The room is brightly lighted and freshly painted all white, like in a hospital. Or a morgue. There's a cooler in the corner filled with ice and a bottle of water. Above, a lackadaisical ceiling fan spins slowly around and around and around like the world itself. There's a table and a few hardback chairs. Singer-songwriter Arlan Feiles sits in one of the chairs, former Natural Causes manager Keith Schantz in another.
Their smiles are crooked but their talk is straight. They're discussing their band, their ex-band, the one declared just a year ago to be the best unsigned rock group in the nation. The one that just a few weeks ago stood at the precipice of stardom as they negotiated a major deal with Epic Records. The one that broke up.
Downstairs a crowd is filing in for a Radiators concert. Feiles is scheduled to open the show and he's writing out his setlist, sipping from the bottle of water that was in the cooler, and denying -- with laughter -- the two biggest rumors about the demise of Natural Causes. No way, he says, did the band shatter because the major labels courting it decided that what they really wanted was the publishing rights to Feiles's numerous and amazing original songs, that they would give him a contract but not the other members. And no way, he says, laughing even harder, did the band break up because, after playing more than 300 shows in their two and a half years together, they simply got sick of each other's company.
And it sure as hell wasn't "musical differences." It never really is. So why did South Florida's premier rock act call it quits? And what happens next?
What happens immediately is that Feiles walks down the winding stairwell behind the Stephen Talkhouse and takes the stage to play a 35-minute solo set for the early arrivals who've paid $25 to see the Radiators. Feiles, alone up there with a Roland keyboard, unravels the melancholy "Morning Song" -- "I am no hero/And I have no cause/I have no reason/To build these walls" -- hitting resonant piano notes that hang in the air with the cigarette smoke. But this audience is all tie-dyed rudeness, jibber-babble, more concerned about how much rum is in their drinks than the fact that a brilliant musician is spilling his soul for their entertainment.
When he pounds out "Mr. Johnson" -- a newer song with a counter-punching piano intro, a harshly delivered chorus, and lyrics such as, "We'll be hanging Mr. Johnson in the morning/Wash your face and hands/...You can spend these precious moments spinning your confessions/But the people of this land found you to blame" -- Feiles receives a smattering of applause. One woman locates Keith Schantz, who's standing at the back of the bar, and asks if this guy on stage has a tape she can buy.
During another song two Radiators fans engrossed in conversation momentarily interrupt their discussion and notice Feiles's music. "What's he singing?" one asks. "Something about God's country," says the other. They both laugh derisively and turn back to their cocktails. Welcome to oblivion, solo man.
"Of course I'm gonna try to capitalize on the Causes name," Feiles was saying earlier, upstairs. "What else can I do? I want to keep that fan base. I mean, I'd feel real nice if I could bring in 400 people like the Causes did. Not that those people used to come to see me. They came to see the band. But it'd just be nice." He adds that he's not bound to a solo career, that he's thinking about putting together a trio and is open to other options. Late last week, Schantz, who's still managing Feiles, was putting in a long night at South Beach Studios. Feiles was there recording new demos.
Even though the police have come by to warn the occupants of the house in North Miami to turn that shit down A three times A Jim Wall continues beating out magical rhythms. He's been drumming virtually nonstop for hours and hours, since the early evening.
Two drum kits have been set up side-by-side. Guitars and amps and microphones fight for room with the three dozen guests who've dropped by to wish Wall a fond farewell. He promised his folks that if anything ever went wrong with Natural Causes, he'd go back to the Berklee College of Music in Boston and finish the one semester he needs to graduate. On this rain-soaked night, he's already packed. Feiles and Schantz arrive from the Talkhouse gig to find Keith's cousin, Joel, jamming wildly on guitar with former Causemate Sean Edelson and other local stars such as D. Brown and Doc Wiley and Raw B Jae and David Chaskes and....
By 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning all the Causes will have been here, including keyboardist-vocalist Karen Friedman and bassist Matt Coogan, both of whom left the band at the beginning of this year, with Coogan being replaced by Sean Gould on bass. The barbecue is delicious, but the music is even sweeter, an endless instrumental downpour that rattles windows and heads. Profound though it may be, it's just for fun, just for Jim. No major-label reps are here, none have been invited.
The Causes, formed by Joel Schantz and Feiles at the beginning of 1992, had more than one chance in their short blazing career to do the A&R dance. Atlantic Records put the group in Criteria with famed producer Tom Dowd shortly after, and partly as a result of, the Miami Rocks '93 showcase. The resultant tape was jetted to L.A. so some big shot could listen to it while sitting by his pool sipping whatever it is big-shot label execs sip. Atlantic passed on the band.
After that taster many labels, both major and independent, expressed interest. Atlanta's Steam Records included a Causes song on a compilation CD. But what appeared to be the real deal began to evolve a few months ago when Epic A&R vice president Michael Caplan A who previously signed Miami's Nuclear Valdez to the label A began calling Keith Schantz repeatedly. He flew to Miami to see a Causes showcase. He put them in Criteria to record a thirteen-song live-to-DAT album. He spent the money to press one CD of that tape, so his boss could hear the band on disc. He wined and dined the members. Numerous meetings were taken, promises tossed in the air like confetti. Finally the world would know the power and pleasure that South Florida rock fans supported and enjoyed night after night after night. Glory days were right around the corner.
But somebody took a wrong turn. Or jumped the gun. "I really liked them a lot, bordering on love," Caplan says from his New York City office. "But the timing wasn't right, our schedule filled up. I wanted to make sure that if I brought them in, I could bleed for them. We have a lot of records coming out between now and March. And it wasn't just the label, but me personally, working on a lot of different things. They were a great band, and they deserved to be dealt with in the right way. It's a personal thing in that, look, we have an act called G Love and Special Sauce that's doing real well. I would hate to be in a meeting where they ask me, 'G Love or Natural Causes?'"
Marnie Smith, the former Sony executive who brought the band to Epic's attention, says, "Michael Caplan busted his ass for that band, from the center of his heart."
Word spread quickly through the notoriously gossipy record industry and soon another major label, which Keith Schantz declines to name, made its interest known. However, before negotiations could begin there was no band left to sign.
Schantz doesn't want to say much on the record. "I know that Caplan had a vision," the manager says. "He was talking about doing the preproduction in a barn, he had all these big ideas that sounded great. He had the vision but not the resources. And it's just a fucking shame we had to endure that shit."
Feiles isn't bitter. "Caplan kept telling me about all the great songs I was going to write once we got in the studio. I bet he never thought that I might write some songs if he turned us down."
Clearly it wasn't the failed deal with Epic that marked the end of the Causes. "Label deals weren't the end all," says Schantz. "They were just frustrating little episodes along the way."
The past year has seen several excellent South Florida bands sign major-label deals. It also has seen two of the area's top bands break up at the peak of their form: Forget the Name (FtN) and the Causes. Rene Alvarez, the vocalist for FtN, and Derek Murphy, that group's drummer, teamed up with Joel Schantz months before the Causes broke up to form Milk Can. Schantz is given to side projects A last October he launched Bad Karma Records and released a compilation CD featuring some of his favorite artists. "I've dabbled in a lot of things," the guitarist says. "I played in Dead [cover] bands when I was seventeen. I hate that stuff now, that stuff bothers me. Have I changed? Yeah. In my bedroom I have six guitars in tunings I never used before, and I'm writing songs on them."
Schantz has two CDs planned for release by the end of the year. One, Marblehead Ohio, by Milk Can -- Murphy on drums, Alvarez on bass, and Schantz handling guitar and vocals. The other by Sixo -- Murphy on drums, Schantz on guitar, and Alvarez on bass and vocals. "I've found a niche," Schantz says. "It just feels right, and it's fun. Not to say anything else wasn't. The Causes gave me the greatest nights of my life. And, who knows, I could be touring with Arlan in six months. This wasn't planned. It's adventurous, instinctive, and I'm comfortable doing it, which is why I'm doing it. As for Arlan, I look forward to hearing his new stuff -- always."
Two years ago, as the Causes were set to release their debut CD, Bomb in the Shelter, the members gathered on Lincoln Road beneath a lunar eclipse and talked about their future. Karen Friedman said something that rings so prophetic it's scary: "It's a lot easier to learn an instrument than it is to learn how to be in a band."
At the Jim Wall farewell party, even Friedman took a turn on one of the drum kits, jamming with her old bandmate. Feiles says that he easily could see himself working with her in the future on one of his projects -- "She's got a great voice and she really helped a lot of our songs." Though there are dark secrets the Causes refuse to speak about publicly, this is no soap opera. As Feiles says of his former bandmates: "They can all do their thing. They're all good enough to do whatever they want."
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So why did the Causes break up? "It was no one's fault," Joel Schantz offers. "We just weren't going in the right direction collectively. There's no one to blame. The music was suffering for a lot of reasons. The ups and downs, highs and lows of getting involved in the industry. Trying to get signed, trying to be in a band that wants to be signed, it became disorienting. I want to hear Arlan make a great record, whether it's with a company or another band or the same people. We all helped each other get to a level, we helped each other do a lot. In the end it lacked the feeling of destiny. We'll all play together in some way in the future. I think this is best for everyone."
So maybe for once it really was musical differences -- Milk Can, for example, plays a type of power pop much different than the complex jam-rock of the Causes. "No, not musical differences," says Keith Schantz. "Maybe musical interests. The Causes had the greatest history. And the people involved are going to be doing different things."
The unreleased album Natural Causes recorded for Epic sounds as if it were produced by some genius who recognized ways to shift arrangements subtly and present Feiles's gut-wrenching vocals in a fresh light. In fact it wasn't "produced" at all, just the band laying it all down one last time on tape. It's a remarkable work, and that makes it all the more shameful that it won't reach the public. The first song is "Waiting," a longtime staple of the band. It includes these lyrics: "I saw the love you had/Flicker and fade away/Yeah, it sure made me sad/That it should end this way.