bands happening, and the club scene was improving, more venues, people out enjoying live music. We found ourselves well booked in Memphis and the surrounding areas. But once we were out of the south, the Memphis thing could be problematic. And we did not sound at all like a band from Memphis with our un-sexy synthesizers and violins. Lots of reviews of our record or shows started with “I was hoping for some great new Memphis-style music from this new band. Instead we get … blah blah blah … I’m so disappointed … they suck!” No. Miss All-Stars, Grifters, Oblivians, Al Kapone, Three Six Mafia … bands like these had “Memphis-ness” we somehow did not. But we weren’t trying for anything like that, I had just done six years of R&B, two years in a house band with Duck Dunn. I’ve played Green Onions on organ with Cropper and Dunn seven times. Didn’t feel the need to elaborate on that with my music!
J.P.: You guys seem to be in the midst of a comeback. How did that happen? Why did it happen? And what are the hopes? Goals?
R.R.: I was in the Hudson Valley of New York for the last decade while the other guys were all in Nashville still. A dear friend of ours asked if a reunion might be possible for a benefit, I made the trip, and we had a blast! We had broken the band up to keep our friendship intact, so it was effortless. This started a long-distance writing process, where I came to town occasionally, and we’d set up at Castle Hyrkania (Pete’s place, available through AirBnB!) with a single mic in omni at the center, and goof off, come up with cool stuff. I took those recordings and made things out of them, which we developed. It was an organic mutual process, and everyone contributed. Then I moved back to the area to start school, and we had enough material to do a record, so we did a Kickstarter, overestimated our appeal and fell short, started over on Indiegogo, and found ourselves with a cozy little budget to record and manufacture a small run of CDs and vinyl. It’s been pretty hilarious with the emails, we’re learning how to be a record label by screwing up constantly! Our emails the other day concerning bar codes were epic.
Hopes and goals? Ah, none really other that servicing our donors, doing some record release gigs in select towns, getting it on CD Baby and the World Wide Interwebs, and working the social media somewhat (God, we suck at it, but we’re gonna try). We’re not getting in the back of the Penske van again rolling around Mississippi trying to get discovered anymore. We just wanted to make the record to prove that we were still relevant to ourselves and immediate fans and friends. So far so good. Oddly enough, we are taking a meeting with a label guy next week who had just heard the new record, wants to buy us lunch. We do like lunch.
J.P.: I’m friendly with some guys from Blind Melon, and they signed a record deal back around the same time you guys did. And they insist it was REALLY easy back then; like deals were falling from the sky. True? False? How did you land the deal? And was being signed to a label all you’d hoped?
R.R.: See above. Yeah, I think it had something to do with performance royalty licensing, something that was changing over in 1990. Folks were getting signed left and right. But let me tell you nine out of 10 bands that were signed in that rush shared the same fate we did. It was a crazy and exciting time, really. Our manager leveraged a tentative offer from one label into getting us enough buzz that eventually an A&R guy from a huge label from L.A. flew into town, our people picked him up and brought him to Beale Street where we were set up in a blacked-out club, full PA and light show. He walked in, we started playing … 30 minutes later we stopped, he got up, got back in the car, and caught the next flight out. Three days later he called us up with an offer, and suggested David Kahne producing. Being Fishbone fanatics, we assented heartily. A publishing deal followed shortly thereafter, which was also quite nice.
For a little while it was pretty sweet, the record got good notice and airplay, some decent reviews (some quite scathing, too!). But once we got out on the road we got a better sense of where we stood with our label. Which was pretty uncertain ground … turned out we were a band signed by west coast A&R to an east-based label over the objections of the east coast A&R staff. We were kinda doomed from the gitgo.
J.P.: What happened when you played the Roxy in Los Angeles? Details, please …
R.R.: Hehe. Yeah, the previous night we had opened for the Allman Bros and George Thorogood in Phoenix. Got into L.A. the next day, made some rounds, even played “These Are The Days” at CNN. Taking the limo back to the Roxy, traffic was a bitch, but our Russian driver was savvy, knew the back ways. When we emerged on Sunset, we beheld the source of the congestion: Our beat-ass tour bus! When the driver was backing into the venue lot, the engine had fallen out of the mount onto the street, blocking Sunset Blvd. from 4 to 7 on a Friday afternoon! We jumped onto the bus to grab our crap while L.A. serenaded us with honks and curses, and went inside for soundcheck. Where it was revealed that an important piece of my gear was missing, left behind in Phoenix. Guys were dispatched to SIR for a replacement, I got to spend two hours re-programming the sucker. We might have been good that night, but I don’t remember. The stress and animosity has lingered on, however!
J.P.: When you see people like, oh, Justin Bieber or Demi Lovato selling out stadiums with their own brand of fabricated shit, do you at all get irked or annoyed? Do you ever wonder why plastic pop is so celebrated while musicianship is sorta ignored?
R.R.: Well, I used to I suppose. But it’s been ever thus. Might as well get pissed about bad weather or water being wet. There’s always been great music available, so we (Human Radio) have always had hope that if we could somehow also make great music, we too could have a place at the table, so to speak. What we’re seeing is a dying industry trying to figure how to survive by creating sure things. They’ve limited the allowable producers and songwriters to a select few (mostly Swedes and Atlantans, apparently), focus-grouped singers publicly with The Voice and Idol and the like. The pipeline to the Internet and radio is more direct now with only three large-scale companies left. They’ve taken a lot of the guesswork out of the business, which has drastically reduced innovation. Records don’t rely on great performances, haven’t for some time now. And a big artist performance relies less and less on the variable of music, it’s more about choreography, lights, action.
Personally, I’m well past the point of giving a fuck about the record business. I feel pretty damn good as a result, and I enjoy music so much more now.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your musical career? Lowest?
R.R.: Many great moments … so many of my favorite musical experiences were pretty modest really. My favorite gigs have often been last minute calls, when I didn’t know the people, didn’t know the music, expectations weren’t super high, but the music was fun, the house was full, the band/artist I worked with was really happy, the beer was plentiful and cold, and we all got paid. This has happened more than a few times, the most notable for me being with Isaac Hayes and Eek-A-Mouse. But when Human Radio played its record release in an un-air conditioned (thanks, light dude) Beale St. venue packed to the rafters with 300+ on a hot July night, that felt pretty damn good to me. Though I almost passed out from heat exhaustion three times, and photos of us doing our acapella encore look like we’ve been doused with a fire hose. The day we signed our record deal was pretty triumphant as well, I might add. The future looked awesome from that moment.
Lowest? The gig suck list is extensive, but I don’t visit it often. But HR playing for our lives before a roomful of A&R in ’92, playing at the top of our game with our best stuff, nobody interested, that was real hard. The day we broke up was really painful yet somehow a relief. But I’ve learned to laugh off major live problems. I inverted a crash cymbal in front of 60,000 Memphians playing the 1812 Overture at the Sunset Symphony. Ka-chunk! I got fired shortly thereafter. And had the good fortune to step on my cord and de-plug in front of 10,000 at Wembley Arena London with Peter Frampton. RIGHT on the first “bwah bwah bwah” solo in “Show Me The Way.” Stooped down, plugged back in, shrugged with a goofy “Who me?” grin and jumped right back in. The look Peter Frampton shot me mid-solo was delicious. And I got fired shortly thereafter.
J.P.: You were a young kid when Human Radio began. You’re no longer a young kid. How does aging impact your skillset as a musician? Playing keyboard? Singing? Are there things you can’t do any longer? Are there things you’re better at?
R.R.: I’ve been playing keyboard professionally all this time since, so I feel pretty confident with my game right now. Haven’t had any age-related difficulties, knock on wood. Not to sound boasty, but I think I’m a much better singer now that I was in 1990 too, less inclined to pull the Frank Zappa tone out! When I had my Very Sexy Trio in New York it was all about Fender Rhodes and falsetto, which I’m fortunate to have in my toolkit. My drumming and guitar playing have suffered, but I’ve been working on an MFA in Recording Arts and Technologies, so my tech chops are growing steadily. Editing/publishing/writing for a magazine for 4 ½ years in New York got me more disciplined as a writer. Teaching at the Paul Green Academy of Rock got me into wanting to pursue a future as a teacher. Raising two kids to adulthood made me waaay more patient. Guess I like to think I’m improving.
J.P.: This isn’t an insult—I swear. But you have super long hair. Was that a conscious decision. Like, “I’m always gonna have long hair?” Did it just grow and grow? Ever think of slicing it all off?
R.R.: Kept forgetting to cut it. Naw, I’ve had long hair since elementary school in New Hampshire in the 70s, where I got so much shit for it even then, I knew I was onto something. Since then I’ve always liked the way it looks on me, and the wife still digs it. I’m one goofy motherfucker with short hair; my car door ears and Scotch super-schnozz need balancing out bigt ime.
J.P.: This might sound cliché, but why do so few bands last, uninterrupted, for more than a few years? Is it simply a matter of ego? More? Why did you guys break up?
R.R.: We broke up because we were friggin broke, dude. Gig monies were dropping, when we couldn’t pick up another deal our brand took a hit. The downward arc appeared, momentum shifted to the opposite direction. It was the damndest thing. One day one of the guys called a meeting, said he couldn’t afford to keep on. The rest of us decided to stop instead of replacing him. We broke up as good friends. But keep in mind, we were signed within a year and a half of forming. Our arc was accelerated in both directions by the times.
The fact that bands last at all is a miracle. You have a creative relationship that operates on one level, and a business relationship operating on another. Friendships and personalities are under great strain in this environment, where very few things are certain, and alliances are often tested. If you could figure out how to make a band that can survive the long haul (I’d say 5+ years), I imagine it would be similar to the process of assembling a successful team of astronauts for deep space runs. It’s rough out there, man.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ROSS RICE:
• What do you think of Ray Rice?: Not holding up the name too well. Most of us Rices are sexy MFs who love women (some of us love men too, but I digress), and are righteously beloved by them in return. When polled, many of us Rices agree he should maybe switch to a less loving and nurturing moniker.
• My college roommate, Scott Capro, introduced me to your guys in 1991. Anything you’d like to say to him?: Hey Scott! How’s it going, man? Thanks for the spins on the victrola!
We have a new album for you, so let us know how we can get you one. Cheers!
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Doug E. Fresh, boba milk tea, B.B. King, bottled water, back acne, Dan Zanes, Chris Ivory, Bill Haslam, Dan Fogelberg: BB King, Doug E Fresh, Dan Zanes, Chris Ivory, bottled water, Dan Fogelberg, boba milk tea, Bill Haslam, back acne.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Oddly enough, no. Even when I was about to die in a plane crash coming into Telluride last year (with Mike Farris), when a storm suddenly swerved towards us resulting in a frightening 270 degree maneuver, and landing an hour away. The pilot was such a cocky dude, I just figured he could back it up when the shit hit the fan. And he did!
• One question you would ask Warren Moon were he here right now: How does it feel to be such a badass? Do you feel like you get the respect you deserve? You should.
• Five things you never want to smell again: Papermill, fast food coffee, Miller Lite, van farts on second week of run, cheap laundry detergent
• Why the name Human Radio?: We made a long-ass list. Lots of funny stuff. This was the only name that nobody said no to. I had written a song a long time ago about being in a cover band at a Holiday Inn (which I was) called “Human Radio” which caused me to submit it as a name. The song itself sucked, however.
• The guy next to me in this café refuses to cover his mouth as he coughs. What can I do to him?: Fart in his latte.
• Best joke you know?: Kye is the king of jokes in our group, I should get him to pipe one in here. I like stupid jokes that are long and pointless and require a performance. But here’s a quickie I’ve always enjoyed. Man walks into a bar with a duck on his head. Bartender says “what can I get ya?” Duck says “Can you get this guy off my ass?”
• Miley Cyrus calls and offers you $700,000 to tour with her this year as her backup singer. However, you have to wear a pink tutu and pierce your anus. You in?: Lemme get some miles in on the Stairmaster to purty up my quads and get my hemorrhoids cauterized. School can wait.