. . . While Dexter Keeps Trying to find the Way Up : ‘Best Unsigned Band’ Still Looking for a Contract
Nearly two years ago, a panel that included ‘60s rock star Felix Cavalieri of the Rascals and editors from Musician Magazine announced that of all the rock bands in America that had yet to be signed to record contracts, Dexter, a group from Orange County, was the best.
Dexter was thrust into the spotlight, showered with free equipment, showcased before industry honchos and now . . .
. . . It still doesn’t have a record contract.
It “doesn’t really bother me,” insists Mark Mancina, the quartet’s singer and songwriter.
Still, he’s got some stories to tell.
“Right after we won the contest,” he recalls, “I got a phone call at my home from Atlantic Records. At my HOME! (The caller, a talent scout) said he wanted to have a meeting the next week.
“Well, then he got sick, and the meeting got canceled and rescheduled a million times . . . and three weeks later no one at the office had even heard of us anymore. They weren’t interested.
“That’s when I realized that we couldn’t be on the edge of our seats the whole time. We had to work on the band, not the deal.
“But if I’m still unsigned and you have to ask me this question this time next year, then I’ll be frustrated.”
Frustrated he well may be. Atlantic isn’t the only outfit to have lost interest in Dexter. Even a spokesman for the contest, reached on the phone recently, tried to put as much distance between himself and the band as possible.
Mancina was sitting with Dexter’s manager, Steve McClintock, at an outdoor cafe table in Big Bear. He had been holed up there, in the den of his parents’ vacation home, with keyboards, rhythm machines and an electric guitar, writing new material for yet another tape to send out to yet more record companies.
His shoulder-length, bleached-blond hair had caught the eye of the cafe waitress, who had stopped by his table three times to ask if he was in a band. He kept shaking his head no but she kept coming back. “Come on, I know you’re in a band!” she coaxed. But Mancina kept refusing to admit it.
“She won’t have heard of us,” he finally explained with a shrug.
Not that life doesn’t have its brighter moments.
A few months back, Dexter played at the Coach House, a 380-seat club in San Juan Capistrano, and sold the place out. “At $10 per ticket,” says manager McClintock, “that’s not bad. I mean, there aren’t any other Orange County bands playing original material that can sell out that venue at $10 a crack.” The band will be back at the Coach House Thursday night (albeit at $9 a ticket).
It was McClintock who entered Dexter in that “Best Unsigned Band” contest, which was sponsored by Musician, JBL Speakers and the National Assn. of Music Merchandisers (NAMM) in June of ’86. McClintock submitted a tape of Dexter’s tune “Safety in Numbers” without the band’s knowledge. The first Mancina heard of the contest was when Dexter made the Top 5 cut and was invited to play before the judges at the NAMM convention in Chicago.
McClintock “called me up and said, ‘You’ve just won $7,000 worth of equipment,’ ” Mancina recalls. “And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He goes, ‘You made the Top 5 cut in this contest I entered you in, and I can guarantee you, you’re going to win.’ ”
Actually, Mancina says, equipment was the last thing Dexter needed then. Playing other people’s hits, the band was pulling in $2,800 a week at a club in Newport Beach. (It was a three-man band back then, with a drum machine instead of a real drummer. The machine was a DXX; a girlfriend of one of the band members nicknamed it Dexter, and the band’s moniker was born).
“$2,800 a week is, like, enough to get married and buy a house on,” notes Mancina. But playing other people’s hits “wasn’t very fulfilling. I’d started writing original material about a year prior to that. And Steve had been encouraging me to quit being in a copy band. . . . “
The performances in Chicago provided further encouragement. “Now,” Mancina says, “I’m a lot poorer, but a lot happier.”
McClintock has been involving himself with record deals ever since he moved to Los Angeles from Texas in 1976. For one thing, he owns and runs a recording studio/management/songwriting/ publishing company in Westminster. For another thing, he’s a songwriter himself (one of his tunes is on the current Tiffany album).
He says Dexter has been offered some low-rent record deals, on independent labels. But he is holding out for a major label, one that will come up with “a real long-term commitment to the band.
“I think (Dexter has) a long-term type of career,” he says. “Not just one hit and then forgotten.”
Are these expectations reasonable, especially for a band whose career seems to have been frozen for 20 months? Some record company executives who have seen and heard Dexter think so. Others, though, say they doubt that Dexter shows the kind of long-term promise McClintock is talking about.
Ben Brooks, a former independent producer who now works as national singles director for the (relatively small) Enigma Records label, says he has faith in Dexter’s music and, in fact, plans to present it to his company “soon.”
“I’m a very big fan of Dexter’s,” he says. “I think they’re really great songwriters, and they have a sound and a basic presentation down that could fly. In their genre--sort of techno-pop--the thing that distinguishes people is their songs. Dexter’s could be stripped down to just piano and vocals and they’d still sound good. Two or three of their songs could go on the radio as is.”
Mike Jacobs, a consultant to EMI/Manhattan records (a much bigger deal than Enigma) says he thinks Dexter is “a very good synth-pop band in the Duran Duran/Wang Chung style.” But, he adds, “we aren’t exactly talking ground-breaking material here.
“They don’t have enough strong songs, and their live act wasn’t quite there. They don’t have a lot of direction. I could sell their stuff to teen-age females, but at EMI that’s not enough.”
Jacobs further thinks that Dexter has fallen “into an Orange County trap. They play (there) exclusively . . . they haven’t gone out of their way to cultivate an audience anywhere else. You know, they think they’re doing good because they’ve sold out the Coach House and people liked them there. But if you go out someplace and spend $15, you’re going to try not to hate the band on stage.
“Record contracts,” Jacobs notes, “are a rare commodity these days.”
The reason, according to EMI/Manhattan’s Jeff Bywater, is that “the financial commitment is so very big. We have to be absolutely passionate about a band before we’ll put up the money for videos, touring, marketing. It’s not worth putting an album out without that financial support, and the passion for Dexter just wasn’t there, as far as I can recall.”
Jacobs has a suggestion for Dexter:
Change the band.
“I told (Mancina) the band needs major changes,” Jacobs says. “He needs to hook up with a better band. He needs (someone) to give him a musical and visual counterpoint. He needs someone who will push him musically and who will add visuals to the show.”
Mancina and McClintock are adamant about keeping the band in its current formation. “The EMI people told us: do this, do that,” McClintock says. “Get rid of the drummer, add more dance tracks. . . .
“Yeah,” Mancina adds wryly, “and maybe I should dye my hair purple, too.”
“And even if we did,” McClintock continues, “they might not like us any better.”
Jacobs thinks McClintock may be one of the problems.
“Steve works hard for them,” Jacobs says, “but he doesn’t really have the access to the big people he needs to have see them. He has to beg to get people like me down to his shows.
“If we say we’re interested,” Jacobs adds, “all it means is that we don’t hate you. The people who judged that contest . . . their opinion means less than zero.”
Paul Saxman, associate publisher of Musician Magazine and one of the instigators of the contest, disagrees with Jacobs’ assessment of the panel. But not, it turns out, with his assessment of Dexter.
“We wanted very much to recommend a band that would get signed,” Saxman says, “just for confirmation that our ears are good!”
Still, he admits that even one of the panelists, a record company chief, said he wouldn’t have signed any of the entries. As things turned out, only one of the runners-up, Love Tractor, a band from Georgia, has a record deal--and it already was relatively established, between record deals when the contest took place.
Saxman says the contest will continue, though, and “is having the bugs worked out of it.” When Dexter won, he says, “we were looking for . . . the commercial possibilities in each band we heard. When you look for commerciality, you’re looking for the lowest common denominator, and Dexter definitely fell into that category.
“We heard tons more experimental, original and dynamic bands, but none of them had a chance in hell of being signed. Dexter’s biggest competition in the runoff was with an eight-piece R&B; band from the Midwest. But when you put an eight-piece, black R&B; band from the Midwest against a three-piece white band from Southern California and ask yourself which one is more commercially viable, you see why they won out.
“We claimed that production values had nothing to do with it,” Saxman adds. “But, actually, they did because NAMM, our sponsor, is a very technically oriented outfit. We were attracted to the fact that they didn’t have a drummer . . . which I hear they do now.”
In any case, he says, compared to this year’s contest entries, “Dexter would be blown out of the water.”
“Today,” Saxman says, “in order to make it, you have to be either highly original or a complete clone. Timing is everything. This year, you have to be a Whitesnake clone to get signed.” Dexter, he says, is more of a Fixx clone, “already passe. They’re just a little too late.”
But McClintock and Mancina haven’t given up hope.
An independently released single and video of a tune called “Someone, Somewhere,” financed by McClintock, has made the charts “in Hot Springs, Ark.,” McClintock points out. While waiting for the rest of the country to pick up on it, Mancina, who has a degree in music from Golden State College, has been working on background music for industrial videos and sound tracks for low-budget films.
And talks continue. “We’re talking to four labels right now,” McClintock says, adding that if nothing works out, “then we’re going to Europe to look at the international market.”
“Any career that’s worth anything takes a long time to develop,” Mancina says. “I can always make money in music--not that I’m going to go back to playing in (copy) bands, but I’m not getting a day job, either. That’s not the other side of the coin anymore.”
Saxman takes a broad view.
The members of Dexter, he notes, “make money playing music. If they can stay ahead of working at the Copy Center or pushing burgers someplace . . . then they’re successful. By any musician’s standard, Dexter is already successful.”
Thursday, 8 p.m.
Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano
Information: (714) 496-8927 or 8930
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