Joe Daniels of Local H remembers feeling queasy about the group's future when he and his bandmate, Scott Lucas, began recording their second CD, As Good As Dead.
The Chicago-area group's debut CD, Hamfisted, had been released in 1995 but had received little promotion from its label, Island Records. The CD eventually topped out at about 10,000 in sales. Needless to say, Lucas and Daniels didn't consider that a good sign.
"We had a month to write As Good As Dead. We went in and recorded it and we said, 'Okay, this is our last try. Let's go,' " Daniels says. "Even though we signed a six-album deal, they could still drop you."
Instead, the CD took hold. A single, "Bound for the Floor," caught on with modern-rock radio, and sales for the second CD began to grow, thanks in part to the band's two years of touring. Eventually, As Good As Dead went gold.
Beyond the less-than-modest performance of Hamfisted, what made the second CD an unlikely success story was that Local H didn't play to trends. At a time when alternative radio was embracing such punk rockers as Rancid and Green Day and was beginning to jump on the ska-pop bandwagon -- fueled by the likes of No Doubt and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones -- Local H broke through with a straight-ahead record rooted in guitar-rock, somewhere between the '70s rock sound of Cheap Trick and Led Zeppelin.
Local H's achievement was the rare occasion when a band succeeds largely on the basis of good music and a touring schedule that hits cities three or four days in a row. The low-key success of As Good As Dead took a lot of the pressure off drummer Daniels and singer/guitarist Lucas when they started work on their latest CD, Pack Up the Cats.
"I felt, like, 'Okay, we're in a good position,' " Daniels says. "We didn't get overplayed [by radio]. We weren't a one-hit wonder. We weren't rammed down your throat by MTV. We had all these things in our favor. Not everybody knows who we are still. So it was good still. Okay, now we've just got to write a good record."
Local H may have done better than good. Pack Up the Cats made a number of 1998 year-end best album lists and was widely hailed for its stirring unpretentiousness.
There's a certain Neanderthal element to the music Lucas and Daniels create. As a guitarist, Lucas rarely solos, and when he does, there's nothing flashy in his playing. Instead he favors fat chords and meaty lead lines to accompany his full-throated vocals. Yet for all the voltage in his playing, a strong element of melody informs virtually all of Lucas's playing.
As a drummer, Daniels is a basher, but one with a solid sense of meter. If there's a difference between Pack Up the Cats and Local H's previous efforts, it's that the new songs -- particularly the punchy "Laminate Man," "Cha! Said the Kitty" and "All the Kids Are Right" -- are even more immediate and melodic. Also, on the few As Good As Dead tunes in which Local H does the unusual and frames its melodies with thick riffs -- such as "Fine and Good" and "She Hates My Job" -- Lucas sings over some tasty lead guitar lines.
"We're limited in what we can do in the studio," Daniels says. "If we can't play it live, we won't do it. But this time we took [on] some solos and stuff. So yeah, stuff like that we've thought about in the past, we just didn't want to fool anybody. We didn't want to act like we're going to put all this stuff on the album if we can't play it live. But yeah, 'Fine and Good' is one of my favorite tracks because it's still Local H, but it is a drastic change."
In alluding to the live limitations of Local H, Daniels also highlights an impressive aspect of the band: All the musical muscle comes from just two musicians.
Originally a foursome, Local H was formed by Lucas and Daniels in 1987 in Zion, a suburb of Chicago. The band scaled down to a trio when its guitarist left, which wasn't a big problem since Lucas also played. But later, when the bassist split, things looked bleak. But rather than fill that void, Lucas and Daniels found a unique way to compensate. Lucas rigged his guitar to run through separate guitar and bass amps so he could play parts for both instruments with a single guitar. This created the band's unique two-person format.
"Once our bass player left, we were kind of at a point where we had to rely on sonic noise because there are only two of us, turning it up loud, really distorted and being heavy and being ferocious," Daniels says. "There are only so many things we could do. That's what we did, but one thing that was always important to us was writing hooks."
In creating the impressive combination of crunch and catchiness that defines Pack Up the Cats, Lucas and Daniels took the unusual step of enlisting a producer whose best-known work dates back to the 1970s and who hasn't had a high-profile project in years: Roy Thomas Baker.
"He's been pretty much in hiding," Daniels says of Baker, who is famous for his work with Queen and the Cars. "Yeah, we wanted to make a big rock record, and he was our first choice. He's made some good records in the past, ones with a big rock sound. ...We wanted to add some old-school blood to the new-school blood. That's why we used Nick DiDia as engineer. We figured let's try this and see what we came up with. This album is what we came up with. So we thought it worked out pretty good."
Now Lucas and Daniels have gone back to doing the same thing that helped make As Good As Dead a success: touring. Daniels is comfortable with the gradual path Local H's career has been taking and thinks it will give the band longevity.
"We've said in doing our careers, nothing is given to us like a lot of bands," Daniels says. "We have to work and prove ourselves to everybody. Maybe it's because we're a two-piece; I don't know why. We have to prove ourselves. Everything that we get we have to prove ourselves. And that's fine, because at the end of the day you go, 'At least I had to work for this.' "
Local H performs Tuesday, February 23, at 8 p.m. at Numbers, 300 Westheimer. Call (713)526-8338 for ticket info.
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