Monday, April 20, 1998
Orange County Edition
Looking at the 'Bright Side';
John Easdale is determined to enjoy his solo career after Dramarama.;
By: MIKE BOEHM
TIME STAFF WRITER
But I just look the other way.
I keep on rollin,' keep on rollin' on.
--Dramarama, "Work for Food"
These days, John Easdale would rather work for food than play for it.
He spent almost 10 years singing and writing songs for his living in Dramarama, a rock band that was always a contender, never a champ in the rock 'n' roll prizefighting ring. By the end, in 1994, it had, to quote another noted songwriter, turned into a frustrating mess.
Now Easdale, 36, is back for more. Actually, he is back for less. He says he is content to let record-making be an intensely pursued hobby, rather than the full-time profession it was in Dramarama. His first solo album, "Bright Side," came out last week, a joint release between eggBERT Records, a tiny Fullerton label owned by Easdale's longtime fan and friend, Greg Dwinnell, and Harvey * Records, a label Easdale has started for himself.
Easdale said he turned down offers from bigger companies, shy about the high-stakes record industry that bit him so badly in Dramarama. The sting evidently lingers somewhere in Easdale's psyche, because several prime songs on the fine "Bright Side" continue on a familiar tack from his Dramarama days, anguishing over having tasted a spoonful of success, only to go away hungry.
Yet Easdale, who plays Saturday at the Coach House and Sunday at the Fullerton Earth Day Festival, said he isn't mired in bitterness.
The dominant note on "Bright Side" is still the trademark, stringy, brink-of-a-breakdown cry that Easdale brought to Dramarama's five albums (although always tempered by a distancing, sanity-preserving sense of humor that comes through in caustically ironic wordplay). On his show-biz disaster songs, it's the voice of one who loves rock 'n' roll not wisely, but too well.
Easdale's low-keyed solo career is all about wising up.
Every workday he reports to an office in Burbank and sees different people do the same thing Dramarama attempted: He is the editor of Virtuallyalternative, a radio industry trade publication that keeps modern-rock programmers abreast of the latest releases by the latest contenders.
Now he has hard facts to go with the intuitions he drew first from Mott the Hoople's old refrain, "rock 'n' roll's a loser's game/but it mesmerizes," then from his own experience.
"I'm not surprised that I'm getting my suspicions confirmed" about the music industry, Easdale said Friday in a phone interview from his office. "Every day I see a lot [that resembles] what went on with my band, and it made me want to put the record out myself. I'm happy to be independent. I can take the credit or blame, and I'm fine with that."
His apparent compulsion to write songs about show-biz failure is a "therapeutic" exercise, Easdale said. It's not a case of wallowing in frustration, but of dealing with the pain to let go of it.
"I don't want to be one of those guys who say, 'I've been burned by the record companies; they stink.' It's a wonderful industry that feeds a lot of people. But there's so much politics that I couldn't even imagine putting my heart and soul into something and seeing it treated like one of 100 records on their schedule.
"It's a failure-based business. They say 90 out of 100 records are going to fail, and that's 90 out of 100 artists whose spirits are dashed. I see it and feel like the luckiest guy in the world that I've gotten to make all these records. It's a body of work; there's embarrassing moments here or there, but I'm proud of it and happy with it. And 15 years later, I can still play a concert and have people give a damn."
Indeed, Easdale's voice remains a staple on KROQ-FM (106.7), which plays Dramarama's 1985 breakthrough song, "Anything, Anything (I'll Give You)," almost daily. He estimates royalty statements tally about 10,000 radio plays for the song per year nationwide, which yields him, at 2 1/2 cents per spin, about $250 in songwriting royalties annually. Along with other income from Dramarama's catalog--especially continuing catalog sales for the first two albums that the band put out itself--"it's like having a decent part-time job."
After Dramarama had run its course, Easdale had to do some recuperating before he could feel lucky again, or even feel like making music. He spent close to a year at home in La Habra, ignoring his guitar and happily being a dad to his four young daughters, ages 3 to 9 (about a year ago, Easdale and his wife bought their first house, nearby in Whittier).
He started playing some low-keyed shows, mainly in Orange County. In July 1996, a radio station in New Jersey, where Dramarama got its start before relocating that year to Southern California, asked Easdale to play a big festival. "The outpouring of affection I got from people just touched me in such a way that I thought maybe I should make another record," Easdale said.
Meanwhile, he had to work for food. With a rocker's resume ("I'm fond of saying it was like being a clown at the circus. It was like not having a work history at all"), finding a job wasn't easy. Easdale had to use connections just to land work at a warehouse in Placentia. Then his recording studio experience and literary skills paid off: Again thanks to a friend's help, he became producer of "Rotten Day," a daily two-minute radio soapbox for the cantankerous John Lydon.
"It was a rundown of the day in rock, comedy style, with Johnny Rotten ranting and raving about rock's most embarrassing moments, more or less," Easdale said. "I got the job because I knew [how to use a] recording studio, and I wasn't intimidated by [Lydon]. We got along well because I didn't kowtow. He's got a strong BS detector, and if you're indulgent of him or star-struck by him, he'll really put you down."
When Lydon gave up the show to reunite the Sex Pistols, Easdale became editor of Virtuallyalternative, published by the same company that produced the radio show.
He cobbled together "Bright Side" as time permitted. Easdale had formed a new band for live shows--with Dramarama alum Mark Englert and Craig Ballam on guitars, Tony Snow on drums and bassist Mike Davis--yet he decided to play most of the music himself. He drew on his background as Dramarama's original drummer, ran his customary acoustic guitar through "a bunch of boxes" to achieve a raucous electric sound and created a one-man band for a good chunk of the recording.
The album is essentially Dramarama by other means: terrific hooks and well-cultivated influences from '60s pure-pop and '70s underground rock, applied to a mixture of mournful ballads and headlong, seething rockers that work out frustrations as they're being voiced.
"Breaking Things" plays like a sequel to "Anything, Anything." Like his best-known song, this one chronicles a particularly volatile relationship blowup. "Anything" was a post-mortem on Easdale's disastrous first marriage when he was 22; "Breaking Things" chronicles a chapter in an ongoing marriage that requires occasional venting of steam, as marriages will.
"It was the direct result of a little skirmish. [In the song] I'm biting my tongue, counting to 10, breathing through my nose. I must have written that at a point where you're ready to put your fist through the wall, so you get in the car and get out of the house. I drove a mile, two miles, to my mother-in-law's house, ran in the house and wrote it down. I have my studio over there, so the kids don't spill soda in the tape recorders. Before I got back home and apologized, that song was finished."
The apology, and the song, were accepted, Easdale said: "My wife's the coolest person in the world."
Plans for "Bright Side" include getting it to disc jockeys who have been friendly. He is getting exposure on Los Angeles' two key modern-rock stations: Rodney Bingenheimer, who sparked Dramarama's career when he began playing "Anything, Anything" on KROQ in 1986, is at it again, and Chris Carter, Easdale's former Dramarama bandmate, has been playing it on his Sunday night new-music radio show on Y-107.
Limited touring in old Dramarama strongholds is also planned.
Whatever happens, Easdale said, he doesn't think this chapter will spawn any new music-biz frustration songs.
"I am totally and completely not expecting anything, and I'm already exceeding my expectations," he said. "Maybe I am bitter, but I feel good."
* The John Easdale Band, Scotland Yard and Plank play Saturday at the
Coach House, 33517 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $10-$12. Also
Sunday at 10 p.m. to close the Fullerton Earth Day Festival, a free outdoor
event at the Hub Cafe/Fullerton Amtrak Station parking lot at Harbor Boulevard
and Commonwealth Avenue, starting at 11 a.m. and featuring 11 other bands.
PHOTO: (A1) He's No. 1: Rocker John Easdale, above, is still heard
regularly on KROQ-FM singing "Anything, Anything (I'll Give You)," a 1985
hit for O.C.'s Dramarama, his former band. KROQ listeners recently voted
it the top modern rock song ever.
PHOTOGRAPHER: KEVIN P. CASEY / L.A. Times
PHOTO: "I am totally and completely not expecting anything," John
Easdale says of solo work.
PHOTOGRAPHER: KEVIN P. CASEY / Los Angeles Times
PHOTO: 'It's a failure-based business. They say 90 out of 100
records are going to fail, and that's 90 out of 100 artists whose spirits
are dashed. I see it and feel like the luckiest guy in the world that
I've gotten to make all these records. It's a body of work; . . . I'm
proud of it and happy with it.'--John Easdale
Type of Material: Profile
Descriptors: EASDALE, JOHN; DRAMARAMA (MUSIC GROUP); MUSICIANS; ROCK MUSIC;
Copyright (c) 1998 Times Mirror Company