Sunday, December 9, 2012

Wild, Wonderful Heathens (Pt. 1)

Arguably, the West Virginia band that perhaps benefitted most greatly from the exposure provided by 1318 4th Ave., and flew the flag for the state more than any other, was Morgantown's Karma To Burn.

Over the course of its nearly 20-year history, the band would earn a reputation as one of the most uncompromising acts, West Virginia or otherwise, and earn the respect of a music industry that contributed to the band's demise and, subsequent, resurrection.

Much like that of their contemporaries, Karma To Burn's story is a long and complicated one, rife with hardships, lineup changes and the inevitable break ups, but with band's reformation in the spring of 2009, the plot has finally come full circle.

The Karma To Burn story, however, began in Wormleysburg, Pennsylvania, of all places, some three-and-a-half hours from Morgantown, West Virginia.

In 1990, Wormleysburg was the home of post-hardcore band Admiral, who released two 7-inch records (1990's self-titled and 1991's 'Revolving And Loading') and featured a drummer by the name of Will Mecum.

(Admiral's 'Brother Can You Spare A Dime?' 7", Soul Force Records, 1990)

Admiral split shortly after that second release and Mecum promptly relocated to Morgantown in 1991, where he was quickly recruited to play drums for local favorites Tooling For Bovines.

Mecum's tenure with the band was brief, and he wasted no time after the fact in joining forces with local musicians J.C. Belial, Nathan Limbaugh and Orville Weale to form The Red Oak Social Club.

(Mecum had since switched to guitar, so drums were handled by Limbaugh, formerly of the bands Encounter and One.)

The Red Oak Social Club soon lost its front man in Belial, and evolved into The Red Oak Conspiracy, fronted by new vocalist Curtis Duhn.

With the lineup of guitarist Mecum, vocalist Duhn, drummer Limbaugh and bassist Weale, the band recorded a solitary demo, '12 Songs Amounting To Nothing', in 1992, becoming one of Morgantown's best live attractions, and touring with the likes of Baltimore's Jade (featuring drummer Rob Oswald).

(Jade/Red Oak Social Club flyer from the collection of Jon Sula)

At one such performance, in Pittsburgh, The Red Oak Conspiracy met a local musician by the name of Rich Mullins, a member of a band calling itself Dancing Linda (which also featured guitarist Jim Davison).

Dancing Linda had already recorded a demo of its own and this chance encounter prompted the band to relocate to Morgantown, a move that would eventually signal the end of the band in early-1993.

Unbeknownst to the other members of The Red Oak Conspiracy, during that initial meeting, Mecum had found a kindred spirit in Mullins, and together they decided to pursue a new music project.

The members of The Red Oak Conspiracy then parted ways after performing their final show at Morgantown's Nyabinghi Dance Hall November 7, 1992.

Mecum and Mullins, with Red Oak holdover Limbaugh, then formed the band that would become Karma To Burn in March 1993.

(Dancing Linda, featuring Rich Mullins and Jim Davison)

(Ironically, it was Weale who coined the band's name when Mecum overheard a conversation that was being had amongst the members of The Red Oak Conspiracy concerning bad deeds going unpunished. Weale's response to the inquisitor was "I have enough karma to burn.")

While the newly crowned Karma To Burn began composing original material and landing gigs around Morgantown, they also undertook the task of auditioning prospective vocalists.

Among the first to try out was Mecum's old Red Oak Conspiracy band mate Duhn, whom the band performed a handful shows (and recorded) with before he was ousted.

With the landing of a singer proving to be a challenge, the band's lack of recruitment led it to perform at a previously-booked show, sans vocalist, which was well-received by those whom attended and prompted the members to rethink their strategy.

Instead of succumbing to the conventional trappings of rock and roll tradition, Karma To Burn would forgo a singer and be a three-piece, all-instrumental band.

(Rich Mullins, Nathan Limbaugh and Will Mecum, Karma To Burn, 1994)

The conscious decision to be an instrumental band was an audacious one to say the least, as the only notable exception at the time was Palm Springs, California's Kyuss, itself not exactly an instrumental band (as three-fourths of the band's albums contained the vocals of member John Garcia).

Karma To Burn began making enough noise around Morgantown to pique the interest of Gumby's booker Brian Barlow, who brought the band to Huntington for their first performance at the club (in support of Lexington, Kentucky's Groovezilla) on September 24, 1993.

During subsequent visits in late-1993, and throughout 1994, the band had complemented its sound by adding Mullins' Dancing Linda partner Jim Davison to the mix.

On the advice of those whom they met during the band's early days in Huntington, the quartet of Mecum, Mullins, Limbaugh and Davison traveled to Kentucky in early-1994 to demo songs with David Barrick (of Barrick Recording), two of which featured the vocals of Davison - "Joon Was Right" and "Starlet Green Light."

Not long thereafter, Davison began suffering from mental instability and he was removed for his (and the band's) own wellbeing.

(Limbaugh, Mullins and Mecum, 1995)

(During this episode, Karma To Burn tried out Karim Chatila, of Lexington's Leech and, later, The Gasoline Angels, and while he sang with the band at a couple of shows, the union never materialized.)

Karma To Burn's early Gumby's performances not only resulted in the band's introduction to the Huntington scene, but also began an alliance between it and Barlow, whom would prove to be a pivotal figure in the band's development and future fortunes as well.

In fact, it was Barlow who, in a shrewd guerrilla tactic, phoned the offices of Roadrunner Records in New York City, claiming to be a member of one of the label's bands, Die Monster Die, touting the unknown Karma To Burn to label execs.

The label bought it and Karma To Burn was signed to Roadrunner in early-1994, but on one condition - it hired a singer.

While this ultimatum threatened the integrity of the band's vision, Karma To Burn knew if it was to bring its sound to much larger audiences they would have to comply with the demand.

The band had thought they nailed down the vocalist position with Davison, but in addition to his health concerns, as it turned out, Roadrunner was not pleased with the vocals he added to recordings made with Barrick.

(Karma To Burn's self-released cassette demo, 1995)

Regardless, Karma To Burn would issue its first recorded product in 1995 - a self-released cassette which featured four songs afforded only numeric titles, two of which, "One" and "Three," were re-worked versions of songs produced by Barrick.

(Legend has it the band began designating their songs with numbers due to the dyslexia of one its aspiring singers.)

But, Karma To Burn was fully aware that it needed to land a vocalist in order to record and release what was becoming its elusive debut album.

So, the search for a vocalist began yet again.

Among the contenders Karma To Burn flirted with this go-around was Jason Byers and Mike Callahan (both of Cleveland's Disengage), Keith Morris of The Circle Jerks (whom the band met through Buzzov*en, a band for which Barlow was the then-tour manager) and John Garcia of Kyuss.

(Limbaugh, John Garcia, Mecum and Mullins, 1995; courtesy of Nathan Limbaugh)

Although the band would hit it off with Garcia, he was unable to join full-time due to his contractual obligations with Kyuss.

This foursome did, however, do a brief tour of Appalachia during Garcia's post-Kyuss days of late-1995, and the band recorded a handful of songs with him in San Francisco.

(A single song from those recording sessions, "Two Times," would eventually be released on Karma To Burn's fourth album, 'Appalachian Incantation', some 15 years after the fact.)

The majority of the band's debut album was recorded around this time (in North Carolina with producer Steven Haigler), but when it was delivered to Roadrunner they refused to release it on the grounds that Karma To Burn had not complied with the label's explicit instructions that it would not release an instrumental record by the band.

This was the last straw for Nathan Limbaugh, who opted to leave the band for personal reasons, and Mecum and Mullins were now saddled with the burden of replacing the only drummer their band had ever known.

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