[NOTE: Today's entry will hopefully be very entertaining to a small subset of readers. It is equally likely to be seen as completely inane and boorish to the rest. My apologies to the latter group. But to paraphrase TMFW 76 subject Lesley Gore, it's my TMFW and I'll write what I want to.]
The late '90s South Bend music scene was a busy place. On one hand there was the not always visible but nevertheless thriving "indiepunk college rock" scene that saw bands like emiLy, Sweep the Leg Johnny, and the Florida Evans Showband and Revue play basements and bars just off of the Notre Dame campus. On the other hand, there was the birth of "improg" group Umphrey's McGee from the combination of Notre Dame mainstays Tashi Station and Stomper Bob and the 4x4s. But over on the third hand, something truly magical was happening: the explosion of on-campus acoustic cover groups who played shoddily-constructed, sparsely-arranged, and poorly-rehearsed cover songs of top-40 hits, usually in micro-sets of only three or four songs at a time. For today's TMFW, I am very proud to announce some real live journalism: an exclusive interview with Matt "The Officer" Kloser, the man who was central to the mainstream success of that movement and who was widely regarded to be the best A&R man in his field.
As the head of the Benchmark Consortium, The Officer controlled a stable of groups that dominated the acoustic cover scene. His groups were rumored to have included the Goshen, Indiana based heavy metal band Lyx, along with campus mainstays Skeletor, the Blasterz, and the all-female group Meat on Fridays. But no band is more linked to The Officer than the 1999 campus group The Meteors. In this exclusive interview with The Officer - who I remind you is widely regarded to be the best in his field - he tells for the first time the story of the wild three months in 1999 when The Meteors blazed brightly in the nighttime rock-and-roll sky (and then just as quickly burned out in the atmosphere). Here is the interview, which for old times' sake was conducted by AOL Instant Messenger. It is at times heavily edited to remove inappropriate references and expletives from The Officer. He is widely regarded to be the best A&R man in his field, but he has the mouth of sailor.
TMFW: Wow. It is a true honor to be corresponding with you. I guess first things first: how did The Benchmark Consortium come to be, and how did you come to be widely regarded as the best in your field?
The Officer: Thanks for contacting me, and for your kind words. I think that I earned my widely-regarded reputation as the best in my field because I always made sure that the artists were free to be creative. I handled the tedious details of booking, contract negotiation, equipment, fan management, and promotion, and left the talent to do their work.
TMFW: On that subject, let's get into your time with The Meteors. Tell me how you came across that band.
The Officer: I had been looking for a group like The Meteors for some time. Back in those days, the campus scene of fake bands playing poor joke versions of cover songs was very new, and it was almost like a zygote when I first encountered it. Bands like The Glass Eye Merchants, Briggz, and Skeletor were like haploid cells, teaming up into a diploid cell and then dividing and growing inside of an archegonium.
After that initial fertilization period, the scene became more of a morula, and some dominant groups started to emerge. I am talking of course about The Sampsons - an early band on the scene that really changed the game and laid a foundation for the success for future groups. If The Meteors were the fully-formed human child of the scene, The Sampsons were the rich placenta that nurtured its growth.
TMFW: That's a really excellent and not-at-all-weird metaphor, Officer. Tell me about the Sampsons.
The Officer: Well, they were a special group. I first encountered the band when I had gone to Tomassito's at the Student Center one night for my weekly calzone. They were playing across the building, and doing their best to cover a Barenaked Ladies song. I wandered over there and stayed for the set. They moved to a Barenaked Ladies song, and then ended with a Barenaked Ladies song. What really struck me was their versatility, you know? So I added their calendar to my PalmPilot and kept up with the group.
The next time I saw them, lightning struck. A newcomer to the scene was opening for them - a kid named Ski. He played a really beautiful cover of Emilia's then-hit song "Big Big World," and the crowd was really taken by it. It was intoxicating, almost. You can hear actually Ski announce The Sampsons, and sense the crowd's anticipation of the group, at the end of that song.
As it turns out, unbeknownst to all of us The Sampsons were under heavy artistic stress when I saw them. They ended up dissolving not long after that, when they faced a minor medical setback that caused them to cancel their remaining shows. By the time that was resolved (and very thankfully so), creative differences between the group became irreconcilable. The two driving forces behind the group - Mobes and Jinx - had a close friendship, but they also had some bad history that went back to a yacht sale and Hawaii land deal that went bad. I remember years later - in 2007 or so - there was a legendary fight between them, and Mobes declared that they "shan't work together again." (Of course we all know now that they did end up playing again - the legendary Pierogi Boyz show in July, 2014 - but that was a long time coming.)
TMFW: Most people who were on the scene then remember the devastation caused by The Sampsons' break-up, but for you it had a silver lining of sorts, didn't it?
The Officer: Well no doubt, for the Benchmark Consortium it did. I had a vision of what could succeed in those days, and I was looking for a group that I could mold. To me, they would perfectly combine showmanship, average-at-best musical talent, top-40 songs, a willingness to look like complete idiots, and mouth noises. When it became clear that such a group did not exist, I set out to build it.
I approached Hoey, who was the lead singer of The Sampsons. He was looking for something new and joined up right away. I signed him to a "deal memo" to lock him into the Benchmark Consortium, and set out to find the right group to pair him with. Hoey suggested a guitar player named Loaf, who had been in the band Jackrabbit (which also featured Jinx on bass, so they had shared bandmates in common). Loaf had also played with Hoey in groups called Tape Deck and The Push Pops. To be honest I was not impressed with either of those groups, but I am widely regarded as the best in my field and I saw a little nugget in their music that I knew I could polish into a diamond. Loaf was in, provided that the group would play something by Sixpence None the Richer. He had a girlfriend at the time named Kim and that was their special song. Kim was a cool girl - I always wondered what happened to her.
With those two on board, I went to Ski, the fresh-faced kid I'd seen a month before. I hatched a plan to get Ski to join the band: I hid every pair of socks that Ski had and knotted each of his shoes together in difficult clumps. Ski gave in and joined the group after I promised to give him back his stuff if he did. Ski's feet would sweat - like, really really bad - and so he needed those socks. I'll never forget what Ski said to me that day: "Ok, man." I have goosebumps thinking about it.
With three pieces in place, we just needed somebody to add superfluous and distracting mouth noises on the top of each song. A promising kid named Hipp was recommended - he'd sat in with the Glass Eye Merchants once and basically just went "dug-a-duggie, dug-a-dug, dug-a-duggie duggie duggie" the whole time. Naturally, I invited him into the group. He spent 20 minutes lamenting that modern music featured the same lack of morals that doomed Rome in Caligula's time, then agreed to join up.
TMFW: So the band came together and off they went?
The Officer: To our great surprise, yeah. I booked the boys for their first show at "Acoustic Cafe," which was a small peanuts show at the Student Center. I wanted them to start small and build a following. I remember that they opened that night with "Hi, We Are The Meteors," which was a blatant rip-off of a They Might Be Giants song. It was sloppy, and they messed up the bridge, but they sang the hell out of it. In that way, the song was a great metaphor for what The Meteors would go on to be.
For their next gig, I stepped it up and booked them for "Acoustic Cafe," which was a pretty prestigious event at the Student Center. I think that was the first night that they played "As Long as You Love Me." From the first "yeah, we're singing it" from Hipp, I knew we were on to something.
The third gig was going to be the most important, so I spared no expense and swung for the fences. I booked them at "Acoustic Cafe" at the Student Center, which at the time was only for marquee campus performers. They broke out two of their big songs that night - "Ironic" and "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)." Those songs were so bad as to be almost unlistenable, but they went over huge. And soon I was managing the biggest act in Michiana.
TMFW: And then I presume you brought the kind of publicity muscle that only the Benchmark Consortium could offer...
The Officer: Of course. I knew what we needed to do when it came to promotion - I don't know if you heard this yet, but I am widely regarded as the best in my field - so I got the band hooked up with an official photographer and had a series of photographs taken. We had staged photos - the classics like playing leapfrog, laying in a "star" formation, and posing in front of empty fountains. But then we got some more candid shots, too, like being protected from fans, posing with those same fans (to show that the group is approachable and down-to-earth despite their success), having a band practice and setlist review meeting, and working on harmonies in sets of two.
I also had them do some radio interviews. Hipp lamented about life on the road (with the frequent charity golf matches and book signings) and acknowledged his own limitations, Loaf talked about his influences, and Ski revealed the surprising sources of his inspiration and strugged to answer a long-forgotten question. I even had Ozzie, the official photographer, offer some perspective about what it took to make the band look their best.
If you listened carefully to some of those early interviews, you could hear in some of the answers the strain of fame: Hoey gave a complex answer about the band's direction and Loaf defended the band against those who accused them of selling out.
But the biggest move I pulled off was of course the magazine cover.
TMFW: Ah yes, I recall that. But before we get into that, is that you conducting business in several of those photos? Was that intentional?
The Officer: Yes that is me, and no it was definitely not intentional. Remember, I was all about promoting the talent and staying out of the spotlight. But at the same time, I was widely regarded as the best in my field, and that meant constantly working for the group. You can see from the size of my cell phone (which was NOT just a cordless phone used as a prop because none of us had a real cell phone in those days) that those were different days from a technological perspective, and so I had to go wherever I could get reception. Sometimes unfortunately that meant being in the shot.
TMFW: Well, I am sure the band understood and appreciated that dedication. As you mentioned, the band famously graced the cover of the campus magazine Scholastic. How did that come about?
The Officer: Well, once we put the publicity machine into gear there was no stopping us. It helped that the band was at the height of its creative powers - they had covered "This Kiss" and "Still the One," which were rookie league tunes, but they really came together when they did "The Glory of Love," and they hit their apex with a movie-quote-laden and very off-key version of "My Heart Will Go On."
Of course we had intense media interest at that time, and we had the opportunity to hook up exclusively with a young journalist named Kara Zuaro. Kara was the best on the scene, and the band really was taken with her. She was a real professional. In fact, Kara has gone on to write a very cool book that combines food and indie rock called I Like Food, Food Tastes Good. Anyway, Kara interviewed the group, they posed for some photos, and the result was a cover story that really captured the essence of the Meteor Craze. We didn't know it at the time, but that was the brightest that it would get for the band.
TMFW: At that time, you all were living the life, it seems...
The Officer: We definitely were. I remember one notable instance where a young lady named Amber came to a show and was smitten by Ski. She really wanted a date with him and talked to him after the show. Ski was very interested in her, but he understood that such matters were not core artistic issues so he wisely referred her to me to book a date. I handled that for Ski and I think that it went very well.
TMFW: But I suppose nothing lasts, does it? The band eventually fell to Earth?
Officer: In a big way, yes. The first sign of trouble was at a show in the basement of Keenan Hall; it was a freshman dinner and was well-attended. Hoey especially at that time was struggling with the pressures of fame, and insisted to the band that they should play a straightforward, gag-free cover of "Boot-Scootin' Boogie." I still have no idea why he did that or why the band agreed, but they did. And when they played the show, the song went over like a lead balloon. Hoey chose to double down, and repeatedly insulted the audience from the stage. It went downhill from there. In a case of instant karma, the band's tape deck got swiped during the show, so thankfully no record of that gig exists.
Another instance of the band getting to big for its britches was the annual Nazz Battle of the Bands. Tickets to the show were only $5 or so, but the group made a bunch of "backstage passes" for their friends. I remember being at the gate when people started coming in, and Amber (who had moved on from the first date and was by then Ski's lady) flashed her badge and tried to walk on through. Of course, the ticket guys were not impressed by a crudely laminated, Corel WordPerfect-designed "all access" pass, and they stopped her. Being a professional, I insisted that the passes should be honored - my loyalty to the band means that even to this day I must officially believe that - but in my heart I understood and could empathize with the guys at the door.
When the band finally did break up, it was obvious. I had seen it with so many great bands that dissolved at the height of their fame - U2, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, &c. - and it was plain when it happened. As I recall, Ski made a ceremony of unplugging MegaVox (that's what we called his keyboard; it was so involved in the songs that it was like the Fifth Meteor) and he walked out the door. We didn't see him again for several hours, until we met for dinner.
TMFW: But the story of The Meteors has somewhat of a happy ending, doesn't it?
The Officer: Thankfully, yes. By fall of 1999, tensions had subsided and I booked the band for a double-slot at "Acoustic Cafe," where it had all begun. That was not an easy feat for such a prestigious event; it was the first and last time such scheduling accommodation was made.
And after that first date, Ski and Amber kept things going, and got married. Amber insisted on getting the band back together for the wedding reception, and so I handled the logistical arrangements so that the band could focus on their art.
To our great surprise, the usually totally reliable Loaf bailed out of the show at the last minute. Though it went against everything I stood for, I was compelled by the circumstances to step in and take his place. I took over lead guitar for one night only, and the band played a blazing performance.
I still remember the press release I wrote when I made that move: "It is with great trepidation that I cross over the once impermeable membrane between the A&R work and the creative element. The band has both rocked and rolled due to this separation of powers, often preventing arguments that could have vainly ended in lower per diems and/or less groupies...my playing of the guitar will only be a coping mechanism to allow The Meteors to blaze a trail in the sky one last time. Following this concert...I will immediately sign away all my rights to the creative element and return to the A&R work I was born to run. God bless us all in this time of crisis and God bless America."
I sent that to the publishers of Rolling Stone, Spin, and Highlights for Kids. I don't think it made it into any of them. I don't know why; I had expected it at least to run alongside Goofus and Gallant.
TMFW: Thanks for that great run through The Meteors' history. Are you still in the A&R field?
The Officer: No. After I played Ski and Amber's wedding, I officially retired. By then, the Benchmark Consortium had rapidly disintegrated into a mix of discontented artists and everyone was miserable. So I moved on. I earned my masters in biology and a doctorate in science education from Stanford University. Now I work as a university professor at Notre Dame, and my dissertation received honors for the paper of the year in the field of science education. If you want to read it, the paper focuses on the interaction of epistemology and core teaching practices in high school biology classrooms. It's pretty great.
TMFW: That's terrific. Thinking about the interaction of epistemology and core teaching practices in high school biology classrooms is a hobby of mine. Thanks for the suggestion
So that's it for today's TMFW. I hope that you enjoyed reading about the history of The Meteors - one of Notre Dame's greatest campus bands. See you next week.
BONUS FACT / EXPLANATION FOR CONFUSED READERS - It being April 1, today's TMFW is in the spirit of April Fools' Day. Though remarkably all of the facts above are more or less true, they are about some college bands that I played in and around. I made up all of the quotes and...um...embellished just a little bit about the band's grandeur. The Officer was indeed The Meteors' manager/A&R man (and is a current TMFW subscriber), and he was indeed widely regarded as the best in his field. I thank him for his willingness to play along for today's entry.
BONUS FACT 1.5 - These days, Ski and Amber - who is now Dr. Amber - have two young kids and live in LA. In a fun bit of serendipity, they have a book that comes out TODAY. Buy it on Amazon right now.
BONUS FACT 2 - In an exercise even more inane and pointless than spending several hours a week writing a music fact that very few people read, Ski once wrote one poem a day, for a year, about onion bagels.