To Major-Label Hell and Back
Handsome Devil's impossibly coiffed frontman, Danny Walker, has run the rock & roll gauntlet in reverse. His first brush with fame came when he played guitar in Wank, a once-hot local band that released a Mike Ness-produced single, "Forgiven," a relaxed blast of OC pop-punk kissed with an undeniable groove. The song was picked up by KROQ, whose attention sparked a major-label bidding war. Madonna's Maverick imprint won out, and rumors of the amount of the signing put the figure in the millions.
But Wank's resulting debut album didn't sell as well as anyone hoped, and after a short tour the group parted ways with Maverick and disbanded. Walker's next band, Handsome Devil, which also features former Wank guitarist Billie Stevens, started out ahead of the game when Lit's Jeremy Popoff signed the band to his label Dirty Martini—a subsidiary of RCA—and produced their first album, Love and Kisses From the Underground. The band toured for over a year. The last two times I saw them, they were preparing for an appearance on the Craig Kilborn show in late 2001 and were hanging out backstage on the 2002 Warped Tour.
Things are quite a bit less tony these days. Both the band and Dirty Martini were dropped from RCA. Handsome Devil are now unsigned and selling their new album, Knock Yourself Out, on the internet, doing all the arduous legwork themselves. They're back in their day jobs as well. Walker, who now has a wife and baby, is an HVAC (air conditioning) dispatcher. Drummer Keith Morgan does telephone sales. Stevens is getting a recording studio up and running in Lake Elsinore, and new bassist Brian Wedmore works with computers.
On the first track off the new disc, which as a whole is slower and more measured than their previous work (a side effect of writing punk songs on the road on an acoustic guitar), Walker sings about a determined ghost with a bad attitude: "Well, guess who's in the neighborhood/I don't need your fancy invitation . . . I'm tired of these people/How they put me down/Here I am in your face/I'll prove them wrong," he sings on "Hello Somebody." It's hard to imagine that Walker himself doesn't feel like an uninvited guest sometimes, though he describes the song strictly as a narrative.
Walker salts his songs with characters drawn to the dark side, yet he remains remarkably glass-half-full about everything. Instead of feeling bitter about the way the music industry kicked him in the nuts and left him for dead, he's glad for the experience.
"The great thing about the opportunity we had [to release Handsome Devil's debut on a major label] is that we were able to tour and become a better band and really build a base. It's almost a blessing in disguise, because now we get to call our own shots. We're lucky to be where we're at, and we're really excited about the new one."
But he's not all chicken soup for the music-industry-screwed soul. About booking his own shows again, he says: "It's interesting. I hate it, but I've done it before. It's just like getting back on a bike, but it's tough dealing with promoters. It's a conflict, because I don't want to worry about the number of people coming in and percentages of the door—I want to think about playing a show or drinking a beer and getting psyched up about performing. I want to be rock & roll, but then I also have to be business, so it's a conflict, and you end up not doing either right.
"I'm learning that rock & roll is a lot of work, more work than people think it is. I don't think I've ever worked this hard as far as trying to get attention for a band. But it's rewarding."
Part of the reason for his considerably healthy outlook is that he doesn't delude himself into thinking record labels are anything other than what they really are: bloodless mercenary pimps who would sell their firstborn for hefty SoundScan figures. No, no—kidding, kidding!
"Billie and I had been through (getting dropped from a label) before. It's always a little traumatizing, but the first time is the toughest. With Handsome Devil, I expected we'd be dropped because we didn't sell platinum, and I know labels aren't going to keep you unless you're selling. We were pretty much done just based on sales."
So if Walker, who grew up in Orange County and opened for Sonic Youth at Safari Sam's with his Beatles cover band Norwegian Wood when he was 13, had to sum up all his music industry knowledge into three axioms, what would they be?
"Be yourself, and don't necessarily jump on a tip. If you think somebody's really cool, you don't have to be like them. Be yourself so you can be consistent.
"Don't spend a lot of money when you tour, period. The less you spend, the longer you can tour.
"Don't sign anything with managers or labels or attorneys until you've had it reviewed by a few people."
Oh, wait—there are two more.
"If you're booking a show yourself, try to get an agreement to get paid ahead of time. Don't sell yourself short. At least get covered for gas money.
"And own your own domain name."
Walker could probably write a book. But he'd rather play music.
"The music industry is a fun one, but it's a curse to love music and to want to be in the music business, because you could limit yourself for fear of becoming too committed to other things. To commit to a career and work really hard toward being a company man somewhere, that isn't going to happen for you if you're trying to go on tour. You'll never be part of that system. I'll always have the dream, though, because music is just always exciting."
Handsome Devil perform with Naked Movie Star, Chaser and Sidekick at Fitzgerald's, 19171 Magnolia St., Huntington Beach, (714) 968-4523. Sat., 9:30 p.m. Call for cover. 21+.
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