When he went to have his fortune told a year ago, Frank Rogala, struggling rock singer, saw the fall of the Tarot cards and heard the psychic's strange prediction.
"She said, 'I see a lot of success for you, but first you'll have to go across the ocean. I see mountains. I see lakes.' "
It was an intriguing thought, but Rogala didn't feel the need to rush off and make sure his passport was in order. He and his Orange County-based techno-pop band, Exude, already had seen enough of the music business's sobering realities to resist any flights of fancy.
Rather than put their faith in a prophecy about foreign lands, the four members of Exude methodically set about building grass-roots support by sending their self-financed records to college radio stations in the United States.
Rogala couldn't help but think back on his visit to the Gypsy as he and the rest of Exude gathered recently for an interview at his home in Anaheim.
On Monday, capping a series of events so unlikely that it verges on the bizarre, Exude will release a single and a video--in Australia. If all goes according to plan, Rogala soon will cross the ocean to make a round of promotional appearances in Sydney. Success for Exude is hardly guaranteed, but if it does come, it will make for one of the most improbable and delightful show-biz fairy-tales in a long time.
If so, the role of good genie will belong to a 23-year-old music industry novice named Kent Pickering. He came across Exude by pure chance while shopping for novelty records in a Sydney import shop.
Without having seen Exude and without having met any of its members, Pickering made the curious decision to stake the success of his fledgling Australian record company on this virtually unknown act that no label in the United States cared to sign.
Moreover, Exude members say the deal that Pickering made to market their music in Australia was exceedingly generous--a windfall for a band that, in nearly a decade of trying, had known little else but debt.
Before Kent Pickering called from Australia in November, Exude had seen sudden strokes of good luck, but each one had ended in a letdown. Frank Rogala and his younger brother Vince started the band in 1978 in their hometown of Mackinaw City, Mich.--a north country hamlet of 800 citizens where, according to Vince, "the ice freezes 5 inches thick in the winter."
In 1980, while visiting relatives in Los Angeles, Frank saw a newspaper ad soliciting tapes from unsigned rock bands. The production company that had placed the ad was impressed by Exude's brand of synthesizer-based techno pop, which blends elements of progressive rock finesse with a heavy, R&B-inflected; dance beat.
In Exude's first big break, the producers brought the Rogala brothers to Los Angeles to make a record. In the band's first big letdown, the production company went out of business before the album was finished.
The Rogala brothers and Robin Canada, the Newport Beach keyboard player they had recruited into the band, kept Exude going and began work on a new record. Early in 1984, during a break in recording, Frank Rogala whipped up a Cyndi Lauper parody called "Boys Just Want to Have Sex."
Frank Rogala sent a tape to KROQ-FM, which jumped on the song and helped it become a novelty hit. He estimates that "Boys Just Want to Have Sex," released on an EP that also included a remake of "Chattanooga Choo Choo," sold 200,000 copies. But to get the rights to release the parody, he said, Exude first had to agree to a high royalty demanded by the publishers of the original Lauper song. By the time Exude finished paying off the publisher's share, Rogala said, the band was left with $2,000 profit--and an unwanted reputation as a novelty act.
In 1986, Exude was ready to reverse that impression with its first album, "Play With the Boys." The album avoided parody and showed an ability to weave such serious issues as sexual responsibility and drug abuse into clever, danceable songs.
The music featured Frank Rogala's breathily theatrical singing in settings that sometimes echoed bands such as the Cars and Roxy Music.
Exude was counting on Greenworld, a Torrance-based record distributorship, to get "Play With the Boys" to radio stations and record stores. Instead, Greenworld went out of business and Exude's albums sat in a warehouse, frozen assets in a prolonged bankruptcy proceeding.
For Exude, stymied by another bad break, it was a time to reconsider whether the music business was worth the aggravation.
"Somehow we all saw it through and decided we were going to stay," Canada said. In light of past letdowns, Exude decided to take a do-it-yourself approach, recording as funds allowed, approaching the American labels with each new release and trying to cultivate a following on college radio. The theory, Vince Rogala said, is that "some guy who's a college programmer now may be working for a record company two years from now. We're getting our stuff out there."
Exude can afford to take a long-range approach, Vince said, because band members decided early on that they would sustain themselves with solid day jobs. "We didn't want to be the starving musicians all living in one house and driving a beat-up car."
Vince Rogala is maintenance manager at an Anaheim hotel, his older brother is a legal assistant for an entertainment law firm in Newport Beach, Canada sells restaurant and hotel supplies, and drummer Vance Carriere, who joined Exude a year ago, is a computer systems salesman.
Frank Rogala's Tarot reading notwithstanding, Exude's strategy for making its way in the music business didn't include looking for an overseas record deal.
But then, no strategist could have foreseen Kent Pickering.
Over the phone from his home in Sydney, Pickering recalled how he first came upon Exude. "One thing I like is collecting novelty records and sendups. They're good for parties."
While chatting with the clerk in a Sydney record shop, Pickering said, he wondered in passing whether anyone had ever recorded a sendup of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." The dealer happened to have a stack of Exude's version. "Quite expensive too," Pickering said. "I took a copy around to a nightclub, and the whole place went wild when they heard it."
The reaction prompted Pickering to seek out Exude as a possible act for Ultra Media, the new record and film company he was launching with money borrowed from his family. Since the Exude record jacket contained no phone number--only a mention of Anaheim as the studio location--Pickering turned to directory assistance, hoping to track down a Rogala in Anaheim, Calif. Luckily, Frank Rogala's number was listed.
"It was totally weird," Rogala recalled. "Here was this guy: 'Ay, mate--is that record available for licensing? Do you guys have any other records?' "
Rogala sent along Exude's other recordings, and Pickering remained enthusiastic. Exude then spelled out its asking price for the right to market its songs in Australia--about $10,000, band members say, or enough to pay off outstanding debts for recording studio time and legal advice.
"We thought we would scare him away," Canada said. "But in the next few days, a check came. We went down to the bank to cash it, and it cashed! We didn't even have to negotiate with him or use violence. He just sent the money."
It was, Vince Rogala said, a marked departure from Exude's previous experiences in licensing "Boys Just Want to Have Sex" to foreign record companies: "The initial advance is about $1,000, and you never hear from them again."
In Australia, Pickering was learning as he went along, relying on the advice of his lawyer and an experienced music publicist who had agreed to help him. They decided against putting out "Boys Just Want to Have Sex" as Exude's first Australian single, Pickering said, "because you don't want them to become (known as) a novelty band."
Instead, the first Exude release will be "Safe With You," a catchy, big-beat dance number that deals with AIDS by counseling prudence in sex, yet avoids sounding heavy or doom-filled.
If Pickering's initial cash advance won Exude's respect, his arrival in February with a video crew to shoot "Safe With You" cemented the band's devotion.
"Safe With You," financed by Ultra Media, was a first-class production, shot in three days. The video features a humorous boy-meets-girl story and striking opening visuals of the band playing against a blue sky filled with fast-moving clouds.
Besides getting the video played on Australian television, Pickering said, he has struck a deal to have it shown as a short in movie theaters in Australia and New Zealand.
Frank Rogala sees Pickering's inexperience working in his favor. "The thing about Kent, he doesn't know what can't be done, so he goes and does it anyway, and it becomes successful."
Pickering took a basic but vital step when he persuaded the Australian branch of PolyGram Records to distribute Exude's releases. Major label distribution should ensure that Exude's work gets into the hands of Australian radio stations and the music press and that "Safe With You" --which will receive an initial pressing of 1,000 copies--becomes readily available in stores.
The sales target for "Safe With You" is 10,000 copies, Pickering said--a substantial number in a country of 16 million people where sales of 30,000 qualify for a gold record (compared to 500,000 for a gold record in the United States).
Pickering, the son of a dentist, said the total budget for manufacturing and promoting a series of Australian releases by Exude is the equivalent of about $50,000 in U.S. dollars. "It was a big risk on my behalf, but I believed in them. It's very fortunate to have parents who back me. I had the money, and I took the chance."
The rookie Australian record executive isn't the only one who hears something noteworthy in Exude. Musician magazine recently chose the group as one of 20 finalists in a "best unsigned band in America" contest. The competition will be judged by Elvis Costello, Mark Knopfler, T-Bone Burnett and Mitchell Froom, with results expected to be announced in June.
"It's this big spiritual trip," Frank Rogala said of the band's surprising wave of upbeat news over the past few months. "We've paid enough dues for ourselves and every other band in Orange County."
"There are a lot of sharks, a lot of people who are just out there to make money," Vince Rogala added, summing up 10 years of struggles in the music business. "But there are also good people. And we just got lucky enough to hook into one of these people 8,000 miles away."