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July 25, 1996 * Vol. 6, No. 30

No Doubt

Rising from the pretty pop ashes of the Judybats, the Doubters Club is ready to flex some musical muscle

by Mike Gibson

For Jeff Heiskell, Paul Noe and David Jenkins, connotation is everything. Losing their first record contract (with the Judybats) was like a dose of strong medicine, a bracing tonic that helped resuscitate a moribund creative entity. But the boys say the loss of deal number two, with the Doubters Club, was more akin to swallowing the proverbial bitter pill.

"It ruined the winter," says singer Heiskell. "We thought we would be in the studio in February. When that didn't happen, it upset everything and set us back a good year in what we want to accomplish."

When the Judybats, Knoxville's erstwhile major label darlings, limped into 1995 beset with poor sales figures and facing the dissolution of their record company (Sire), Heiskell, Jenkins and Noe anticipated the quintet's mid-spring demise and began recording some eight-track demos—new songs set a world apart stylistically from the 'Bat's lighter modern rock fare.

On the strength of a recommendation from his assistant, former Sire executive Seymour Stein (now at Elektra) signed the newly christened Doubters Club in mid-'95 to a so-called development deal, an arrangement that nourishes promising new bands with studio funds and gives their major label benefactors first dibs at signing them to a full-fledged contract.

But that agreement also fell by the wayside when a long-running feud between Stein and the band's old manager escalated and the notoriously capricious industry chief refused to pick up the Doubters' option at the end of the six-month deal.

"What was sickly fascinating to me was that as you get up the ladder at the record company, it becomes this sort of 'king and his court' mentality," says Jenkins. "It was so much more driven by personalities than by realities. It was all crap."

So how do former major label artists pick up the pieces after their rock 'n' roll dreams have been twice dashed? Fortunately for the Doubters, they still had some resources left over from their days of five-figure budgets and cash advances. For starters, the trio had nearly 30 songs in the can (financed in part by the Elektra debacle), ten of which appear on their recent do-it-yourself CD, Fleur de Lisa.

They were also armed with Jenkins's newfound studio chops, honed when the drummer began amassing recording equipment even as the Judybats were losing creative steam. Jenkins recorded all of Fleur de Lisa in his basement Disgraceland studio.

According to Heiskell, the new songs gave the trio a chance to break away from the gentle alt-rock stylings and artier pretensions that characterized their former band. And sure enough, Fleur de Lisa is a guitar record through and through, informed by the wide-screen arena-rock aspirations of latter-day U2 and by string-mangling textural rockers like My Bloody Valentine. (Listen for "I Blew It," a cut that features a sultry Heiskell vocal shimmying through the murk of Noe's dank proto-industrial noodling, on WNFZ-FM.)

"It's all the things the Judybats weren't," says Heiskell. "I wanted to sing harder. We all wanted big guitar sounds. We wanted it to rock."

Noe, who handled all guitar and bass duties on Fleur, puts it this way: "We made enough romance period paintings with the Judybats. This time we were ready to throw paint at the walls."

But the Judybats four-album legacy left the Doubters with perhaps an even more important asset—old fans eager to hear new material from former members of the band. In June, Noe compiled a list of more than 400 Bathead e-mail addresses and sent each one information on the Doubters Club CD.

"It's essentially e-mail junk mail," Noe laughs. "But only two people said 'Stop writing me,' so the hell with it."

Surfing the wave of Noe's Internet marketing scheme (Jenkins also has his own Disgraceland web page, now with more than 800 "hits"), as well as strong sales at the Disc Exchange, the band has already sold over 320 copies of copies of Fleur de Lisa, more than recouping the album's production costs.

Now the rags/riches/rags saga continues as the band sets out to prove via live performance what it has already established through its vibrant new recordings. The Doubters play Knoxville on Aug. 9 at the Mercury Theater, as well as an industry conference in New Orleans on Aug. 22 and a label showcase in New York in September. (Look for guitarist Reed Pendleton and bassist David Landeo to join the band's onstage lineup.)

"If the Judybats name gets someone to buy our record or helps us get in on a showcase, that's fine with us," Noe says. "It helps us get a foot in the door. Besides, the Judybats recorded four albums together, and we did some good work. We're not afraid of our past."

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