Editor’s note: BLURT hereby presents an interview/feature from yours truly’s deep – some would say dark – archives. This marks the first installment of what I’m calling “The College Rock Chronicles,” having cut my teeth as a journalist during that era, writing for the likes of Option, Puncture, The Bob, Bucketful of Brains, etc., and subsequently feeling a deep loyalty to and kinship with those bands who defined it. Sometime later, I found myself as a featured columnist and contributing editor for Harp magazine, each issue authoring the “Indelibles” in which we spotlighted a favorite band from the past (often prompted by a key reissue). Here’s the one I did on Boston’s late, great Dumptruck. I hope you enjoy the trip down memory lane as much as I do and that you’ll be moved to dig out your battered old Dumptruck LPs…
BY FRED MILLS
It’s a rock ‘n’ roll story as old as Keith Richards’ teeth: Band self-releases album in the mid ‘80s and lands deal with hip upstart indie label; band issues second album and tours the country as a critical and college-radio fave; hip upstart indie label has plug pulled on its funding and leaves band floundering with no promotional support; hip upstart indie label sues band for $5 mil….
Waitaminnit – did someone say “$5 mil”? As in, five million bucks? That wasn’t part of the script! Sadly, though, the foregoing is a pretty accurate précis of the trajectory of Boston’s Dumptruck, initially extant and thriving from roughly 1984 through 1988 until being capsized by what amounted to the perfect legal storm, a confluence of band naiveté, label attorney hubris, a torturously slow court system, and just plain bad luck.
“I was kind of pissed off,” recalled Dumptruck co-founder Seth Tiven, talking to me in 2003 about the protracted five year period during which his band found itself branded a hot legal potato by record labels, couldn’t release any records on its own, and had to fork over any touring revenue to its lawyers. Tiven’s deadpan tone, however, gave the guitarist away; he’d told his story many times in the past, but now, with the first three Dumptruck albums newly available, each immaculately remastered and boasting a wealth of bonus material, he was finally getting – not to put too much of a new agey spin on things – some closure.
Reexamining the script we find a post-college Tiven pulling up his New Haven, Conn., roots in the early ‘80s for Boston where, in the wake of some fruitful songwriting and jamming sessions with fellow guitarist Kirk Swan (like Tiven, a New Haven expat), the embryonic Dumptruck was born. In order to make the demos that would become 1984’s D is for Dumptruck album the pair swapped off on guitar and bass duties; drums for two recording sessions were manned by two different drummers – one of whom, New Haven’s Mark Mulcahy, would later notch his own share of fame fronting Miracle Legion. [Go here to read my interview with Mulcahy from 2009.]
Right off the bat, critics spotted Dumptruck as not just another jangly college-rock band, taking note of influences ranging from Richard Thompson and Roger McGuinn to Television and assorted post-punk outfits. (The moody, modal-flavored “Carcass,” in fact, actually suggested Thompson fronting Television and plundering the Byrds songbook.) “One thing that set us apart was the guitar thing, definitely,” agreed Tiven. “Most band will have a rhythm player and a lead player, but we were both equally comfortable doing either. Sometimes there would be kind of ‘lead-y’ parts that might interlock, or sometimes they’d both be rhythmic parts. We didn’t think like, ‘Okay, here’s the rhythm guitar track. Now the guitarist will record a lead over it.’”
Having two strong songwriters and personalities in the band would eventually prove its temporary undoing, but for the time being Dumptruck, buoyed by good press notices — including the proverbial “A-minus” in the Village Voice — was on a roll. A full-time rhythm section was secured and regional touring commenced, and by the summer of ’85 Dumptruck had a deal with a hip upstart indie label (now where have we heard that term before?), the Australian-based Big Time Records, which had recently opened an American office and, with flagship band the Hoodoo Gurus doing gangbusters, was looking to capitalized on the guitar-band groundswell then going on in the U.S.
Positively Dumptruck was the first fruit of the Dumptruck-Big Time alliance and by virtual unanimous critical judgment, it was one of the tastiest fruits to drop in 1985, a heady mélange of classic pop melodies and moody minor chord anthemism. Recorded at Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studios and overseen by Easter chum/R.E.M. co-producer Don Dixon (who additionally played keyboards), the album sounds by Tiven’s 2003 hindsight reckoning, “really dated, very much of its time period, with lots of gated reverb on the drums and such. A lot of compression and reverb was put on in the mastering process, too. So it made sense then, but I hear it now and say, ‘How could we have done it with that much reverb?’”
That said, Tiven remained immensely proud of the record, freely admitting that its immediate embrace by critics and college radio gave Dumptruck cachet to burn. “We were never living in the lap of luxury — and you can’t go out to dinner on a record review! – but we were making enough to live on,” he noted. In the end, though, the band simply burned – out, that is. Protracted roadwork took its toll, magnifying petty personal differences between Tiven and Swan, and with the pair having already begun to diverge in their respective musical tastes at that point, Swan abruptly gave his notice around Christmas of ’86, taking the bassist with him.
In our interview Tiven hastened to point out that lingering hard feelings between he and Swan had long since dissipated (he’d recently visited his former bandmate in L.A.), but at the time, back in ’86, he felt both angry and shaken. Then he got word from Big Time, which had just gotten a major cash infusion via a distribution deal with RCA Records, that funding to the tune of between $80k and $100k was available if Tiven wanted to record a third Dumptruck album.
Tiven laughs at the memory. “They said, ‘Are you ready to do it?’ ‘Hmm, do I want to start fresh, from scratch, or do I want to fly to Wales and do a record at Rockfield Studios with my favorite producer in the world, Hugh Jones [Echo & The Bunnymen, Simple Minds, Damned]?’ I got a band together as fast as I could!”
Tiven and longtime drummer Shawn Devlin rounded up bassist Tom Shad and guitarist Kevin Salem, performed a few preemptory gigs, then hopped a plane to the U.K. On paper a no-brainer, although the artistic weight placed upon Tiven’s shoulders was understandably massive. When For The Country appeared in late ’87, however, nine out of ten critics had to agree: Tiven had pulled it off, delivering a brace of Dumptruck anthems (notably tough-as-titanium rocker “50 Miles” and the Byrdsian “Wire”) every bit the equal of the preceding albums’ tunes.
“Sometimes I tend to work best under pressure,” quipped Tiven, adding that producer Jones’ strong critical ear and easygoing bedside manner made the experience an altogether rewarding one.
After the high, though, came the crash.
Unbeknownst to Tiven, while he and the band were overseas Big Time learned its cash spigot was about to be turned off by RCA. And when Dumptruck hit the road in the fall of ‘87 to tour behind For The Country it found its own expectations being rudely downsized: no publicity staffers remaining at Big Time equaled no promotion or tour support for the band. Even worse, in many cities the album wasn’t even available in stores. Tiven sighed at the painful memory. “I suppose it had been a bad omen when our A&R guy got fired in the middle of recording the record, and then we go on tour and it was like your worst nightmare, where you go and make what you feel is your best record, yet there’s no support for it.”
But wait, it gets worse! To make a bitterly protracted story short: Bloodied and definitely bowed, Dumptruck nevertheless soldiered on with its tour. Things looked up briefly when Tiven learned Big Time had somehow neglected to pick up the band’s option and Dumptruck was legally free to sign with another label. Then as lawyers for the group began negotiations with several labels, Big Time, in a hissy fit of embarrassed pique, filed a $5 million breech-of-contract suit. A frivolous suit, mind you (at that point there was no legal contract in effect), and one which was ultimately dismissed three years later, but one which not only forced Dumptruck to divert precious funds to pay legal bills but effectively put it up on blocks; not a label on the planet would touch a band saddled with that much legal baggage, temporary/frivolous or otherwise.
Dumptruck eventually recovered – sort of. 1991 saw the group record its fourth album, Days Of Fear, although by that point the Dumptruck name had been all but forgotten by the music industry and the record didn’t see the light of day until ’94. In the interim Tiven got married and moved to Austin, and since then he’s periodically revived the band – using various Austin musicians — for recording (1998’s Terminal, 2001’s Lemmings Travel To The Sea, both on the Devil In The Woods label – the latter including a bonus CD of live recordings from ’86 and ’88) and low-key touring. Along the way Tiven also won back the rights to Dumptruck’s master tapes, ultimately yielding the happy situation in 2003 with the Rykodisc reissues.
Did Tiven still nurse any lingering bitterness from the Dumptruck ordeal?
“It was demoralizing,” he admitted to me. “But I was also kind of naïve in a lot of ways back then, too. In thinking that, ‘Okay, contractually we’re in the right, it will take maybe six months to wind its way through the court system, and someone will want to sign us when it’s done.’ Then it takes three years to get resolved, and once it did, no one was interested in us anymore!
“But I still have a lot of good memories of that whole era. You know, it’s not the same now as it was back then, though. College radio, the 200-300 capacity clubs, that was all pretty much left to the independents [labels] because major labels didn’t care. Indie labels and bands had that whole area to themselves. After that changed in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, it crowded out a lot of the independents – the majors bought up a lot of the independents! And in a way, I think that factor has hurt music in general a lot.”
D is for Dumptruck (Rykodisc; 2003). Original LP (Incas, 1984) plus “Thanksgiving” (from Throbbing Lobster Let’s Breed! compilation, 1984); “Watch Her Fall,” “Repetition,” “Things Go Wrong” and “How Come?” (live CBGB 7/12/86).
Positively Dumptruck (Rykodisc; 2003). Orig. LP (Big Time, 1985) plus “From Where I Stand” and “Will It Happen Again” (from LP sessions); “Carefree,” “Bound To Happen,” “Friends” and “Movies” (‘86 demos).
For The Country (Rykodisc, 2003). Orig. LP (Big Time, 1987) plus “Didn’t Know” and “Waiting For You” (LP sessions); “Bad Day,” “Waterwheel” and “Better Of You” (‘88 demos); “Carefree” and “For The Country” (live CBGB 1/16/88). First two LPs remastered from stereo analog masters, 3rd LP from stereo DAT master.
Days of Fear (Unclean, 1994) Comprises sessions recorded 1988-91.
Terminal (Devil In The Woods, 1998)
Lemmings Travel To the Sea (Devil In The Woods, 2001)
Postscript: In 2006 Rykodisc (which has since folded) issued the Dumptruck compilation CD Haul of Fame. Tiven subsequently released a 2007 solo album Solitude and still revives the Dumptruck name for occasional shows around Austin. Kirk Swan has also released several solo records, as has latterday member Kevin Salem.
Official Dumptruck website: http://www.dumptruck-music.com/
Set Tiven website: http://www.sethtiven.com/
Perfect Sound Forever 1999 interview: http://www.furious.com/perfect/dumptruck.html