The name is Bush. Don't forget it

They're on the cover of 'Rolling Stone' and they're British - how do they do that? By Alix Sharkey
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Brit-pop. The mere mention of last year's media hype elicits a weary groan from Dave Dorrell. Just for fun, I ask him if his band would like to support Oasis on their forthcoming American tour.

"What?" he splutters. "Listen mate, Oasis would be lucky to get on the list, even to be considered for a support slot on our tour." This is no idle boast. After all, 33-year-old Dorrell, erstwhile music journalist, DJ and TV presenter, is now manager of America's favourite new rock band, a British act that has taken the US rock market by storm. They're called Bush. And if you've not heard of them, you won't be alone.

Hailed in the States as the great white hope of '95, this four-piece from Shepherd's Bush (hence the name) are almost totally unknown in their homeland. Never mind that they've got the cover of the new Rolling Stone, forget that they were chosen to perform on David Letterman's Late Show Christmas special, disregard the fact that from a standing start they have sold three million copies of their debut album in 12 months - an album widely expected to sell another two million before the end of its shelf life. Here in the UK, only the most diligent of anoraks will have noted their existence.

None of this worries Dorrell. The important thing, he says, is for everyone to keep their feet on the ground. There's work to do. They need to start writing songs for the new album, and rehearsing for the US tour which kicks off next week. And there's also the small matter of signing a distribution deal with a British label, which has somehow been overlooked along the way - an indication of just how lopsided their stratospheric rise has been.

The Bush tale began nearly three years ago, when former George Michael manager Rob Kahane had no sooner returned to LA from London, than he received a call from Simon Halford, producer of Gary Crowley's Radio 1 show. Halford informed him that the station had been inundated with calls about a demo track called "Honky Manchild" by an unknown London band. "So I decided to get back on a plane and go over to meet them," says Kahane, who at that time had no real idea what they looked or sounded like.

There was no bidding war. Despite their willingness to play every toilet on the rock circuit, London-based A&R men simply weren't interested in Bush, dismissing them as just another sub-grunge act. Kahane, however, having seen the band perform on Channel 4's The Word was convinced: "They had the chemistry, their songs captured the angst of the Seattle sound, and without question, seeing them live, I thought they were stars. The lead singer had a look which was very favourable for marketing and selling records."

Kahane signed Bush immediately, with an advance to record 10 tracks; they came out of the studio with 12. The album, Sixteen Stone, was produced by hit parade veterans Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, best known for their work with Madness and Elvis Costello, who shaped the sound for maximum commercial potential, the key elements being tried-and-trusted grunge rock, industrial-strength lead guitar, whiplash tempo changes, and spoilt- brat lyrics ("We're so bored/ You're to blame") delivered in a style that might be described as Seattle Lite.

This affinity with American mainstream rock led to accusations of mimicry. As American rock magazine Spin pointed out last year, their first video "looks a lot like a certain video by a certain Seattle rock group that also made references to Buddhism". One Seattle record executive even went as far as to dismiss the Bush phenomenon as "just like Nirvana Two".

On reflection that may not be such an insult: Bush seem to have the knack of writing memorable songs. "Audiences are calling out for certain songs, and they already know all the words," says frontman Gavin Rossdale. "I mean, not even the rest of the band knows all the words."

At one point, however, the album seemed doomed, as the band got caught up in the political machinations of their former distributors. "The label we signed to, called Acme, was a joint venture with Hollywood Records, the musical arm of Disney," says Dorrell. "But the deal was concluded when the senior Hollywood executive who had overseen it died in a helicopter accident in Easter '94." Kahane, by then head of Acme records, found himself with a band, an album and no distribution. "Hollywood gave him the golden handshake," says Dorrell, "and said, 'Seeya'."

"We'd recorded the album, and it was ready to go out that spring, but it all went horribly wrong. For the next eight months we were in limbo, trying to sort out where we stood with Kahane and our contract. There was a lot of pressure on the band. They'd put their heart and soul into the album and couldn't get it released."

Later in the year, an independent label called Interscope came to the rescue: "Our knight in shining armour," says Dorrell. Interscope struck a new deal with Kahane and his partner, Paul Palmer. Suddenly, things started to happen. Kahane took a test pressing of the band's album Sixteen Stone to his friend Kevin Weatherly, programme director at LA's leading modern rock FM station, KROQ. The station's enthusiasm (Weatherly picked out "Everything Zen" as the single) propelled the track, and subsequently the band, into overdrive. By December 1994 KROQ, probably the most influential of America's genre-driven stations, was airing "Everything Zen" up to 12 times a day. "They dived on it, and would not stop playing it," says Dorrell.

KROQ'S continuous airplay caused a chain reaction among rock stations right across the US. Many mid-Western and coastal rock stations look to KROQ's playlist for their lead. "Zen" was soon being played by almost every rock or alternative channel across America. The single was rushed out in the second week of January 1995, and flew straight into the charts. The album followed within days.

Dorrell puffs his cheeks out at the thought of how quickly it has all happened. Sixteen Stone has now spent over 52 weeks in the Billboard Top 200, and 49 of those weeks in the top 30. "I keep thinking I've got used to it, but every now and then I remember how astonishing this is for an unknown English band. I mean, the people buying it don't even understand that the title is a reference to weight."

The next crucial step in the process was to make a low-budget video with Matt Mahurin, best known for his work with U2. Apparently MTV executives were not overly fond of the result, but as radio play continued to grow their resistance dwindled and "Everything Zen" was included in the Buzz Bin, MTV's list of happening tracks that get medium-heavy rotation.

"In America," says Dorrell, "it's really MTV and the alternative radio stations that drive the machine, far more than the print media. Whereas here it's virtually the other way around." The band's unorthodox circumvention of the British music press has led to animosity, according to drummer Robin Goodridge. "The NME and the Melody Maker hate us," he claims. "They hate the fact that a band can be successful without their approval."

After KROQ and MTV, the third reason for Bush's success was good old- fashioned graft. "We've toured our balls off, doing club dates, bars and support slots, anything, anywhere," says Rossdale. "We did over 140 dates last year, the great bulk of those in America - we played a gig every third day we were in the States."

Their diligence has paid off. One year ago exactly, Bush were playing an LA gay club called The Dragonfly to an audience of 300. Next week they start a headline US tour, with an average venue capacity of 6,000-plus, climaxing with a 15,000-seat venue in Detroit, for which three-quarters of the tickets have already been sold.

Though keen to achieve some success here in Britain, Dorrell feels that the lopsided nature of Bush's success has been beneficial in some respects. "It gave us room to breathe; a chance to put things in perspective." As for music press hostility, Dorrell says Bush can continue to thrive without it. "Having the media on your side is not the same as selling records," he observes. "And only one of those things, ultimately, constitutes success."

Comments