Major Headaches

On a summer night in 1996, singer and guitarist Steve Dawson and drummer Matt Thobe flew to New York to meet with a talent scout from RCA. The label had been wooing their band, Dolly Varden, for three or four months, and the rest of the players–including Dawson’s wife, singer Diane Christiansen–were to follow in the morning for an audition. Over Indian food, the A and R man bragged to the even-tempered Chicagoans about trashing hotel rooms. Afterward he took them to his office. “Steve called me at home and said, ‘This guy is a complete asshole,'” says Christiansen. “He had an amp and a guitar in there and started playing ‘Sunshine of Your Love.'” He asked them, “Sounds just like Clapton, doesn’t it?” Early the next evening the full band performed an unadvertised show for a club full of indifferent suits. Negotiations continued for a few more months, then collapsed completely.

None of this surprised Dawson and Christiansen. Four years before, in a proto-alt-country group called Stump the Host, they’d endured a similarly long and fruitless courtship by Zoo Records, and the ordeal was so stressful that it broke up the band. This time, the couple simply gritted their teeth and took matters into their own hands. The result, Dolly Varden’s new The Thrill of Gravity, on a New York indie that granted the band total creative control, is the best work they’ve done.

A decade ago, Dawson says, he thought the best thing in the world would be to sign with a major label. “I thought, ‘This is so easy! This publishing guy sees us and gives us a bunch of money, and then we fly off to New York and get signed.'” Dawson and Christiansen did sign a three-year publishing deal with Polygram in 1990. But most labels ended up balking once they heard Stump the Host. Rock departments found fault with guitarist Brian Dunn’s unapologetic twang, and an RCA scout in Nashville literally thought it was a joke. “She said, ‘They’re making fun of country music!'” says Dawson.

In 1992, Zoo Records A and R scout Jim Powers–now best-known as the man who bought and sold Veruca Salt–decided that he liked the band’s sound, and at his recommendation the BMG subsidiary paid for a demo to be supervised by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos and noted engineer Jim Rondinelli. Dawson knew by then that if the band were signed, the cost of the demo would come out of its potential profits, and he says it became more and more aggravating to watch the producers waltz into the studio four hours after the clock started ticking each morning.

The demo was done by June, but the label didn’t make a firm offer until September. And when a major label is lukewarm from the get-go, it’s practically guaranteed that the record will be buried–if it ever gets released. “Jim called and said, ‘Steve, they’re sticking with the offer, but if I were you I wouldn’t do it,'” Dawson says. The band members were so disillusioned that when Powers later offered to release the album on his fledgling Minty Fresh label, Dunn and bassist Dave Gay, who now plays in Freakwater, asked what his angle was. Powers did put out a seven-inch single by Stump the Host in 1993, but the band simply couldn’t shake the bitterness.

When Dawson and Christiansen started Dolly Varden in the fall of that year, they were determined that it not be a country band. “I wasn’t listening to country music anymore. I was sick of it,” says Christiansen. But neither she nor Dawson had a clear vision of what they would do instead.

Loud, guitar-driven bands from Chicago were getting signed in droves, and Dawson admits that the buzz affected Dolly Varden. “We wanted to run away from country, and we went pretty far with this horrible big-guitar phase,” says Dawson. “It didn’t fit us, and that took me about a year to figure out.” By the end of 1994, with the lineup of Dawson, Christiansen, Thobe, guitarist Mark Balletto, and bassist Mike Bradburn, Dolly Varden had reversed directions again, returning to rootsy pop with more than a hint of Stump’s infectious twang.

The quintet recorded demos on a four-track and was surprised by how full they sounded. “We said, ‘Screw the idea of sending tapes to record companies to get validated. Let’s just put out a record ourselves,'” says Dawson. He and Thobe used a book about the Beatles as a production manual, eyeballing the microphone placement in photos from the Rubber Soul sessions and approximating it in the basement of the two-flat Dawson and Christiansen own in Wicker Park. Dolly Varden’s debut, Mouthful of Lies, was released in 1995 on the band’s own Mid-Fi imprint.

Critical acclaim for the album spread, and soon the sharks were circling again. Dolly Varden’s showcase at Austin’s South by Southwest conference in 1996 teemed with A and R reps. “It was much better because I had a sense of humor about it,” says Dawson, who’s obviously still pleased with himself for forcing many of the scouts to buy CDs rather than offering them for free. But the lure of good distribution and marketing eventually led the band to give RCA a chance. “If we had just decided to put out another record ourselves, we would have been on our way by that point,” Dawson says ruefully.

Early last year Dawson and Christiansen got a call from Stefanie Scamardo, an old fan who’d tried to sign Dolly Varden to the independent Plump label. Plump had since folded, but Scamardo had heard about the RCA fiasco and wanted to know if she could put out the record on her own new label, Evil Teen. The band agreed, and with extra money from the label it augmented basic tracks recorded at home with sessions at Uberstudio with Bundy K. Brown. The Thrill of Gravity gently expands the roots rock of Dolly Varden’s debut with edgy pop like “Sunflower Drag” and piano work by Gastr del Sol’s David Grubbs, who happens to rent Christiansen and Dawson’s spare apartment.

The couple would still like to earn a full-time living making music–he works at Jazz Record Mart and she’s a social worker as well as an accomplished sculptor and painter–but at this point their goals are more modest. “The older I get, it’s about whether a show was fun, or whether I clicked with Steve,” says Christiansen.

“My goal is just to keep making records,” Dawson adds. “We’ve wasted so much time with all this music-business crap.”

Dolly Varden plays a record-release party Friday at the Double Door.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dolly Varden photo by Brad Miller.