The Road from College

Dallas, and SMU, favorite Jackopierce gets a call to the big leagues, and answers

You never know when that phone call's going to come that'll change your life. Even if the call isn't to you.

That's what Jack O'Neill and Cary Pierce -- the "Jack" and the "Pierce" of Dallas band Jackopierce -- discovered about a year and a half ago when they were, like they've been for much of the '90s, on the road. Little Sister, another Dallas band that distributed its independent recordings through the same company as Jackopierce, was in the middle of a major label deal, and their lawyer would call up the distributor regularly to check on sales figures. When he'd wrapped up his Little Sister business, he thought to ask what other Dallas bands seemed hot.

"And the distributor said, Jackopierce, they're by far our best seller. His call was on a Monday, and just by coincidence we were playing that Wednesday in Nashville, where he was located. So he came to see us and he couldn't even get in the front door. There were like 300 people in line, and he immediately knew that we were someone he wanted to work with," says Cary Pierce. "And he opened up the industry to us. He started sending our tapes around, and before we knew it, we had all sorts of people knocking on our door."

Pierce is on the line from Dallas, where he's sitting in the offices of A&M Records, the door knock that Jackopierce chose to answer. Though he wants to talk about his upcoming date in Houston, and the grueling year he and partner Jack O'Neill have just completed pushing their first big label release, Bringing On the Weather, he can't quite tear himself away from going over what a difference it makes to have a large corporation behind you and pushing. "We hadn't been trying to solicit anybody, we just didn't want to bother anybody bigger than us, because we just figured, hey. We play, people come, we go back, more people come, they get on a mailing list, they buy our records," Pierce says. But with A&M "we were given the opportunity to do things we'd never done. We'd meet up with distributors and all that major label stuff. A&M would have a breakfast, and we'd come out and play for program directors of major radio stations, something we'd never even thought about before."

What Pierce and O'Neill had also never thought about before was ending up on a national TV show -- Late Night With Conan O'Brien -- or recording under the direction of T Bone Burnett, who'd worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to Bono and produced acclaimed albums for Los Lobos and Elvis Costello, among others. In late '93, A&M sent their newly signed Dallas pair to Los Angeles, where for eight weeks they labored with Burnett, getting a crash course in what being in the big leagues is all about. Burnett fleshed out their sound and pushed the two into working more closely together, something Pierce says resulted in considerably stronger songs. There was a certain Texas tie -- Burnett is originally from Fort Worth -- and that may have helped smooth relations between the established pro and the newcomers.

Of course, "newcomers" is a relative term, and by the time Jackopierce ended up in an L.A. studio, they'd already recorded three CDs of their own, as well as a kickoff cassette that's no longer available, and settled into a relatively successful college circuit that stretched from Southern Methodist University, where the pair had met, across the country and up the East Coast to Boston. In the early '90s, Jackopierce was one of the most popular bands in Dallas. After breaking from the cover band scene in the late '80s, they'd gained a strong following of Texas yuppie college kids. Clean-cut SMU students themselves at the time, O'Neill and Pierce regularly sold out shows at venues such as Trees in the Deep Ellum area. Their blend of acoustic rock/folk -- kind of like a male version of the Indigo Girls with a sensitive frat boy angle -- gained a similar following on the road.

Recollecting the early days of Jackopierce, Pierce frankly states that "we sucked ... we were bad. We'd try anything to not be bad." Pierce formed the band with O'Neill in September 1988, doing "the standard two guys playing acoustic guitars" thing in small Dallas clubs several nights a week, while both attended their college classes. At first playing cover song sets -- accented by what Pierce describes as "weird stuff like New Order and Big Country" -- O'Neill and Pierce moved into writing and performing their own songs and eventually "got serious," releasing a cassette, Someday You'll Understand, in 1990.

That cassette, Pierce says, became "kind of a cult classic, a collector's item. I don't even have one. That's horrible." The debut was followed up in 1991 with the release of a self-titled CD, then in 1992 came Woman as Salvation. What Pierce calls "the band's official bootleg," Live from the Americas, followed in 1993. The CDs all appeared on Jackopierce's independent label, Rhythmic Records, and sold a combined total of close to 45,000 copies -- a substantial amount on the indie scene. The band's success was mainly due to its strong college fan base and word-of-mouth; at every concert, people would be urged to get on the Jackopierce mailing list, and by 1993 that steady customer base had grown to 8,000 souls.

But as pleased as Pierce and O'Neill were with their level of success, it was quite different from what they've faced in the last year. Not only have the crowds gotten bigger -- at one venue in Chicago, says Pierce, they headlined before 4,000 people -- but the road time has increased. Since wrapping up the recording of Bringing On the Weather last January, Jackopierce has done "42 states, ten countries, 300 dates," recalls Pierce. "At one point we played like 32 dates in a row, every single night. It was insane ... it was foolish, I didn't even know my name at the end of the tour. Then we probably had like one day off and then we went out and did like 15 dates again."

Bringing On the Weather stands apart from Jackopierce's indie albums in the sense of unification between O'Neill and Pierce. Rather than the songs being either an O'Neill "epic poem" or Pierce's take on relationships and emotions, the 12 songs on Weather represent perhaps the first real collaborations between the duo. "We've been just working on this a lot more, rehearsing a lot more ... we never rehearsed before," says Pierce. "We'd just go over new tunes at sound check, y'know, maybe rehearse when we were going to do a demo tape or, y'know, new record, but not even really then. And now, we're just taking it a lot more seriously. I'm taking my songwriting a lot more seriously .... I read a lot, and I see a lot of films all the time, I take it all in."

Indeed, the scope of the songwriting on Weather is much wider than their previous efforts. Gone are the Texas college-feely songs such as "How It Is," one of O'Neill's songs, which must have been written from an SMU experience ("Little girl in your debutante dress / You don't impress me / Who the hell do you think you impress / In your little white dress ... Hope I don't piss you off / I hope I just piss in your face"). Weather's songs are -- not surprisingly for a major label debut -- much more "user-friendly," and, in a sense, more mature.

Once finished with their current tour -- part of which will be spent opening for Capricorn Record's artists Widespread Panic up north -- Jackopierce will be returning to the studio to record their next album, most likely due to be released in the fall. (The third single from Weather, "Get to Know Me Better," will be released next week.)

And after years of playing strictly as a guitar duo, O'Neill and Pierce have furthered Jackopierce's "evolution" by the recent addition of a regular bassist and drummer. "It's just hard to reach the back seats, y'know, with just the two of us," says Pierce. "Plus, from a musical standpoint we wanted to take things to different places." The bassist is Clay Pendergrass, whom Pierce refers to as "a dream" and who used to play for Austin's Dah-veed. The drummer is Scott Churilla. Or make that the drummer was Scott Churilla. "He got a great offer, and he's going to be playing drums for the Reverend Horton Heat now," sighs Pierce. "We have someone else lined up. This band thing is new to us; I haven't been in a band since high school, and now I've got to manage all these new personalities -- it's tough."

Still, nobody ever said reaching for success was easy, and Pierce admits he has no nostalgia for the days when he and O'Neill would be cranking out tunes for small crowds of happy SMU colleagues. Much better is arriving in San Francisco for the first show ever to discover a local radio station has fallen in love with your CDs and been playing them constantly, so that you have a sold-out audience waiting for you. "That may sound totally lame and boring to a band that's already gone platinum," says Pierce. "But hey, to us that was like the most exciting thing ever."

Jackopierce plays an all-ages show at Rockefeller's on Saturday, March 11. Billy White opens. Doors open at 9 p.m. Tickets are $13. Call 869-8427 for info.

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