Stump the Host’s Trip to the Zoo

On a cold and rainy Memorial Day weekend the members of Stump the Host are high and dry on an upper floor of the sprawling Chicago Recording Company in Streeterville. The studio is Chicago’s premier recording house, having seen everything from myriad jingle sessions to Mannheim Steamroller and the CSO to, well, to ex-Guns N’ Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin’, who’s rehearsing downstairs. Up on Stump’s floor, Steve Dawson, the handsome, high-cheeked singer and songwriter, is trapped in a small room getting a rhythm-guitar track right. His wife, singer Diane Christiansen, lounges on a couch behind the recording console, tending to the couple’s four-month-old baby girl. Directing Dawson from the board is Steve Berlin, saxophonist and producer for Los Lobos and others (Dave Alvin, Faith No More). The band’s three other members and various onlookers loiter like fish in a summer pond.

In movies and myth, rock bands are “discovered” and then quickly made stars. In life, it’s a little more complicated. Stump the Host is a successful local club band from the Phyllis’ Musical Inn scene, which also produced Souled American and Shrimp Boat. While the band’s friendly, slightly antique sound has exactly nothing in common with the reigning grunge of today, Stump does have a lot of things going for it: Dawson’s lucid, sophisticated new-country compositions, his and Christiansen’s luxuriantly entangled dual vocals, and a tough and articulate lead guitarist in Brian Dunn. For the last several years the band has been the wary inhabitant of almost-signed-dom. Dawson and Christiansen, for instance, signed a two-year publishing deal with PolyGram last year. In such arrangements the company tries to place the writers’ songs on other albums, and indeed a song Dawson cowrote nearly made it onto a George Jones record. In another bit of advancement, Stump the Host was a finalist in Musician magazine’s Best Unsigned Bands Contest last year. And the recording session last May was another step forward for the band–Zoo records had coughed up money for a “demo deal.”

The exec who got Stump in the studio was Jim Powers, Zoo records’ Chicago-based director of A and R, or artists and repertory, which is the music industry’s name for people who go out and find bands to sign. Powers went to school at Iowa State and later came to Chicago and worked for Jam Productions as a talent buyer. But he took off in 1988 to become an international scout for BMG, the conglomerate that includes RCA; he signed the Cowboy Junkies to the label. The job–jetting around the world looking for good music–was “pretty near utopia for about a year,” he concedes, but he got weary of it after three. Powers wanted to come back to Chicago–“I was looking for a label that didn’t care where I lived”–and accordingly joined Zoo, a mini-major with distribution provided by BMG.

Powers hooked up with the band some time ago: he corralled Zoo personnel into checking Stump out at the South by Southwest music conference last March. The company was interested enough to pay for Berlin and the demos. “It’s when the company’s not ready to commit to six figures, but you want a better indication of what the band can do,” says Powers. “You do things in a day you’d generally spend weeks and months on.” The band enjoyed themselves over the four days, during which they recorded and mixed four songs–“Married in a Taxi Cab,” “10,000 Pounds,” “Bronko Nagurski,” and “Pink to Black.” Powers took the tapes back to LA, and Zoo eventually responded with an offer.

Which neither Powers nor the band liked. “It just kind of sat there,” says Dawson. “The company wasn’t as pleased as I was with the results,” says Powers frankly. “And the question becomes, Do you forge ahead with the band with only moderate to lukewarm support from the company? I have total confidence that the band has what it takes, but when the company doesn’t want to spend the money marketing it, you have to look at the realities of the business. You need them in your corner. Their attitude was, You can do this, but….And you just won’t have their support if you encounter some pitfalls. ”

Powers and the band spent several months mulling things over, but by fall had decided to keep looking. The band will record a CD on its own, and Powers is in the process of setting up his own production company. He’ll still work for Zoo but have a place to start marketing bands elsewhere when the company passes. In the meantime, you can see the band–with new drummer Danny Massey, formerly of the Wildroots–tonight at the Abbey Pub and next Friday, the 18th, opening for Webb Wilder at the China Club.

Center Stage Tix!

WTTW’s taping of Center Stage continues with Lindsey Buckingham on December 18, Keith Richards on December 28, Gloria Estefan on January 21, and Sade on either March 10 or 11. The station fills the taping audiences via a random drawing of self-addressed stamped envelopes. Send ’em to Center Stage/artist’s name, 5400 N. Saint Louis, Chicago 60625. Inside, they want your name, your age, day and night phone numbers, and, again, the name of the artist you wish to see.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.