T.S.O.L. Sings Out: We're Not 'That Punk Band' Anymore

In the middle of an interview Tuesday, Mike Roche of T.S.O.L. leaped to his feet and began an agitated pantomime.

Tall and gangly, with lavishly tattooed arms flailing, Roche acted out the role of a talent scout for a major record label trying to sell his boss on the idea that T.S.O.L. could be the next big thing in hard rock.

Roche jumped around T.S.O.L.'s small rehearsal room, bubbling over about the virtues of the group, whose acronymic name stands for True Sounds of Liberty. Then he delivered the label honcho's terse, deflating reply:

"You mean that punk band? "

Returning to a calmer, explanatory mode, Roche laid out the situation: "The people who make rock bands happen see us as that punk band of yesterday. Our problem now is educating them that we're not a hard-core band or any kind of punk band."

To launch its campaign of career enhancement through record industry re-education, T.S.O.L. has retired for the time being to its rented practice cubicle in a warehouse in Carson. Instead of earning money with live shows, the four-man band, with membership scattered from Huntington Beach to Hollywood, is taking a few months off to write new songs and to break in a new lead guitarist, with an eye toward re-emerging this fall to win that major-label deal.

Taking the place of live shows for the time being is a new album, "TSOL Live," a CD-only release that captures a T.S.O.L. performance at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano. The hourlong CD, recorded in January, includes renditions of highlights from T.S.O.L.'s three previous albums, along with versions of the Doors' "Road House Blues" and the Bob Dylan classic, "All Along the Watchtower." It is part of the "Performance Series" of live CDs recently launched by Restless Records, a subsidiary of T.S.O.L.'s former label, Enigma.

Roche, the bassist, is the only remaining link to T.S.O.L.'s days as a punk band. Guitarist Ron Emory, who co-founded the group with him in 1980, left a few months ago. They parted on good terms, Roche said. After eight years in a rock band, "he wants to be normal. That's what it comes down to."

The new lead guitarist, Scott Phillips, joins a nucleus--Roche, drummer Mitch Dean and singer-guitarist Joe Wood--that has been together for nearly five years. The new CD, T.S.O.L.'s first live recording, is the threesome's fourth album together, and the seventh release (counting a 1981 debut EP) in the band's history.

T.S.O.L.'s 1987 album, "Hit and Run," served final notice that the band no longer was playing punk rock. It was a polished, accessible record that consisted mostly of the sort of mainstream, melodic heavy rock that has brought big-time success to bands such as Guns 'N Roses and the resurgent Aerosmith.

When the album came out about a year ago, Roche figured a commercial breakthrough was imminent. "I thought we'd done it. It was diverse, it was powerful, and it could be played on the radio and sound good. When it didn't (succeed) . . . I'm used to that kind of thing. It was time to reassess and move on."

One result of the reassessment was a parting with Enigma Records. As band members see it, the independent label viewed T.S.O.L. as a "cult band" with a solid following but not chart-topping potential. Their aim now is to find a major label willing to invest enough money and effort in T.S.O.L. for a big promotional push: in short, a label that thinks the band has star potential.

Tom Cording, a spokesman for Enigma, said Wednesday that "Hit and Run" was a difficult record to market because T.S.O.L.'s past image as a punk band conflicted with its aspirations toward the heavy-rock mainstream. "The core audience that was really into T.S.O.L. was confused by that," Cording said, and the heavy-metal audience wasn't ready to pick up on the album. "It's definitely an amicable split," he said of T.S.O.L.'s departure from Enigma. "I'm sure they'll do very well."

Major label interest is there, band members say. Early this year, T.S.O.L. played a series of high-profile dates as opening act for Guns 'N Roses, the platinum-selling Los Angeles band that is 1988's new hard-rock sensation. The two bands became friendly on tour, and Steve Adler, the Guns 'N Roses drummer, prominently sports a T.S.O.L. T-shirt in the video for "Sweet Child o' Mine," now an MTV staple.

"I hear more people telling me about seeing our T-shirt every day than anything else we've ever done," said Roche.

Last fall, T.S.O.L. drove cross-country for a special showcase concert for major label representatives in New York. But no deal came through. Wood, the leathery-voiced lead singer whose delivery recalls Jim Morrison and Alice Cooper, said that was partly his fault.

"I had a major drinking and drug problem at the time, and I looked (terrible). I quit, and I tried to work on my looks and improve what I could do for T.S.O.L. Because T.S.O.L. is my life."

Although "Hit and Run" had only a brief appearance on the Billboard Top 200 album charts, Wood thinks the metal-tinged album was a significant breakthrough that "gave us a sound, a focus. Now we know where we belong, what we want to do."

The most successful heavy rock bands typically have a flashy guitar sound and lots of songs about romance and the glories of rock stardom. With Phillips, 24--recruited from dozens of players who answered T.S.O.L.'s ads in local rock publications--Roche thinks the band now has the potential for "a heavier guitar sound, more hopped up, and more high-gear guitar than we've ever had."

But T.S.O.L., its punk-individualist roots still showing, draws the line at writing rock 'n' roll fantasies and love songs geared toward mass acceptance. For the most part, the band's lyrics have brooded about dark emotional states and portrayed life as a frustrating, sometimes dangerous undertaking.

Wood considered the notion that by writing more about the standard heavy rock topics--big lust and sweet romance--T.S.O.L. could improve its chances of a commercial breakthrough. "It might be the way to do it," he began. Dean, the drummer, finished the sentence. "But it's not our way of doing it."

"We're street poets," Wood said. "A lot of it is from the gutter, a lot of it is stuff that people don't want to hear. But what you hear is us." If that ethic proves too extreme for major labels, then T.S.O.L. is willing to go back to work for one of the independents.

"If you stay in the game long enough, you're going to have your day in the sun," Roche said.

"We're getting our rewards," Dean said. "Maybe not money, but the respect of our peers."

LIVE ACTION: Aerosmith and Guns 'N Roses will play the Pacific Amphitheatre on Sept. 14-15, and Bruce Hornsby & the Range will be at the Pacific on Aug. 18. Tickets for both shows go on sale Sunday at 9 a.m. Tickets will be available Monday for the "Dirty Dancing Tour" stop at the Pacific on Aug. 14.

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