Making Ends Meet

It's no secret that in Los Angeles, celebrity is an obsession. It also happens to be serious business, for the city is perpetually flooded with aspiring actors and musicians waiting tables and working various odd jobs while hoping to land a role or find a discerning A&R man. But for every multimillion-dollar home perched high above the city -- the kind in glossy magazines at supermarket checkouts -- are dozens of dingy, cramped apartments in the valley inhabited by individuals who will inevitably retreat to their hometowns.

It is this seamy underbelly of the Hollywood dream that intrigues Jason Muller of the Nervous Return. "You have this carrot -- the fame and the fortune -- that's dangled in front of all these actors and musicians," he explains over Cuban sandwiches at a café in LA's Silverlake district, an area known as a haven for the city's artist types. "But only a small handful will ever make it. The rest will just struggle." He rests his cigarette on the edge of an ashtray and points to a building next door. "That's an AA facility. You'll probably see a few [failed] actors and musicians coming and going as we eat."

The struggle for fame and fortune is one with which he and his bandmates are intimately familiar, having slugged it out on the local LA circuit since 2000 and weathered the departure of five successive guitarists. It is a battle they have not only survived but also documented on their major-label debut, the aptly titled Wake Up Dead. Whereas most bands pack it in after three years if they fail to generate industry interest, Muller, bassist Anthony Crouse, drummer Greg Gordon, and guitarist Shane Gallagher, the newest member, were signed only after they had given up hope of any commercial success.

"Bands that I've been [a part of] in the past, we'd play around LA for two or three years, build up a following, and then get to a point where we weren't being approached by any labels," says Muller. "We always broke up because it's so hard to stay together [in that situation], living in poverty. But with this band, when three years came and went, we decided to keep going. We said, 'Fuck it. We're going to do this whether the industry responds or not.'"

Call it a happy coincidence then that someone in the industry did respond: a man by the name of Travis Barker, otherwise known as the palimpsest-skinned drummer for Blink-182 turned star of his own MTV reality series, Meet the Barkers. Barker signed the band to his own label, La Salle Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic.

Although he had some trepidation about signing to a label run by a star of Barker's magnitude, Muller says any fears were allayed when Barker committed to producing whatever the band had in mind, which, given the Nervous Return's penchant for dark subject matter and tasteless cover art, was no small concession. (Headshots, the self-released album that preceded Wake Up Dead, featured a closeup of an aspiring actress fellating a handgun.)

Fortunately Wake Up Dead still manages to explore the often ugly path to never-was without resorting to cheap shock tactics to get its point across. Over Gallagher's serrated guitar lines and Gordon's bruising drum fills, Muller sends out his dispatches from the Hollywood gutters. He sings stories of kids going to desperate lengths for their dreams: dealing hard drugs, feigning mental disorders, and sometimes repressing their homosexuality. Belying his band's Fugazi-esque roars and stomps, Muller delivers his lines in a nearly apathetic drawl, as if mimicking the unforgiving disinterest of stardom's gatekeepers, the corporate executives and talent agents.

However, unlike those predators, Muller does care about the city's soon-to-be-forgotten actors and musicians. He is piecing together a short film that will feature ten to thirteen local bands. "I've been here and involved in the music community for so long that I have become friends with lots of bands. And one day I realized that I should be documenting what's going on." He smiles, perhaps realizing after one has heard the Nervous Return, one might think his film will be a depressing litany of hard-luck tales. "A lot of strange things can happen along the way," he adds. He ought to know.