Tim Scanlin wanted nothing more than to sign to a major label. It was the late Nineties, after all — the era of post-Nirvana afterglow when underground rock bands were being snatched up left and right. Labels were scouring the country for the next big thing while bands like Scanlin's Actionslacks were on their own quest for heftier paychecks, bigger audiences, and better vans.
"For me, personally, it was something we totally aspired to," said Scanlin, who'd been raised on American indie bands like Hüsker Dü, Fugazi, and Guided by Voices. "We totally wanted to play with these bands. We wanted to go on the road and live that dream." The East Bay band found a manager in Los Angeles, cultivated a loyal fan base, and released a consistent string of records beginning with 1995's Too Bright Just Right Goodnight. They opened for and toured extensively with groups like Jets to Brazil, Death Cab for Cutie, Buffalo Tom, Superdrag, Harvey Danger, and the Promise Ring, fellow indie rockers who joined in reaching for the brass ring in the Nineties.
"We got to support a lot of really, really great bands," Scanlin recalled. "I think at a certain point we realized you don't want to be the bridesmaid forever. You want to be the headliner." But it wasn't to be. Despite passing interest from a number of labels, the band and its personal, literate indie rock never broke through.
That wasn't always an easy thing to accept. "I personally was convinced that in order to succeed we had to get a major-label publishing deal," Scanlin admitted. "Now I don't think that would've been the best thing for us." No argument from Actionslacks cofounder and twin pillar Marty Kelly (they got together in 1994 after Scanlin placed a drummer wanted ad in the Express), though he was never quite as adamant about signing in the first place. If they'd formed just a year earlier, he thinks — better timed with the trends and the initial wave of signings — their fate would've been sealed.
"We probably would've got a deal and probably would've got dropped after a year," Kelly said, imagining they wouldn't have sold enough records to stay on board. And that, Scanlin and Kelly concur, could've been the end of the band.
Of course that's conjecture, but Scanlin and Kelly say they couldn't be happier with the way things turned out. Poised to celebrate their fifteenth anniversary next week at Bottom of the Hill, the Actionslacks are in the midst of setting their sails on a proverbial second wind. Their aspirations surely aren't as grand, but according to Kelly the music is coming more naturally than ever.
"I feel like we're having a renaissance," Scanlin agreed. "We're back to where we were in '94 in our practice space in Emeryville. It's like, 'I just want to have a beer and rock out with you.'" The reason? Good old-fashioned maturity. Careers and families. Real responsibilities. This means work is work and rock is rock. Or, as Scanlin puts it, "We're no longer worried about putting food on the table for ourselves and our families." That duty now falls to Scanlin's position as co-CEO of the music publishing company he founded. And Kelly's job as a university librarian. Bassist Ross Murray, who joined the band in 1999, is getting his MBA. Guitarist Chuck Lindo, who joined last in 2002, is creative director of his own sound design company.
So while the guitars may sound as loud as they ever did and the melodies just as sweet, the band is assuredly not back in that old warehouse at 60th and San Pablo where it rehearsed every week for seven years. Instead, the four current members live more like family men in Los Angeles (Scanlin), Maine (Kelly), San Francisco (Lindo), and the band's former home of Berkeley (Murray), where Scanlin dwelled for thirteen years before heading south.
Given this geographical dispersion, meeting up every now and then proves a significant challenge. "Just getting us all in the same room is a major logistical undertaking," Scanlin said. "It's what you gotta deal with when you're rockin' in your late thirties and forties." As such, the forthcoming Bottom of the Hill show is the only show the band will play this year. The four members are getting together to record a new EP at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco — where owner John Vanderslice is a friend and longtime supporter — and decided to throw in the gig for good measure.
But first they've got five days in the studio to record six tracks, which might seem crazy considering they've hardly seen each other over the last year and a half, and primary songwriter Scanlin sent his bandmates files for the songs only a few weeks ago. Then again, they've done this before. In May of 2008, after a year of e-mails and conference calls but no physical rehearsals, the quartet convened at the same studio for the same task. It went swimmingly. Thanks to chemistry and chops honed during more trying times, they nailed the songs perfectly the first time around, Scanlin said, completing seven new numbers in seven days. Kids with Guitars, as the EP was called, marked the band's reappearance on a musical landscape vastly changed from the do-or-die environment in which the 'Slacks came up.
The 21st-century approach of releasing an EP every year, experimenting with pay-what-you-want models, and taking control of the recording process actually brings the Actionslacks even closer to their indie idols. A lot of their favorite bands worked that way, said Kelly — like Ohio's Guided by Voices, who used to write and record songs in hours. "You don't agonize over the snare sound for three months," he added, perhaps recalling the difficult three-year process that went into recording 2004's Full Upright Position.
Scanlin says he recently instituted a two-take rule in the studio, which should lend the new songs that elusive energy of spontaneity. "Having that kind of mandate is good for a band, because it's rock 'n' roll," he said. "That goes back to a larger trip that we're on right now, which is that it's rock 'n' roll and you don't need to get to uptight about it. Just kinda let it go."
The band learned it could do just that at the occasion that spawned its revival: After two years on hiatus due to family and career reasons, the Actionslacks got together in early 2007 for a few shows, including one at the Bottom of the Hill. They'd long considered the venue their spiritual home, especially after playing four of the first five Noise Pop festivals there. Despite the dearth of rehearsal time, the band members decided to let down their guard and just have fun. It ended up being one their best shows ever, and nothing's been the same since.
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