Sugarfoot – Rebuilding year
You may know this story: A guy writes good songs. He gets a band together. He plays enough shows to get noticed, gradually gathering momentum. Positive press attention and, at last, label interest make the progress seem inexorable.
Milwaukee resident Alex Ballard may have felt that way, especially when Musician magazine selected his group, Sugarfoot, as one of the ten best unsigned bands of 1995. Then, in a turn of events so familiar it ought to be on display in a Hard Luck Hall of Fame, it slipped away.
“There were a lot of major labels interested in us,” Ballard recalls. “They all expected us to be able to jump through all these hoops, drop everything, drive halfway across the country to play. And meanwhile, you have to pay your rent. I pretty much went into bankruptcy financing recording sessions because some label wanted to hear more material. But the band was never right, so it just wasn’t happening.”
After taking a hiatus, Ballard regrouped Sugarfoot last year with previous drummer Victor Spankowski, bassist Andrew Lester, and Jim Eannelli, another singer-songwriter, guitarist and veteran of the music-biz crapshoot. Take A Picture, the first album from the new lineup, reflects both Ballard’s renewed drive as a musician and those darker days of disenchantment.
The songs steep themselves in country and rock traditions of instant familiarity, yet rarely name-check influences. Instead, the feelings behind the songs communicate quickly and concisely: the desperate solitude of “Telephone”, the reluctant amour of “Darlin'”, the weary resignation of “Cool Waters”. Ballard’s voice renders emotions in grainy but expressive hues; Eannelli likewise gets the most out of the basics.
Recording the album in their hometown and often in their own homes, the two songwriters used their sometimes bitter experiences to put the songs to tape effectively. “If you’ve been in the business long enough, you’ve seen a lot of hack engineers and producers hack up your music,” Eannelli notes. “When you finally get to do it on your own, you feel more intimate with not only the performance requirements but with the requirements of the gear.”
The new Sugarfoot hasn’t achieved quite the buzz its previous incarnation had four years ago, but upon reflection, Ballard is happy to be where he is, in terms of both status and location. “If nothing else, this city’s very free,” he says of the Milwaukee scene. “There’s not a massive, widespread acceptance of any particular band or style, but you can do whatever you want. A lot of people have formed six or eight bands that have disbanded, and the guys left standing form a band that ends up being pretty good. I think the members of this band are those guys.”