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April 7, 2011

Satellites Still Beaming After 15 Years

Fifteen years ago an iconic record label, Island Records, which boasted a roster including Bob Marley and U2, released with minimal fanfare a 10-song project by a relatively unknown Britpop/rock-influenced band from Myrtle Beach named The Drag.

Fifteen years ago an iconic record label, Island Records, which boasted a roster including Bob Marley and U2, released with minimal fanfare a 10-song project by a relatively unknown Britpop/rock-influenced band from Myrtle Beach named The Drag. The band's major label debut recording "Satellites Beaming Back at You," hit the record store shelves across the nation on April 9, 1996. Remember record stores?

Optimism was high and the mood in Myrtle Beach celebratory as the band of five friends barely out of their teens had the honor of being the first rock band to break out of a city whose previous musical claims to fame included a few beach music groups, renowned bassist Steve Bailey, and country music supergroup Alabama, which performed here for years as the house band at The Bowery before becoming huge stars. Other local rock acts such as Echo 7 and The Classic Struggle, would later also score major distribution deals, but The Drag was the first local modern rock act to have a shot at putting Myrtle Beach on the alt-rock musical map.

While The Drag's record was solid and received some positive reviews, its label would soon be in the midst of an internal upheaval. As a result, The Drag's brand new recording and brand new record deal languished. Within a year the deal would sour, and a couple of years later, the band would fold. With promised marketing efforts and album sales never materializing, The Drag's contract was nullified, and with it the band's hopes of international fame. When The Drag dismantled permanently, its members eventually dispersed to Athens, Ga., Atlanta, Ga., Charleston, Chicago, Ill., and a few came and went from Myrtle Beach.

On this 15th anniversary of the release of the band's only major label project, we caught up with each of its five, final members (others came and went); Trey McManus, Chance Walls, Chris Tucker, Billy King and Nick McNeill, as well as the behind-the-scenes sixth member, audio engineer Rob Gainer. Still friends two decades after forming at North Myrtle Beach High School, the band got together for a reunion show at Droopy's in Myrtle Beach in April 2009 and is planning another reunion at an undetermined Myrtle Beach location sometime in the upcoming summer.

Having once been wined and dined by big-budgeted A&R (artists and repertoire) record label reps, flown to London to shoot a video with supermodels, and poised on the edge of potential rock 'n' roll fame, we wondered if we'd find the band members living in the past, harboring regrets, and wallowing in memories of the glory days. The answer? An unequivocal "no way." Here's what they had to say about working together as teenagers and 20-somethings, their observations about Myrtle Beach then and now, the good, bad and the ugly of record deals, and life after The Drag.

In the Beginning

"We were kids," said Trey McManus, who played lead guitar for The Drag, and later The Envelopes, and King of Prussia. "I had moved to the beach from Spartanburg when I was about 11. I met Rob [Gainer], Chance [Walls], and our first drummer John Powell at North Myrtle Beach High School, and in 1992 we started The Drag, with Conway High School-er Billy King on bass guitar. Rob was there from the beginning getting our sounds right and recording our first demos. We were huge fans of bands that came out in the early '90s and it just so happened that most of them were from England; Slowdive, Ride, The Verve - even early Oasis. I remember getting a demo of Oasis' 'Cigarettes and Alcohol' even before it released, and I couldn't get over the fact of how much we sounded alike. And then I looked at them, and god, the singer even looked like Chance - it was just coincidence. At the time we were these little teenagers that had this big sound, and we were from, of all places, South Carolina."

These days McManus no longer plays in bands, but has settled into a happy life with his new wife in Athens, Ga., where he's lived for the last decade. He works as manager for a company specializing in the eBay sales of motorcycle parts, and says he's enjoying putting a new guitar rig together for the upcoming Drag reunion. "I stopped doing music," said McManus. "I haven't really played out since King Of Prussia. I was with them between '06 and '08 - I may do the cover band thing one day, but for now I just sit [and play] in the bedroom and reminisce," he added with a laugh.

As the band developed its early sound, it was tagged "Britpop" by those in the industry who had heard the band's music, and found that the designation suited it reasonably well. "We really developed a lot between '92 and '94," said McManus. "By that time we were kings of the Quadraverb [a multi-effects unit]. We were fine with the Britpop tag. The only other South Carolina band [of note] at that time was Hootie [and the Blowfish], and we were about the furthest thing from those guys."

Myrtle Beach of the early '90s pre-dated Broadway at the Beach and the House of Blues. Live rock 'n' roll was everywhere and the long since defunct music venue/bar, the Purple Gator, was at its epicenter. "We were high school kids playing in adult bars," said Gainer, who has been the audio engineer at Alabama Theatre for the past eight years, and who is co-owner of SeaNote Recording in Myrtle Beach. Gainer, now married, and with a six-year-old son, says he developed his audio skills while The Drag was developing musically. His name is always included in every discussion of and by The Drag, whose members recognize and give credit to his importance in all things off-stage, from booking to road managing, to running sound, and even co-producing and engineering the band's major label debut. "There were a lot more venues back then," continued Gainer. "We had The Purple Gator - that was the big place in Magnolia Plaza [North Kings Highway, 9700 block] - it held about 2,000. The Afterdeck was the other big place. Anderson Knott [owner/promoter] booked us at the Hurricane Cove, too."

The band began to garner a local following and by then had replaced Powell with drummer Chris Tucker, and added Conway High School pal Nick McNeill (guitar), a friend of charter Drag bassist King. Additionally, notable commercial photographer Clifton Parker, and Legends In Concert's new house drummer, Tommy Tipton, also had short runs as Drag band mates. Once The Drag's final five got their footing, and with Gainer working equally as hard to produce a consistent, vibrant sound - things moved very quickly for a band whose sound and style seemed to fly in the face of what many expected an Horry County rock band could be - there was no yee-hah, or twang in this ensemble's sound.

Branching out

The "Satellites'' album was a sort of amalgamation of different projects. "We wrote "Satellites" in parts," said Walls, lead singer for The Drag. Walls has also fronted local act One Louder and Atlanta-based The Lord is my Shotgun. Walls now lives in Myrtle Beach with his wife and daughter. "Some of the writing was for our EP 'Starcraft' which we recorded in Atlanta," he said. "While we were recording it, we were writing what would become the second half of 'Satellites.' We had a little deal with Bing Records and we thought we were hot shit. We were all working part-time and writing a lot. We wrote most of 'Satellites' in the old Flatiron building across from the Pavilion. It's torn down now. We had a sweet spot that overlooked all the Pavilion lights. The one thing that sort of set us apart was that we were really committed to rehearsal. We rehearsed every single day, for hours on end, and our music came first. Everyone loved to party and do their thing, but we never let it interfere with the music."

Rock radio station WKZQ-FM was instrumental in helping build a Myrtle Beach buzz for The Drag. "We used to bring them in to do live acoustic shows in the studio," said Darren Taylor, former program director and afternoon drive DJ at WKZQ between 1990 and 1997. Taylor now works for Time Warner Cable in Myrtle Beach. "We probably have lost or buried some recordings of them somewhere. Back then we played local bands all the time- in fact we had a local band show. The Drag had a lot of regional popularity. They were new and different, really cool guys."

Meanwhile, Parker was instrumental in the local early 1990s music scene with his bands October Chorus, Dead Cut Tree, and others. For seven months he played guitar with The Drag, and remembers the hype, hyperbole, and legitimate buzz surrounding it and other local bands of the era. "Back in those days there was a tight community of musicians," said Parker, "and it so happened that we all sort of liked the same music, but there was a variety of [musical styles] here. There were shoe-gazers, hardcore, like Skwearl, punks like Bazooka Joe - the scene was more eclectic. I remember The Drag was more shoe-gaze when they first started, then became more Britpop. After I left things started to pop for them," he laughed. "Great timing on my part. They were high school buds, almost like a club," said Parker who is several years older than most of The Drag members. "I don't think they really knew what they were doing when they first started, but they all came together, and created a unique sound. The Drag did well - they didn't go on to become superstars, but they made a dent in it."

While the band was gaining ground in Myrtle Beach, it wasn't until the fellas started leaving town that things picked up for them. Atlanta was the first breakout market, and the buzz created there, and throughout Georgia, contributed to The Drag's eventual signing with Island Records.

"I think what we did right," said Gainer, "was that once we established ourselves here we got out of town. Atlanta was the first market we broke, and it's where we met [manger] Tim Tintle. We got a lot of buzz there, and that led us to New York." A couple of hours east of Atlanta one show in particular helped seal the deal. "The Regatta Festival in Augusta [Ga.] is the show that I think got us signed," said Drag bassist Billy King. "There were like 3,000 people there and Island wanted to sign us right after that." While the big shows were important, the dive bars were equally as valuable in honing the band's live show and showcasing in an intimate setting. "We stayed on the phones booking everywhere we could," said King. "There were some shows where we played for just the bartender, and then finally we got to New York and played a few shows, caught the eyes of few people - then it came fast."

The story of The Drag's signing represents a quickly dying (if not dead) business model in pop music. "It was a time when A&R reps would fly all over the place to see bands," said McManus. "We'd be playing some rinky-dink bar in Spartanburg and the rep from Atlantic Records was there and he'd take us out to eat, and we'd go somewhere else and Geffen Records was there and they wanted to hang out with us for two or three days, somewhere else Sire Records was there - it was really like that. It was like what you read about in books."

The Deal

With the buzz fully established by 1994-1995, The Drag was courted by several labels, with Geffen Records even paying for studio time and masters that would eventually become "Satellites" and owned by Island Records. It was a time just before piracy and the Internet ran roughshod over the music industry. "Bands back then were getting signed by majors all the time," said McManus. "I had more friends on major labels than who had regular jobs. But all of it changed. There's nothing remotely like that now. You could not do that today."

The traditional courting and signing dance that young bands had enjoyed for decades was changing, but not before The Drag got the ride of a lifetime. "It was surreal," said McManus, "- just a bunch of kids, taking limo rides to the Island offices, getting to raid the CD and record bins, getting wined and dined, it was rock 'n' roll and about as real as I imagined it could be," he said, "and I was 19 or 20."

But why The Drag?

"The rumor we heard," said McManus, "was that when Courtney Love was recording a [live] Hole album in 1995, that we were the buzz backstage - all the A&R reps were talking about this little band from South Carolina. We had cheerleaders on the side working to create a buzz, entertainment lawyers - I guess all the stars were aligned."

And it came from left field.

"The best part of having a record deal," said Walls, "was that it was completely unexpected. There was never much pre-meditated thought. We made a series of good decisions from writing songs, to choosing Mitch Easter to produce, and then to get on the road and get exposure." Easter is a well-known musician (Let's Active) and producer whose credits included several years producing R.E.M., and Suzanne Vega, among many others. "But the best part of having a record deal was having a record deal," continued Walls, "- they weren't just handed out like hall passes, they were still pretty rare, especially for a bunch of good ol' boys from South Carolina. Island spent a ton of money on us [an estimated $450,000, according to band sources] and we had a great time. None of us had to work a job, we got all new gear, got to travel all over the country, got to hang with our favorite bands, go to London [England] and shoot a video - we were treated like rock star royalty. I don't regret a minute of it."

Drag guitarist McNeill recalls the adrenaline rush.

"I was 21 when 'Satellites' came out," said McNeill. "It was very exciting." McNeill now lives in Charleston with his wife and works for Fuel Interactive, developing Web site software related to tourism. "My family didn't have a lot of confidence in my choice to leave college [Coastal Carolina University] and become a musician, until they found out the label was sending us to London to shoot a video," he said. "I went back to Coastal a few years later and finished. I have no regrets at all. It was an experience I'll always remember."

Drag drummer Chris Tucker has lived in Chicago for almost a year-and-a-half, and has been working freelance for Ford Modeling agency, and others, as a fashion stylist and in prepping myriad products for photo shoots. "I needed to get the hell out of Myrtle Beach," said Tucker. "I wasn't doing anything except bartending and getting drunk, so this has worked out well."

Tucker remembers the early days of the band with fondness. "We were so young and had no major responsibilities - it was magical and memorable and I have no regrets. To be able to tour, go to London for the video - it was a roller coaster ride. I missed out on going to college, but I learned communications, how to travel, and how to go out and tackle the world. We're only here once, and I wouldn't trade what we did with The Drag for anything in the world." Tucker played with various former Drag-mates in the now defunct nine-member Myrtle Beach progressive mood-rock act Grace Cathedral Park, and recorded the second King of Prussia album, minus McManus, which he hopes will be mastered and shopped sometime this year. "It's some of the best work I've ever done," said Tucker of the King of Prussia recordings.

Members of The Drag have individually and consistently recorded their own music, or that of friends, since high school days. Unlike the experience of many bands, the studio was not a foreign space, and "Satellites" came together without much pain.

The Record

Through the early influence of Gainer, whose head was always buried in some sort of recording gear, the band and the studio were never far removed. "Once Chris joined the band that's when we really started to get some momentum and get our sound," said Walls. "When we went in to do the second half, Geffen actually paid for it. "Starcraft" was released on Bing Records and went out in a limited edition, but was never re-pressed."

As Walls stated, the recording of "Satellites'' was broken up into chunks.

"We did three different sessions over the period of a year," said Gainer. "A few of the songs were recorded for "Starcraft," which we remixed and updated for "Satellites." A few others were first demos for Geffen Records, one of our suitors. But you don't do demos with Mitch [Easter]. They were album quality so we put them in the can. By the time it came to do the [Island] record, we only needed about three or four songs and together they became "Satellites Beaming Back at You." The band's first recordings were done at Tree Sound Studios in Atlanta. Gainer received co-producer and engineering credits. The second and third sessions were both recorded at Easter's studio Brickhenge, near Winston-Salem N.C.

With a solid record in the can, a slick music video for the track "Our Race Cars," the first pressing of around 15,000 CDs, and national distribution by Island, The Drag was set on the path to rock stardom, but then the phones went quiet, and the money stopped coming.

The Beginning of the End

April 9, 1996 The Drag played a cd release party at the brand new Hard Rock Café in Myrtle Beach. The first pressing of 15,000 CDs had been shipped and was widely available, and college radio had promotional demos, but something felt wrong. "We were actually out on tour with Ocean Blue," said Gainer, "when we realized that we wouldn't have enough money to continue touring, and that the label had cut us off. We had submitted some demos for consideration for the second record, which they said they were not too fond of, but I think it wouldn't have mattered what we sent them." The writing was on the wall, it seemed, and Island Records was in the middle of an internal reorganization that sent The Drag, and its promotion and A&R teams packing.

The A&R team that signed The Drag, along with the support staff who were poised to start the big marketing push were gone. "The people in the promotion department were gone first," said Gainer, "and if the people who are there and excited about your record disappear, the new guys who come in are looking down the road, not slightly backwards - we got lost in the shuffle."

But there was some relief.

"Our attorneys actually negotiated an early release," said Gainer. "We got a little settlement money, and didn't have to pay back the $450,000 [Island had never recouped] from the album, the touring, and the video. We felt pretty good about that."

In 1997-98 the band soldiered on the best it could. "We recorded other demos that were never officially released," said Walls. "There are [bootleg] versions of that recording floating around. We called it the "Off White Album." It has songs like "Ready Steady Woman," and a lot of songs that people really love. We went into the studio with Mitch Easter and put out another EP, "The Classic Curve." We wanted to shop it but no one ever picked it up. I don't know if there was ever a steady push because at that time we were footing the bill for everything."

Besides the experience of being on a major label, the band did pick up a few mementos, and of course, the memories.

"By the end of it we got road cases out of the deal," said McManus. "You kind of know it won't last. I hoped it would last longer than two years, but the old saying was that if you got signed by a major, you'd at least end up with road cases. You could go out and buy a bunch of gear with the label's money. It's satisfying to know we made it farther than 99.9 percent of all the bands that ever try. It's fun to go back and think about it."

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