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.)
In 2005, Rice and his family returned to Austin from Los Angeles, bringing behind them an exodus of other musicians from California. Now, with the release of Eighty Miles to Stand Up, Rice will play a show in Houston, back where it all started almost 20 years ago.
Rice graduated from Katy Taylor High School in 1988, moved into Montrose and enrolled at UH. Books held little appeal for him; far more interesting was the city's nightlife, not least downtown nightclub Power Tools, where he had a life-changing experience.
"Back behind Power Tools there was this little patio — actually, that's pretty generous, because it was more like a catwalk over the bayou — and this guy was out there playing covers," he remembers. "And that was the first time I had ever seen a guy playing music live outside of a show at the Summit. Nobody ever hipped me to the idea that, hey, people were playing music pretty much every night of the week in bars and clubs."
Rice knew then that this was his calling. Before it opened the next evening, he returned to Power Tools, guitar in hand, and asked the owners for a gig. As it happened, he was able to start that very night. "So I had to go home and go through all my records and put together a set list of things I kind of knew well enough to fake my way through," he says.
On the list: The Waterboys, the Smiths/Morrissey, acoustic covers of Depeche Mode, a few Beatles tunes and other classics. "Stuff that kind of connected with the Power Tools crowd because it was just acoustified versions of pretty hip music," Rice remembers.
Rice started weaving in more and more of his originals, and eventually got steady bookings at lower Richmond pub Munchie's. In 1992, he and Eddie Hawkins went to Fredericksburg and recorded Orange Number Eight, later rereleased by Justice Records.
And this is where things get a bit sticky. Justice's Randall Jamail signed Rice shortly thereafter and wanted to pair him with producer Stephen Thompson for a follow-up. Rice preferred recording with Hawkins in Fredericksburg, and in 1998 told the Press's Hobart Rowland that the Justice sessions "never got off the ground."
In the meantime, Columbia had decided to sign him, so Rice approached Jamail and asked to be released from his contract. Jamail granted the request, but not without a side order of vengeance.
Rice was by then living in Los Angeles, and one day went to his mailbox and found a package containing a copy of the Justice sessions. Up to that moment, he had no idea they were ever coming out, and Jamail twisted the knife by giving the record the title Released, using as cover art a picture of Rice's mangled contract.
Needless to say, there was bad blood between Jamail and Rice. In 1998, Jamail told Rowland that "mistakes were made," and Rice says he no longer harbors any ill will for Jamail: "Time passes, and I've gotten more perspective. A while back, I sent him a letter thanking him for putting time and money into me."
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A chance meeting at this year's South by Southwest ended with Rice crashing Jamail's relaunch dinner party for Justice, and there the two further buried the hatchet. "I didn't know if he would have me kicked out or what, but in the end we had a long talk and got along great, so I would say we were friendly now," he says. "I wouldn't say we were going into business, though. He's not gonna be putting out my record, but I've got nothing bad to say about Randall Jamail."
Nor much else. Life is good for David Rice. He hasn't had to work a day job, and has the luxury of performing as a hobby. What's more, he seems immensely satisfied. He devotes his days to running the business of his career, while his nights are taken up making music in the studio. He is one who has truly made it — a man for whom work and play are one and the same.
"I just love hearing a piece of music come together in the studio," he says. "It's very exciting. I don't favor any type of project — it could just as easily be a commercial or piece of music for a film — if it's something with integrity, and if I'm able to just follow wherever it takes me, that's just a fun process."