John Speck walks like he's going to get jumped. He takes long strides, his hands stay forward, and his eyes anticipate everyone's next move. Tonic slicks his hair back, and he wears Dickies work shirts in layers. It's an unseasonably warm night for autumn in Michigan when we arrive at Cass Cafe, but if it was chillier you'd expect him to sport knit gloves with the fingers hacked off. Light 'Em Up, the will-it-or-won't-it (come out, that is) record by his band, the Fags, is finally getting released. But Speck's cruiserweight intensity is shaded with bruised pride and resignation, and the story he tells about his band, the music industry and his own frazzled psyche is full of no-fun sobering realities.
A drink would make things easier.
"The Fags did everything right," he begins after ordering a Heineken. "But we never should have signed a record deal, because it killed all of our forward momentum."
Hoarse, Speck's old band, had run its course by 1998. They'd had some success, even getting signed to RCA. But they'd also burned a few bridges and punched some faces. Speck's relationship with Hoarse drummer Jimmy Paluzzi wasn't so hot either, but he still ended up backing the guitarist-vocalist's new project, with local producer and bassist Tim Patalan sitting in.
By the end of 1999, the trio had booked a one-off show at Jacoby's. "Jimmy came up with a fake name, 'Smokin' Fags,' and word got out that we had this new thing going on, so there were a lot of people there to see us at 9 p.m.," Speck says. And before they knew it there was considerable buzz for what was now called the Fags, whether Speck liked it or not. "'See, motherfuckers? This backfired,' I told Jimmy and Tim. 'Now people think the name of the band is the Fags.' They said it was genius, I disagreed, but I couldn't get them to change the name."
Speck, Patalan and Paluzzi decided that, with their collective experience in music, they had a chance to do something with some real commercial appeal, and do it the right way. "We weren't snotty about it," Speck says. "But we knew firsthand the mistakes bands make along the way, and also how to avoid them."
It didn't work out that way.
There was no denying the music the Fags were making. A stingy mesh of pop, punk and Cars-style new wave, the songs were fun, catchy and, yes, commercially appealing. The hooks and memorable lyrical turns in "Truly, Truly" and "List" made them dangerously flirty, but they were still sweet too; they could have soundtracked an alternate-reality John Hughes film where the characters drank, smoked and sinned too much, but still had hearts of gold.
In June 2004, industry veteran Seymour Stein signed the Fags to his recently revived, Warner-distributed Sire. It was a tidy, manageable record deal with a high royalty rate on the songs, which is what the trio wanted. But Speck says it was a clunker from the beginning.
"Our contract with Sire was for $50,000," he says, "$25,000 to be paid up front. Out of that we had to do everything advances, record the record, everything. So we took $5,000 each and put $10,000 toward the record. We never saw the other $25,000 that we were contractually owed. And when we found out we were getting dropped, Sire did their accounting and said they didn't owe us a fucking dime." The label handed over a laundry list of phone calls, dinners, photo sessions and other industry add-ons that had supposedly consumed the other chunk of the contract. And Light 'Em Up sat on the shelf for the duration of 2005, until eventually the band discovered that they'd been cut loose.
He takes a drag off his cigarette. F-A-I-T-H is spelled out across his knuckles. "What really gets me is that they held that carrot over my head the entire time. 'Any day now' was Warner's attitude. And I needed that fucking money too. I didn't have a regular job. Jimmy had a side business, and Tim had his studio. So we couldn't just tour indefinitely to make up the difference."
They also couldn't tour effectively without an official release date for Light 'Em Up, which Warner wouldn't give. It was a classic music industry catch-22, and all for a record that had been continually lauded by Stein and the people at Warner.
Speck describes the tug-of-war between the Fags and the label in the run-up to what was ultimately a pretty anti-climactic dismissal. It's an ugly string of unreturned phone calls, legal foot-dragging, intra-band grumbling and, finally, a crushing sense of apathy about the whole situation.
"It got to the point where the label expected us to tour, but without tour support. And then we got dropped, and this past summer I sent an e-mail to our booking agent saying we're not doing any more shows, we have no desire to be on the road, we can't. With Tim continually producing bands, with Jimmy doing his thing and his family, no tour support, and no record out anyway, there was no real reason to do it, and we couldn't afford it anyway."
"Fuck it," he says, his eyes level. "I'm done."
Speck blames the label for making the future of the Fags uncertain. But despite the band's bad luck, he seems to be bearing the brunt of the pain. After spending his entire adult life playing music, Speck finds himself questioning whether it's even worth it anymore, whether he wasted his time. He's fraying at the edges.
"I'm 34. I owe everybody and their brother money. I have no credit whatsoever. I don't have a steady job. I don't have a fucking bank account. I basically live off the generosity of friends. I'm not doing this anymore."
"If I didn't have a band," he continues, "you'd be like, 'That guy's a fucking bum. He doesn't have a job.' But there's always that carrot dangling in front of you. 'One of these days.'"
One of these days. He says this with anger that's deserved. But there's a mixture of hope and hurt in there too. The Fags' situation bothers him, because he knows the material deserved better. But it bothers him more that he fell for the music industry's shenanigans, and that he just might again if the carrot seemed close enough to grab. He might again because the music just might still matter.
Light 'Em Up was finally released on Oct. 31, by Dallas-based indie Idol. And it really is a great record, full of bright choruses, big chords and the enduring promise of Saturday night. But real life isn't a pop song.
"You talk to musicians and they have that weird, skewed view that they can do this because they think their band is great and they really believe in themselves. Well, it's a lot more than that. I know what it takes to operate at some level of success in the music business, and it's basically just fucking hard work. You build your business to the point where you have to take investors on, and you hopefully find investors who don't want to change the direction of the business.
"We did everything right, but at some point they decided they didn't want to do business with us, without ever giving us a straight answer or doing anything in a timely fashion. They took all the air out of the balloon."
The Fags will throw a CD release party Nov. 11 at Small's, 10339 Conant, Hamtramck; 313-873-1117. With Watershed and Jarrod Wooney.
Johnny Loftus is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]