Let it never be said that we here at Popdose don’t unabashedly cannibalize each other’s ideas…and our readership’s ideas, too!
After I posted my all-covers edition of Mix Disc Friday, which included the Judybats’ take on Gary Numan’s “Cars,” Reader Rich observed that “someone should do a ‘Why You Should Like’ on them,” and our man John Hughes…sorry, John C. Hughes…accepted the gauntlet that Reader Rich had thrown down. In less than a week’s time, Mr. Hughes had indeed produced such a column, providing an exemplary look back at the band’s major-label work. I was crestfallen, however, when he offered almost no mention of the band’s last recorded effort, Judybats ’00. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like he ignored it altogether, but he simply said this:
The Judybats dissolved after Full-Empty, only to half-heartedly reunite for a final album under the Judybats name in 2000 (this version only featured Heiskell and guitarist Johnny Sughrue).
Actually, it doesn’t even include Sughrue…or, at least, he’s not mentioned in the credits. In Mr. Hughes’ defense, however, the album is out of print and almost impossible to come by, its independent release occurring so far under the radar that it’s not referenced in either their AllMusic.com profile or their Wikipedia entry, so maybe he was just going from a word-of-mouth report. But according to my copy of the disc, Heiskell was the only original member of the band to carry over, with the new line-up featuring Rob Bell (bass), Doug Hairrell (guitar), Mike Hairrell (drums), and Reed Pendleton (guitar). In fact, I remember noting this at the time, finding myself torn between being totally psyched about a new Judybats album and thinking it was a little misleading to release what essentially a Jeff Heiskell solo album under the Judybats moniker. If you’re in the same camp, you’ll leave this piece with considerably more understanding about why things went down the way they did with Judybats ’00…but, first, let’s check out the album itself.
From its opening track, “Shine,” it’s clear that the powerful pop hooks which were so key to the “Judybats sound” yet were so lacking on the band’s final major-label record, Full/Empty, are back in earnest. There are several great nuggets like this scattered throughout the album, with the best being “Break My Heart” (which starts off sounding reminiscent of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”), “Always,” and “California,” which unapologetically rhymes its title with “warn ya,” “scorn ya,” and “porn ya.” It might make some people cringe and call Heiskell out as a lazy lyricist, but, hell, I probably liked the song more because of those rhymes. And, besides, the guy clearly isn’t skimping when it comes to his compositions, based on “Always,” which has this particularly great couplet:
The places that we used to love torn down
Anachronistic me, another footnote to this town
Whether it’s good or bad is a personal call, but the guitars on Judybats ’00 are louder and dirtier than they’ve ever been (which, granted, still doesn’t mean they’re rocking that hard), and Heiskell’s voice seems unusually high up in the mix. I don’t really have a problem with either, but I still have to admit that the word “sparkling” is generally not one that would come up when describing most of the production here. There is, however, at least one track – “Hiding From The Face Of God” – which has shimmering guitar work that can only have come from Heiskell saying, “I want this to sound like something from Native Son.” There’s a certain amount of that classic ‘Bats sound on the choruses of “California” as well, but “God” is really where old-school fans will find themselves going, “Oh, yeah, that’s the stuff…”
I can understand why some Judybats fans might be slow to embrace Judybats ’00. Some of them probably prefer a more polished sound, while others…well, let’s be honest: some probably still felt burned after the disappointment of the too-languid-by-half Full/Empty. I’ve since gone back to that record and found some underrated gems, including “Sorry Counts,” but I gotta tell ya that, even as a huge fan, it’s still the Judybats album I come back to the least. But while Judybats ’00 isn’t entirely what you’d call a full-on return to form (it’s not nearly as quirky as those earlier records), the overall strength of the songs are more than enough for me to find myself spinning it just as often as the band’s first three releases.
I dropped Mr. Heiskell an E-mail through his MySpace page and asked if he’d be willing to answer a few questions about the later days of his former band, and he gladly agreed. Even more impressively, he provided his answers in less than 24 hours, along with a brief note…
Wasn’t planning on doing this today, but I have. Completed in between sitting down in my basement playing guitar, smoking reds, and drinking cheap beer. Had a great day in the studio doing vocals – productive as can be. Prepare yourself for my responses below in bold. I’ve been very frank, given things to you not previously disclosed.
He’s not kidding around. Frankness is definitely the order of the day. I don’t know if I gave him an opportunity to open up that he’d been looking for, or if he was just so charmed by the sweet MySpace profile picture of my daughter and I that he decided not to hold anything back (she is a cute little girl), but whatever the case, this is indeed Heiskell’s unexpurgated version of how the Judybats fell apart, returned from the dead, and had their name retired once more…probably permanently this time. Then again, one never knows what the future might hold…
Okay, actually, my first question is one that’s not actually about Judybats ’00, but it’s one I’ve been wondering about for over a decade: what the hell happened to the Judybats between Pain Makes You Beautiful and Full/Empty? Because, wow, for the most part, those albums sound so unlike each other that it’s like they were recorded by two completely different bands!
Dave Jenkins and Paul Noe were tearing this band apart, and the producer we used on the last record (Paul Mahern) was chosen because he was cheap; he was also supposed to have some type of indie cachet at the time. I was writing something apart from the band that was causing me quite a bit of distress, but more on that in a moment. I have always wanted to do a record with Mitchell Froom. American Music Club’s Mercury is my favorite record of all time. Our manager had told me prior to the Full/Empty recording that attempts to reach Froom had gleaned no results. Secretly, I made some phone calls, got an address for him, and sent him a tape of demo material. I was washing dishes at the condo in Indiana, during the Full/Empty recording period, getting ready to go to the studio. The phone rang. I answered it to hear Mitchell Froom saying that he’d phoned my roommate and gotten this number and that he liked the songs, thought several of them needed work. I had to tell him that we were already deep into recording with someone else. A dark day for Heiskell.
What led to the breakup of the major-label line-up of the band?
I dissolved the band. The last tour was a nightmare of panic attacks and depression. I was in the process of writing a screenplay based on some incidences which occurred when I was a teenager in rural central Florida. This screenplay saw me an emotional wreck for nearly two years. Paul and David, meanwhile, had convinced me that Johnny Sughrue and Ed Winters were talentless junk and that I needed to break up the band to form a new band with them. Golly, but what a sick, divisive pair. What I have not gone public about before but will now is that Paul and David involved me in a short term – near month long – cocaine addiction while on the last tour. This was my first and last experience with this drug. By the time the tour ended I weighed 157 pounds – I’m nearly six feet tall – and could scarcely go out during the day for fear of having a bout of serious anxiety. Also, Warner/Reprise was culling their line up of artists. We were one to be culled. The idea of running about playing shows for schmucks in an attempt to get signed again made me break out in a sweat just thinking about it. And I was convinced that my life had become nothing more that trying to write the next college radio jingle of the week. So the breaking up of the band was due, I suppose, to a certain existential crisis on my part, one fueled by the influences of shitty people.
I’m of the impression that you pretty much moved straight from the Judybats into Doubters Club. What are your thoughts about the Fleur-de-Lisa album now? Do you feel like you succeeded in “escaping” from the Judybats and the whole major-label experience?
The title song from the Doubters Club album I very much still like. But otherwise, quite overwrought. Witness Dave Jenkins pretending to be a producer.
Escape? More like out of the frying pan and into the fire. Soon after the Fleur CD came out, Dave and Paul moved off to Nashville, hiding from me the fact that they had started another band on the side, taking all of the equipment with them. Something akin to slipping off into the night. I had invested one-third in the recording equipment we used. I was left with a tambourine and a microphone. No stand for the microphone, mind you. Bitches even took my pawn shop Moog synthesizer.
What were you doing between Fleur-de-Lisa and Judybats ’00, and what made you decide the time was right to revive the band name?
Someone with loads of money met my salary at my job for a year if I would do another Judybats record. What I didn’t anticipate was that he would want to drag his dick all over it. There were four guys in the line up, so there was enough dick as it was.
Normally, I’d ask if you recall any particularly entertaining anecdotes from the recording experience, but am I correct in understanding that the album was basically just solo demos that became an album?
We actually went to a studio up North. Do you have the original CD? It should say where. “Shine” and “Full Forward Angel” were recorded at a tiny basement studio on the edge of Knoxville.
Did you have any hesitation about using the Judybats name when it was basically a whole new line-up? Did you consider trying to get any of the old gang involved again?
I was not so keen on using the old name. Other musicians are drawn to me as someone once-almost-famous in most cases; ditto with this line up and the thinking that if we use the Judybats name we’ll become almost famous too. Yuck.
What are your favorite songs from the record?
“Full Forward Angel” & “You’re Too Much.”
I saw you guys play on the tour you did to support the record – it was in Town Point Park, in Norfolk, VA – and the crowd that was there was, as I recall, pretty enthusiastic. Was it live performances that resulted in most of your sales for Judybats ’00?
Yes, we sold most of them when playing out.
Given how much I love the record, I am legitimately shocked to discover that it seems to be all but unknown, even on the internet. Do you personally think Judybats ’00 deserves reappraisal, or is its online obscurity something you’ve personally spearheaded to bury it from historical records?
Hmm. Do you think I should replicate and have this for sale on the heiskellmusic.com website? I’ve thought about this. Perhaps I will. Working on this new CD is taking much of my time…lately, near all of my time.
How’s the Heiskell album been doing for you, and why did you finally decide to use your own name rather than stick with the more familiar (at least in the cooler circles, anyway) Judybats name?
I have done well with the Heiskell CD, but it was like pulling teeth to get this to happen, thus no more writing with the Hairrells (guitarist Doug Hairrell and drummer Mike Hairrell), i.e. I am in a serious ‘future-soccer-dad’-free zone. The Soundtrack for an Aneurysm record is somewhat of a sombre affair. I’ve gotten great response from it, however.
I did not feel comfortable carrying on the Judybats name with my being the only member. I didn’t really feel that comfortable with it when the ’00 record was released, either. A millionaire control freak backed that project financially, so I felt that I had to follow his lead. I follow no one’s lead now. The next CD is songs I have written myself, along with a few juicy covers. Also, using the Judybats as a name for my music would be a nod to nostalgia. Hell, though, if this would make my next CD sell well, then perhaps I should use it. I’ve found that one is never too old to start being a whore.
And, lastly, given all the songs you recorded with the Judybats over the years and the various clever, poignant, bittersweet lyrics that you composed, do you die a little inside when someone says, “But, you know, my absolute favorite Judybats song is ‘Alliwannadois Fuck You Hair’?”
Yes. My rectum draws up tight like a little antique button.