Whether you thought of the Murder City Devils as a group whose powerhouse albums and ebullient live shows were driven by a love of their music and audience, or considered them to be overhyped hipsters who didn't deserve the attention The Stranger lavished on them, no one can deny they've left a mark on the Seattle rock scene as indelible as the skull-and-crossbones tattoos that signify their image. Sub Pop regards R.I.P. as the last chapter on the band, and label owner Jonathan Poneman says that for most of the Devils' six-year lifespan, they were "undeniably the greatest band in the Northwest. They worked harder in a year than most bands do in three. They had humor, intelligence, and charisma to burn. As corny as it may sound to some, during their tenure with Sub Pop, the Devils were indisputably our flagship band."
Because of that status, fans may not have realized that the relationship between label and band had gone sour, and that R.I.P. had become a bone of contention for the musicians (who were neither consulted during the album's technical production nor asked if they wanted to comment on the album to the press once it was out). The release of R.I.P. was a compromise that, in the Devils' minds, represented settlement of a contractual obligation and not much else.
The Murder City Devils played their last show on October 31, 2001, for an all-ages audience at the Showbox; the members then quickly threw themselves into new projects. Within three days of that final show, the band members received a letter from Sub Pop's business office informing them that the label was exercising a leaving-member clause in the band's contract--which would prevent the members from working with other labels (bassist Derek Fudesco was talking to Lookout Records about his new band Pretty Girls Make Graves, and Dead Low Tide--guitarist Nate Manny, drummer Coady Willis, and singer Spencer Moody's now-defunct band--was in its early development) because the Devils' contract said they owed Sub Pop one more album. A week later, the members informed the label that they were prepared to deliver a final record. The two sides reached a "settlement" over whether, and how, their disagreement over the final album would be resolved. Sub Pop's general manager Megan Jasper says, "You can't unring the bell. The band issued a press release saying they had broken up, [but then] the band's representatives were trying to assert that there were only rumors that the band might break up in order to better the band's legal position. That is why the band and their lawyer [eventually] signed a settlement agreement. By breaking up, the band had breached their agreement with Sub Pop. If the Murder City Devils had not broken up, there would have been no need for a settlement agreement."
At this point, the band, which considered people at the label friends (Jasper shared a house with Moody until February 2002), began to learn that friendship and business don't always mix. Sub Pop said that the Murder City Devils owed the label approximately $75,000 in recoupable funds (i.e., money spent by the label for the band), and that it would begin collecting that from the band's mechanical (songwriting) royalties--an action that didn't jibe with the original contract (which stated that payments should be collected from royalties other than mechanical ones), and made the Devils feel cheated. "The amount being withheld was not approved tour support," says Jasper. "It was budget overages that were not approved by Sub Pop [that is, money the band allegedly spent without the label's approval]. So [SubPop] triggered a different paragraph of the agreement which allowed recoupment from all royalties, including mechanical royalties.
"Right now, the Murder City Devils have an unrecouped balance of $49,650.40," Jasper continues. "To name just a few things, this unrecouped money is made up of recording budgets, [approved] tour support (including an aborted European tour to support a European marketing campaign), plane tickets, [and] financial assistance for the band's vehicle and trailer--it all adds up. Although it seems high, the balance continues to decrease, and I believe that the release of the live record, combined with continued strong catalog sales, will help it come down considerably. We have no doubt that the band will be at a recouped state very soon, receiving their royalties regularly."
Drummer Willis contests the amount of money the band owes the label. "The first album," he says, "the one that came out in 1998 on [Sub Pop imprint] Die Young Stay Pretty--which was a separate label and a one-album deal--was a 50-50 split in terms of profits, and we recouped everything. [The band's cut for the three albums on Sub Pop was a lowly 12 percent, an amount usually standard only for major-label deals.] After the band decided to break up, that 50 percent got cross-collateralized--and now they've taken away our mechanical royalties until we pay off a debt that's hazy at best, no one really knows what was going on, and we can't afford to sue."
When trying to understand how the band owes so much money, bassist Fudesco doesn't find an explanation in lack of record sales. "Each of the four albums sold over 20,000 copies, and Thelema continues to sell copies," he explains. "So if you think about those figures--let's say at a low number, 60,000 copies multiplied by $6 or $7 wholesale--that's an absurd amount of money, so it doesn't make sense why we owe so much. That's why this live record seems so dirty, because [Sub Pop's] putting it out like it's supposed to be a celebration and all it is is money."
The issue over R.I.P. is more than just money, though; it's also about the issue of the Devils signing over royalties in order to work with other labels. Jasper says the leaving-member clause existed in the band's original contract, "but after many emotional conversations between the band and the label, Sub Pop did not exercise the clause." The Devils see it quite differently. Says Willis: "That whole thing is delicate to talk about because there are people at Sub Pop who I love and think are awesome, but when Jonathan [Poneman] told us we had to sign a new [settlement agreement] or else no other label could put out our other bands, we felt betrayed."
Poneman denies Willis' allegations of siphoning a 50-50 split down to a 12 percent royalty, and says that he insisted on applying "the revenue from their recouped, eponymously titled debut album to their unrecouped balance in exchange for ignoring the leaving-member clause because the band was markedly unrecouped when the split took place." Normally affable when submitting statements to the press, Poneman is remarkably dour, adding, "That the Devils split when (and how) they did kind of ticked me off. But until now I haven't been groaning about it."
After discovering the consequences of not producing another studio album (and learning that Sub Pop was no longer obligated to provide them with a recording budget), the band wanted to produce a live album for Sub Pop--but by the time the last show happened, Fudesco says it was apparent that the relationship between the label and the Devils was terminal. "We asked to have the final West Coast shows recorded, but that didn't happen. Then we asked to have the Portland and Seattle shows recorded, and no one showed up to record in Portland. Finally, the last show ended up being recorded, and because it had been such a crazy night, we were sure it would make for a terrible live album. Besides, live albums suck. Who buys live albums?"
Moody, who was sharing a house with Jasper at the time of the band's final show, heard the live record for the first time only a week ago. "It made me feel really good about what we did," he says. "It made me appreciate all the awesome people who went to our shows and supported us, even when they learned that the band was going on to new things. I think the recording is a good representation of what we were about, and if you recorded a hundred Murder City Devils shows, you would be hard-pressed to find one that we performed better than this." He takes umbrage with something that appears in R.I.P.'s liner notes, though: "That statement on the album notes where we supposedly say 'we blew it musically' makes me really bummed. It implies that it's from the band. We didn't blow it, and I think [the album] sounds awesome. I wish whoever wrote that unattributed statement would have signed it.
"I also wish that Jonathan had showed up to our final show and thanked us, and we could have thanked him," he adds, "instead of getting a letter in the mail that basically ensured that there would be no more dialogue. When that last show was over, I felt really proud as a band about how we ended it. That good feeling was aggressively taken away in a very hostile manner that was unproductive and hurtful. We could have come to the exact same outcome without it being ugly, and I think Jonathan did what he did to punish us for breaking up."
Poneman, who denies any "punishment" motive, may not have attended the Devils' final show, but Jasper was front and center, and remains an avid Devils fan. "Despite the turbulence at the end of Sub Pop's relationship with the band, we're extremely proud of the work they did with us," she says. "They're an amazing group of people and they're friends."
Moody says that six years ago, signing to Sub Pop was his dream. "I would have--and did--sign anything they put in front of me, and I'm willing to take responsibility for that," he says. "But all of us were willing to give up every cent just to never have to deal with Jonathan Poneman again."
"I heartily reject the notion that I threw away their friendship because of a money issue," refutes Poneman. "On the contrary, it would seem that it's me who's being kicked to the curb."
Guitarist Nate Manny was the only member involved in the production of R.I.P.: As on all the Murder City Devils records, he designed the artwork on his own accord, and he also asked me to write the introduction. I was flattered, but felt conflicted about describing an album that was surrounded by such rancor. As you can imagine, so did Manny, who says working on the record made him think a lot about the band. "If I don't think about it I'm fine," he says, "but if I think about it too much, I can get furious. I get mad about Sub Pop, I get mad at myself, I get mad at the band [who gave Manny no artistic suggestions]--I feel betrayed, and cheated, and lied to." Eventually, he found a way to make peace with his emotions. "We all worked really hard, but I'm glad it's over. It had gotten to the point where we would be sitting in a van for 10 hours a day and nobody would talk to each other. What's been hard for me is remembering the fun parts. I can only remember fighting, being tired, and feeling like I couldn't trust anyone. What I forgot and what the live album is helping me remember is where we came from and what we accomplished. We played huge shows, put out a lot of records, played with and got to meet a lot of great bands, and in the end I think we were a great band."
Keyboardist Leslie Hardy joined the Murder City Devils after their second album came out in 1999, and left just after Thelema was released in 2001, but her striking presence and songwriting were key parts of the band's identity. "As far as the live record goes," she says, "no one has ever talked to me about it. I wrote a lot of those songs on there, and even though Nick plays them, I still feel like someone should have talked to me." (Pretty Girls Make Graves drummer Nick DeWitt was hired to play keyboards on the band's final U.S. tour.) Hardy says she was never asked to sign a contract when she was with the band, and wasn't contacted by Sub Pop about the new contract. (Poneman calls not having Hardy sign anything an "oversight.") Hardy feels the band is owed their money.
Says Willis of the Sub Pop relationship, "It's not like we never read a book about labels, or were the only band who ever felt fucked over by one. I've been trying to not be emotional about it, and I try not to be a bitter person. But when that band first started, I'd never been so excited about anything in my entire life. During the second tour, when more and more people were coming to our shows, the realization that 'oh my god, this is working' took us all by surprise. The kids were into it, and I'd never take back anything I did with that band." Moody offers the final thought on the issue, though, with the following statement: "I appreciate all the work people have done for us--everyone except for Jonathan and the lawyers."