Metal Edge, February 1997
“Did you know that I’m Ozzy Osbourne’s bastard child?” The question passed through the room practically unheard, but after spending nearly an hour locked in a conference room with Ugly Kid Joe, the scary reality is, Whitfield Crane and his Ugly Kid cohorts could just be the demon seeds. Not in a bad way, mind you, but in a way that encompasses everything the great-grandaddy of heavy metal has come to symbolize over the past quarter-century. Like the man Whit modeled his career after, he and his bandmates are fueled by a love for music – listening, recording, and performing – and aren’t about to let a few environmental changes dampen their spirits after the recent release of their fourth album, Motel California.
After showing flashes of brilliance on their multi-platinum EP and full-length follow-up, Mercury Records dropped the ball on Ugly Kid Joe with the release of their third album, Menace to Sobriety. The album was dead in the water, the Kids weren’t happy with their label’s lack of support, and musical currents were leaving many hard rock bands out to drift. But the Ugly ones, fueled by the spirit of Ozzy and the others that have come before them, kept their chins up and blew their noses in the face of adversity.
“I plan on making music for many, many years,” said Whit, seemingly undaunted by being dropped from Mercury Records and reemerging on a significantly smaller label, Castle Records. “I’ve talked to the old school oracle, Yoda-esque masters, and there’s a reason they’re all still around – they’ve stayed focused on the nucleus of what is righteous, and that’s the music. We could never be more fucked than we were where we’re coming from,” the singer added. “You’ve got to understand, what did the big label do on the last album? Not a damn thing! Did they really do anything on the first two? Or did the songs, and they just took a bunch of credit? I’m convinced that our music’s where it’s at, and as long as we can get the music out there, people can judge it. As long as it gets heard, that’s all that matters.”
Following their short-lived success with Mercury, Ugly Kid Joe had red-carpet treatment waiting for them at Castle Records. The label, current home to Iron Maiden and a substantial back catalog, even went so far as to endow Ugly Kid Joe with their own imprint label, Evilution Records. “Our manager is a lawyer, so he slayed a lot of dragons for us at that level,” said Whit. “He asked us for what we wanted, and I said, ‘You want to know what we want?’ and I went on, and on, and on. He came back and told us, ‘Not only can you have all those things, but here…’” “We even got the Ginsu Knives,” chimed guitarist Klaus Eichstadt, who formed the band with Crane seven years ago in Santa Barbara, CA. “You can talk about any negatives you want to, but this is easily the best deal we’ve ever had.”
But practically speaking, they have to be worried, as time hasn’t been kind to the bands that reigned through the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. With major labels turning their backs on the bands that once made them a fortune, many of the smaller labels have been beckoning them with open arms. The same can’t be said for MTV and radio, which have all but ignored their one-time staples. So aren’t they just a little worried?
“I think I’m very worried about nothing,” said Crane adamantly. “I think I’d be worried if we were sitting back in Santa Barbara complaining right now and hadn’t completed a new album, but I think the real focus is the music and a lot of people lose focus on that and start complaining. It’s the music. That’s why I’m in it, you’re in it, and that’s why we’re all in it. I look at it more as a positive–we did an album, we did it on our terms, and it’s getting released worldwide right after we got dumped by Mercury Records. There are obviously two ways to look at it, you can be a big fat baby and look at the negative spectrum–and I’m sure there are a lot of people there to hang out with and talk to–or you can kick back and focus on the positives. Obviously, the key is making music, and that’s what we’re doing.”
The Ugly Kids took a decidedly more active role in the making of Motel California, buying a used two-inch 24-track and recording the album themselves in Klaus’ garage, and producing the album themselves with the mixing of ‘Butcher Brother’ Phil Nicolo (Anthrax). Even the writing was approached differently on Motel California.
“We wrote all the music and lyrics on this album. It’s very diverse, even for this band,” said drummer Shannon Larkin. “It’s not like we planned to write together, it just happened that way, like on ‘Strange.’ Klaus came in with the music, Whit put the melodies over it, and all of us beat it out to make it Ugly Kid Joe. There was one [“Father”] that Cordell [Crockett, bass] wrote that we didn’t even think would make it to the record, but then Whit went in a room by himself and came out three hours later and said, ‘I’ve got something.’ The vocal melody just floored our asses and we thought, ‘This has to go on the record, it’s great.’
“Shannon wrote ‘Dialogue’ and recorded the bassline on a four-track and brought it to us, and Dave [Fortman, guitars] did the same thing with ‘Would You Like to be There,’ writing and recording it at his house on his eight-track, or 16 or 24 track, whatever he’s got now, and bringing the tape to us. He even sang on his tape,” Klaus explained.
“Then there’s something like ‘Sandwich,’ where Whit had the lyrics and just started rapping them and Shannon joined in on drums,” Eichstadt added. “Pretty soon I started, and the next thing we knew, we were playing the song and didn’t even know we were playing it. In an hour we had the song done and it was the whole band, everyone added something.”
Looking towards the high-strung “Sandwich” or the guitar driven funk of “It’s a Lie” as the first single to be shipped to rock radio, the Ugly Kids are hoping to reclaim part of the niche they chiseled with their debut releases. Though “Would You Like to be There” might prove their most likely smash single, they are tentatively planning the release of “Bicycle Wheels” as their mainstream radio follow-up to “Everything About You” and “Cats in the Cradle.”
“It’s good to have the success that we’ve had in the past, there’s nothing like it – surfing the world on a song – and that’s another thing we’ve got going for us, we’ve broken worldwide,” Crane continued. “America might suck for us right now, but the world is great and we’ve still got the option to go all around it, which I don’t think a lot of bands do. So we can sit here and complain that America sucks, which it does, but I’m not going to do that. We’ll look at America as the humbling territory.” “We can go to the store here without being mobbed,” laughed Klaus. “We actually like being small here and big overseas.”
“The dark cloud of the major label is definitely gone,” Whit added. “There’s no dark cloud trying to justify their jobs to make sure Whit’s sober…” “Or telling us that we should try to do a certain song acoustic,” added Klaus. “With us, especially with Whit, that doesn’t work. You almost need to use reverse psychology.”
“We’re psyched and excited because we got to make the record like we did, and people at the label are excited to be working it,” Whit said. “We feel like we’re at 100%. As far as everyone walking into a new pasture and tripping out over the whole thing, well, we’ll see what happens.”