"I've got that sinking feeling / This town's got a ceiling" — Pale, "That Sinking Feeling"
Nothing stirs our self-righteous Houston-centric blood like grisly Bukowski-esque tales of local musicians living and dying on the edge in that West Coast den of iniquity and glitz, Los Angeles.
And what makes the story of local alternative rockers Pale — Calvin Stanley, Robb Moore, Stephen Wesson, Travis Middour — even better is that our boys may have been knocked down by the City of the Angels, but they got up off the mat and waded back into the fray.
After two years trying to get a major-label deal, the band broke camp at the North Hollywood house they all shared and headed back to Houston last fall. Stanley was the last to give up hope, hanging on in L.A. three more months, working the old networks trying to put a record deal together, looking for the big break. He's been back in Houston four months.
"We gave L.A. our best shot and we got so close we could taste it sometimes," says Stanley. "We had so many industry people interested in us and coming out to our shows, but the deal we wanted just never materialized. But I just couldn't convince myself to give up."
Stanley and Moore describe their time in Los Angeles as exciting and disappointing.
"We had all this support, we played great shows and we always seemed to be right on the verge of something big," Stanley reflects. "You're playing a show and you look out and Wayne Kramer or Dave Navarro, people like that, are in the audience, serious industry movers and shakers, and you just shrug your shoulders and say, 'What else do we have to prove to you?'"
"L.A.'s a skanky whore of a soul-sucking town," adds the less diplomatic Moore.
In fact, the band has been intertwined with Los Angeles for some time, having played a showcase for Columbia executives in 2003. During their most recent residency, Pale even attracted Madonna's former manager Caresse Henry, who seemed determined to put the band over the top.
"She came out to see us and loved us," Stanley recalls. "She was very friendly and supportive and just wanted to help us in the worst way. She was great at coming up with strategies to get us exposure and get us signed. And then she just abruptly broke contact."
Henry committed suicide on April 2, 2010, adding to the band's sense of being snakebitten.
"Yeah, Caresse's suicide was a huge blow," says Stanley, "just another one of those things that said 'Go home.'"
Returning to Houston, the band moved into a studio they constructed in a house on the Bolivar Peninsula — "a real Zeppelin kind of studio" says Moore — and recorded In the Time of Dangerous Men, which Stanley calls "our first global release."
The album is on A Blake Records, a joint venture between the band and L.A. industry player Blake Barnes. According to Stanley, there's something of a dream team of industry veterans helping to move the project onto the global market.
"Blake has hooked us up with Glenn Friedman, who's worked with acts like the Who, the Stones, the Beatles, Anita Baker at Music Umbrella, to license our songs and get our music into films," says Stanley. "And he's arranged some heavy-hitter PR people for Los Angeles and London. It looks like we're going to have 8,000 TV ads placed, a real full-on major ad campaign."
"We all try to keep that Kings of Leon model in mind as we plan," says Stanley. "Everyone on the team seems to believe that's doable."
Stanley describes his songwriting for the album as half a plea to his bandmates not to give up on themselves and half homage to the Houston scene, which he describes as friendly, supportive and accepting.
The band produced a fully professional video for new song "Catastrophic Skies" in hopes of getting the song placed in the third installment of the Twilight movie franchise. Coming close but not making the cut created what both men describe as "a heads-down atmosphere."
"We were so close with that video," says Stanley. "First we got passed over for Thom Yorke, and the second round we were nosed out by Muse. It just broke everyone's hearts when we didn't make the soundtrack because that was how we hoped to make the record break out. It was a very low time for all of us.
"But we had 58 different people volunteer their time to help us make the video, and none of them asked for anything except the opportunity to be in it and help us," Stanley recalls. "Houston is such a low-ego town. That could never happen in L.A."
Stanley also credits the band with one other huge supporter, Win Butler of Arcade Fire, whom Stanley knew from their teenage years in The Woodlands.
"I played some drums with him back in the day, and the next thing I know he's on the cover of [Spin] with Springsteen," Stanley laughs.
"Anyway, I was trying so hard to come up with that one song that would put us over the top, and Win gave me maybe the best career advice of my life: 'Don't chase the single, just write the best song you can on any given day.' Right after that, I wrote my first three-minute song."
The band plans a big push into the U.K. for summer and fall festivals, which management thinks is the shortest route to establishing a fan base for the new album. According to Stanley, the band is upbeat again and feels like it's time to take another shot.
"Since Day One, this band's never been in trouble," says Stanley. "Our work ethic is strong, but there's just been a lot of heartache and discouraging things to overcome. But we're still strong. I'm willing to sleep on floors and couches for another year if that's what it takes."
"It seems like we've been right on the brink our whole career," says Stanley. "And I still believe we can connect with a large audience because I think we have a lot to say."