Fairy Tales Do Come True

As a recording engineer about town and one of the two partners behind Kingsize Sound Labs, Dave Trumfio has seen his share of starry-eyed naivete from young bands anxious to hitch a ride on the alternative-rock express. He even took a sarcastic jab at the careerist mind-set in “Owed to a Devil,” a song by his own band, Pulsars: “A devil said to me / So you want to be a pop star / You better read my books / Go to my seminar / And kiss my pinkie ring.” So it’s ironic that less than a year after Dave formed Pulsars with his brother Harry, the two were at the center of a bidding war involving four labels and more money than anyone has thrown at a Chicago band since Veruca Salt, the last Next Big Thing.

“To tell you the truth, if I’m gonna sell out to a major label, I’m gonna fucking sell out,” Dave says, chuckling with satisfaction. He should be forgiven for gloating: The hook-happy, synth-driven Pulsars are more deserving than most cookie-cutter alternative bands. The duo’s experience indicates that the industry’s absurd pace hasn’t slowed a bit, and its voracious appetite for new and novel product is nowhere near sated.

Dave, 27, and Harry, 26, grew up in Mount Prospect, out in what Dave calls “O’Hareville.” They started playing in bands together in the fifth grade, and they listened to a lot of the same music, including mid-80s synth-pop like the Cure and New Order. Dave began making a name for himself a few years back by recording indie-rock releases for artists like the Mekons and Barbara Manning. If Kingsize didn’t quite have the reputation of Brad Wood’s Idful, it was well on its way to attaining it, thanks to the skills, patience, and all-around nice-guy attitudes of Dave and his partner, Mike Hagler.

Pulsars formed after Dave returned from a stint touring with Sally Timms last spring. “I was sick and tired of trying to play with other people,” Dave says. “I said to Harry, ‘Why don’t we start a band, just a duo?’ It was just for fun, like, ‘Let’s write some pop songs and put on a show!'”

Squat and stocky–not for nothing is his studio named Kingsize–Dave is an unlikely frontman whose nervous energy and goofy good humor are infectious. He sings and bashes away on guitar, cuing backing tapes and sequenced keyboard parts while Harry pounds drums in the background. The duo’s flair for crafting indelible melodies is obvious on Teenage Nites (Sweet Pea), the hard-to-find seven-inch EP that’s their only recorded offering to date. The disc includes two ultrahummable pop tunes–“Owed to a Devil,” one of the best sleazy music-industry songs since Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar,” and “Silicon Teens,” a tribute to the fictitious early-80s synth group created by Mute Records’ Daniel Miller–and two rather simple ambient soundscapes. It’s an endearing effort that brings to mind Gary Numan jamming with the Monkees, or what the Rentals might sound like if they were less shticky and much better songwriters.

The EP wasn’t out yet, and Dave and Harry hadn’t even compiled a proper demo tape last fall when Dave started engineering the TAG/Atlantic debut by orchestral popsters Yum-Yum. In between sessions, Yum-Yum’s A and R rep, John Rubeli, was sniffing out the local talent, and he asked Dave about this group called Pulsars. Dave quickly dubbed a cassette with nine tunes that he and Harry had recorded during downtime at the studio. Twenty-four hours later, TAG president Craig Kallman was on the phone with a deal. “They were offering us a decent entry-level kind of contract, but I was like, ‘Well, if this guy is flipping out this fast, I might as well play the cards a little,'” Dave says.

Pulsars started dancing with the devil. The band and its new manager John Henderson circulated some more tapes. “Within a month we had ten labels actively calling us and taking us out for dinners,” Dave says with a tone of happy bemusement. “We met with a bunch of labels and finally narrowed it down to four: Warner Brothers, Atlantic, Almo, and Outpost.” In the end, Pulsars chose Almo, the new label founded by former A&M honchos Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss. “We asked for our dream contract, and they basically gave us 98.8 percent of everything we asked for,” Dave says.

That’s one way to look at it. Michael Hill, an A and R rep at Warners, offers another: “They went for the money.” The Almo deal is for three albums, and it’s worth a staggering $2.5 million. This covers a $100,000 advance each plus $250,000 for recording the first album, $150,000 for two videos, $100,000 for new equipment, and $100,000 for tour support. The budgets are even higher for albums two and three, though budgets have a way of evaporating if a band doesn’t hit. But any way you slice it, the brothers Trumfio scored big–big enough for Dave to be expanding to a second studio, Kingsize North, and certainly big enough for them to spring for the next round at the Empty Bottle.

Part of the Geffen family, Almo is one of several new boutique labels that are spending cash like there’s no tomorrow in order to quickly establish themselves. Some observers say this largesse isn’t necessarily good for the artists. “The question is, what if the first one is not a hit?” Hill asks. “The downsides are real or imagined pressure to come up with something and the band facing a certain cynicism on the part of the record industry.” But Henderson rightly wonders why the Trumfios shouldn’t take as much money as they can get, pointing out that Dave has a solid career waiting for him if the star trip ends tomorrow.

Pulsars just started recording an EP slated for a late-summer release and an album scheduled for January. (My Pet Robot, an EP the band expected to release this spring on Henderson’s Feel Good All Over label, has been scrapped.) While a lot of people are still wondering what the heck Herb and Jerry saw in Dave and Harry, Dave has no doubts. “They thought there were at least three or four singles–really catchy pop songs–on that tape that we recorded in three days,” he says. “I said, ‘If we can do that with three days, think about what we can do when it’s our job.’ I was a little pompous, but it’s like, fuck, if I’m gonna do this I’m gonna do this right.” And thus was a Faustian pact sealed and possibly a pop star born.

Pulsars headline Saturday at Lounge Ax.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mary Perez.