Like Father, Like Sons | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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Like Father, Like Sons

Between them, Jimmy Webb and his boys have done pretty much everything there is to do in the music business--except become stars.

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Lucy's El Adobe Cafe is something of a Hollywood landmark. Located on Melrose just opposite the gates of Paramount Studios, the humble-looking Mexican restaurant has been an industry hangout for decades, and in the early 70s it was a haven for up-and-coming musicians. Among the regulars were Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, Jackson Browne, and a Baptist minister's son from Oklahoma, Jimmy Webb, who'd later memorialize the place as "the old cantina on the California coast" in his song "Adios."

At the time Webb was making the difficult transition from songwriting wunderkind to solo artist. When he turned 24 in 1970, he'd already written a string of million-selling hits: the 5th Dimension's "Up, Up and Away," Richard Harris's "MacArthur Park," Glen Campbell's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." But throughout the 70s Webb's own records barely caused a ripple, selling only in the tens of thousands.

A recent five-disc Webb box set on Rhino Handmade, released in a limited edition of 2,500, collects his entire output from that decade: the ambitious LPs Words and Music (1970), And So: On (1971), Letters (1972), Land's End (1974), and El Mirage (1977), plus a disc of previously unreleased outtakes and demos and another of live material recorded at the Royal Albert Hall in 1972. The box takes its title from one of Webb's most enduring tunes from the 70s, "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress." The song, he says, is "about the struggle of all those years trying to put together some kind of success with those albums. And seeing Elton John take off and Billy Joel take off and watching piano guys coming into their own and feeling a little bit left behind."

Webb's sons Christiaan, Justin, and James, better known as the Webb Brothers, have also had their share of disappointments with the music business--though their near miss, more than two decades later, was on the other side of the Atlantic. The Webbs touched off a small bidding war practically as soon as they set foot in the UK in 1999, but a combination of bad timing and record-label politics ensured that they'd watch contemporaries like the Strokes and the White Stripes pass them by. This fall, after a long, messy divorce from Warner Brothers, the band ended its decadelong stay in Chicago and moved to LA. Without a label contract or an album to shop around, they've holed up in a studio they set up in back of their father's old haunt, Lucy's El Adobe, where they're working on a concept album and animated film called "The God Helmet," hoping to rejuvenate their career.

"Big record companies just steer you in a way that avoids risks," says Christiaan. "But we've only ever succeeded when we've taken risks. So we're taking them again."

Ironically, the Webb Brothers have specialized in bleak songs about the dashed dreams of aspiring artists. A fascination with the pursuit of fame--and especially with the failure of that pursuit--seems to be a Webb family trait. On "Songseller" (from Words and Music), Jimmy describes life as a hustling tunesmith: "I'll cut you a track that's truly trucking / If you want me to, I'll sing about fucking / Sing about it fast, sing about it slow / I want to hear it on the radio, though."

"I had a lot of trouble with the record company on that one," he says, laughing. "I think they pretty much wrote that album off as soon as they saw what I'd done. I took art over the line into self-destruction many times."

Christiaan and Justin, at 31 and 29 the oldest of Jimmy's six children, were born and raised in LA and went to college in Boston, where they began playing as an acoustic duo. They arrived in Chicago in summer 1994 and paid the bills tending bar at Thurston's while they put together a band. After their demos were rejected by every label they contacted, they borrowed five grand from a friend, recorded an album of sprightly, ornate pop tunes held together by a loose sci-fi theme, and released it themselves as Beyond the Biosphere. A copy found its way to Wyndham Wallace, an English A and R man for the German indie City Slang, who offered to release three of the tracks as a seven-inch on his tiny Easy Tiger imprint. In January 1999 the label brought the Webbs to the UK for a couple shows to promote the seven-inch, and the next thing they knew they were a minor sensation in England, with a crowd of record-industry reps waving contracts under their noses. The brothers signed a worldwide deal with Warner Brothers, which gave Beyond the Biosphere a proper UK release in July 1999, and soon they were at work on a second LP, Maroon, whose bitter, despairing songs centered on the scene at the Liar's Club. ("Yeah we're getting older but we like to think we're young / And when the lights are low I look as though I'm 21.")

Christiaan and Justin's younger brother James, 26, dropped out of college in New Jersey and moved to Chicago in 2000, joining the band in time to support the new disc. Produced by Morrissey collaborator Stephen Street, Maroon was released in the U.S. in the summer of 2001. It was supposed to be the Webb Brothers' American breakthrough, with the CMJ festival in October serving as their coming-out party. Feature stories on the band ran in Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone, and the album was nudging the top ten on the college charts. On the morning of September 11, the Webbs were scheduled to leave Chicago for New York City to launch a tour with the Charlatans UK. "I was actually up, 'cause I'd been out late," says James. "Then someone called and was like, 'Turn on the TV!'" The tour was scuttled, and two months later Division One, the Warner subsidiary that had released Maroon, shut down. The album never regained its momentum, and the first cracks appeared in the band's relationship with the label.

The Webbs were moved to Warner's UK imprint 679 for their next record, which they largely produced themselves with the help of their longtime drummer, Neil Ostrovsky. A more soft-focus take on the band's earlier sound, The Webb Brothers was released in Europe in September 2003, and though like the first two discs it drew acclaim in England, it never came out in America. Late that year 679, whose roster included the Polyphonic Spree, Ben Kweller, and the Streets, abruptly changed course. "Basically they dropped everybody but the Streets and started signing dance stuff," says Justin. "We figured it'd be smart to try and get out of the worldwide Warner Brothers deal right then."

While the band tried to secure a release from its contract, a handful of labels expressed interest in picking up The Webb Brothers for American distribution--but Warner demanded a cut of roughly 75 percent of sales to license it to an outside party. "Warner wanted a chunk of the record and the new label was going to want a chunk, which would've left nothing," says Jimmy. "And the boys, they're not idiots."

Negotiations dragged on far into 2004. The brothers played a handful of shows in Chicago and stayed busy working as doormen and bar backs--Christiaan at the Bottom Lounge, Justin at Schubas, James at the Vic. But in the end they couldn't arrange a deal with Warner that would've made it worthwhile to promote The Webb Brothers instead of simply moving on to a new album. By the summer they'd given up on the record for good.

"It was getting to where the band was in trouble," adds Justin. "We had to make some big choices if we wanted to continue on."

Last fall, after the split with Warner, the Webb Brothers were at a crossroads. They already knew they wanted to make "The God Helmet," but they worried they wouldn't have the resources without a label on board. They considered putting out a stopgap EP and going back on the road in the UK, or maybe cutting a quick-and-dirty rock album.

During this period Lucy Casado, a family friend and owner of Lucy's El Adobe, offered the brothers free use of a space in a building she owned behind the restaurant. "We had an opportunity to set up an infrastructure that would allow us to work 12 hours a day, six days a week, on a record," says James, "which was the most important thing." In October the Webbs packed up and headed west.

By January the Webbs' new studio was up and running, and since then the three brothers have been working nonstop on "The God Helmet." The project takes its inspiration from the work of Canadian neuropsychologist Michael Persinger, which the Webbs stumbled across on the Internet. In the mid-90s Persinger outfitted a motorcycle helmet with electronics designed to induce a religious experience--or rather the brain activity commonly interpreted as a religious experience. When the right hemisphere is stimulated in the region believed to control notions of self, the left hemisphere responds by creating a "sensed presence," which properly predisposed subjects perceive as God.

"So we thought, 'What would happen if someone put one of these helmets on and tried to make music with it? What if we did an album based on that concept?' It's the kind of idea we used to bring to Warner Brothers," says Justin, laughing. "They'd be like, 'Um, we don't really hear a single, guys.'"

"We're actually gonna build the helmet," insists Christiaan. "We've got schematics and everything. Whether it works or not, who knows? But it's gonna be something."

The accompanying film draws on the video work of the Webbs' friends in the Super Furry Animals--and on a whimsical made-for-TV movie written and scored by one of their father's running buddies, Harry Nilsson, in 1971. "It's very much gonna be an animated feature like The Point," says Christiaan.

"I've been encouraging them to spin it off into a theatrical direction as well, and get as much mileage as they can out of it," says Jimmy, who's working on Broadway adaptations of the films Shane and A Bronx Tale. "It's been a long time since we had a rock opera like Tommy, and I really do think they have the depth to pull something like that off."

Ambition also seems to run in the family. Jimmy spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lavish studio experiments in the 70s. "I was trying to cut some big records," he says. "On Land's End we had 190 people--a symphony orchestra, a choir--in the same room at one time. It was really an attempt to create one of Berlioz's mountainside orchestras, with hundreds of musicians." The Webbs can't throw that kind of money at "The God Helmet," but they will be getting some help. The youngest Webb brother, 17-year-old Charles, is pitching in to handle art direction for the album and DVD, and a fifth sibling, 21-year-old Cornelius--currently in music school in New York--is replacing drummer Ostrovsky, who stayed in Chicago to run his studio, B-Side Audio. The Webbs plan to return to town this summer to mix and overdub strings with Ostrovsky, as well as to play a handful of shows previewing the new material.

The Webbs say they're closing in on a deal with British indie Fume--which would allow them to own their master tapes--and expect "The God Helmet" to come out in the UK in early 2006. They're hoping for a U.S. release that spring, but don't have a label lined up yet.

In the meantime Jimmy Webb has put the finishing touches on Twilight of the Renegades, his first album of new material in more than a decade. Sanctuary will release the disc in May, and Webb plans to promote the record with full-band shows in Europe and the States. "One of the ideas is having the Webb Brothers be my band for that," he says. "I think it'd be a pretty great experience."

Currently he's on the road playing solo in support of the Rhino box, dusting off obscure material for his die-hard fans. The tour will bring him to the Black Orchid on Saturday. "It's funny, I was just through town the other day during a layover," says Webb. "I was just thinking about all the years that my sons spent in Chicago and how hard they tried to make it. It's a strange business, the music business. I'm still going, though, still plugging away, and they are too. That's all you can really hope for in the end."

Jimmy Webb

When: Sat 3/12, 7:30 PM

Where: Black Orchid, 230 W. North

Price: $45

Info: 312-944-6200

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Brad Miller, Henry Diltz.

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