Volebeats – Below the radar or: Keep a secret
Mosquito Spiral is not just a solid, energetic, eminently enjoyable pop record, but something of a surprise coming from the Volebeats, whose prior album was the moody and mostly instrumental Solitude (Safe House, 1999).
“We had all these instrumentals, and we wanted to do something different,” Smith says of the thinking that spawned Solitude. At the time, the Volebeats had just returned from a tour in support of their 1997 release Sky And The Ocean, an album the band members say seemed doomed by difficulties with Safe House, a small operation based in Vermont that was then their record label.
In response to what they perceived as the label’s inability to place the album in stores, the Volebeats decided to make a record for themselves, disregarding any concerns for its commercial potential.
“We sensed in advance that this record was going to have trouble reaching a wider audience,” Smith says. “So we thought, ‘Well, let’s make something that’ll maybe end up in the hands of Stanley Kubrick.’ We needed to demonstrate to ourselves that we weren’t one-dimensional.”
They turned the trick with aplomb. Solitude is a mesmerizing collection of reverb-drenched instrumentals and a choice handful of ballads, including a heartbreaking pair by Smith (“Beautiful Night” and “Back In A Minute”) that brilliantly filtered his typically evocative pop through the album’s sleepy aesthetic.
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The Volebeats were in the early mix of artists at least tangentially involved with Bloodshot Records, contributing tracks to a pair of Bloodshot collections, Hellbent: Insurgent Country Vol. 2 (1995) and Straight Outta Boone County (1997). The label — whose co-founder, Rob Miller, was briefly a Vole, serving as drummer for a stint best measured in days — also released the Volebeats’ cover of the Funkadelic freakout “Maggot Brain” as a 7-inch single.
Outwardly, everything seemed to be falling into place. Sky And The Ocean, the band’s third full-length record and its second for Safe House (following 1994’s Up North), garnered critical praise upon its release in 1997, and the band landed a plum slot as Whiskeytown’s opening band that summer and fall. But distribution troubles hamstrung the disc’s commercial chances, band members allege.
“Sky And The Ocean was getting great reviews,” Smith recalls. “We were on tour with a band that had a hit. And it didn’t make it to the stores.
“We did the entire United States with Whiskeytown, and at every show we had people coming up to us going, ‘You guys are so great! But I went to 17 different record stores trying to find your new album and couldn’t even order it.’ And I was like, ‘Fabulous.'”
Safe House owner and operator James Reynolds says he’s reluctant to respond to such tales, but says he spent “thousands of dollars” on the Volebeats albums, expenses that were never recouped. “It [Sky And The Ocean] was available for any retailer who wanted it,” Reynolds says. “The sad fact was that there were few, if any, reorders. You have no idea how disappointing it was to me.”
Lacking the kind of tour-support funding that often comes only with major-label deals, the Volebeats were losing money on the road. So when they were offered a gig opening for the Jayhawks to follow up the Whiskeytown tour, they declined.
“That was the point where we were out on week five of the [Whiskeytown] tour already and our records still weren’t available,” drummer Scott Michalski remembers. “And we were so frustrated with that when we got offered the Jayhawks that we were like, ‘We’re out here supporting a record that nobody can get their hands on.’ It didn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
Reynolds, in hindsight, believes that “the band shot itself in the foot” by turning down the Jayhawks opportunity. “Had they taken that tour, the album might’ve gotten a second wind,” he says. “Instead, they went into hibernation.”
Or more like woodshedding, actually. “We came home and recorded, basically, three records in the span of a couple weeks,” Michalski says. “We just did heavy sessions and ended up recording Solitude, Mosquito Spiral — tons of material.”