modem. weasel.

Get Your Hands off My Modem, You Weasel

Get Your Hands off My Modem, You Weasel

Nick sent me the finished Dots Will Echo CD, entitled Get Your Hands Off My Modem, You Weasel.

And I was utterly and completely wrong.

In this entry I related the story of how I painfully let the band down, and told them that I wouldn’t put out their CD.  I felt like the band were relying too much on gimmicks, from neon packaging with silkscreened CD art to hidden tracks at the front and back (including a morose, all piano version of the Flintstones TV theme song), another track that had 90 end of selection tones (which sent your CD player into a tizzy), a mash-up cover of U2 and Beatles songs called “Within Or Without You,” and a goofy title.

I also felt the band were trying to be too avant-garde with their songs, and straying away from the witty power pop that made them so great.  So I told them I wouldn’t put the record out, because it wouldn’t work.

And I was totally wrong – proof that after nearly four years of running a label, I was still totally clueless.  No idea what I was doing.  None.

First of all, as you can see from the picture, the CD art looked great.  They got neon yellow jewel boxes, and silkscreened “DOTS WILL ECHO” in huge, neon pink lettering on the cover.  The “liner notes,” then, were printed directly onto the CD itself.  I thought it would look stupid, and instead it looked gorgeous.

The hidden tracks weren’t bothersome, either.  In fact, they were kind of endearing.  And the songs I felt were too avant-wannabe, when mixed with the more straightforward stuff on the CD, turned into avant-pop.

The songs sounded great, too. Listen to how crisp and well-produced this is – the song is called “Killing Time.”

It was very accessible pop music. The stuff that was a little further out there actually served to bring the rest of the disc out of the realm of too sugary, by making things just a little rough around the edges, just a bit less perfect.

“I Feel Fine” was the quintessential Dots Will Echo song, a lyrical blend of ironic wit that lays out all the things wrong with the protagonist’s life, offset by choruses of harmonies, scream-singing “I feel fine! Oh, so fine!” against a familiar, party-rock chord progression.

It was this wit that attracted us to the band way back in 1991, when we got their debut CD while at school. Everything about them was the antithesis of what I was into in 1991; there was no power pop in heavy rotation at my house. It was either straightforward indie rock, avant-noise, thrash metal, or sweaty funk. The CD was put out by a new division of Windham Fucking Hill, for Chrissakes. But I noticed that the band was from New Jersey, and also noticed there was a song called “Sandra,” so I popped it in and played it for Sandy.

It was good-natured and fun, clean and sorta funny, singable and cynical at the same time. It was the kind of record that everyone could stomach; we’d invite people over to our apartment and it didn’t matter who they were – mainstream kids, indie kids, hard rock kids, whatever – there was something on that Dots Will Echo CD for everyone.

It crashed and burned, the band was dropped from the label, and eventually the label was dropped from the label.

But it’s worth noting that this particular “failure” was 10,000 copies sold; more than all but the most elite indie records will ever sell, more than most indie labels can even imagine selling, more than most bands will sell in their entire lifetimes. 10,000 people bought that High Street album, and the band never got to do a followup.

To sell ten thousand records and be made to feel like that was a failure is something I can’t even imagine. Can you?

I also can’t imagine what it must do to your psyche to sell ten thousand copies of your debut record (which is probably more than the debut of all but the most elite major label artists, at least before the bullshit era of immediate gratification that the record labels have foisted upon us today), and then be dropped from your label. It happens every day, I understand, but it must be completely devastating for most bands. What did we do wrong? What could we have done better? Will we ever get another chance?

Get Your Hands Off My Modem, You Weasel was Dots Will Echo’s chance to do what they thought they could have done better. It was their chance to right the wrongs – both real and perceived – of their first record, a way for them to put out the record that they wanted to put out, the way they wanted to do it. No A&R guy pressuring them for more radio-friendly songs, no marketing guys discussing the saleability of their album art in staff meetings, no cigar-chomping douchebags shaking their hands with double fists while looking over their shoulder at the next band coming through the door.

Dots Will Echo had a dozen creative ideas, and they employed them all at once, in one CD, and I was so totally wrong. It was, potentially, the last gasp of a great pop band and they wanted to take that gasp their way.

In hindsight, I did the right thing by walking away from it, rather than asking them to change it.

That said, I would have done the righter thing by putting it out. It was a lot better than I expected it to be when I listened to the cassette labeled “Nick’s Idea of a Finished” in late 1995.

The crowning achievement of the record came right towards the beginning, in the song “I Love Her Shoes.” It was a concept touched upon in rock songs from the dawn of time, and I distinctly remember a new wave song in the late 70s or early 80s that hit the same topic, almost the same way. But Nick’s take on it had that same ironic wit that most DWE songs employed:

I’m not shy, but when she’s around – I keep my eyes down to the ground.

That was a Nick Berry lyric.  He wasn’t interested in clever lyrics like the Mommyheads, or deep lyrics like cuppa joe.  His lyrics were fun.  Whenever I saw Nick, I expected to get shocked by a joy buzzer, or to sit on a whoopie cushion.  His hair was crazy, sticking out in all directions.  He had wide, wild eyes.  He had a giant, warm smile and a softspoken tone, and when he said hello to you, he made you feel like family.

And “I Love Her Shoes” was a magnificent, beautiful pop song that was, essentially, Nick, playing guitar and providing layers upon layers of vocals – both singing and spoken – building to a crescendo of voices and ending with a single, sparse guitar, slowly fading away.

Here. You listen:

It was all much more poppy than where Dromedary was going, of course. Of the bands we were working with, only Blenderette could really be considered a pop band. The others were much louder and “indier.” Dots Will Echo were never an “indie rock” band, and I don’t think they ever tried to be. But they were excellent nonetheless.

When I called Nick with my heart on my sleeve, telling him how wrong I was and wishing him the best, he could have gloated. He could have been smug. He could even have been mean.

Instead he was warm and gracious, genuinely flattered by my reaction, and friendly as he laughed with me. He asked questions about zines on my publications list, asked my opinion of a few radio stations, and invited me to a show. He asked how the Mommyheads were doing in the studio (by that time, I had no idea). We agreed to keep in touch, and keep the lines of communication open.

For fifteen years, we’ve kept in touch and kept the lines of communication open. I’ve seen him perform a couple of times. He’s sent me a CD of his solo work. We send the occasional emails. He’s a good guy, and a friend.

And he just wails on this George Winston-esque interpretation of the Flintstones TV theme. It almost sounds like something you’d hear on Windham Hill.

~ by Al on October 21, 2009.

2 Responses to “modem. weasel.”

  1. “I Love Her Shoes” is, and always will remain, on my “songs that make me happy” list.

  2. Confessions from the man who killed Dots Will Echo… sigh…

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