In Search of D.C. Funk/Metal
by Peter Crigler
It was the early '90's and lots of bands were getting signed to major labels in the wake of alternative radio and hair metal. Lots of these bands were really shitty and didn't deserve the massive advances the labels were tossing at them. Then there were bands that were really great and original but never got their fair shake because of major label politics and possibly because they were ahead of their time. Lucy Brown, out of Washington D.C. were one of those bands. Tragically cut down in their prime before they really had a chance to breakthrough, this is their story.
It all begins with three guys: bassist Scott Llewellyn, drummer Chris Neuberg and guitarist Luis Peraza. The guys had met in high school and started jamming in garages. Brought together by their love of British punk like the Buzzcocks and classic rock like Black Sabbath, the guys started playing around. But according to Luis, they weren't really a band- they were just jamming, having fun. They managed to make a self-titled indie release in 1988, put out by a local label called T.O.G., owned by a local businessman named Teo Gracas. Peraza looks bad: "I'd say the record wasn't very good because we hadn't really figured out what we were doing!"
It wasn't until they hung out with mutual friend Gene Hawkins that things started to gel. Peraza: "Gene was in a ska band called The Now, grew up in Cleveland, came over to Maryland. Was into a lot of garage bands like Love and all kinds of stuff. Gene was at a party and I played him a cassette and Gene loved it." Hawkins was a very dynamic and electrifying person and frontman. Not much of screamer, he more or less crooned with a gruffness that made the band stand out from the rest. Once he joined the band, they became Electric!
The band quickly began filling clubs around D.C. and Maryland and began playing shows with like-minded bands such as 7 Seconds and Murphy's Law. Their first big tour was opening up for the Bad Brains; by this time, HR had been replaced by former Faith No More singer Chuck Mosley. By 1990, the band had begun to earn the attention of major labels with their different sound. Megaforce, then one of the most dynamic indie labels around, caught a show in New York where the band was opening for Ramones and S.O.D., whose frontman Billy Milano had become a big supporter of the band and had pestered Megaforce exec Jonny Z to come check the band out.
Blown away by the band's sound and Gene's astounding vocals, Jonny Z offered the band a deal. At this point, Megaforce had a distribution deal with Atlantic Records and once the band signed the deal, they suddenly had national distribution. Buoyed by the interest, the band decamped to the legendary Bearsville studio in upstate New York with producer Joe Blaney, best known for engineering records for Prince and The Clash. The band were like fish out of water in the gigantic studio, having breakfast and chatting every morning with Robbie Robertson of the Band who was at Bearsville working on another solo record.
In the spring of 1991, the band's self-titled record was released. The first single, "Colorblind," was a great rocker with dynamic vocals and some killer bass work but it failed to set the charts on fire. The record, while good, failed to ignite the American buying public and was a disappointment. Luis feels that the album sounds too condensed; that the "producer kind of crushed the sound." The band continued touring and maintained a large fan base that included Pantera and the Bouncing Souls. Having shared the same management team, Pantera even invited them to open some shows for them prior to the release of the breakthrough Vulgar Display of Power album. They became good friends with Pantera- vocalist Phil Anselmo even came on stage one night and shaved Gene's head, right in front of everyone!
But unfortunately, around this time, Megaforce's distribution deal with Atlantic came to an end. Luis: "Limbo land for about 10 bands. For many on the label it was a tough time, for us it felt like an eternity. Jonny Z felt bad about the limbo and gave us $10,000 to record to get another demo done." This fortuitous incident ended up helping the band big time. Vinnie Paul, drummer for Pantera heard about the demo/EP and told the band he would produce it for them. So they went to Nashville to record at Vinnie and Dimebag's father's studio and they ended up with a loud, crushing sounding EP to shop around to the labels.
In 1993, the band independently released Five Dead Dogs and continued touring, trying to keep up momentum. They even made a video for the song "No Gettin' Out," a hard driving, punishing song that showcased a heavier sound than the band had shown on previous records. The EP was doing well and it was hoped that the Pantera connection might lead to something bigger for the band but fate decided to play a cruel game.
It was April 23, 1994. Luis: "Gene didn't show up to a soundcheck at 9:30 club. Could not find him; we had to break into his house. Chris and I found him. There might have been people there but we don't know for sure. I don't know but something went horribly wrong. Gene was not a junkie. Went wrong with a lot of people around that time." Gene Hawkins had died of an accidental overdose. He was 29 years old.
That evening, the band called it quits. They didn't even try to consider replacing Gene. In the wake of his unfortunate passing, the band attended a memorial service at Gene's parent's church in D.C. and then threw a massive house party for him where hundreds of people from different states showed up to honor Gene. All the momentum the band had been building through the EP and the constant touring came to an immediate end. The band members scattered and began life after Gene.
Three months after Gene's passing, Luis and a business friend from college opened up Atomic Music in Maryland, a store specializing in selling and trading guitars and musical gear. The store just celebrated its twentieth anniversary and is still going strong. Bassist Scott Llewellyn, who had attended Yale before the band hit the road, went back to law school in Michigan and became a full-fledged lawyer and joined a very prestigious firm. He and Luis still talk regularly. Drummer Chris Neuberg went to work at a Harley-Davidson shop and, according to Luis, has seemingly dropped off the face of the earth.
Lots of people want to describe Lucy Brown as ‘funk metal' and that is just pure bullshit. You go back and you listen to other funk metal acts of the era like Scatterbrain, Limbomaniacs and Psychefunkapus and chances are you're going to find that some of these bands really suck and sound incredibly dated now. But you put on Lucy Brown and it still sounds fresh and inspired, particularly Gene Hawkins' soulful crooning.
Even though the band ended tragically early on, their music is still out there and people keep discovering it. One can listen to Lajon Witherspoon of Sevendust and Dallas Coyle of God Forbid and even Howard Jones of The Devil You Know and Killswitch Engage and hear a lot of Gene Hawkins, even unknowingly. There's even a whole channel on YouTube that's devoted solely to the band's music and people like me stumble across it and are always blown away by what they hear. When asked what he hopes the band's legacy will be, Luis was very succinct: "People will say we were slightly ahead of their time. Something memorable from that era. Don't have an idea what a legacy would be. We were definitely the sum of our influences, dammit!"
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