Rock & Roller Coaster

"We're not looking for a shot at the big time. We just want to make great music."

Funland singer/guitarist Peter Schmidt says he likes to do interviews, if only because they force him to think about the things he's relegated to memory. As he sits on a couch alongside guitarist Clark Vogeler, his bandmate and close friend for almost five years, Schmidt is being forced to reconsider his so-called "shot at the big time" -- a short-lived deal with Arista Records that produced one EP and a lifetime's worth of bad memories. Now, a few months after the release of their first full-length CD, The Funland Band, on the Dallas-based Steve Records label, the two musicians sit and wonder how it all happened so suddenly, and so slowly.

One of the few constants of the Dallas music scene since late 1990, Funland has experienced the brief highs and the unrelenting lows built into the music business. Schmidt, Vogeler and drummer Will Johnson have performed in front of tiny audiences in no-name towns, and they've been on the roster of a label headed by one of the most respected members of the music business; they've savored potential fame, and they've gagged on its aftertaste. But always, they've been a damn good band, one of the best power-pop entities ever to come from Dallas, and one of the strongest. They've endured a most trying set of circumstances -- a major-label deal gone sour, a manager fired, five bass players come and gone last year alone. By all rights, Funland should have called it quits a long time ago, but they're still together. And they've never sounded better.

"We didn't know each other before the band," Schmidt says. "But we found out that there's something a lot deeper here [than just music]. There's a certain respect we have for each other we didn't want to let go just because we weren't going to get to make music for a corporation anymore. We still liked each other, and we still believed in each other."

In the spring of 1992, Funland set out on a journey that would begin in New York City and end in disillusionment and disgust. Their manager at the time promised them a shot at a young band's dream -- a recording contract with a major label and all the frills such a deal would provide -- and so they headed north to play two showcases. The first was at CBGB, the hallowed home to the New York avant-rock scene of the late '70s; the other was at the discotheque Danceteria. These performances were the rock equivalent of training camp, opportunities for the band to show off its wares for the artist-and-repertoire executives various labels had sent to scout out a future prospect.

One A&R man who was quite taken with the band was Richard Sweret of Arista, who had previously worked only with dance bands. Funland's then-manager, Leslie Aldredge, scoffed at the idea of signing with Arista -- she considered the home of Barry Manilow, Air Supply and Whitney Houston a joke of a label -- and was sure she'd get the band picked up by the more prestigious Elektra Records. Still, she agreed to a meeting with Sweret.

So on a lovely spring day, the four members of Funland sat in Sweret's office with another A&R man, Tom Sarig, and listened patiently as the two anxious execs laid out their plan. Because Arista, especially its powerful boss Clive Davis, was anxious to get a band that would provide the label with alt-rock credibility, Sweret and Sarig promised Funland anything they wanted -- their own label imprint so the band wouldn't be so closely associated with such a Top 40 organization, a touring van and a credit card on which they could rack up unlimited expenses.

Almost a year later, Funland released its Arista debut, Sweetness, an EP that barely hinted at the potential the band had displayed during shows. It managed to sound both slick and unfinished, its bright spots ("Fall Away") obscured by its dim ones (the silly "Amarillo" and an embarrassing Air Supply cover). Such live standouts as "Impala" and "I'm Not Sorry" were left off, and the CD was remixed more than once after Arista executives found it unsuitable for release. Two years after it arrived in stores, then quickly disappeared, the band looks back at Sweetness with considerable bitterness.

Yet Funland was determined; they headed to Nashville to cut demos for a full-length CD, on which they had planned to use Sugar producer Lou Giordano. The tapes from that session are first-rate, containing many of the songs ("Impala," "Angry Girl," "Feedback" and "Spinal Music" among them) that would later make it onto The Funland Band. But Sweret rejected the songs like a scolding teacher.  

The patronizing way Sweret treated the band, and Arista's failure to live up to many of its initial promises, led Funland to do what few bands would even think of: they demanded to be released from their major-label contract. So in January 1994, Funland became free agents once more, leaving the songs on Sweetness in Arista's possession as part of their contract buyout. When the divorce was over, the band's members briefly, and privately, considered calling it quits and moving on individually. Yet in retrospect, they admit their crisis of confidence had less to do with the soured Arista deal than it did with personal matters that had slopped over into business.

"Over the past couple of years there's been numerous times when I've felt self-doubt and wondered, 'Are we any good?'" Schmidt admits. "'Do we deserve to be making music?' Even though Arista was a shitty label to be signed to, and in the back of our minds probably we were suspicious of that in the beginning, there was something validating -- which was wrong -- about having been signed. To some people who've chosen a career in music, getting signed is the Holy Grail, and [we had] achieved it, so there was a certain amount of validation there, and then it was taken away."

Vogeler nods, then adds, "There was a point after we'd gone through all that and we realized most bands would have broken up, and I think that encouraged us to keep on."

Keeping on, Funland found itself among the unwashed and unsigned again, back playing clubs in Dallas' Deep Ellum. They returned to Nashville to cut another set of songs, this time for a CD they planned to shop around to labels or, if worst came to worst, release themselves. Funland looked on as a number of bands they knew and had played with signed to major labels in quick succession: Hagfish, Brutal Juice, Deep Blue Something, Vibrolux, Tablet. They watched as peers Tripping Daisy ascended the charts, and waited as other peers the Toadies became a ubiquitous presence on MTV.And they had to wonder if they'd blown their One Big Chance.

Vogeler, though, says that "I don't think we've ever thought we had our shot. That's never crossed our mind."

Schmidt, however, does admit that "there were definitely nights after shows where we wondered if we really wanted to keep doing this," though he then adds, "I've never for one second been embarrassed that we were on a major and now we're putting out a local record. It more or less strikes me as weird there are bands that formed after us that are putting out major label records and we're just now putting out our first record ever, and it's on a local label. But it doesn't strike me as, 'That's not fair.' "

After failing to get any response from a label, Funland self-released the Misunderstanded cassette and sold it at shows, like any other young band. During the summer of last year, the group -- with a temporary bass player who'd later be replaced by other fill-ins -- signed a deal with Steve Records, an imprint of the Dallas-based Crystal Clear Sound. And a mere four and a half years after forming, Funland finally unveiled its first full-length CD, its true debut. Though it's on a small label -- albeit one that has its own very powerful distribution capabilities -- Schmidt and Vogeler insist they're actually quite pleased that it worked out this way.

"It took a little discipline for us, but I think it was the best thing for us to do right now," Vogeler says, "just coming down off high expectations for ourselves."

The Funland Band would be a remarkable CD on any label, major or minor: it's loud and funny, subtle and sweet, angry and desperate, knowing and resilient. It asks the unanswerable questions ("Where's my reward?" Schmidt wonders on the subtly powerful and poignant "Parallel Lines"), the metaphorical questions ("Have you seen my Impala?") and the rhetorical ones ("Will the Rangers ever win past July?"), with the answers coming in Schmidt's yells or Vogeler's rock-anthem guitar or Johnson's monstrous percussion. If it contains the echoes of '70s rock -- whether it's the guitar theatrics of Thin Lizzy or the harmonies of ELO or the melodies of Cheap Trick -- it also sounds very much like Funland. This is a band that knows the power of a good pop song.

"All the songs are definitely a product of what we've been through as a band and in our personal lives," Schmidt says.

"Being in this band is who we are," Vogeler adds. "It seems everything around me more and more somehow relates to how I'm in this band with Peter and Will. To give it up would be to take away something that's a part of me."  

Funland performs at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, January 18, at Deep Phat, 302 Tuam. Tickets are $6. Snub, Shned and Owens open. For info, call 523-3786.

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