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EAT'M 2002: In Las Vegas, Someone Might Hear You Scream
Welcome to the Machine, Old Chum
By Linus Gelber, Home Office Records
(more articles from this author)
2002-06-21
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Dateline: Las Vegas, Nevada. Here's Las Vegas in a nutshell: all it takes is a staggering amount of money and a dream. As such, this city of bright dry folly is an apt setting for the Emerging Artists and Technology in Music conference (EAT'M), which strutted out for its fourth session in five years late in May.

EAT'M Founder Lisa Tenner: the party begins
Insert obligatory Hostess with the Mostess comment here,
you know, you know

Hunter S. Thompson once famously nearly wrote that, "the music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs." With its titillating fixation on stars and starmaker machinery -- and what else would you expect from a Las Vegas conference? -- Lisa Tenner's hi-test "Conference, Showcase & Festival" has traditionally been comfy with the under/belly of this beast. This year is no exception.

EAT'M markets itself as a high-powered signing conference, claiming spilled ink on acts like Slipknot, Alien Ant Farm, Papa Roach, Michelle Branch and more. True? From our Cyrano's-eye view, a conference showcase is just a pixel in a band's grand JPEG, but at least one Los Angeles act this year seems to have gone from rags to pitches in the course of a single day-after cell phone call. Overall, EAT'M is an unusual bird in the aviary of annual conferences, gaudy and with a loud, insistent squawk. It lacks the sprawl and easy organization of kingpin industry shindig South by Southwest, which fills Austin every March with more musical meat than fits on even the most expansive platter. Still, Las Vegas' premiere conference sets a high bar.

Two years ago, the T in EAT'M stood for "Talent" (see our coverage of EAT'M 2000) rather than Technology. It's a cosmetic change, owing perhaps more to new corp sponsors Pulver.com and the telephony there than to any shakeup in the line of panels and speakers. In the MGM Grand conference center, a harrowing hike past hectares of cacophonic slots and flavored O2 stands from the entrance to the MGM Grand, business lopes along more or less as usual, with a smaller crowd than might be expected and with brighter industry lights than might be hoped.

Attractions at the MGM Grand: This place is so big even the lions are tired
Never one to let sleeping kitties lie, was Mr. Cyrano

How Deep is Your Pocket?: Most conferences roll out the stained red carpet for independent musicians and their attendant constellation of indie promoters, suppliers, labels, and web developers, who make up most of the body count in the posh chairs. Not so here. The attendance badge is nosebleed costy (indie-sensitive rates were announced late in the game; still, a friend pithily emailed "Eat'm = Fuck'm. Too expensive" as his reason for not going), and there are stiff fees to submit music for the showcases. Your Mr. Cyrano has seen plenty bad music at conferences, and it's a relief that someone is keeping the gate this week and stomping hard on the comp lists.

For those without trust funds, though, the high price of being here is a thick velvet rope barring entry. It's a conundrum; the measure of green is no measure of art, but if there is any ruler that the music business loves to stroke it's the one that marks off distance from the stage to the bank. EAT'M is not about second-guessing the business, it's about greasing the wheels of fortune.

Ron Shapiro, Co-Prez of Atlantic: All that and a nice guy, too
Waitaminnit, aren't you supposed to be the
enemy?

At the podium on Day One the two faces of music's Janus make their early appearances. Following a warm at-your-service welcome by founder Lisa Tenner and a friendly Yasgur's address from sponsor and Net Guy Jeff Pulver, Atlantic Records Co-President Ron Shapiro takes his place to discuss perspectives in the industry. Mr. Cyrano is braced for this; the last time a label bigwig took his swings at the ways of the world at EAT'M, it was Jim Caparro of Island/Def Jam at the Mirage back in Y2K, and his talk that day was, to be generous, both insulting to the artists and music lovers in the room and an outrageous passel of hooey into the bargain.

Ron Shapiro is a different cut of man. He's a gracious and considerate speaker with an obvious grasp of his audience and his position, and if there is perhaps little new news in his remarks it is a pleasure nevertheless, here and the following day in a moderated session, to watch him listen to questions, think through his answers, and articulate with sensitivity and apparent honesty what the world looks like from his high post. It's a little disorienting when Shapiro is followed by Jay Samit of EMI, a sardonic, entertaining, and jaded character whose glib and amusing PowerPoint slide show does little to cover over a filthy-lucre hollow where the heart should be.

Miles A. Copeland III: Just give me that old-time music biz
 Say Hallelujah, Say Yeah! Can I get a witness!

Two Faces, Two Truths: All this makes for an enjoyable and enlightening morning, and the double session is a fine example of the EAT'M conference at its best. Over the three days of panels speaker after speaker challenges and shines. Miles A. Copeland III of ARK21 Records, whose long and glorious career includes I.R.S. Records and management of The Go-Go's and The Police (that's Copeland as in brother of Stewart), is a delicious ranter, and his tent-revival preacher riffs are as insightful as they are crowd-pleasing. Those stomping sounds you hear when he's on the rampage may well be a dinosaur's last romp on the way to the boneyard, but in the meantime he's still a big beast in the jungle. And he's smart and funny as hell. Greg Latterman of Aware Records (Train, Five for Fighting, John Mayer) makes several appearances, looking a bit uncomfortable in his celeb role as the star chief of a label that makes money out of making sense, that treats its artists well and rewards hard work and smart thinking. (Such a wacky idea, it just might work.) Kevin Lyman of the Vans Warped Tour, Marc Geiger of ARTISTdirect, elder-statesman producer Bob Ezrin, and many others are easygoing and accessible on sparsely-trod turf that springs back luxuriously from every tender step.

I can't run down the EAT'M honorifics for Elmer Bernstein, Mick Fleetwood, and Chaka Khan, because The Powers That EAT'M decided that Mr. Cyrano didn't rate entry to their celebratory lunch. I hear it was chicken again.

Mick Fleetwood: Going his Own Way
England is obviously knighting the wrong
Mick

But Mick Fleetwood appears in the flesh to us unanointed proles on Day Three, following the inevitable Napster-bashing presentation (featuring yours truly in the audience leading the spirited opposition) by Fred Rosen of Key3Media. Rosen, the gentleman who brought you Ticketmaster and "convenience charges," is the most reasonable opponent of file-sharing with whom Mr. Cyrano has crossed words; Mick Fleetwood is the most reasonable man who walks the face of the earth. His gentle-giant remarks and self-effacing Q&A session are replete with an easy egoless solidity, and he radiates kindness and a grounded sort of reality. This is a fellow, I catch myself thinking, who spent a lot of time with Stevie Nicks. And lived.

The Weather Channel says the temps are three-digit by day, but it's a rare silly soul who ventures out of the iced-air warren of rooms in the MGM Grand. By night we learn the immediate hard lesson of Las Vegas, which is that each casino is about the size of your home town. Just because you can see something across the street, it doesn't mean you can walk to it. There are cabs, escalators, elevators, inclinators, walkways, trams, and monorails to help speed you from one hotel to another. Each of these, however, is inevitably a brisk 20-minute walk from wherever you happen to be. The opening night party at the Green Valley Ranch Station Hotel (Dennis Quaid and the Sharks doing the blues-rock thing with good vigor, no cameras allowed so no pictures for you here) might as well be in Zanzibar; even parties at the Hard Rock and House of Blues are hurry-to-be-late affairs. As is always oddly the case at music conferences, bands at the parties are cranked to deafening volume, like music in pick-up bars on the Upper West Side. There, missing out on the pins of the conversation is probably a blessing. Perhaps the same is true here, but we can't know. Partygoers beware, and be prompt. Talk loud.

Say What: Annette of Shut Up Marie (left) asks some of the better EAT'M panel questions
Here, she listens

Distance is wearying during the two rounds of showcases, when each night's buffet of six or seven theoretically possible acts gets whittled quickly down to a sparser plate of two or three humanly possible ones. Two years ago EAT'M solved this problem elegantly, putting the main roster of showcasing artists on twin stages in the Mirage back parking lot. Staff prepped one stage while the scheduled band played on the other, and turnover time was zero.

This year the neighborhood stages are scattered through the outdoor theme park of the MGM Grand (the theme is small-town Americana, with twisty streets and locomotives and the like), which is surreal and kind of cool, and also very confusing. Once you're in there you're pretty much in there for the night. You can see how you might get out, but that doesn't mean you can walk to it.

On the other hand, it's easy to ditch people. "I'm going to walk over to that bar. I'll see you on Thursday when I get back."

Simon Stinger: The devil made 'em do it
Like Lady Macbeth says: be bloody, bold and resolute

We catch the tail end of Logan's Heroes from L.A. on the Star-Steppin' stage, a solid rock act that has Lisa Tenner dancing in the audience, cell phone in hand. Houston's Jason Foxx at Showplace Junction claims Foo Fighters, Nirvana, and Sublime as influences, but the pop and reggae lilts to his crashing tunes hark Mr. Cyrano right back to the dark old days of 1981, when The Clash played Bond's International for eighteen pounding shows back before they discovered that they too could produce radio pap.

Simon, Where is Thy Sting?: Turn left at the entrance, walk past the locomotive, left again past the sleepy Westerny facades, and just when your feet start to hurt you're at the Goldrush Theatre stage. We're here for the Bay Area's Simon Stinger, a hardworking outfit founded in 1996 by singer Alicia Perrone and bassist Victor James. Simon Stinger, one of five finalists in the national Jim Beam Best Band Contest in 2001 (and our pick for EAT'M band of 2000), makes it all look easy. Their music is a cram of New Wave sensibility and pop's tidy laconism, decorated effortlessly with casual vocal trills that would make a novice coloratura wilt. The décor is boudoir and the feel is plush velvet, or the tail end of a long leading kiss, when your blood is dancing and your breath comes funny. If these colors are not on your set, you need to see this band.

Pink Snow of Porn Rock: But what's in a name, really?
Pr0n Rox0rs

Tonight Alicia manifests in trim ribbed black with white tie and gloves, garishly lipsticked and sporting her signature mile-high false lashes. She's flanked by two backup singers who flawlessly pad through crisp hip-driven jazz-hands choreography. The stage show is new since I saw them last, a waste-not physical patter that makes the ear candy even sweeter. Simon Stinger is a winning act in every way. In the thirsty air we can't help but wonder; all day long the bizfolk inside have said that hard work is how it's done, that the song is king, that talent aired often just can't be ignored. Most of them are out now, presumably, clustering over guys who pound and bellow and girls who primp and squeak. Or vice versa.

New York's Porn Rock follows, in a study of contrasts. Led by statuesque singer Pink Snow, this band is an endearingly sloppy splash of droll and prurient frolic. EAT'M gets the PG-13 show (the R version is rather more fun, and their occasional audience-participation topless Twister game is a showstopper), but there's no lack of good-natured don't-you-wanna raunch, punctuated by garage rock that serves mostly as a backdrop for the band's risky risqué cavorting. G-strings and pelvic thrusts abound, with tasseled pasties and schoolgirl plaids.

If there's a line between music and performance, Porn Rock seems blissfully unaware of it; perhaps this is what pushes so many buttons in the crowd tonight. One contingent of L.A. friends is horrified. "They're kidding, right?" asks Dolly. "They don't mean it?" But they do. Pink's cohorts Kitty Porn (Miss Kitty to you) and Profanity lick their lollipops with icy disinterest, pout mechanically and primp like incredibly hot robots. They mime the familiar moves and poses. On Porn Rock's website each band member lists favorite positions and porn stars. Yes, they mean it.

Cindy Alexander, live on the Little Brooklyn Bridge
Let me take you by the hand / I'll walk you
through the streets of, er, New York New York

Out on the Strip, the New York New York hotel is fronted by a sidewalk done up as the Brooklyn Bridge writ small (this is the only thing in Las Vegas that you can walk across without hiring porters). Writ large on the stage midway between the bridge towers -- towers festooned with advertisements, something our Mayor Mike hasn't thought of yet, but give him time -- is L.A.'s Cindy Alexander, a powerhouse of a midroad pop rock singer. Cindy was charming here two years ago, and now the charm is road-tested and polished; she spent good road time touring with the Bacon Brothers nationally since then, and working on her own beyond the borders. Her sprightly terrific uptempo cover of Tom Petty's "American Girl" graced the soundtrack of a major motion picture that, she tells us with practiced rolled eyes, "closed at a theatre near you." Them's the breaks.

The song is splendid tonight, as are all of her tightly-crafted and clever original pieces. Cindy writes straight into the pop mainstream pocket without sounding like any of the smart girls already out there (Aimee Mann and Sheryl Crow appear in her brief bio), and adds a come-hither bluesy hop to the action. There's something hard to define about her set, and minus a center as solid as all of her finely-etched edges she doesn't shine as brightly as it's clear she should. She's a party waiting to happen. Still, if music be the food of love, I want a seat at Cindy's table. I'll wait for it.

Jen Ayers of Honey Tongue, captured in a rare moment of almost sitting still
Sweet honey in the rock & roll

The Game and the Gameworks: Friday night, Gameworks. The final stretch. This rangy overfed arcade is crowned by two big plastic M&Ms that peep out onto the Strip, and it is chiefly known as that thing with the M&Ms that nobody knows what it is. Inside it's a perversion of all-ages video games and VR samplers, an aural haze of shrieks and beeps and the clatter of virtual skateboards racing down virtual funnels. It's raining now outside, a warm-fingered windy rushing experience that's 9 parts sand to 1 part water. Tucked in the far fringes in the darkest corner possible is a dim stage, and just as dinner gets served upstairs, Honey Tongue comes on below. This itinerant group hails from Seattle, and by the time my burger gets any attention it is both soggy and crusty (how do they do that?), a sopping puddle of cheese and avocado and mournful bun. I blame Honey Tongue for being so distracting.

Lead singer Jen Ayers has been ubiquitous at the daytime sessions, attentive and full of focus and gravitas. Seated behind the keyboard here she comes to sudden life, in the way that a cougar comes to life when you startle it from sleep. She is an indoor maelstrom to match the sandstorm outside, a whirl of spinning hair, bright eyes, and infectious grin. The band, which is touring the nation full-time, is a loping spiff-and-pride run of hearty Heart-y concoctions, prominently featuring Jen in a role that is more memorable for energy than for hooks. Once Honey Tongue writes to the level of their performance they will be unstoppable; when they cover Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way" tonight, laying into the chorus with power and honesty, we all take an unconscious step forward, the better to warm up at this loud fire.

A Girl and Her Ride: Drama of Switchblade Kittens
A song that is just about a skateboard, and
NOTHING ELSE

Every conference worth its spots has a buzz band or two, and the Switchblade Kittens might be a whisker shy of that level -- but not much more than a whisker. The Skittens, an L.A. sXe pop-punk group with the accent on pop, are posted in the late-night closing slot tonight, and there's eager air here. In their cultivated and optimistic pastels (band members are color-coded for easy reference at all times) they've been nonstop visual candy these past few days, flitting here and there, passing out thick press books and catching eyes at every turn. Lead singer Drama is fab in her rainbow bangs and pink furry coat, and the three other girls (with Pep the Boy Skitten in there for good measure), on bass, bass, drums, and bass -- or, if you like, on bass, bassola, drums, and bassorama -- are perfectly wide-eyed, fun and frisky.

What the Skittens lack in road legs they make up in absolute charm. This is a skater band that's not really for skaters (though they could be), a kind of nerf-punk rough-and-tumble kit that bounces but doesn't muss the walls. They claim to pitch young, as fantasy figures to very tender teens, and they are ecstatic one evening in the Hard Rock Cafe at the display of Spice Girls costumes; at the same time, their unsettled sexiness is elusive on stage but clearly a factor in their very thirtysomething appeal. The Spice Girls of punk, then, squeaky-clean and pert, with a plausibly-deniable guilty carnality that refuses either to come down to earth or to leave the room.

If Not a Buzz, at Least a Purr: Drama, Direct
You can never have too many pictures of Drama. Or
maybe *you* can, but *I* can't

We eat it up. The sound is more din than tune at Gameworks, and Drama's simple, crafty songs and curiously matter-of-fact vocals are mostly submerged in the mix, but the band postures and struts and hops, there's a piñata, there's a skateboard during the catchy new tune "My Ride" ("It's so hard to pick up guys with my ride / No one one knows just how I feel inside / My Ride"). This is fun in ways that this sort of thing usually isn't, or hasn't been since The Go-Go's were still a convincing part of rock & roll. In place of guitars the Skittens use signal-processed basses that grind like guitars (or, in the case of the bassola, like a keyboard, but this instrument is not heard tonight). Why? There's a mythology about lead guitarists and ego, but frankly it looks like a gimmick, and it's a pretty good one. Sounds good, too.

Which is what the Skittens are about in a larger sense. If the beleaguered world of popular music is teaching us anything these days, it's that we need an excuse to stop and look and listen for a while; music alone won't win the masses. Here we have glittered pink, crisp pastel otufits, rainbow hair; the tamest promise of a saucy threat, and a wink we're dying to see from a steady eye that wouldn't dream of winking. It's like a game of Pop Chicken, with the Skittens roaring down the road and the audience pinned in their headlights, blinking. The ultimate collision doesn't quite happen, which is a pity, but give the band a solid tour schedule and that will change.

Mr. Cyrano's picks for the conference: Simon Stinger once again, and Switchblade Kittens, as always. On EAT'M: an absolute thumbs up, tempered by the harsh (and ever-so-Vegas) realities of the sky-high cost. This is not a table set for the spare or shy of pocket, and the food is correspondingly rich.

Mr. Cyrano's favorite Vegas hotel: The Luxor
Vegas hotel with the best fake beach: The Rio
Lead singer Mr. Cyrano wants to marry this week: Drama
Lead singer Mr. Cyrano wanted to marry last week: Drama
Bonus points for the initiated: Try to buy a book in Las Vegas. Go ahead, just try. It's John Grisham or it's nothing. That'll teach me to pack more carefully.

Linkography

EAT'M: www.eat-m.com
Miles Copeland III's excellent bio: http://www.milescopeland.com/copelandstart.htm and click on the picture of him (upper left)
Cindy Alexander: www.cindyalexander.com
Honey Tongue: www.honeytongue.com
Porn Rock: www.pinksnow.com
Simon Stinger: www.simonstinger.com
Switchblade Kittens: www.switchbladekittens.com

All photos by Linus Gelber. Especially those ones. Hmm, only girl bands this time out. That's not usual.

Home Office Records, home of
Mr. Cyrano.


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