I’ve spoken before of ESDMusic.com, one of the blog sites connected to my full-time employer, Bullz-Eye.com, to which I contribute. These days, ESD Music exists predominantly as an alternate haven for Bullz-Eye’s quick-take CD reviews, but once upon a time, we tried valiantly to make it into a regular stop for music fans a la Popdose; it never really took off the way we wanted, which is why it’s currently little more than a ghost town, content-wise, but we did occasionally produce work that caught the eye of ‘net surfers. I continue to remain surprised by one of my postings, however, if only because it was an entry from a short-lived feature called “Lost Bands.” I mean, you’d figure that something about a lost band wouldn’t score much love. But I wrote it in September 2006, and as of last month, it was still getting the occasional response from people who were accidentally stumbling upon it as a result of an internet search.
It just goes to show you: just because a band is perceived as “lost” doesn’t mean they don’t still have fans out there…and that’s clearly true for the Gunbunnies.
Here’s what I wrote of them at the time:
Like so many disaffected teens with a jones for new music, I spent some time working in music retail…and one of the many bands I discovered during this era (1989 – 1994, with some time off to attend college) was the Gunbunnies. Signed to Virgin Records back in the days when the label was flooding stores with promotional copies of albums by their new artists, we scored both cassette and CD promos of their debut album, Paw Paw Patch, and it’s clear Virgin had high hopes for these guys. Their single, “Stranded,” was picking up quite a bit of college radio airplay, and the critics were loving the fact that the album was produced by the legendary Jim Dickinson (Big Star, the Rolling Stones, the Replacements). Plus, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Chris Maxwell, had put together 10 songs that could hold their own with bands like Guadalcanal Diary, House of Freaks, and the like…and although he had a highly competent band behind him, Maxwell was practically a one-man band; he played guitar, harmonica, trumpet, and electric sitar on the album! Poised for success…? Yeah, not so much. The Gunbunnies disappeared after Paw Paw Patch…and I mean really disappeared. Not only was there no follow-up album on Virgin, there was no follow-up, period. Maxwell didn’t even go solo; he just vanished. Well, okay, he didn’t vanish vanish; if AllMusic.com can be trusted (and they usually can), he left music altogether for about five years, then returned to play bass for They Might Be Giants and to do some production work for artists like the Lunachicks…but, of course, that’s if this is the same Chris Maxwell. Can anyone confirm or deny…?
Okay, first off, I was younger and more naive in 2006, because I feel quite strongly now that AllMusic.com is no more trustworthy than IMDb.com, which is to say that it’s only as accurate as its researchers. But even now, their entry on Chris Maxwell is sorely lacking. Don’t bother writing in to say, “Didn’t you know that he was in Skeleton Key?” And don’t waste your time asking, “Don’t you know that he and Phil Hernandez make up the production duo known as The Elegant Too?” Granted, I didn’t know either of these things when I wrote that piece, but I certainly do now. Indeed, I actually found Mr. Maxwell via The Elegant Too’s MySpace page, where he thoughtfully answered a few questions for me. But before we get to those, let’s talk about the album itself a bit more.
Paw Paw Patch was an album which landed in the midst of a surge in my appreciation of American bands, specifically those of the jangly variety. Since The Beatles were the band that really got me into music in the first place, I’d always preferred the British pop artists, but falling in love with R.E.M. in ’86 caused me to take notice of some of their musical brethren from Athens, GA; from there, I just started enjoying anyone with a bit of jangle and twang to their sound, including the Connells, Dreams So Real, Don Dixon, and so forth and so on. Listening to the Gunbunnies now, though, it’s far more evident to me how different they were from the other artists of their era, particularly from a musical standpoint. Check out the opening track on Paw Paw Patch, “Put A Tail On Your Kite,” and listen to the very unexpected instrument that emerges at the 2:30 mark; it’ll make you laugh out loud, but that actually kinda works within the context of a song which suggests to the listener that they “smile when they can.” The pop sensibilities of the band weave in and out of the record (I’ve always particularly dug the chorus of “3 Days Behind“), sometimes stronger than others, but the variety of the music keeps things consistently interesting.
When I talked to Maxwell, it was clear that he wasn’t exactly thrilled with the band’s recorded legacy. Not that he minded talking about it, but as far as his thoughts about how it turned out…? Well, let’s just say that I’ve probably gotten more mileage out of Paw Paw Patch over the years than he has.
How did the Gunbunnies first come into existence?
I was in another band at the time called Jubilee Dive. That band did a lot to open up the clubs to bands to original music. In fact, I don’t think there was a club that let you play anything but top 40 and blues. But the band had started to wear thin for different reasons. I wanted to play music that was more visceral. And there were a group of guys I really liked hanging out with.
When you guys were signed to Virgin, were you cynical or optimistic about your chances at superstardom?
We knew we weren’t a superstardom band, but I wouldn’t say we were cynical.
You guys had a unique sound, with some decidedly different instrumentation at times, including bass clarinet. (Plus, how many bands in 1990 had two different members earning credit for playing electric sitar?) Was that something the members brought to the table before the band was founded, or did your talents emerge as you entered the studio?
Our producer Jim Dickinson played a big part in introducing those ideas.
How did Jim Dickinson come to produce the album, and were you already familiar with his formidable resume before he arrived?
Oh yeah, I had two guys I really wanted to do it: T-Bone Burnett or Jim Dickinson. I was a huge fan of both of those guys.
Do you have any anecdotes from the sessions?
Well, the first thing Dickinson did was invoice the record company for unnecessary tape costs that went to buy a huge bag of weed. And wouldn’t start until we had it. There are lots of great memories from that time. I just wish we had made a better record. Dickinson actually apologized for how he produced that record.
“Stranded” was the emphasis track from the album, but would that have been your pick? Were there other songs that you thought would’ve been good single choices?
“Stranded” was the best choice. “Little Drops Of Water” would’ve been good if it hadn’t come out so sterile.
How well do you think the album captured your live sound?
Not at all. We actually went into UALR’s recital hall and recorded a bunch of songs just to have a better document of it.
When you think of your musical peers from the era, what names leap to mind? (I ask this because when *I* think of you guys, it’s in the same mindset as bands like House of Freaks or Guadalcanal Diary.)
I guess The Replacements and Husker Du come to mind.
I know a lot of bands have hellish memories of their major-label experiences, but was there any specific moment when you found yourself thinking, “This is not going to happen”?
Yeah, right at the time the record came out I got a call from our A&R guy saying that he and the whole NY Virgin office had been fired.
What have you been doing post-Gunbunnies, and do you keep in touch with any of your former bandmates?
I made a couple of records for Capitol with a band called Skeleton Key. And then started a music production company that’s going strong. Check out www.eleganttoo.com.