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In the beleaguered mid-1990s Houston rock scene, David Rice seemed like a rare mainstream success story. In just a few years, the folk-tinged pop-rocker rose through the ranks from naive cover singer fresh out of Katy to Montrose club headliner to Justice Records artist, then the pinnacle of Houston musicdom.
Then Rice kept right on climbing, all the way up the ladder to a Columbia Records deal back when such things still mattered. It looked like he could be a Billboard chart guy and VH-1 mainstay, back when that station still played videos. (And also still mattered.)
And then it all fell apart. But it all looked so promising for a time.
Hearing a lot of Peter Gabriel in Rice's voice, and Chris Whitley in his moody, drone-y, 11-string guitar atmospherics, Columbia signed Rice in 1995. The following year, the label sent him to write and record major-label debut greenelectric at Real World studios near Bath, England, a complex belonging to Peter Gabriel, one of Rice's early heroes, as attested by his similar vocal style.
Columbia paired Rice with producer David Bottrill, who was then also working with King Crimson and had just finished working a Tool album and a project that paired prog-rock guitar god Robert Fripp with former Japan singer David Sylvian.
"I was 25 and signed to Columbia, and they gave me this money and sent me to Peter Gabriel's studio and every dinner was $300," Rice says today, over the phone from his home in Austin. "I felt like hot shit, and the truth was, I was just a talented guy that got a good break."
And Rice spit the bit. The Real World sessions dragged on for months, and in the end only four songs would emerge.
Looking back, Rice believes he came too far too fast. He was detached from his surroundings, homesick for Texas and intimidated. Gabriel would often drop in for dinner, and passing the pepper to your heroes takes some getting used to.
A humbled Rice returned to Texas, and the rest of the album would be self-produced and recorded in Fredericksburg's Loma Ranch Studios, the same place he and his first producer, Tab Jones/Horseshoe drummer Eddie Hawkins, made his debut album Orange Number Eight.
Difficult as the album had been in coming, worse was yet to come. "The week that greenelectric came out my father died completely unexpectedly, and within a couple of months, it was clear that the record was going nowhere, and my career with Columbia was over," Rice says. "But it was hard to distinguish what was really causing the grief. It was a really dark period. Everything was pulled out from under me. So there was a good year or two when I was among the most unpleasant people to be around that I can imagine, and I didn't even like being around myself."
By this time, Rice had moved to Los Angeles, where he ran with a crowd of people a lot like him, the disillusioned hordes of almost-made-it talents still grimly clinging to their dreams. "When I was in my twenties, playing shows had been my identity, and if that's not going well, you feel like a loser," he says. "If I didn't get to work, I was gonna wind up having the same problems some of my friends out in L.A. were having — they'd gotten the major label deal, no one bought it, they got dropped and six years later they're drinking themselves to sleep every night."
And many a failed artist has done just that. Others have struggled on as independents, playing to smaller and grayer crowds as they grow older. Still others give up — go back to school and end up peddling real estate, mutual funds or insurance.
Not Rice. He got to work, and slowly pulled out of the spiral. An old friend from the Columbia days got his song "Candy" on teen-popper Mandy Moore's record, and the mailbox money started to flow. (Rice had a hand in songs on each of her first three records, two of which went platinum.) He continued making music, only this time branching out into movies, TV and commercials. And the focus on his life shifted even more drastically after he married his onetime Columbia publicist and had a child a couple of years after that.
"What I've discovered is that I've really let go of [being a performer]," he says. "I mean, I'm doing it now because I miss it and it's fun."
Rice's return to Houston stages this Tuesday at the Mucky Duck comes after a long string of successes, only the sort you won't know about unless you read certain trade magazines.
He cowrote the theme song to the ABC sitcom Hope and Faith, and two others that appeared in the film Matchstick Men. Party of Five, Roswell and Laguna Beach all licensed his songs. He performed the guitar music behind five years of Wachovia commercials, and today scores documentaries. (Rice says that Crawford, USA, a documentary coming out this December, is his most satisfying project of the multitude he has going right now; you can view the first seven minutes at www.crawfordmovie.com/crawlarge.html.)
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