Some of the song titles on the Fags’ new album, “Light ’Em Up,” seem eerily prosaic.
There was a time when the Detroit trio — named after the British slang word for cigarettes — was awash in slamdunk “Rockstar” expectations. But it subsequently found itself at the “Back of the Line” after making what proved to be a “Mistake” with a major label.
There’s a silver lining to this cloud, however. After two years of bickering with Sire Records and its parent company, the Warner Music Group, the Fags were able to get “Light ’Em Up,” the group’s fi rst fulllength project, back and release it via Idol Records, the Dallas-based independent label that issued the band’s self-titled EP in the fall of 2002.
But it’s possible that resolution came a little too late for frontman and chief songwriter John Speck.
“I’m just bummed on the whole thing,” says Speck (ne Liccardello). “I kept my spirits up for a really long time. I thought it was absolutely the best thing we can ever possibly do.
“And I will say this about the record: I wouldn’t change a thing about it, and I’m fi ne with it being a testament of what the band was all about. But right now, I want to put the Fags in the rearview mirror.”
His bandmates are hoping Speck’s resolve will change now that “Light ’Em Up,” as good a rock album as Detroit has ever produced, is out.
“We’ve got to almost restart this thing,” says drummer Jimmy Paluzzi, a former Sponge member who went through another negative major label experience with Speck in the late-’90s band Hoarse before recruiting bassist and producer
and starting the Fags in 2000.
“It starts with the fact the record’s out. What happened with (Sire) took the wind out of our sails. Now we have to fi nd and rediscover it so we can revel and get this thing started again.”
High hopes go south
The Fags were expected to take over the world just a few years ago. Rave reviews greeted the trio’s blend of melodic power pop, laced with rich vocal harmonies and punky, punchy arrangements. The EP sold 30,000 copies, while a handful of radio stations picked up on tracks such as “Mistake” and “Truly, Truly” (both reprised on “Light ’Em Up”).
The excitement brought major label representatives to the Motor City — including Seymour Stein, a respected music business veteran whose previous discoveries include the
Ramones, Talking Heads and Madonna. Stein was reactivating his Sire imprint, and he plucked the Fags, along with the Von Bondies, from Detroit.
Speck recalls that Warner first passed on Sire at the end of 2003, when the group played a showcase in Los Angeles.
“Then Seymour convinced them to sign us,” he says.
The Fags fi nally put ink to paper in 2004 and accepted a relatively small $25,000 advance and made “Light ’Em Up” for a minuscule $10,000 at Patalan’s Saline studio, The Loft.
“We gave them the record and every was super happy and loved it, blah, blah, blah,” Speck says.
The label also professed to have no problem with the group’s provocative name — which, after all, is not necessarily a negative in rock ’n’ roll.
Then things gradually derailed.
Warner had been turned upside down after AOL sold the company to a private investment group. The Fags went through several product managers, ending up with one who Speck and Paluzzi both say “just didn’t get it.” And there were problems with graphic designers working on the album package.
“We’re not diffi cult people,” Paluzzi says. “We weren’t looking for some sort of artistic statement. The Fags, ‘Light ’Em Up’ — it’s not rocket science. Just make a great rock ’n’ roll album cover!”
Idol Records’ Erv Karwelis thinks the circumstances simply weren’t in the Fags’ favor at Warner.
“They’re one of those unfortunate bands that got lost in the shuffl e,” says Karwelis, who fi rst spoke to Stein about acquiring the album in March. “Sire let a lot of artists go. Everything on that label was in a state of limbo.”
After discovering they were no longer on Sire when they noticed their name had disappeared from the label’s Web site, the Fags were able to get “Light ’Em Up” back without having to reimburse Warner for any of its expenses — an extremely rare feat in the music industry, though the major label is taking a share of the proceeds from its sales. Karwelis hustled to get the music up on iTunes, where it’s sold about 400 copies since August, while the physical CD came out on Halloween and is now being aggressively promoted.
“There’s not a day that’s gone by over the last couple years when I wasn’t getting an e-mail or 10 asking me when the record’s coming out,” Karwelis says. “We’re getting tones of mail order — from the U.K., Japan. There are a lot of people out there who really love this band.”
They shouldn’t expect to see the Fags soon, however. Noting the high cost of touring, even on a small level, Paluzzi says the group is investigating “what you could do (spending) the same amount of money in promoting the band through other avenues.”
“Light ’Em Up” is getting strong reviews in national and regional press, and it’s gotten enough airplay on specialty radio shows to hit the chart for that category in the trade publication Friday Morning Quarterback.
Speck, meanwhile, reiterates that he’s “fi ne with (the album) being the only thing we put out in the future.” Both he and Paluzzi are doing odd jobs, while Patalan is concentrating on his production word. Speck also fronts another local band, the
Skeemin’ No Goods,
which put out an album on Idol, too.
“I think a lot of bands end up folding or calling it quits under situations like this,” Paluzzi says. “It’s tough; how do you go from knowing you’ve got that big machine in place to being back on your own — although we’re fortunate to have (Idol) and the juice that label has.
“But we gained a lot of respect in the two or three years we were out before the (Sire) deal, and I think we can get it back if we work at it and are a little lucky. I hope we try, at least.”
The Fags celebrate the release of “Light ’Em Up” on Saturday (November 11th) at Small’s, 10339 Conant, Hamtramck. Watershed and Jarrod Woolney also are on the bill. Doors open at 8 p.m. Admission is $6. Call (313) 873-1117 or visit www.smallsbardetroit.com.
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