The inside story of how the Boston college-rock heroes fell prey to the major label conglomerate in 1990
If Michael Azerrad ever writes a sequel to Our Band Could Be Your Life, Big Dipper would be a surefire candidate to be lionized with a chapter.
In the annals of 1980’s-era Boston indie underground and in the college-rock history books, the legendary quirky pop heads from Boston were the real deal. Part Mission of Burma, part Beatles, part Television and part Feelies but with a brainy, high-strung and hooks-delicious power-pop sound all their own, the four-piece of singer/guitarists Bill Goffrier (The Embarrassment) and Gary Waleik (Volcano Suns), bassist Steve Michener (also of Volcano Suns and Dumptruck) and drummer Jeff Oliphant cranked out a glorious shit-ton of the catchiest melodies that would make even Robert Pollard envious.
On a string of touchstone records for the famed Homestead label, Big Dipper were kings of the should-be hit. “Faith Healer” (from 1987’s Boo-Boo), “She’s Fetching” (from ‘87’s Heavens) and the perfect trifecta of “Meet the Witch,” “Ron Klaus Wrecked His House” and “Hey! Mr. Lincoln” (from ‘88’s Craps) remain masterpiece earworms loaded with glimmering intertwining guitars and an infectious nervous energy to die for. No wonder Superchunk has sung the praises of Big Dipper, not only covering “Younger Bums” but Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance paid the ultimate tribute when Merge Records reissued the career-spanning must-have anthology Supercluster in 2008, which helped spark sporadic reunion shows and even a new album (2012’s Crashes on the Platinum Planet)
But like many of the great indie bands of the 80’s, Big Dipper got scooped up in the major label splurge and promptly got spit out, only to never recover. After Craps, they went shopping for a new label and found themselves on Epic. In the pre-Nirvana explosion year of 1990, Big Dipper released its lone major label LP, Slam. A shiny slab of power-pop glory that, although overbaked and glossed over, remains very Big Dipper and a vital cog in their canon. Slam may get a bad rap, even from members of Big Dipper themselves as you’ll soon find out as you read on, but stellar tunes like the single “Love Barge” hold up three decades later.
In celebration of the album’s 30th anniversary, Big Dipper have been posting a tour diary and recollections on their Facebook page of the Slam tour where they crossed the States in an RV. At the Globe, we continue the festivities by getting the dish from Goffrier and Michener on everything Slam: the good, the bad and the ugly (namely that cover, which they hate to this very day).
I saw you guys on the Slam tour at a long-defunct venue in N.Y.C. called The Marquee in July, 1990. The lineup was Big Dipper, Yo La Tengo, Das Damen and The Blake Babies.
Steve Michener: It was supposed to be the last date of the Slam tour but then we ended up tacking on a couple of days in D.C. and Baltimore. But it was supposed to be the big ending of the tour. I actually remember that show (laughing).
What do you remember about it?
S.M.: I forgot my green suit. I wore my green suit, same suit jacket and pants every show of that tour without washing it. We were staying in New Jersey and we had an RV but we couldn’t drive it through the tunnel. The RV was kind of our dressing room and I had left the suit in the RV. We took the van and then I got to sound check and I realized, “shit, I don’t have a suit.’ I didn’t have time to go back.
That was the day that Gary and I had a lunch at a restaurant called Nosmo King. That was actually the day that Gary and I worked out that I would leave the band.
How did you arrive at leaving Big Dipper?
S.M.: The Slam tour was the point where there was a lot of stress and it was a lot of pressure on us and the tour, self-inflicted, mostly. Obviously, there was a feeling like we owed something to the label…Bill?
Bill Goffrier: I hate to even relive a lot of that…
…but I think the level of stress and the disappointment for what we had our hopes for that tour were quickly dashed and we quickly saw that the label really didn’t care at all about us and it was so discouraging. I think there was probably even some (thoughts) like, “Well, who screwed this up?” Whose fault is this? Maybe if you hadn’t done that…”
S.M.: It was definitely my fault (laughing). There’s two different things with Slam: one was making the record, which for us was a tremendous experience, I thought, for the most part, very positive although there were some seeds of discord laid there, too. But the tour was another thing.
B.G.: One thing I’m sure of is that we did have fun making that album. We felt really special that we were fortunate enough to be able to do something on that scale and to take our songs a lot further because of having the luxury. We knew it was a luxury to have the amount of time and the resources, to be able to even call in some musicians if we wanted to or experiment with some instruments if we wanted to, no matter how long that was going to take. That was just such a unique experience.
Going back a bit, how did you guys get signed to Epic? You signed to a major label pre-Nirvana.
B.G.: It wasn’t triggered by Nirvana but it was triggered by something on a somewhat smaller level. Steve, you probably know more about that rash of signings was based on a few other bands, I think.
S.M.: Well, I think Sonic Youth, probably…didn’t they make the jump before us?
B.G: What about like the Replacements…
S.M.: Even more poppy. I get where you’re going, though. The Feelies got signed….
B.G.: Yeah, new wavey indie bands that the perception was that, “oh, these guys have some catchy songs and I think we could do something with that.”
S.M.: It was definitely the labels were starting to realize or think that there was money to be made in the new wave. It was starting to cross over from indie labels or college stations to more commercial stations. As I recall our contract had ran out with Homestead. We had a three- record contract with Homestead. It ran out with Craps in ’88 and at that point, our management started looking forward to the next (label). We weren’t really happy with Homestead. We liked Gerard (Cosloy), we liked Craig (Marks) but it was very frustrating. The distribution just wasn’t there. It’s easy to blame our lack of relative success—or failed success—on a small label and think that the answer was to go up to the next level, which at that point there wasn’t a lot of choices in between. There wasn’t a “Merge.”
B.G: But there was Bar/None. They were after us.
How did you decide to sign on with Epic?
S.M.: Our management was doing what managers do, which is like, “Oh, we need to go for the big time. Go for the big money. You guys have done all you need to do on a small label and now it’s time for that.” So, we bought into this idea that we were whatever worthy of being on a major label and deserve that kind of attention. We started shopping the band around to major labels and we spent a lot of time. Between the time Craps came out and at the time that we signed, there was quite a bit of time. Craps came out in the Spring of ’88 and looking at the tour schedule, it looks like that’s when we started touring nonstop. So, we toured pretty much nonstop from Spring of ‘88 until the Summer of ‘89. I remember we were being courted by… Sony came in later but the first label was Bar/None. We weren’t sure but they had some sort of deal with a major. They were a small label but affiliated with major and they had done quite a bit with They Might Be Giants, right? We were impressed. A & M was part of the deal and The Feelies, I think, just signed to A & M. So we had A & M and also IRS interested. I might’ve been lunching with other labels (laughing).
Were there other bands of the Big Dipper ilk that were also being courted by and signed to Epic that swayed your decision to go with them?
B.G.: Well, O Positive was only similar in that they were a Boston band. We didn’t think we had anything in common with them, really. They would have probably been considered a Berklee graduate, Berklee School of Music…
S.M.: They could play their instruments and sing songs….
B.G.: That was the difference. They could actually play (laughing).
S.M.: It’s funny because when were signed to Epic, we were signed as a group with these four bands: it was O Positive who was kind of adult radio…
B.G.: Lawyer rock…
S.M.: Social Distortion?
B.G.: That was the punk side of things…
S.M.: They were punky and we were poppy. Then The Rave-Ups. We were part of the vanguard of being signed and it was pre-Nirvana. This leads to the bigger story about the band and probably one of the reasons why the record didn’t do so well is because of the backlash—the major label backlash.
B.G.: I think if that same album had come out on any of those indie labels, albeit with completely different packaging, it would have been perceived and accepted in a completely different way than it was, for being associated with Sony and, in part, for being dropped like a hot potato immediately when they didn’t smell success.
S.M.: They put out those four records and as soon as Social Distortion took off, they were like, “okay, these three other bands are history and we’re going to focus all the money now on Social D.
How do you look back on Slam three decades later? Do you think that it’s too polished? You think that it would it would have been received differently if it was released on an indie?
B.G.: I’m thinking now, and I’m not sure I came to this thought before, but that let’s say it has been the same, not that we would have had as much time or budget to do it, but if it had been relatively the same result that it could have been perceived much more as for the level of the fun that we were injecting into (it). Some of it is in kind of a mocking way, almost like pointing fun at some of the polished rock cliché sounds. I mean, Gary was getting some guitar sounds that were probably where the whole Mott The Hoople cover idea came from because he was coming up with these Seventies glitter rock guitar sounds. We were just discovering all kinds of things that we knew were not like, “this is not at all Big Dipper.” But we didn’t feel like we had a sound that we had to stay true to. We felt like, “well, don’t people get it?” We’re a song-oriented band and that’s kind of how we started and the only reason we sounded is the way we did before was because that’s all we had the resources to do with those songs. But you give us time and more instruments and we’re going to find whatever way we can to make these songs sound interesting and fun and different. So, we expanded in all these different directions and a lot of it, I think, was really fun. I think there were hits and misses. There were big mistakes, missteps that we didn’t go back and look at it objectively. But in all the risk-taking, which I think went on, there were also a lot of really successful combinations and there was another level of sophistication of our arrangements and maybe even the songwriting itself. But we definitely hit some higher levels as a band.
S.M.: One of the interesting things about the record, which I remember going into it is this was right around the same time that the complete Beatles recording sessions book came out and it was a great document of how the Beatles had recorded their records. I remember I brought it to the band and we read parts of it and went over things that we could use that they had done and one of them was to…we recorded the record in like four different groups. So, instead of going in and putting down all the basic tracks for all fourteen or however many songs are on that record, we did like four different sessions. We’d finish four songs then we’d change the set up and change the sounds and then do four more and kind of group them by category, like punk rock and medium and then the wimpy songs, Bill’s songs…
B.G.: Yeah, yeah, yeah…
S.M.: …and then mix them all together. So, anyway, that was kind of a unique way of looking at things. We started to see ourselves more as a Beatles and less of a Mission of Burma.
Getting back to your question of how we perceive Slam, one of the things, and this is a mistake and we made a lot of mistakes, including the album cover art, but during the recording, we did what we we thought we were supposed to be doing, which was we started doing things like playing to a click track. We had a great drummer. Jeff was very inventive, powerful and energetic but he also had trouble keeping time, sometimes, where he’d speed up the fast songs and slow down the slow songs. Actually, going back, a fun feature of some of our early records is like how the song speeds up and slow down. But on Slam, we’re on on a major label now, you gotta learn how to play, play to a click track. And if Jeff were here, he would be telling you how much fun that was.
Who produced Slam?
S.M.: Once we signed to the label, the next decision was where we’re going to record with who. There were a lot of names in the mix at first but then it came down to Jim Rondinelli, who had worked with the Jayhawks. He had a studio in Minnesota. Then the other name that had gotten put up was Steve Haigler. He was sort of the house engineer at Reflection but we chose him because he had engineered some Pixies sessions in Boston. We met with both these guys and talked to’em. I know, personally, I wasn’t interested in going to Minnesota in January. Steve’s studio was, of course, Reflection.
B.G.: I don’t think that was a bad choice at all. I think Haigler deserved his reputation probably as an engineer. I think what we were lacking was a producer that would be a real taskmaster or someone with the sense to say, “you guys just ruined this song!”
B.G.: It wouldn’t have been necessarily straight Big Dipper; it would have been a collaboration. But I think that could have been at least the collaboration on that level where we would have had more masterful guidance, because I don’t think Steve Haigler felt like he was in a position to really give us enough guidance.
S.M.: I think you’re right, because I think if someone like Lou (Giordano) or Paul (Q. Kolderie) or Sean (Slade) had produced the record then you would have had someone who had a sense of where the band had come from. I’m sure he went back and listened to that stuff but he didn’t really know the scene. He was just kind of a guy who lived in North Carolina and was into recording. So, he wasn’t up on our place in the indie world or what that meant or what we were trying to do, because we were trying to keep up our indie cred but also grab some other new fans from more of the mainstream.
Back then, when indie bands made the jump from the indie label to the major, there would be the obligatory cries of sell-out. Were you mindful of that with Slam?
S.M.: So I had been a fan of indie bands for many years before I joined. We all had been fans of all these bands, but I was also acutely aware of the politics of the scene and any sort of sense of the band was trying too hard. I was already keenly tuned to that and there were plenty of Boston bands who I had loved as indie bands in the clubs who had gotten their chance and had screwed up like the Nervous Eaters, The Rings and the Del Fuegos. The Fuegos got very successful—to us they had. But they sold out their sound for the corporate world. So, I was very sensitive to that and yet somehow (laughing) I got sucked into the exact same thing that I was so sensitive and offended by with other bands! And I didn’t see it coming which, I guess, it’s not a big surprise.
B.G.: We had no ability to really look at ourselves that honestly, I think, because like, “Oh, it’ll never happen to us!” like it had to everybody else…
S.M.: …a slick record, a slick album cover and a slick, stupid video.
B.G.: Like, what the hell!
VIDEO: Big Dipper “Love Barge”
You really seem to have something against the Slam cover art, huh?
S.M.: Oh, yeah. What a joke. Probably my least favorite…because I don’t mind the record. I understand where the criticisms are and there’s things about the record. But I still think that the record is not the worst part of the deal but the cover art is basically unforgivable.
B.G: That’s literally an illustration of what we let be done to us. That’s why now I can listen to that album and imagine it just being next in line after Craps and then there’d be a different one and just put it in a completely different package. But when we lived through the experience of, “Okay, you guys, this is the big leagues. No, you can’t do your own album cover. You need professionals to do that job….
…So, you know, so you’re going to spend this much money and trust us, it’s going to be done right because we’re giving this money to these professionals who do this, professionally.” Then we go, “Okay. That sounds great. Let’s see what you came up with.” And we think, “Oh my God, that’s it?! I mean, is it too late to be in on this?” Then they were like, “Well, actually it is too late because we just spent all that money having these professionals and you may not like it but this was a professional major label cover.” And that was the major label experience in a nutshell.
There were some demos from Slam that wound up on Supercluster, the comp that Merge put out. I’m thinking you don’t own the rights to Slam.
S.M.: Apparently, I’m learning that it’s impossible to get the rights back. Actually, I am in touch with this guy who works at Sony Publishing and I asked him what the deal was and he’s looking into it for us. We do have unreleased demos from Slam that I’m trying to convince the band to put out.
So, if you ever got the rights back, you’d be into reissuing Slam with demos, extra tracks and such?
S.M.: The demos from Slam are pretty good. I think they were all recorded on 8-track and 4-track.
B.G: It didn’t sound like a finished album to us or anything but…
S.M.: Right, right. But then there was all these other unfinished (songs). We have like ten or twelve other songs. Some of them are terrible but some of them are pretty good that never got recorded from that same time that are all owned by Sony. But we can’t just put it out. We had to get permission to even put “Life Inside the Cemetery” demo version on Supercluster. They still own everything.
If you had the rights to Slam, was there any chance it would have been included on Supercluster?
S.M.: (Laughing) I don’t think that would have gotten by Mr. Waleik.
B.G.: We’ll never know…
S.M.: Gary doesn’t like Slam.
B.G.: Gary has very high standards. He sets the bar high for himself and for everybody else. But he did some brilliant stuff on that album. The stuff that you actually hear, the guitar parts and keyboard parts and even just the thought process of putting things together, the creative process and some really good songs…
S.M.: …he arranged the horns.
B.G: I think he still just has regrets about a lot of it and thinks that it didn’t succeed the way he would have wanted to.
S.M.: It’s hard for any band to separate the music from the experience and even though the recording was good and our dealings with the label and experience we had on tour was not all good, unfortunately, it was the final point of the original band. When I left the band, the band continued, but unfortunately it was the final thing that we all remember so it was a little uncomfortable. I think if we hadn’t put out Slam and we just done a one-off record for Homestead or Bar/None, then we could have maybe get caught up in the whole…when I hear the stories of the post-Nirvana bidding war, I’m like, “Damn! We left two years too early.” Terrible bands were getting offered stupid deals and walking away with boatloads of cash.
So you signed with a major too early.
S.M.: We signed too early. We were ahead of our time. The story of our entire career.