Mustaine delivered that punch line while comparing music industry notes over the phone recently with Max Schuldberg, drummer for Houston rockers the Hunger, the band Mustaine thought was Metallica forged anew. Schuldberg's re-creation of that conversation at the group's rehearsal studio -- nestled in a Spartan business park near the strip clubs and hot-sheet motels off Airport Road -- elicits a round of laughter from his girlfriend as well as vocalist Thomas Wilson. "Now that was a cool moment," says Schuldberg.
The band has had plenty of cool moments. "Vanishing Cream" made it to No. 4 on the rock charts. Arena and festival tours and hefty royalty checks followed. The band got to goof around with Gene Simmons and company when it toured with KISS. Guys in other bands the Hunger admired, like Sevendust and Deftones, gave them props at big outdoor gigs. When they appeared in front of the hometown fans in 1996 at the debut Buzzfest, they were bona fide rock gods.
Yet Wilson and Schuldberg are anything but giddy about their past exploits. After all, this is a fickle, what-have-you-done-lately kind of industry, and the Hunger has had some trouble lately.
The band's much-heralded 1998 album, Cinematic Superthug, bankrolled by Universal on the heels of the 100,000-copy success of Devil, turned out to be a superdud. "Talk to every member of the band and you could get a different answer why Cinematic wasn't successful," says Wilson. "I think it's a great record and I stand behind it. I don't want to blame anyone in particular, but you're only as good as the people pushing you."
Schuldberg says it could have been anything from the label not marketing the record well enough to radio programmers just not getting the music or, more likely, not getting enough cash from the promoters that hustle the streets on major-label payrolls. "To be very frank, if you don't have a record label that's paying to get you on, you're not going to be on the radio," he says. "Every business has a side to it that isn't much fun."
One thing's for sure, Schuldberg was dead on in what he told the Press just as Cinematic was being released. Labels "are not building careers right now," he said. "They just want a hit." And without another "Vanishing Cream" in the offing, the album tanked. "To be honest," Schuldberg says, "we don't know how many copies it sold. We were afraid to ask." Shortly thereafter and by agreement, the Hunger was freed from its Universal deal.
That setback was followed by an even more stunning blow when band co-founder and bassist Brian Albritton gave his notice in late 1999. Months of soul-searching ensued. "When Brian quit we were bummed. It took a long time to recover from that," says Wilson. "It changed the chemistry of the band. In some ways we were dependent on him and had to figure out ways to compensate. He was a workhorse, and sometimes you don't realize what you had until after they leave. We all had to pick up and do these extra things we weren't used to doing."
One of the things they had to figure out was how to simply be musicians again. "We had been pretty much burned out on the business side of things," says Schuldberg, "and for a while we just wanted to be a band."
In a separate conversation, guitarist Stephen Bogle says it's this love of being a band that has kept the Hunger growling despite all of its ups and downs. Bogle, who produces the band's music and runs Tech-Syn Productions, says the group continues to focus on writing better songs while allowing its members to find their own ways as individuals. For his part, Bogle has earned Grammy nominations with co-producer Alex C for their Latin hit remixes, and he's just finished a club remix for Latino superstar Elvis Crespo. Meanwhile, Thomas Wilson has opened his own club, Liquid Lounge, in the Clear Lake area, where he employs his brother and bandmate Jeff Wilson. (If all else fails, the band will always have its own private Branson )
And the band has gone back to the kind of grassroots approach that worked ten years ago, when their production-laden live shows helped sell 15,000 copies of Grip, their second CD. The band's most recent disc, Spaceman's Last Goodbye, came out in 2001 on its own Gut Records. According to Wilson, Goodbye was cut by popular demand; after being hounded by fans at gigs and in e-mails for a new release, the band obliged. Wilson says they've sold "a few thousand" copies.
As the band travels farther from its darkest days, there is a sense of renewed vigor around the Gut Records studio. Brand-new demos, including the hook-laden cut "For a Change," bear the Hunger's trademark combination of shredding guitars, synthesizer riffs and loops, plus soaring harmonies. The new stuff has just enough of a these-guys-could-open-for-Nickelback sensibility that the band's old major-label pals are nosing around again.
"How's this for coming full circle?" says Schuldberg. "I can tell you that in the past year I had a discussion with a guy at the label who said, 'How would you feel being back on Universal?' It goes to show you, it doesn't even matter what kind of history you have. If they think you have a hot song, they want to sell you right now."
Sounds eerily just like what he said to the Press back in 1998, when the band was last on the cusp of the big time. For Schuldberg and his band, the road back to the top wouldn't be just a case of déjà vu all over again. The hardest-working band in Houston still has that hungry look.