More than fifteen minutes with Gravity
By Naughty Mickie
Photos by Dave Schwartz
Gravity Kills, vocalist/guitarist Jeff Scheel, guitarist Matt Dudenhoeffer, bassist/keyboardist Doug Firley and drummer Brad Booker, first came to light in 1995 when they submitted their song, "Guilty," to a St. Louis, Missouri radio station for an unsigned bands compilation. After that, they took over the nation with their unique brand of industrial rock. This month, the group will release, "Superstarved," with catchy tunes like "Take it all Away," "Love, Sex and Money" and "Fifteen Minutes," which have been making waves during their recent tour.
This interview proved to be one of the strangest ones I've ever had, as well as one of the best. I've spoken with bands backstage, in dressing rooms, at restaurants and clubs and even in back alleys, but I've never gone shopping with them before. Scheel chatted to me by cell phone as he prepared for their tour and, despite negotiating a cart through the local WalMart, he was gracious, extremely intelligent and had a terrific sense of humor.
"I read that you were the last member to join the band," I start.
"I didn't really join the band later, I was the last member to join as Gravity Kills. I was in on recording the first song we ever did together as Gravity Kills. Those other guys, they played in other bands together before, but not as Gravity Kills. We all grew up in the same town, Jefferson City, Missouri, home of heavy metal,'' laughs Scheel.
Scheel began his love affair with music as a child with the support of his parents.
"I started playing guitar at nine, I started playing drums at 12 and had always been singing. My parents were stupid and nurtured my musical interests.'' Scheel goes on, "I played in rock bands. In any typical high school, there's a handful of bands that play everybody's party and I was in one of those bands of course. At the time, I was living in Dallas. I sort of went back and forth between Dallas, Texas and Jefferson City, Missouri as I kid because I grew up in one of those great divorce families. It was a transit childhood for me, but it was cool that way because it sort of got me ready for living out of a tour bus and living out of a suitcase, out of a airplane and all those things I have to do. I didn't mind traveling and home was where you hung your hat.''
With his mix of eloquence and irony, I sought to know more about Scheel's background.
"I have a bachelors degree and I went to graduate school as well, but I didn't finish," Scheel says. "I have a liberal arts degree from the University of Texas in Dallas. I was being groomed for law school, before I rejected that, and one of my minors was philosophy, my three minors were philosophy, arts and humanities and sociology. I don't know if you would have wanted me in a courtroom very often. The thing with the graduate school, it was a research radio television film degree so it was all like demographic applications and that kind of stuff, almost like a media statistics kind of degree.''
"Does it help you now?" I ask.
"Does it help me now?" Scheel states, "Absolutely not. What a college education does or an education period, it doesn't have to be college, it can be picking up a book or seeing an art film or whatever, you expand yourself and it's always a good thing and two, it teaches you to look at life through the other side of the looking glass. I think that's the most important thing about any education. Not what you gain from one specific book, the experience in learning that there are other experiences out there besides the one that you put in your shoes every day.''
"Did you work any day jobs while the band was starting out?" I query.
"Yes, I worked a few different jobs," Scheel snickers. "In fact, there was a huge article in Kerrang a couple years ago and one of the little, I don't know if you've ever read Kerrang, but they have these sidebars with what's interesting about a member of the band that isn't pertinent to the interview and one of which was a list of all these stupid jobs I had. Which was great. I did pretty much whatever I could to sustain my adolescence and continued to be able to play in bands. I delivered pizza, I drove a school bus, I worked for an ad specialty dealer selling patches, lapel pins and all that creepy kind of stuff and I sold camera equipment, whatever I could do.
"Driving the school bus was really cool, so was delivering pizza," Scheel continues. "I was dressed down and tried to look as monetarily deficient as possible. I wanted to look like I needed the tips. The worst job I ever had was I worked for a merchandising company and I was a gofer there. I worked for two guys who both had a thing for men, there's nothing wrong with that, but I jokingly called them 'Soddom and Gemorrha' all the time because they were always messing with the straight boy. It wasn't that it was such a horrible horrible job, it was just dealing with being sexually harassed every day. You just knew you were going to get it when you went into work. It was a fun job, but other than that, it kind of sucked."
Scheel's other passion is taking care of himself.
"I workout all the time, I lift weights; run. In fact right now I'm buying protein bars for the tour bus. I'm in a WalMart. Isn't that great or what? WalMart rules."
I love WalMart too, so I have to agree, "What else is in your cart?"
"Right now just protein bars, I just walked in, in fact I've got to go back and get a cart, I have the phone in one hand and I didn't realize that I would be trying to carry up all this stuff. We're getting ready to go on a tour, you've got to make sure that you have toiletries, you've got all that stuff. You can't get out of WalMart for less than a hundred bucks. I can walk into Prada Gucci in New York City and get out for nothing because I can't buy anything, but at WalMart I spend a hundred bucks every time I walk in the door. I've got the cart, now I'm rockin'," Scheel laughs.
"I have such a passion for music that inevitably, when I'm home, I still end up playing acoustic guitar three or four hours a day," says Scheel. "It's just something that, it's very cathartic. You're playing and you don't even pay attention to what you're playing sometimes. It's just having the guitar in your hand. My latest hobby is putting together a project studio for my house. That's been a bit of an undertaking. "
Scheel still lives in Missouri.
"We're still in St. Louis. I used to say there's no reason to go anywhere else as long as TWA is afloat, but I can't say that any more. It's pretty much now that there's no reason to go anywhere as long as American Airlines, you can get anywhere. It's actually great for touring because with bands on either coast, most tour buses come out of Nashville. So you're talking about, on the coast, two days of deadhead. You have to pay for the buses to come out to you..." Scheel trails off counting protein bars.
I prod him back around to our conversation and ask him what he thinks about the music scene.
"The music scene in general, I thought for a while things were getting extremely homogenized, but now things are sort of spurring off again and it's tough to say," Scheel replies. "It's a really great time to be a music fan because there are so many types stylistically and also being able to get so much great music for free now. With the Internet it's really easy as opposed to growing up in a place like Jefferson City, Missouri without the Internet and having to depend on your brother or sister to find whatever was cool and something new. Now it's just one click away."
I tell him how I send CDs to my brother who lives in South Carolina and is not connected to the Web.
"That's because they don't allow computers in South Carolina," Scheel teases.
"No, I think they do," I giggle. "So what about your hometown scene?"
"When we came up it was a really vibrant music scene here, a band called The Urge was around, they just recently broke up, they were on Immortal. We were sort of the first band out of the mid-'90s St. Louis frenzy to get signed. And then there were five or six bands, seven bands that got a major label deal. As of right now, out of that situation, we are the sole survivor. And there's really not much, there's one new band out of St. Louis that's trying to carry the torch, a band called Mesh. But other than them, there's nothing really coming out of here such as the next semi-generation of local music that's making a statement or any sort of wave at all in town." Scheel sighs, "I don't know, I don't think local scenes are doing much anywhere, people aren't really going to shows, people aren't really seeing live music anywhere. We were just out with Pigface in the fall when we got done with the record, we were like, 'Let's just go out for something to do.' We played in Chicago, I think the show sold out, but it's our number one market and Pigface is from there, and we were playing the Vic Theater and, especially after September 11, that venue had only sold out two shows."
Scheel pauses and tells me how the 9/11 tragedy affected him, "It was such a weird day. We were in the studio making the record and Doug can screaming into the room, 'Wake up! Somebody just drove a plane into the World Trade Center.' I was like, 'Ahh, fuck you. I'm going back to sleep.' And he said, 'No, no, really. Get up.' I got out of bed and from where we were staying, we could see the Sears Tower in Chicago, so all I could do was just look at that because every time I looked at the Sears Tower, I saw a plane going into it and it was really bizarre."
"I think we saw this trend starting when we were touring after our first record," Scheel returns to our topic. "Touring was on the down, people weren't really supporting live music in general. Then it got worse, I'm hoping that this is like the darkest before the dawn."
"Do you think the advent of the Internet has affected the live music scene?" I ponder.
"I think it has do with a lot of things," Scheel states. "There's more for 16, 18, 20-year-olds, there's far more to do now than there was 10 years ago, 15 years ago. Ten years ago, there wasn't the Internet, video games weren't what they are. Everybody's sort of competing for, it's not that we're competing for dollars, so much, it's that we're competing for attention. There's so much else to do, going on, 'What else can I do? I can jump on my Playstation 2 and check out these graphics.' And whatever. The computer's sort of a double-edged sword."
"So what do you think of the Internet?" I say.
"That's a good question, " Scheel pauses a moment. "I like the Internet, it gives a lot of people access to information that they wouldn't have otherwise. It's easily available, but at the same time it's sort of started, let's say, a generation with 'Sesame Street,' the attention span is getting shorter and shorter. I don't have to spend time going to a library for research, I can just jump on the Internet and get what I need. It even inhibits the cultivation of knowledge in a way. Everything's a sound bite or a small blurb on a screen that's so easily attainable. Even music for that matter, it doesn't mean as much probably when it's so much easier to get."
From his talk, I assume that Scheel is a reader like myself.
"I like to read, but I don't read that much," Scheel admits. "Inevitably, when I'm at home, I'm in the studio and when I'm on the road, I'm too damn tired most of the time. I'm probably just making excuses because Brad, our drummer, on the last little run, he's read one of the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, but I don't remember which one it was. So there's always time to do it, it's all what you make of the time you've got and I'm as guilty of playing new games and all that stuff. There's always new video games and it's great. Putting in context with what's happening with the live music scene or the value of music in general, I think that there's a direct correlation between the two."
Gravity Kills is similar to most other bands when it comes to writing, just maybe a little more high-tech.
"Usually I'm in the shower and I'm thinking something and I go put it down to a palm-corder or something, then I put it down to a regular mini-disc recorder, that's why I'm putting together my home studio, and then I take it to the band. I or Matt will come up with an idea, Matt and I are pretty much of the two writers in the band, we sort of just throw it together, the production of the song sort of just happens while we're recording it," Scheel explains. "Sometimes I'll have a lyrical idea, usually not a complete idea, and then sometimes it's just music, sometimes I'll just have a lyrical idea that I'll sit on for a long time and then out of nowhere the song appears. There's no real formula to it, there's probably five formulas to it or ten formulas to it. But generally, even sometimes I get myself on an acoustic guitar. Now I'm pretty much going to do finished demos at my house before I take them to the band and that way I think we can use the time a bit more productive in expanding song ideas as opposed to just finishing songs."
Scheel has many ideas for future projects.
"I'm probably going to start diving into doing remixes and a bunch of other things as well. You never know," Scheel says. "I didn't think that I had it in me to be a producer until we did this record and Martin (Atkins, producer for Ministry, Pigface, Murder Inc.) and I got into the studio and really butted heads for three months. I think I learned a lot from him, I think he learned a lot from me as well. It's always better to come out of a situation, I think, realizing that you didn't know as much about it as when you went into it."
"So what's in your cart now?" I tease.
"I've got one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight," Scheel counts. "I've got ten boxes of protein bars and I have a bottle of ephedra."
I can hear the blip of the register as Scheel waits in line and knowing that his turn will be next, I ask him if he would like to tell me anything else.
"It's sort of odd as far as the new record goes, I think it's a real evolution for the band and it's nothing completely different for us, but it's definitely a record that sounds like it was made in the here and now," Scheel says. "We didn't go out and try to recreate past magic, we created something new and vital and that meant something to us as well. Hopefully it will mean something to a lot of other people."
After the Gravity Kills show at the Palace in Hollywood, California, I had the pleasure of meeting the entire band face to face. Just like Scheel, Dudenhoeffer, Firley and Booker were smart and charming. They also couldn't help get in a few ribs about the now-famous WalMart trip. So Jeff, what's in the cart?
For more on Gravity Kills, visit www.gravitykills.com and www.sanctuaryrecordsgroup.com
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