Local H's big hit during the summer of 1996 was Bound For The Floor,otherwise known as “the copacetic song” for its sing-along chorus (“And you just don’t get it / you keep it copacetic / and you learn to accept it / you know it’s so pathetic”) and a gnashing guitar sound that fit in nicely with playlists leaning heavily on Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and other au courant grunge/alt-rockers.
The band’s 1995 debut album, Ham Fisted, failed to elicit much attention, but with Bound for the Floor receiving constant radio and MTV play, they saw their second disc, As Good As Dead, reach gold status. And now the pressure was on. As Lucas recalls, “All of a sudden, we were faced with this new set of expectations, all focused around one thing: Can we do it again?”
After the first grunge-rock signing spree tore through Seattle in the early Nineties, record labels invaded Chicago, waving big contracts and snapping up alternative acts such as the Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill and Liz Phair.
“It was an exciting time,” says guitarist-singer Louise Post, whose band Veruca Salt was wined and dined by scores of A&R reps before they ultimately signed with Geffen.
“Things were happening so quickly. You have your first hit, and just as fast you’re placed in this pressure cooker. Your song is on the radio, but you don’t even have a moment to soak it in because everybody’s running around going, ‘Oh, God, the house is on fire!’”
Veruca Salt first hit the charts in 1994 with the track Seether, released on the Chicago-based indie label Minty Fresh. Almost immediately, the band became alternative-press darlings, but when the group signed with Geffen, which took over marketing and distribution of their debut album, American Thighs, the backlash started.
“The indie scene kind of turned on us,” Post says. “People who weren’t experiencing success on a national or international level just didn’t want to accept us.”
By the time the band convened with producer Bob Rock to record their 1997 album, Eight Arms to Hold You, tensions within the group, particularly between Post and co-front person Nina Gordon, reached a boiling point.
“The whole thing unraveled very quickly,” Post says. “Our song Volcano Girls did well, but everything else was insane. Our label was frustrated with our management, people couldn’t agree on anything, and we just sort of imploded by the unreal expectations that were placed on us.”
A year after the release of Eight Arms to Hold You, Gordon and drummer Jim Shapiro split the band, and Post soon left to pursue a solo career.
In Local H’s case, they found themselves releasing a critical follow-up, the 1998 album Pack Up the Cats, during a time when PolyGram, the parent company of their label (Island) was merging with Universal.
“It was one of those best-of-times / worst-of-times scenarios,” Lucas recalls. “So many of the people who believed in us at the label were losing their jobs, so we got caught in the gears of this changing corporate structure.”
As a result, the album’s lead single, “All the Kids Are Right,” stalled at Number 20 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart, and no other tracks from the record were released. “It was really frustrating,” says Lucas, “because everybody thought this was going to be the album to go platinum.”
Throughout the next decade and a half, Post recruited new members for reconstituted versions of Veruca Salt, but it wasn’t until 2015 that the original lineup that included Gordon, Shapiro and bassist Steve Lack reunited for a pair of indie releases, the EP MMXIV and an album, Ghost Notes.
As for Lucas, he maintained the outfit Local H after the departure of original drummer Joe Daniels with sticksman Brian St. Clair, issuing a couple of EPs and albums on Palm Pictures (run by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell) before going the indie route himself. With new drummer Ryan Harding, his most recent Local H album, 2015’s Hey, Killer, was released on G&P Records.
“A lot of people think that being off a major label is the end of your career, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” Lucas says. “The trick is not to get caught up in the wheels of the major-label machine.
“I’ve seen a lot of bands and a lot of friends get chewed up and spit out, and I said early on, ‘That’s not in the cards for me. I was OK before we got a deal, and I’m going to be OK if the deal goes away.’ When you get down to it, what’s the alternative?”
Let’s go back to the Chicago music scene in the early Nineties. Was it a tight-knit community?
SCOTT LUCAS: “It was, but it took me a while to be a part of it. I was still living in Zion, which is a pretty small town outside of Chicago. I would go to shows in the city all the time, and I wanted to be part of the scene – Veruca Salt and Liz Phair and Urge Overkill.
“I wanted to be in a bar talking to other musicians about music. I didn’t want to be in this fucking bar where I lived – talking about football.“
LOUISE POST: “It was a nice, tight scene. We’d see Urge Overkill play, and we marveled at how smooth they sounded. Nina and I were always struggling with our guitar sound and vocal harmonies.
“We hung out with the Urge guys, and then there was this whole posse of bands that hung out together – Local H, Loud Lucy, Triple Fast Action, Fig Dish. We used to bowl together, we dated each other — it was a cool thing.“
When Nirvana hit it big, did you notice Chicago bands were taking the idea of getting signed more seriously?
LUCAS: “I don’t know. Chicago was a very indie-centric town. You had bands recording with Steve Albini and that kind of thing. For me, distorted guitars and screaming always went hand in hand with what I liked and what I saw in town. Nobody was trying to do things like Nirvana, but I think it’s fair to say that suddenly the idea of getting signed didn’t seem crazy.“
POST: “We were just inspired by the music. I know that Nirvana played a huge part in us coming into the world. And if Kurt’s spirit lives on in anyone, it’s Scott Lucas. But we were really in our own thing. There were so many cool bands in Chicago – the Smashing Pumpkins, of course.“
Did you remember when you noticed the scene changing – more label reps coming to town?
LUCAS: “It seemed to flip almost overnight.“
POST: “We experienced the feeding frenzy probably more than anybody else. I do remember coming home one night and there were 17 messages on my phone machine from label people. It just exploded.“
LUCAS: “Every major label wanted a Nirvana. Whether or not we were a Nirvana rip-off or not, they wanted a Nirvana rip-off. Everybody had to have one. It was like an accessory: 'I got one, too.' Before long, everybody had a fucking deal: the Smoking Popes, Triple Fast Action, Fig Dish, Menthol. Everybody was getting signed, but not everybody was going to have a hit.“
POST: “We went to LA and visited all the labels. We did the dinners with everybody. Jimmy Iovine wined and dined us. And in New York we went to lunch with David Geffen. He picked us up in his limo and said, 'I don’t get your music – no offense – but my label really likes you and they want to sign you.'“
Labels were throwing around crazy money.
POST: “They were. We did an interview with Entertainment Weekly and they quoted some crazy, inaccurate number that Geffen had signed us for. I was pretty mad about that. We got a good deal, but it wasn’t the amount that people thought.“
LUCAS: “I was a little naïve about money and the business at first, but that naivete prepared me for what was to come later on. I got into this because of my love of music, and I assumed everybody at the labels felt the same way. I didn’t realize that money was the main factor for a lot of people.
Unlike some bands, Scott, you didn’t get a huge advance. Do you think that put you in a better position – that you weren’t a liability?
LUCAS: ”Hard to say. We didn’t want a big advance because we wanted the tour support. We thought, 'Let’s just stay out of everybody’s hair so we can do what we want.' It’s hard to say if that was the right approach.
”If you’re small potatoes, you can get dropped easily because it’s like, 'Who the fuck are these guys?' But if you get a huge advance, you’re immediately a liability, and if you don’t have a hit the label will want to cut its losses. Is there a right approach? I don’t know.”
Louise, you guys went gold with American Thighs, and Scott, Local H went gold with As Good As Dead. Was the feeling within the bands like, “We’re on the way!”?
POST: ”Most definitely, except that we expected even more.”
LUCAS: ”Our attitude was always the same: we just wanted to be able to make another record. We never had a moment to sit back and say, 'We’ve got it made.' That was never my mindset. We toured around an awful lot and we built an audience.“
After you had hits, how much pressure did you feel to have a bigger hit as a follow-up?
POST: ”We felt it. There was so much controversy with every decision we made because the stakes were high. We needed to recoup. We needed to justify the amount of money Geffen was sinking into videos and albums and tours. It was too much pressure, and frankly, we just kind of cracked underneath the weight of it all.”
LUCAS: ”I didn’t feel pressure in that way; I felt free to do what I wanted to do. I had an idea to do more of a concept album with Pack Up the Cats. There was never a feeling that this record wasn’t going to be big. Everybody at the label thought it was to be huge.
”Our only problem was picking the single – everybody had a favorite song. We went with the first one, All the Kids Are Right, but nobody could figure out the second single, and that’s when things started to fall apart.”
POST: “There was no lack of enthusiasm from the label for Eight Arms to Hold You. Volcano Girls did well, but then there was the question about following it up. We hired high-powered managers, and we just let them make the decisions.
“Nina and I wanted to be the songwriters, and we just didn’t want to deal with the business stuff. So management forced their decisions down the throats of the radio department, and when the next single didn’t do so well we got a reputation for being problematic.“
When your follow-up releases weren’t big hits, how hard was it for you on a personal level?
POST: ”Well, it was shocking because our ascent was so fast; it was hard to process what was happening when we were breaking up. There was a sense of forward momentum and then it felt sort of like we were in a car crash.”
LUCAS: ”It was difficult when things started to stall, but I never internalized it as any kind of failure on my part. I just thought, 'If my best isn’t good enough, there’s nothing else I could have fucking done.'
”Pack Up the Cats was a great record, and it was the best I could do. So I thought, 'I guess maybe I don’t belong here.' Maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a major-label guy after all.”
POST: ”At the same time, things really were changing in the record business; the model that we knew changed, with Napster and everything else. What we knew as the norm was totally different.”
Scott, you never pulled the plug on Local H, but Louise, Veruca Salt broke up for a while.
LUCAS: “Quitting never occurred to me. I appreciated being on a major label, but very quickly I said, 'Time to move on.' I knew it would be a lot of work, and that we would be doing a lot more of the work, but fuck it, you know? For a brief time we went to Palm Pictures, which was kind of like Island Jr., and we could record with Jack Douglas.
“After that, you realize your overhead is getting lower and lower, and you’ve got to make adjustments. You tighten the belt – smaller crew, a van instead of a bus… And then not have any crew at all. But you can do it. It’s not impossible.“
POST: “My situation was very different. I had a very high-profile breakup with a boyfriend, and then the situation with Nina happened. For me, it was like a one-two punch that just leveled me. It took me a long time to come back together and be healthy, happy and whole again – and want to make art again. It was really like a car crash for me.“
LUCAS: “You just have to tell yourself, 'I’m not going to become a casualty.' I started to see that people weren’t coming to see the band for Bound for the Floor; audiences were coming to hear all of our songs. And being on my own made me better at what I do.
“I learned how to make stuff interesting for the fans. I did my own marketing. You can do this stuff if you just get off your ass. To me, the casualties – the people who lost their record deals and broke up – maybe they were in it for the wrong reasons.“
Scott, you’ve had a couple of different drummers in Local H since you left the majors. Louise, however, it took you and Nina some time to get back together and reunite the band.
POST: “We did have a rift of astronomical proportions. Getting back together was like performing surgery, there was a lot of healing that had to take place. We went back in and we dissected and discussed what went wrong – who was responsible for what, all that.
“We shined a light on the past in a very honest way and talked about all of our experiences. That was the only way we could get back together and go forward.“
What are your expectations for the future? You’re both maintaining your bands without the machinery of major labels. Does the thought that you might not hit the charts like you did in the Nineties worry you?
POST: “You can’t think about it. The weight of our getting back together was so great, so we have to lift that weight, and the only way to do that was to say, 'We’re doing this for ourselves.' We couldn’t think about having hits or anything like that. We had to just do it for the love of the band and the music.“
LUCAS: “I’m fine for whatever comes because I feel like I’ve already succeeded. A while ago I was listening to The Loop before it went off the air – they played classic rock. One day I heard Tom Petty, and then they played Bound for the Floor, and then they played a song by Boston.
“I was like, 'Fuck, this is great.' They put us in that kind of company? Amazing. I always wanted our records to be timeless, and to be sandwiched between those two artists, that just brought it all home for me.“