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Rebuilding the House of Fools

by Ryan Snyder

House of Fools has a new management deal, a new album and a new vision for their music. (photo by Josh Hofer, www.corruptedlens.net)

I’m sharing a table with Josh King, David McLaughlin and Joel Kiser of Greensboro indie-rock band House of Fools at the Pour House on dollar can night; the former two huddled around cans of Bud as Kiser comes back from the bar with a frothy New Belgium draft. “Well look at you Mr. Moneybags,” King says dryly. The smashed-all-to-hell face of Kiser’s phone tells a slightly different story.

The last time I had spoken to the band was during the summer of 2009, when they had just welcomed in a new rhythm section: drummer Jack Foster and bassist Jordan Powers. House of Fools at the time was on the ropes, weathering a deteriorating support network, a bassist obliged to move on because of professional choices and a drummer forced to quit because of a bad back. The band was no doubt on the ropes, but quitting altogether had never been discussed.

The induction of Foster and Powers, however, was a shot of adrenaline for the fizzling band. For four years, they had toured to the point of exhaustion. Yet, they were still as broke as the glass on Kiser’s mobile despite being signed to a promising independent label in southern California almost before they even were a band. The two new faces represented a lifeline and they were chomping at the bit to talk about it. The subject they dared not approach, however, was anything to do with their label and the possibility of new records.

“Things just aren’t good right now,” McLaughlin said at the time. “That’s all I can say.”

All that changed over a few dollar Budweisers. It took three years and several attorneys, but the band had just won a drawn-out legal fight to be released from contract with their label, Drive-Thru Records, in a story fit for an episode of “Behind the Music”. Rancorous name-calling, shifty lawyers and contractual strong-arming — it’s got all of it.

The art of the deal

A contract can be a quirky thing. In theory, it’s a document that at least two parties enter into for the mutual assurance that both will fulfill the terms laid forth therein, for mutual benefit. In reality, the burden of fulfillment is almost always placed on the party with fewer resources at their disposal.

House of Fools become aware of this when Drive-Thru Records, for reasons not entirely known to the band at the time, decided to short them on promised advances for the next recording project.

The band was on the road and running on the fumes of the buzz afforded by their 2007 debut LP Live and Learn when they received an e-mail from the label’s co-owner Stefanie Reines. In it, King recalled, she insisted the band renegotiate their deal for three albums into a 360 deal, which would give a label a chunk of all proceeds: album sales, tour gate, merchandise sales. The 360 deal isn’t exactly a new practice; it goes back to the days of Motown when Berry Gordy was signing singing groups to them and thus given dominion over everything about his artists right down to the way they dressed.

The new deal would have certainly shifted a greater portion of the band’s income to the label, but by this time Drive Thru was feeling the effects of their own bad deals. Lopsided distribution contracts with MCA (and subsequently Geffen) and Sanctuary Records were handcuffing Drive-Thru’s profitability in new markets, and promises that the label made to House of Fools in regards to European tours and string quartets in the studio went unfulfilled.

“They sent us all an e-mail once we had formed the band saying that we could go ahead and quit our jobs,” King said. “So we all quit our jobs and went on the road with bands that we should have never went on the road with.”

At this point, King says that Drive-Thru had practically ceased with tour and recording support, and insisting the band agree to more stringent and less gainful terms was the proverbial straw. The band saw it as a breach of contract on the label’s part and rather than pursue litigation, they agreed that this wasn’t working out for anyone and they asked for their release.

“At that moment I remember that we got e- mails from them calling us redneck pieces of shit, hicks and hillbillies, all sorts of stuff,” King said.

It got worse. The band decided to simply try and placate their Drive-Thru bosses and fulfill the terms of their deal as best they could. Two more albums was all it would take and the band felt they could do that in a year at best. After that, McLaughlin said, every song the band sent to the label’s head Richard Reines was roundly rejected.

“They basically just didn’t like our music at that point,” King added. “I remember Richard saying, ‘We need it to sound more like Queen, with guitar solos.’” A quick history of Drive-Thru Records: The label was, for a time in the late 1990s to mid 2000s, the preeminent West Coast home for independent pop punk acts. Teen-focused acts like New Found Glory, Hellogoodbye and the Starting Line made a lot of noise while under the banner of Drive-Thru. The label also dabbled outside of that rather narrowly defined spectrum via folk rockers Steel Train and the ska-rock band Rx Bandits, but their bread and butter rested with teen bands making music for teen crowds. House of Fools has some marked pop leanings dotting mostly rockist influences, as noted by the Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Stevie Ray Vaughn posters lining their practice space, but they are not a pop-punk band. King intimated that Drive-Thru thought they could make them one, however, by pigeonholing them into tours with pop-punk and screamo bands.

“One of the last tours we did [for Drive-Thru], we were opening up for this band where all the dudes in it were 18, 19 years old. I think I was 25 or 26,” he said. “We used to play at five o’clock in the afternoon and it’d be a sold-out crowd, but there’d be kids falling asleep in the front of the stage waiting for us to be done. It was over their heads. It was rock and roll. They wanted pop punk.”

So House of Fools just kept touring, minus the support of Drive-Thru.

One of them was Peter Thall, who has counted Billy Joel, Weezer and Will Smith among his clients. According to King, Thall asked for $1,500 to make their contract go away. The band paid the money and then said they never heard from Thall again. They had one more legal avenue, however. Pinto Coates Kyre & Brown, a Greensboro firm that specializes in personal injury, not entertainment, and also employs Deb Bowers, mother of keyboardist Matt Bowers, came to their rescue.

Since House of Fools originally signed their contract in the state of North Carolina, once PCK&B served Drive-Thru with a court summons in early 2011, they would have been required to contest it in North Carolina. For a label that’s been listed as “on hiatus” since 2009, there was little incentive to fight this bucking horse. So they relented, and House of Fools was free.

Now they just had to do it on their own, but that wouldn’t be a problem because that had already been the case for a long time. The band had been sitting on a pile of 70-plus songs for the past two years, all demo-ed and tracked live in their home studio, many intended for Drive-Thru, but to the band, they had already grown stale.

“I don’t even know what I was talking about then. They’re old news,” King said. “So we started from scratch on a whole new album.”

That album is entitled Versus the Beast, a name that carries with it obvious implications. McLaughlin calls it the band’s rock album, but it is also therapeutic in that regard. Produced entirely at home by the band The band themselves, it tapped into the represents the associations they made melodic ideas and lyrical while on the road and got onto tours with other working bands. They toured the Southeast with alt-country quartet Limbeck and played through the Midwest with Los Angeles progrockers Particle all while battling the label, and enduring what Kiser referred to as the “House of Fools curse.”

“We had our first manager quit over frustration from dealing with the label, then the person who signed us to our publishing deal themes that resonate the most with House of Fools across 13 tracks. The specter of playing to pop-punk and metal crowds is long gone; the guys have gotten back to the music they set out to play in the beginning. Whether or not another label comes calling, this is the House of Fools sound.

“If we got a good offer, we’d love to have some help,” King said. “But it’d have to be pretty f**king good at this point.” with Universal got cancer, recovered and then got fired,” Kiser said. “We hired attorneys and they just tended to disappear on us.”

House of Fools releases Versus The Beast on Friday, Dec. 30 at Greene Street Club.

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