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Photo By James Moses
Waterproof Blonde

Waterproof Blonde

By Kevin Gibson

Everyone at the table was at a loss. Jeffrey Smith was considering ordering the Thon Salade, but he didn't know what the damn thing was. The menu got passed around the table to other members of the Louisville band Waterproof Blonde, but nary a soul could give him the information he sought.

When the waiter returned, Rachel Hagan, the band's striking lead singer, immediately got the young man's attention: "What exactly is a thon," she said, "and how do you pronounce it?" Apparently, it's just tuna and it's pronounced like you would expect, with a short `o.'

But this is kind of how Smith and Hagan met more than two years ago - both looking for something new. And it's this kind of why-be-shy determination that propels Waterproof Blonde to this day. Think about it: You aren't going to get on MTV by sitting by the phone waiting for Kurt Loder to call and you aren't going to find out what the hell thon is if you don't ask the waiter. Right?

So it is that Waterproof Blonde is in the studio, on the road and in your face, trying hard to get your attention. It isn't so much that Smith and Hagan and the rest of their band want to be rock stars, but ... well, yes, actually it is that they want to be rock stars. And they're willing to sacrifice and work their butts off to get there.

And so it is that Waterproof Blonde has earned itself a gig recording songs for World Wrestling Entertainment; so it is that this band, just over a year and a half old, is consistently hitting shows out of town and out of state. Basically, they're working - and marketing - like crazy to make it happen.

"We are the hardest working band in Louisville," said Smith, never afraid to speak his mind. "Hands down."

Photo of Richard Vier
Photo By James Moses
Richard Vier

Alrighty then.

IT ALL STARTED WITH ...

It all started with Dharmachine. Yeah, that band. If you're into the Louisville music scene, you'll remember those ultra-experimental guys, the guys who stole the show at Dylan For Dollars back in 1999 at Headliners (or was that '98?) by employing a ballet dancer (Smith is a former marketing director of the Louisville Ballet) and a faux slide show using cardboard.

Smith and other members of that band had been considering whether Dharmachine needed a "real" lead singer; frontman and creative force behind the band Joe Stucker could sing, but he wasn't necessarily a singer, if that makes any sense. And in a lot of senses, Smith said, the band was beginning to go in different directions creatively. Stucker, perhaps feeling the vibe, soon split, leaving the band without a singer of any kind.

Photo of Rachel Hagen
Photo By James Moses
Rachel Hagen

Not long afterward, the band was at a BMI convention here in Louisville, as was Hagan, who had just moved back to town after having wandered here and there and having studied opera at Queens University in Charlotte, N.C. She was looking to join a band; Dharmachine was looking for a new front person. A band without a singer, a singer without a band - they met, chatted and Smith and his bandmates invited Hagan for an audition point blank. She arrived at said audition and stepped into musical madness.

"(Drummer) Josh (Hawkins) was playing 7/8, I was doing some retarded bass line and (guitarist) Corey Siegle was playing feedback," Smith recalled. "We said to Rachel, `Sing something.' So she did. That took a lot of guts for her to stand up there and do that."

But she delivered. Smith noted that the band handed out dozens and dozens of CDs to potential Dharmachine singers and it was Hagan who delivered best. She joined the 'Machine, but the group soon disbanded, leaving Smith and Hagan to form a band called Lancaster Gordon (yes, named after the ex-U of L hoops standout). But the two soon became disenchanted, as it seemed the other band members weren't nearly as dedicated to moving forward.

Photo of Jeremy Smith
Photo By James Moses
Jeremy Smith

Smith grew weary of being the eternal organizer, working around schedules to set practices and making sure everyone got there on time. So after one practice he told Hagan, "Let's wait and see how soon someone else calls." No one did. So Smith and Hagan decided to do their own thing.

But even that didn't work well at first. They wrote and they re-wrote; they tried to develop a sound that worked, but they weren't getting anywhere.

"We had been been getting together and writing music," Hagan recalled, "and we said, `Do we really want to do this? We aren't getting anything down.'"

"We were so focused on beginning something that we spent too much time conceptualizing and developing a sound," Smith agreed. "I just wanted to have fun and be in a rock band."

Photo of Adam Dennison
Photo By James Moses
Adam Dennison

And so, just like that, Waterproof Blonde was formed.

LET IT BE WHAT IT IS

Early on, Waterproof Blonde never intended to be a touring band.

"We were just going to write music and go into the studio, record and then shop it," Hagan said. "We didn't intend to play live."

Explained Smith, "My favorite part of the whole thing is playing the stuff, so we just put a band together. We called Josh and he said all right and then later he called Andy (Garbe)."

Photo of Derrick Pedolzky
Photo By James Moses
Derrick Pedolzky

The band (named from a line in the French film The Girl on the Bridge) played its first gig in January 2003 as part of the Digby CD release show for its second album, Go Digby. Hagan wore a black shirt that read, No Money, No Car, No Job, But I'm in a Band. It was rock 'n' roll incarnate. The gig went well and pretty soon Waterproof Blonde was a Louisville mainstay in a lot of ways.

For one thing, the band's song "Come On (With Whatever You Got)" - which works sort of like a "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" for the 2000s - was adopted by WWE wrestler Sean O'Haire and was on air by April. Just like that, Waterproof Blonde was being played in front of tens of thousands of people on a weekly basis. That summer, Waterproof Blonde opened for Seven Mary Three and the Gin Blossoms and also signed an endorsement deal with Red Bull Energy Drink.

It was in October of last year that the band's EP Glitter Lust was released on Label X records; consisting of six songs (including two versions of "Come On"), it gained favorable reviews, but wasn't really what the band had intended. First, both Smith and Hagan feel it took too long for the disc to be released, especially considering the busy summer the band enjoyed. It also didn't feature the exact sound the band was seeking.

"Our first record sounds incredible," said Hagan, "but it just wasn't the sound we wanted."

But the band has worked right through it. Smith estimates the band has played close to 200 shows in the last year and a half, which has necessitated a streamlining of the creative process.

"We've gotten more economical with our work ethic," Smith said. "Now, songs come in more complete and everyone takes it and puts their signature on it."

More importantly, the current lineup (guitarist Derrick Pedolzky joined last year, while Hawkins and Garbe split) is more in tune in terms of direction and dedication - something Smith and Hagan have been looking for since they first started writing songs together.

"Everybody knows their role," said new drummer Richard Vier (who played in Wino and Front Porch Campaign), "and there's no ego in the way. It's one of the easiest situations I've ever been in. Everybody in Waterproof Blonde wants to be in a band, not just be able to say they're in a band."

"It makes it easier when everyone is stepping in the same direction," Smith said. "We all understand that in order to reach our ultimate goal, there are things we have to do."

Such as play shows in North Carolina to three people for $42. And get there in a truck so foul, so decrepit, that it probably hasn't been street legal in 10 years.

"It's so ghetto," are the only words Hagan can find to describe it.

Imagine a 1988 GMC Suburban with no A/C that gets 15 mpg on the highway and has at least one (cracked) window that won't roll down. Smith recalls driving back from Boca Raton, Fla., from a recent gig in that vehicle - it took what seemed like 12 hours just to get to Atlanta due to hurricane evacuation traffic. They decided to stop and not only would the window not roll down, but the door wouldn't open either. Guitarist Adam Dennison, who joined the band this summer around the same time Vier joined, sat there staring at the door, rocking back and forth.

"I think Adam just snapped," Smith said, laughing.

"The doors don't want to unlock from the inside sometimes," said Dennison. "You have to hold up on the handle and unlock it from the outside. I kind of freak out about that sometimes; I don't like being in a space I can't get out of. It's like being in a box."

But being a traveling band necessitates such things. While the band has played the way-cool Mercury Lounge in New York's East Village, it has also played some gigs that could be considered, well, somewhat less prestigious.

"We played a prison a couple months ago," announced Vier, as Smith was finishing his thon salade. "It was a maximum security juvenile hall. Literally, they wait there until they turn 18, then they take them across the street to the real prison."

Apparently, the band was a big hit with the inmates. "One of the guards, after the show, said, `Yeah, somebody will probably get killed tonight. Whenever we have an event like this, the kids get riled up, somebody starts trash-talking and then somebody gets hurt.' I said, `Why did you tell me that?'"

They also played in Charlotte, N.C., to, literally, the other bands on the bill, three paying customers and the bartender.

But such endeavors afford other successes; in Tallahassee, the band is now on local radio because of a well-received show there. Sometimes the local DJ really is in the audience. And it also helps the band to jell and become more comfortable on stage.

"Rachel went from being in her space around the microphone," Smith said, "to where now you have to always be aware of where she is or she'll bump into you. Her performance is completely different now. That, to me, is the best thing we've gotten out of doing all those shows."

What the band would like to see in the future is some kind of financial backing to help out on these tours. For now, all the money the band makes goes back into touring or into recording. When the new CD comes out next year, that will help too.

"The profit margin will be higher on this record because we won't have to sell it for five bucks," as is customary with EP releases, Smith sad.

"We might actually be able to afford gas money," injected Hagan. "That would be cool."

SPEAKING OF NEW RECORDS

Waterproof Blonde spent much of the fall in Downtown Recording studios with engineer Chris Greenwell working on a forthcoming full-length recording that will be titled The Morning After the Night Before.

Greenwell "has been stellar," Smith said, by keeping the band focused on the big picture during those inevitable times of frustration during the recording process. Once all the tracks are finished, the band will head for San Francisco to do the final mix and mastering at John Vanderslice's Tiny Telephone Studios, where artists like John Doe, Death Cab for Cutie, Nada Surf and Third Eye Blind have gone before. Waterproof Blonde will be working with Jay Pellicci, who has mixed records for Deerhoof, Erase Errata, Dilute and The Dammit Heads.

And the word is, expect a different sounding record than Glitter Lust. This is partly due to having several new band members, but the recording process and production has been much different this time around as well.

Newcomer Dennison describes it this way: "With Glitter Lust, the producer did a more poppy vibe with it. It came out sounding more like a pop record. This is a bit more raw, it's more of a rock record. That's kind of the direction the band is wanting to go in anyway and already has been with the live show."

Hagan puts it a little more bluntly while making it clear the band wasn't completely happy with the final product Glitter Lust turned out to be. "It was manipulated in a way," she said, "and I'm still pissed off about it."

Smith judiciously called the EP "an introductory phrase leading into the bigger paragraph of what we are."

But he also noted that, "When they run out, we won't be pressing up anymore. Let's put it that way."

The back story is that Smith was a co-founder of Label X with producer Todd Smith and Patsy Sermersheim in 2002; the first project was the aforementioned Go Digby, which afforded Waterproof Blonde and another local band, the Muckrakers, a label mate with an album and a dedicated promotion force behind it, as well as access to a proven producer in Smith. Todd Smith (he and Jeffrey are not related) wanted Waterproof Blonde on the label and the two made an agreement in spite of the potential conflict of interest.

Go Digby was released in January 2003 and by late summer that year there still wasn't a second Label X release. Waterproof Blonde grew restless. Jeffrey Smith and Hagan called a band meeting with the label.

"We said, `We have a song on TV, but we don't have product,'" recalled Jeff Smith. "It was just a bad relationship from that point on."

Photo of Waterproof Blonde
Photo By Sara Kraft
Waterproof Blonde

Glitter Lust came out the following October, but by this past August, band and label had parted ways. Jeff Smith described the split as "mostly amicable."

Todd Smith wasn't inclined to go into detail, but suggested the label bears no ill will toward Waterproof Blonde. "Label X and the band were clearly going in different directions," he said, "and it just became apparent that it was not a good match. They are a good band and we wish them the best of luck."

So Waterproof Blonde became an independent artist; but life as an indie isn't all bad. For one thing, WWE came calling again and the Blonde recently finished recording a song called "Just Close Your Eyes," written by WWE music director Jim Johnston. It will be released soon on a WWE compilation that will include songs by Motorhead, Sevendust and others.

Smith noted that the song "doesn't sound like our usual stuff," which is not surprising, considering the band didn't write the tune. But the band members agreed it's a decent song and was fun to record.

"It's good for what it's for," Hagan said. "It's about a guy turning himself around to be a good person."

"In the soap opera world of wrestling," added Vier, "it's a song for a bad guy to cross over to being a good guy."

But it's the new album the band is primarily focused on and they expect it to be ready for release in January 2005. Starting the promotion process in January may work well as a fresh-start sort of feeling for Waterproof Blonde, having undergone so many changes and put in so many hours so far this fall and early winter.

"January is a solid time to come out," said Smith, ever the marketer. "It's a slow news month, retail is slow. There are a lot of holes, so we can jump in and get some attention."

But mostly it's about moving forward and staying focused. Hagan went on record in a recent Courier-Journal feature as wanting to appear on Letterman; Smith just wants to see what can happen. Dennison likes the road, even if it means getting stuck in the car every now and then.

"Everybody in this band has been doing this for at least four, five, six years longer than I have," he said. "It's one of those things where people get tired of being in bands, dicking around and not getting anything done. This band is our main focus over anything else going on in our lives. We come in, get the stuff done and we make sure everything is exactly where it needs to be."

Which, in this case, is getting to the business of being rock stars. If the plan works as intended, Waterproof Blonde will someday be able to buy all the thon it wants.