Nasty Conquers All

It's only been a year, but it might as well have been a lifetime ago. Flash back to 1995. Austin's Ugly Americans were living the rock star lifestyle they'd always felt they deserved, touring the country with Big Head Todd and the Monsters and the Dave Matthews Band, staying in fancy hotels and generally partying their funky shorts off. Already well-known at home for their blistering live shows and considerable way with a fat, white-boy groove, the Uglies had never really needed a reason to be cocky before; it just seemed to be a standard part of their makeup. Now, for once, they had a decent excuse: a major-label deal with Warner Bros. subsidiary Giant. Life, as the saying goes, was good.

Then the roof caved in.
What unfolded afterward is the sort of ripe, rise-above-adversity saga that threatens to be more intriguing than the actual band at its center -- though I doubt the Ugly Americans would see it that way. A group of seasoned Austin veterans, the Uglies is an inherently privileged sextet. They've never had a problem with self-confidence, which makes them a hard bunch to feel sorry for, especially given that things have tended to come easily for them.

Case in point: in '94, less than a year after they formed, the Uglies slipped smoothly into the H.O.R.D.E. lineup for some select dates (and, ultimately, into a jam-band stigma they have yet to shake). They recorded a self-titled live CD that was released independently in early '95, and soon accolades came pouring in from all over. The group managed an appearance on MTV's Week in Rock, something Uglies frontman Bob Schneider chose not to participate in, preferring instead to watch a favorite Roseanne rerun. Even Entertainment Weekly found some space for the Uglies, praising them as one of the country's best unsigned bands.

So when it came time late last summer to record their Giant debut, the Ugly Americans seemed on the speedy track to stardom. They headed to Los Angeles to work with big-name producer Don Gehman (R.E.M., Hootie and the Blowfish) and walked away a few weeks later with Stereophonic Spanish Fly. It was the rarest of first-effort souvenirs -- a CD that made everyone involved happy.

"It was a very collaborative effort," says Ugly Americans bassist Sean McCarthy. "You always hear those quintessential stories about the whole negative producer thing; that didn't happen with us at all."

But if the work in the studio was a dream, what was happening in the corporate offices of Giant promised a nightmare. The relatively young label had decided it was time to restructure and fine-tune its image, and the Uglies, it became clear, were not going to be part of the project.

"It's just the way it goes, and I speak from having dealt with a lot of labels," says Ugly Americans manager Mark Bliesener, a man who also handles the affairs of Big Head Todd and the Monsters, a band that survived the overhaul of Giant. "All the labels are equally good or bad. If you're getting a lot of airplay, they're good; if you're not, they're bad."

The Ugly Americans, though, never had the chance to prove themselves on the airwaves. Summer stretched to fall stretched to winter, and Stereophonic Spanish Fly's release was still on hold. Then in January '96, Giant cut the Uglies loose. They were left to fend for themselves with only a small supply of advance CDs, some of which had already made their way to radio stations in anticipation of Stereophonic's release. A few weeks later, Giant changed its name to Revolution. Some year.

"It wasn't like one day we just woke up and didn't have a label. They were very subtle," recalls McCarthy. "They were kind of wussy about it -- saying they weren't sure whether they wanted us or not. What made it worse was knowing that we had come back from Los Angeles with this amazing record. We'd play it for our friends, and they'd be like, 'That's great, when does it come out?' And we'd be like, 'Well, uh, we're not sure now.' It was frustrating."

It was a lot to stomach, but the Ugly Americans managed to stay sane by staying active. In the months after its falling out with Giant, the band performed almost nonstop, playing regularly in Austin, Houston and Boulder, Colorado -- all Uglies hubs -- and trying not to wear out its welcome. Then this spring, they finally found a new label, Nashville-based Capricorn, which has a national distribution deal with Mercury Records. Last week, Capricorn released the long-delayed Stereophonic Spanish Fly.

Even though the CD has finally surfaced, it's hard for McCarthy not to sound a little exasperated. After all, the time that's been spent this year pulling in weekend crowds on Sixth Street and filling the Fabulous Satellite Lounge a few times a month could have been used to gain a foothold in other markets. "We do well in Houston for a city of, what, four million people," he quips cynically. "[But] we couldn't tour anywhere else because we didn't have a label. We were in limbo."

McCarthy founded the Ugly Americans, an outfit conceived out of an admiration for the fierce grooves of funk demigod George Clinton and the sex-soaked rhythm and blues of James Brown, in 1993. The Uglies were a casual, soulful union of misfits and outcasts from other bands that, as it happened, were pretty well-known.

Before starting the Uglies, McCarthy played with Mojo Nixon's Toadliquors. Uglies drummer Dave Robinson and organist Corey Mauser (who was replaced last year by Australian export David Boyle) came from Loose Diamonds, while guitarist/singer Bruce Hughes had been with Poi Dog Pondering and Cracker. Add to that mix the somewhat less impressive resumes of Schneider (Joe Rockhead) and lead guitarist Max Evans (the Thangs), and what you had wasn't exactly a superstar lineup, but at least one with affiliations snazzy enough to give the group a good head start.

As much as they helped, though, those credentials also threatened to overshadow the group. The gigs came easily, but getting people to recognize the Ugly Americans as a true band, and not just a haphazard collection of "formerly withs," was more difficult. Three years down the line, the Uglies still see stories that play up their heritage more prominently than their current exploits.

"It's good and bad," McCarthy says. "As an introduction, it's good for everyone to know our backgrounds. But then it should be like, 'Get on with it.' It is valid; it gets your attention, so it's a good start. And if we mislead someone, I'll guarantee their money back."

From the looks of things now, the Ugly Americans needn't worry about misleading anyone. Live, the group's soul-drenched bravado can rock a sturdy venue right off its foundations. Led by Schneider's strong lungs and free-spirited machismo, the band operates smoothly to a single throbbing pulse even as its members retain their individuality. There's the hammy lady's man, the weight-lifting jock, the hippie-looking freak with a nasty streak, a few artsy, quiet types: the Uglies are an unlikely bunch who find their connection in music.

The Ugly Americans could squeeze an orgy out of a funeral wake, and they've never been ones to pine over lost love -- or lost opportunity. Now, with their hands-on seminar in music industry politics behind them, they are concentrating again on staying true to their name. For evidence, one need only go back a month or so to a performance at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge. Before taking the stage, the Uglies' Hughes waltzed into a packed men's room and ordered a patron to zip up and surrender his urinal; he had to take a leak and didn't feel like waiting.

Was Hughes joking, or was he serious? It's hard to tell -- probably a little of both. Whatever the case, his prey acquiesced, finishing fast and graciously offering up the porcelain to Hughes, who made water and then made it back in time to join the Uglies for one of their finest Houston shows to date. It was a fun tale, one that found its way easily back to the crowd in front of the stage. But this time, the story couldn't hold a candle to the band.

The Ugly Americans perform at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, July 27, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $6. For info, call 869-

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Hobart Rowland