by Kurt Hernon (July 1999)The music business is, for better or for (more often) worse - a business, and the business of music has never been particularly kind to Seth Tiven. In fact, it seems it has been downright cruel. In the early 1980's Seth Tiven moved north from his native Connecticut to Boston. Already a veteran of a few bands, Tiven head out for more fertile musical pastures.
Kirk Swan was also a Connecticut-born musician who, at 16, had already fronted a band (the Suburbanites) on his home turf. Tiven and Swan were friends from the local music scene and Swan would often head up to Boston and hang out playing and writing songs with Tiven. Two years after Tiven had moved north, Swan followed suit.
Working with six songs the two had written (three penned by Swan, three by Tiven) they formed Dumptruck: a droning, dejected sounding, post-punk, guitar based pop band. "We had six songs we'd worked on with a drummer, Mark Mulcahey, who I'd played with in bands before," says Tiven, "but he was in the midst of forming his own band - Miracle Legion - so we finished another six songs with this drummer I'd played with around Boston. Kirk and I were both guitar players, so I'd play bass on his songs, and he'd play bass on mine." The demos were finished, but there was no plan to release them. "We never really thought about putting them out, but people heard it and liked what we did so we figured 'Fuck it, let's put it out'", adds Tiven.
The band garnered some label interest with the simply titled d is for Dumptruck. Dumptruck's inaugural effort swirled; it ebbed, and flowed around concise song writing and a slightly subdued take on the guitar "jangle" of the day; alternately sounding like Ian Curtis' lost American cousins and a loose and unpretentious Television. Swan and Tiven split the song writing down the middle and the album gels amazingly well considering the approach.
"We were pretty conscious about splitting things fifty-fifty in terms of songwriting." Said Tiven. "Even playing live the sets were split down the middle." Terrific songs like "Things Go Wrong", the shared vocal drain of "How Come?" and "Watch Her Fall" allude to the path Dumptruck would head down. "Make a Move" declared the bands pop intent, but the black waters of "Something's Burning", "The Haunt", and "Night"- with its desperate screams finale - define a brilliantly mysterious debut record.
Soon after releasing d is for Dumptruck, the band capitalized on the swelling label interest and signed on with an (Australian based) independent label called Big Time: it would be a tenuous and fateful marriage.
Buoyed by the initial support of their new label, Dumptruck went into the studio and produced their second critically acclaimed effort: Positively Dumptruck. The album, produced by Don Dixon, moves along quickly - and strong. The seething opening line,"Where the hell were you / when everything fell apart?" immediately lets you know where the band is coming from, or at least half of the band. As Positively plays out, you can hear the beginnings of a divergence in song writing, Tiven going one way, Swan another. Again, the song writing is split between the two principals, and the cohesion somehow remains in sound, but not in lyrical content. Still, Positively shines - completely. The sweeping guitar sound of "Nine People" gives way to the lilting chime of "Autumn Light" (a song that is significant in defining the Dumptruck "sound"). The drama of "7 Steps (Up)" and the moodiness of "Winter" showcase the bands burgeoning diversity.
The band quickly set out on an endless tour in support of the album and everything seemed to be going exceptionally well. Positively received good reviews. College radio embraced the band, their record was in stores, and interest grew. Both the label and the band were excited. Yet, time on the road began taking its toll. Relationships between band members began to deteriorate during the time spent touting Positively, and at tours end, first the bassist, and then, more significantly, co-founder Kirk Swan announced they were leaving the band.
Dumptruck, it seemed, was done. "Around Christmas of 1986 Kirk and (bassist) Spike Priggen split the band and were like, 'Okay, Dumptruck is over'." Tiven explains, "And I said, 'Fuck you it is'. There was money to make another record. The label wanted it to be a Dumptruck record. Hugh Jones (Echo & the Bunneymen, Modern English) was set to produce. I figured, hey, that sounds good to me."
As would become routine, Seth Tiven wouldn't let his band go. Not like that. And certainly not as long as there was a contract with Big Time and the money to do a third album. So Tiven, picked up the pieces of his band, replaced Swan with another guitarist (Kevin Salem), found a bass player, and headed overseas to Wales to record with Hugh Jones.
The result: a record titled for the Country - the most sober and consistent Dumptruck recording to date. It is the first Dumptruck recording that profits from the focus of a singular voice. Tiven penned each and every song on for the Country, and his vision and focus improve what was already a wonderful sound. Lacking the vicissitude of two songwriters the album becomes a sharp personal statement. for the Country presents us with a collection of introspective, disappointed, and fed up songs. Songs of "aloneness". Songs of dismay. A world where people hurt and hurt each other. In the end Tiven wants none of it. His "Island" is a place that he - and he alone - wants to be. "50 Miles", "Friends" ("What are friends for anyway?"), "Brush Me Back" ("Brush me back / Tie my hands / Time for me to make a stand my friend"), and the titular "For The Country" ("Drifting on an ocean / Drifting on an ocean 'til you die"), all carry the mood.
for the Country is an amazing record: bleak and sometimes angry, but completely uplifting. Critique for the album was, again, very positive, and some opinion existed that Dumptruck was a "next big thing" candidate.
"There was a feeling that something good would happen with for the country," said Tiven. "But it was clear that our record company was going out of business. It was pathetic, the album wasn't in stores, and tour support checks were late, hell, even while recording the producer and studio weren't getting paid on time. So that record came out with little publicity and no promotion, and we were touring our asses off. We were pretty pissed."
for the Country, after good initial sales, seemed to be fast becoming one of those albums everyone seemed to have heard of, but could not find. Tiven and the band, under the weight of a collapsing label, continued the arduous touring, supporting themselves with their own capital.
There wasn't much of an option. If the band quit mid-tour, the money they had spent (their own) would never be reimbursed. The way things were going with Big Time, it was a safe bet that they would probably never see the cash anyway, but it was already spent so they might as well just keep going - against all hope.
Driving a van that hardly drove anymore, Dumptruck hobbled into California. Things were not well. The band spent most of their time in a pissed-off mood - off and (particularly) on stage. Then they found out the band was for sale.
Phonogram Records had noticed the acclaim and initial sales of for the country, and along with some other record labels, began vying for the services of Dumptruck. Big Time, floundering as it was, seemed thrilled at the prospect of cashing in on their share of Phonogram's six figure offer and began negotiations with the larger label. There was, however, one minor detail.
While in Los Angeles, Tiven was called into the Big Time offices (he had recently learned of the Phonogram deal himself). It was explained to him that a small contractual "detail" had been overlooked recently - Big Time had missed the date to pick up the option on Dumptruck - and that it would be simple, with Tiven's help, to iron out this small misstep. Seth, seeing an opportunity to leave Big Time and move his band forward, said that he would have to "talk to the band". More like, talk to his lawyer. Dumptruck's lawyer confirmed for Tiven that Big Time's "misstep" did indeed free the band from contractual obligation to the sinking label, and that they were free to pursue a relationship with Phonogram themselves. So they did.
Big Time looked foolish. Negotiating a deal with another label for a band that wasn't even under contract is a bad business move, not to mention embarrassing as hell. And it is made even worse when your business is dying. But, Big Time decided it was not going to die alone. They would take Dumptruck with them. Big Time Records filed a frivolous breech of (non-existent) contract suit and sued Dumptruck for five million dollars. 5 Million dollars!
The lawsuit did what Big Time apparently wanted it to do: it gave Phonogram and other interested labels five million reasons to never speak to Dumptruck again. Drifting, Tiven and the band set out on the eternal tour. Three years of playing to pay legal bills, three years without recording, three years in which to slip out of the collective short-term memories of the public, and three years to wonder what the fuck they did to deserve this.
Eventually, the Big Time suit was dismissed after the labels' lawyers failed to appear at any of three hearings. Furthermore, Dumptruck won control over their master recordings and received a two hundred fifty thousand-dollar judgement for damages. It sounded good, but, as is the Dumptruck luck, the band only saw about a thousand dollars of their winnings, and to top it off, RCA records put a lien on the Dumptruck master tapes for money owed them by the now defunct Big Time Records.
Having won nothing and lost nearly everything, Tiven and Dumptruck forged on with what was always most important - the music. It would be eight years until any new Dumptruck music saw the light of day.
In 1995, finally, the 1991 recorded Days of Fear was released. Its sound is very different from its predecessor. The lyrics remain as bitterly personal, but Dumptruck was now a single guitar attack. Tiven took over all the guitar duties, and for the first time Dumptruck was using a variety of instrumentation to flesh out its sound. Violin, piano, organ, and mandolin all find their way into this collection of powerful pop - rock (country imbibed) songs.
The grinding guitars of "Parasite" opens, letting you know Dumptruck is still alive and very much kicking. "Better of You" rolls with mandolin and sweet back porch vocals. And nothing goes down lightly on Days: "Bad Day", "Pig Heart", and "Already Dead" pretty much speak for themselves. "Days of Fear" and "Turn Away" take a beautiful dusty country stroll. Yet, on "Giving Up" ("I see things that make me sick / and I'm giving up on America") Tiven seems to be at a bottom he doesn't want to be at... not believing or trusting anything. "Days of Fear" sounds desperate and feels haunted, but what is most frightening is that these are not personal demons, they are demons of every day. The demons of a world we all live in, not just Seth Tiven. Riveting.
Terminal (DevilInTheWoods) is 1999's Dumptruck. It may be the best. "It's weird," Tiven said of Terminal. "I don't know what my perspective on this record is. It has more extremes than our other recordings. The album contains some of the quietest and easily the loudest music we've ever done."
The album is balanced and beautiful. Tiven has carried on in gorgeous fashion - adding a second guitar back into the mix along with the rich sound of wonderfully played keys (Ian McClagan and Michael Ramos). Leading off with another dash of Dumptruck depressed anger, "Forever" is self-assessing: "Fucked up everything / took it all for granted. Watched you slip away / sad and disenchanted." And the introspection continues. "Terminal" is a s good a rock and pop song as anything you'll ever hear these days. "Long Ride" flows and flurries behind the criss-crossing guitar, and the whirring Hammond B-3 organ - a glorious sound indeed. The middle of Terminal only builds upon the emotive energies that kick things off. "Daylight Falls" ("The sun will rise tomorrow / Leave it all behind, there's nothing for you here / If all you see is sorrow / Leave it all behind") is a beautiful epic featuring sweet vocal interplay with Sara Hickman. "Medication" (one of several song on the album that reunites Tiven with departed Dumptruck co-founder Kirk Swan) lays the groundwork for the rest of the album, and is smartly followed by what may be Seth Tivens finest moment: "Still Been Had". "Still Been Had" is melancholy, melodic, and pacific. It is a gloriously performed modern blues laced with piano, organ and guitar, and built upon Tivens most warm and heartfelt lyrics ever. Astonishing. "Tear It Down" turns it all up and has Dumptruck melting the very air around them. Finally, the album quietly closes, as it were, "Swept Away". Terminal is melodic and sweet, loud and angry, raucous and genteel. It is quite simply a memorable and exceptional album.
Dumptruck and Seth Tiven have been through just about all a band/musician can, yet events never sway the music. It is a testament to Tiven and all of his various band mates that Dumptruck has remained as vital and consistent as it has. Here's hoping more people will discover what the lucky among us already know.
d is for Dumptruck (1984) Incas/Big Time, out of print
Positively Dumptruck (1986) Big Time, out of print
for the Country (1987) Big Time, out of print
Days of Fear (1995) Unclean America
Terminal (1999) DevilInTheWoods (P.O. Box 6217 Albany, CA 94706, www.devilinthewoods.com)
Dumptruck Online : www.flash.net/~stiven/
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