Chip Robinson – Sliding in and out of grace
By the time the deal was inked in the spring of ’96, a 16-track tape of a live Backsliders set had found its way to Pete Anderson, longtime guitarist and producer for Dwight Yoakam. Anderson called Mammoth about producing a record, thinking the band was already signed. According to Howell, Anderson had been the top pick on a “wildest dream” list of producers Mammoth had solicited from the band, and within days of signing their contract, the Backsliders were on the wing to L.A. to take advantage of a break in Anderson’s recording schedule.
All the then-Backsliders say the adventure to commit their music to Anderson’s hands was the most exciting, positive period in the band’s life. High hopes fed a camaraderie that had been, and would ever after be, altogether unnatural. What discontent anyone might have felt with the production was seemingly swept aside by their trust that Anderson must know best. They felt cramped by time — Throwing Rocks was made in under two weeks — but they were proud of the record and eager to begin touring behind it.
What momentum was generated with the production was then given nine months to dissipate as Mammoth devoted its attention to looming business concerns. The label was wrangling with, and eventually split from, Atlantic Records, whose distribution potential the Backsliders had considered an important Mammoth asset. (Eventually Mammoth regained major distribution through a deal with Disney-owned Hollywood Records.)
Meanwhile, in November 1996, the band mustered a stops-out showcase in New York City at the CMJ Convention, where they swept away another renowned producer, Eric “Roscoe” Ambel. The Backsliders had been covering “Forever Came Today”, a song Ambel co-wrote with Scott Kempner back in their Del-Lords days (Robinson had been performing the tune since his days with Empty Face). Ambel, whose production credits included Blue Mountain, the Bottle Rockets and the Blood Oranges, contacted Mammoth almost immediately about producing the next Backsliders record.
When Throwing Rocks finally came out in early 1997, it was a critical hit with its blend of Ray Price country, Rolling Stones blues and Little Feat raunch-rock. The storytelling potential of “Hey Sheriff” had grown into somewhat more intimate and no less sympathetic character studies: the irresistibly reckless subject of the title track, the chattel trapped by fear of flying from her “Paper Doll World”, the possibility of self-revelation in the haunting “Crazy Wind”.
Inward was a new direction for the Backsliders, and the craggy resignation of Robinson’s voice and delivery made the road seem straight and true, if far from easy. It was that voice, perhaps more than any other single factor, that continued to draw new fans to the band, as it had guitarist Rice, who says he thought it was the best voice he’d ever heard in a club setting. “I like that kinda scratchy, breakin’-up voice,” Rice says. “He was just so good. It was just very real.”
The Mammoth-supported tour for Throwing Rocks included dates with Jason & the Scorchers and Alejandro Escovedo’s Buick MacKane. By the fall of ’97, Mammoth was pleased enough with the album’s reception, and with the band’s progress in building a fan base, that they wanted to make another record as soon as possible. Howell says he had six new songs ready to go; Robinson had “Psychic Friend”, “Two Candles” and “Abe Lincoln”, which was still evolving.
Ambel was tapped to produce and, sensitive to the band’s feeling that Throwing Rocks had been rushed, he scheduled Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana, for the month of January 1998. The band began rehearsing.
In hindsight, Mammoth executive Lane Wurster now says he thinks the label pushed too hard for the second record, that the band wasn’t ready. He recalls early misgivings at rehearsals he attended when the band seemed unprepared.
The songs were not the problem; the band was. In the nearly two years since the first record was made, relationships had disintegrated further with practically every one of the many meetings they had held. Mainly, the rest of the band was trying to get Howell and Robinson to get along. Besides their artistic differences, Howell was trying to get Robinson to be more along the lines of a responsible, organized frontman.
Exacerbating the personal problems were vexing business issues. Although the best advice Pete Anderson had given them was “Make a plan, and stick to the plan,” the band never could agree on a plan, or management, or what kind of venues they should play, or how often, or how much money they needed to make. The bickering was endless.
“We weren’t gettin’ rich. We were gettin’ some break-even. Financially, I didn’t think it was that bad. I always kept my cost of living down, tried to,” says Robinson. But the band was getting further in debt, too. “The deal is, you keep touring long enough to build up the fan base, and eventually, hopefully, you sell enough records [so] it’s not eatin’ up all your royalties in advances and for tour support. [Throwing Rocks] didn’t move a whole truckoad of units, you know?”
Still, the band had a solid record out, and another one due. By the time the Backsliders arrived in Louisiana, they were stuck together, if only by the pressure of their own potential.
Initially, Robinson hoped sequestering the band in a setting where they could combine work and fun might help overcome interpersonal problems and generate the kind of team spirit that had made recording the first album so enjoyable. As if to underscore this potential, Ambel gave the project the working name “Hicktopia”. Rice, though, had no such optimism. He drove his ’73 Valiant 1100 miles to avoid the tension in the van, and ultimately drove it home again before recording finished.