After running through two producers and two drummers, emptying their savings accounts, racking up a $200 speeding ticket en route to the studio and dedicating a year’s worth of vacations and weekends to the task, The Welterweights have finally completed their debut full-length, Here Goes Nothing. And that’s just the abridged list of mishaps, which leaves out a series of seemingly inscrutable omens.
“Elizabeth [Schoch, bass/vocals] woke up in the morning, and the first thing she saw when she looked out the hotel room window was a crow perched right outside the window,” confides lead guitarist and vocalist Corey Heider, listing the first of the bad signs under which the disc was born. “Then later that night we went to this martini bar, and the bartender dropped a whole tray of glasses about twenty feet away from us. Broken glass was everywhere, but it stopped at a line right at our feet. These might seem like stupid coincidences, but Elizabeth thought they were all omens of doom. You listen to the record and tell us. She might have something there.”
She doesn’t. Here Goes Nothing, which includes remastered songs from The Welterweights’ official debut, The Dress Rehearsal EP, and last year’s single “Hardly Used Car” as well as a smattering of freshly minted gems, delivers roots rock with a rock-solid emphasis on the rock half. Guitarist/vocalist Nathaniel Williams’ songs are intriguing narratives about people making the best of everyday life, but they’re tinged with bitter irony that occasionally adds a dark undercurrent to the stories. Still, the tunes’ hummable melodies and mild twang keeps them disarmingly friendly, which is fitting because Heider and Williams are longtime pals. The duo started playing together in The Petting Zoo before leaving Kirksville, Missouri, with Williams eventually ending up settling down in Kansas City, albeit by default.
“My wife, Aubrey, and I moved back to Kansas City around 1996, fresh out of college,” he explains. “Several of our friends from school had wound up relocating to New Mexico and were encouraging us to move out there, so we sent out resumes, got a few calls back and headed down for interviews. We drove there, and I got sick as a dog on the way down. Once we’d gone through all that, every single job fell through. The silver lining to the whole thing was, once we got back we decided to really make our life in KC. Had the trip not gone so horribly wrong, I probably never would have tried to start up a band.”
And that means that Williams’ voice might have never ended up gracing the airwaves in Belgium. Instead, DJ Ray Pieters discovered the group through a link on Rootsrock.com and requested a disc.
“He liked it enough to play it on his radio show,” Heider beams. “It’s pretty cool that that can happen today, that a band with no label support or distribution, doing everything themselves through the wonders of modern technology, can be stumbled upon and end up getting airplay on a foreign radio station. If nothing else, it gives schmucks like us the possibly false impression that all is not evil in the music business.” Williams remains dubious: “We’ve had to take Ray’s word on it that he actually plays us,” says the devil’s advocate. “He could just say that to all the Americans.”
They don’t come much more American — or Americana — than Lou Whitney, the Springfield, Missouri, institution who’s played with The Morells and The Skeletons and has worked with the likes of Robbie Fulks and KC’s own Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys, Hadacol and Boot Hill. Whitney produced half of Here Goes Nothing at The Studio in Springfield. J. Hall, a twenty-something young buck with impeccable indie-rock credentials, handled the other half. Surprisingly, if it weren’t for the asterisks denoting who did what, the difference between these knob-twisters’ styles would be imperceptible to an untrained ear.
“Lou is a 58-year-old guy who has learned his craft hands-on by working with great bands throughout the years dealing mainly with analog recording gear,” Heider summarizes. As for Hall, Williams says, “J.’s maybe a little more willing to try weird things. On ‘Hardly Used Car,’ I told him I wanted a fuzzy guitar sound. He said, ‘I got just the thing,’ takes off and returns with one of those little amplifiers built into a pack of cigarettes [Smokey Amps]. And we used it for the solo.”
The Welterweights also went through two drummers, both of whom play on Nothing. First, there’s the departed Dave Orvis, a high school friend of Williams who left for Philadelphia halfway through 2000 because of a job transfer. History is repeating itself now as drummer number two, Mark Gardner, is packing his bags for the same reasons, his destination being Champaign, Illinois.
“We knew this might happen,” Gardner laments. “I work in the construction business, and I was here on a two-year project with a good chance I would be able to stay for an expansion project. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.”
“Hmmm, that sounds familiar,” Heider says with a sigh. “We have this uncanny knack for finding drummers who are successful engineers in their day jobs. My vote for the next drummer is going to be the person who is the least successful tied-down slacker we can find.”
Williams concurs to some degree. “It’s punishment for choosing guys who actually have lives — jobs and family — beyond just being in a band,” he mourns. “It’d be nice to have a full-time drummer who’d stick around for the duration. That said, I’d rather play with guys like Dave and Mark and lose them than play with some joker who thinks a band’s his ticket to fame, drugs, babes and money. You have to hope for a happy medium: somebody who will make the band a priority but who’s also got both feet on the ground.”
Even when the band had a steady drummer, though, it still had the dilemma of finding a pedal steel player to play on “Madeline”; the task turned out to be easier done than said thanks to the local music community. After the group posted its help-wanted sign on The Zone’s forum, Colin MacMillan of the ska-inclined Brothers From Different Mothers volunteered the services of his dad, one Denny MacMillan.
“Here’s the cool thing,” Heider says. “Denny drives in from Lawrence having never heard the song, listens to it once and records maybe three tracks and that was it. We had all we needed. He’s just a fantastic, solid player. I think he’s more of a perfectionist than us and would’ve liked to do a few more takes to get it precise. But none of the rest of us play precisely, so why give him the chance?”
Finding a consummate professional pedal steel player was shockingly easy, so perhaps adding another drummer to the squad won’t be a major struggle, either. Regardless, The Welterweights, hardly down for the count, plan to play some acoustic shows after Gardner leaves in late August and to shop Here Goes Nothing to various labels. Heider notes that while nothing’s set in stone, The Welterweights do have a game plan, even if it’s a loose one: “We take it one slow Welterweights day at a time.”