Truck Stop Love then and now (yes, now), as told by everyone who was there
Some unsung bands get to look back nobly upon one genuine “almost made it” moment.
Then there’s Truck Stop Love.
A country-tinged rock band from Manhattan, Kansas, could expect few favors in 1990, yet odd blessings seemed to rain down on this quartet from the Sunflower State’s other college town. The first demo by bassist and singer Brad Huhmann, drummer (and, later, Pitch contributor) Eric Melin, guitarist and singer Matt Mozier, and guitarist and singer Rich Yarges was good enough for entry into an MTV competition. TSL’s second demo got the band picked up by a national label. Being on that label led to a TSL version of “You Got Lucky” placed on a tribute album to Tom Petty that saw broad distribution.
But each blessing came with a curse. That MTV competition, Dodge’s Rockin’ Campus Bash, was part of an anti–drunk driving campaign; when the four men took their turn on its stage — in Dallas in February 1992 — they’d been drinking for the better part of four hours. They did not win. The national label to which TSL signed was Scotti Bros., with a roster topped by “Weird Al” Yankovic and no knack for breaking Midwestern rock acts. The tribute disc was just one among a glut of similar crazy-quilt appreciations and is long out of print.
There would be two releases on Scotti Bros. — a self-titled EP, in 1993, and, two years later, How I Spent My Summer Vacation — before the end came, in 1996. (Just ahead of the breakup, there was also a 7-inch split with Action Man.) Truck Stop Love played a series of reunion shows in 2004, but that was seemingly it — until TSL’s latest unexpected reversal.
Kansas City’s Black Site Records announced this past summer that it would release a collection of songs from the band’s early days. Can’t Hear It: 1991-1994 features the first three songs off that 1991 demo, along with eight other lost tracks: raucous demo versions of classics like “Stagnation,” never-released songs such as “Tommy” and “After Hours Party.” The sound reveals a band working the right side of raw; for those familiar with the Scotti Bros. recordings, the intensity of the 11 songs on Can’t Hear It will come as a pleasant surprise. Even the cuts that don’t differ much, such as “River Mountain Love,” benefit from being unburdened of their 1990s overproduction. The result is a valentine to longtime fans that’s also a fantastic introduction for the newly curious.
To get an overview of Truck Stop Love’s history, and how Can’t Hear It came to be, I talked with Huhmann, Melin, Mozier and Yarges. I also posed questions to Jim Crego, who replaced Mozier; Black Site’s L. Ron Drunkard; engineer Ed Rose; and Kliph Scurlock, who mastered the tracks.
The Pitch: In the band’s early days, writers twisted themselves into knots to describe Truck Stop Love’s sound.
Brad Huhmann: I seem to remember a review comparing us to Pure Prairie League. I’m sure sure they thought that was a put-down, but I liked it. Reviewers back then liked to put us down because we weren’t cool. We were from Manhattan, not Lawrence or KC, so some regional media would pull out the most far-fetched comparisons, perhaps not realizing that we did, in fact, appreciate the bands that they were hoping to use to insult us with.
Eric Melin: “As if Gomer Pyle had grown up on a steady diet of Nirvana and Mudhoney.” — The Note.
Jim Crego: I was a fan and friend first. I always thought they had a sort of Dinosaur Jr. thing happening.
The group was also fairly well known in the press for alcoholic exploits. Was it real or an act?
Melin: If only. Our first all-ages show, in Lacrosse, Wisconsin, we were first of three bands and weren’t used to the crowd being mostly kids, so we went downstairs from the venue to a bar to get warmed up. When we started the show toasty and fired up, the kids were sitting down. We played a song, and they didn’t move, so Rich introduced the next song: “This one is called ‘The Liquor Has Hardened Me.’ But you wouldn’t know anything about that cuz you’re all fuckin’ 12.”
Rich Yarges: We wanted to be the Replacements, right on down to the sloppy-drunk shows — not only us, but our fans put it away as well.
Huhmann: I don’t believe we were that much different than other kids in school. Well, maybe a little.
In a 1992 Kansas State University Collegian article, writer Shawn Bruce quoted Huhmann before their performance as part of Dodge’s Rockin’ Campus Bash: “‘I can’t believe we’re getting fucked up to play on MTV,’ says Huhmann just before losing his balance and almost falling to the ground.”
Matt Mozier: I think it was certainly more true for some of us than others. It sort of became, I think, a self-fulfilling prophecy. In our daily lives, we were pretty straight, but when we got together, we tended to feed off each other in that regard.
The band recorded more than 50 demos over the course of its existence, many of which never saw release. In retrospect, it seems kind of amazing that a local band would record so often, only to release so little in the age before limitless digital storage.
Yarges: The first two demos, we did ourselves. Brad had a 4-track reel-to-reel that we used. Although that first demo has its DIY charm, I don’t know that I would necessarily consider that “studio time.” I actually dubbed all the copies we sold on my own cassette deck. The demo that got us signed, we recorded at Red House. That’s where we would do the rest of our demos.
Scotti Bros. paid for us to go to Red House several times to record demos for How I Spent My Summer Vacation. One visit we recorded live everything we had written. That’s where the bulk of the unreleased material is from.
Mozier: We always were lucky to have access to some kind of recording apparatus, be it cassette, reel-to-reel or whatever. We were signed to a label relatively early in the process, so they wanted previews of our new material. That’s where some of the best unreleased stuff came in, as far as I’m concerned. The stuff we recorded at Red House with Ed in 1994 caught us at the top of our game, bandwise. We’d been playing together constantly, and it showed.
Huhmann: Back then we had to rely on the label to release material. We always thought our songs were great, so why not put them out somehow, right? The label had a different view.
Melin: We were crazy prolific, and we wanted to get songs down while they were fresh. The demos may be raw, but the playing is more impassioned than the major-label versions that came later. We had that DIY attitude. The first one was recorded after hours in the back of a record store, and the second one in a living room. Our first Red House recording with Ed turned out so good, we kept going back every time we had a new batch of tunes.
Ed Rose: These recordings were simply demos, with the goal being to get the songs in front of a set of ears that could lead them to the next level. If I recall correctly, most of what we did were just demos — the outliers being the Tom Petty and Micronotz covers. The typical session format was to cut the instrumental tracks live, then fix any bad spots, then overdub vocals, solos, etc., then quickly mix. I’d guess we were spending less than an hour per song. Pretty simple.
Yarges: Can’t Hear It is more like what our live sound was: raw and a lot of energy. Our self-titled EP was way too glossy. It sounds good but it’s not really us. Summer Vacation was much closer to capturing our sound. With Summer Vacation, we put our foot down and made the record we wanted to. We sought out the producer we wanted in Jody Stephens, drummer from Big Star, and one of our heroes, picked the songs, had say over all the arrangements and the mixing.
The collection of songs which would eventually spawn Can’t Hear It actually started life as a simple exercise to release some material online, but ended up being a nearly yearlong process.
Melin: We originally were going to just put out the first Red House demo — the one that got us signed — but there were so many other standouts from other demos, we decided that if we only got one chance to put out an LP, it should be a best-of from the early years.
Kliph Scurlock: The original project was to get all of their recordings digitized and spiffed up and mastered to be offered on Bandcamp, so I worked on those individual records over the span of two or three months as tapes were dug up, and between other projects I was working on. Once the physical LP became a thing and they had agreed on a track listing, it took me the better part of a day to master the tracks for the LP master.
Huhmann: I’m not sure why Kliph wanted to remix these songs, but he did a fabulous job of it. Then when I heard them I asked Eric if maybe we should put some of them out on vinyl. I had been helping my friends [and former bandmates] in Red Kate get the Black Site cooperative label off the ground, so I suggested maybe putting out this Truck Stop Love record, and they said yes.
L. Ron Drunkard: Putting out a record takes a long time. There are a lot of steps, and though the backlog at pressing plants is better than it was, it’s still a four-month turnaround time, minimum. Plus, you really have to build in a one-month cushion because things can go wrong at any number of steps along the way. Throw in the extra time it takes to coordinate with a band whose members live in different parts of the country, and it easily becomes a nine- to 10-month time frame from conception to completion.
The process of weeding out and going through the recordings brought up memories for everyone involved.
Mozier: After listening to the recordings after over 20 years — many of which I hadn’t heard since we had recorded them — I was kind of blown away by the power and tightness of some of those recordings. In my memory, we were sort of sloppy and intoxicated, but hearing them fresh, we were tight, hard and fast.
Melin: They’ve aged well: the spirit, the intensity, the playing, the sounds and tones of the guitars. Some shit is so stale-sounding these days. They [these songs] reflect well on that amazing, brief moment in time when bands who grew up listening to SST and Twin/Tone records could be inspired to make their own music, and people would listen.
Huhmann: The songs on this LP are more the way we’d have liked them released, but we didn’t have that option back them. Scotti Bros. wanted a more polished TSL, but TSL was best with the least polish possible, I think.
Yarges: It’s nostalgic, for sure. I miss playing a lot of those songs. It definitely brings me back to the early 1990s. Pretty proud of all of this, too, and the fact that I was blessed with four other guys with the same vision to share this with.
Rose: In addition to helping with the recordings, I was at pretty much every gig they played in Lawrence, and there are a lot of happy memories attached to those shows.
The upcoming release shows for Can’t Hear It mark the band’s first appearance in 13 years, and Truck Stop Love seems just as excited to play as people are to attend.
Crego: We all love each other and are stoked to play together again! Before Matt left, there was a lot of tension in the band. It’s long gone now. We all appreciate any chance to play these great songs for everyone, and we’re very excited to see who shows up. I’d play with these guys to a crowd of zero for no money, any day of any week.
Truck Stop Love
with Red Kate and Chris Tolle
Thursday, November 16, at Auntie Mae’s
with Pedaljets, Red Kate and Chris Tolle
Friday, November 17 at RecordBar
with Red Kate, Headlight Rivals and Hannah Norris
Saturday, November 18, at the Bottleneck