On Jon Decious' 22nd birthday, producer and pop icon Ric Ocasek took the Nashville bassist and his band, The Pink Spiders, out to dinner in New York with his wife, supermodel Paulina Porizkova. Earlier in the afternoon, during a pre-production session Ocasek sat in on, Decious wandered out into the hallway of the studio at Electric Lady—the famed New York recording studio built by Jimi Hendrix where the band would soon record its high-profile major-label debut—and ran into Mick Jagger and the rest of the Rolling Stones lounging on a couch.
It was already a day he'd never forget. But later that evening, when he attended a Weezer concert, he met not just the band's frontman and songwriter Rivers Cuomo, but also his childhood idol, Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan, who was hanging out backstage. He was flabbergasted.
"I was just like, 'I can die right now,' " he says of the euphoric night. Fortunately, Decious lived to tell the story, although not from a New York or L.A. hot spot. He's in Nashville, a town he's returned to after leaving the band that elevated him to a stratosphere of pop most can hardly fathom.
Today, he sits at Fido coffee shop in Hillsboro Village. It's a far cry from the famed Rainbow Room in Los Angeles, a favorite haunt from his days of living high on a major-label advance. But Decious, youthful and shaggy-haired, with a tan line circling his eyes from his trademark sunglasses, appears relaxed and comfortable—like a mourner who has, at long last, reached the final stage of grief.
Dixie Whiskey, the country-rock band he formed with his fellow former Pink Spider Bob Ferrari, is playing a show at The End in a couple of days. They'll set up their own gear and play to a crowd composed largely of friends. It may not be the throngs of thousands he and Ferrari grew accustomed to on the Warped Tour, but at least they're playing on their own terms. On that same night, the newly rearranged Pink Spiders will arrive at the Time Warner Cable Amphitheatre in Cleveland—where Matt Friction, the singer, guitarist and last remaining original member, will introduce his new drummer and bass player.
This is the story of how the biggest-hyped Nashville band this decade—the group local scenesters love to hate—went from Dumpster-diving to Hollywood high-rolling, only to fall apart with bewildering speed. It's a story that in many ways you've heard before. But because of the changing music industry—where the days of high-stakes gambling on new bands are pretty much history—you may never hear it quite the same way again.
There was always something a little un-Nashville about The Pink Spiders. When MTV viewers caught their first glimpse of the band in 2005, they seemed to have stepped out fully formed from some parallel universe—a universe where sex is currency, money does grow on trees, and the blinding-pink sky rains cocaine and whiskey.
It was, of course, as calculated as the color scheme the band adopted and the attitude they exuded. "We weren't artists," says drummer Bob Ferrari, whose thick glasses and trashy Southern drawl lend him an endearingly cartoonish quality. (His birth name, Robert William Fort V, would have made an almost equally audacious stage name.) "We wanted to be entertainers. Most bands are like Public Enemy. We wanted to be MC Hammer. We wanted to give you a show."
But before the band even imagined rolling with an outrageous Hammer-style entourage, they were just three friends who'd met in Nashville's all-ages club circuit. Friction (né Matt Bell) had already achieved some degree of local celebrity as frontman for Silent Friction, an emo-tinged group that played regularly at The Muse, the dingy coffee shop/rock club on Fourth Avenue where he also booked shows. He had spent some time filling in on guitar for Oliver's Army, the band Ferrari drummed for.
The two formed a fast friendship. In each other, they recognized the potential for an ambitious partnership. They both wanted to make a living playing music, and they both had some ideas about how to go about it. By then, Friction had also developed a reputation for self-motivation—Silent Friction played a show almost every week.
Friction brought the same piss-or-get-off-the-pot mentality to his new project. He and Ferrari left their own bands behind and tapped Decious to shoulder the bass. (A second guitarist, Jamie Mecham, was later ousted from the group.) All they needed was a name, a sound and an image.
They toyed with a handful of names that evoked the slick, provocative color Ferrari insisted upon. The Pink Tigers and The Pink Diablos were both early contenders. But when they found that "pink spider" was Japanese slang for "pussy"—eureka! "We were like, 'yeah,' " says Ferrari. "Gotta keep that name."
The name inspired the band's trademark look: skin-tight clothing, striped shirts in pink, black, and white variations, dark tousled hair and white shades. In promo shots, the band looks like a gang of punk teenagers who just raided the luggage of a French sailor and a mime.
"I think that we had to [establish a distinctive look for ourselves] because we weren't very good," says Decious. "So we had to have something to get us going, and we figured we'd learn the rest on the way."
They learned fast. Only three weeks after forming, the band recorded their first EP—a step many bands take at least a year to reach. It was titled, appropriately enough, The Pink Spiders...Are Taking Over!, and it heralded the brazenness they would come to be known for.
The music was simple, fast and aggressive—stripped-down, revved-up garage rock with a sugary pop crust. And like the color that inspired the name, in Ferrari's words, it was "bubblegum as shit." While it didn't herald a new musical movement, standout tracks such as the catchy "All the Cool Girls Are Dead" snatched their influences from all the right places: the Ramones, Buddy Holly, the Dead Boys and the Bay City Rollers. "We didn't try to sound like anyone," says Ferrari. "We just stole from everyone. That's what good artists do, in my opinion."
And in what would come to be a signature Pink Spiders maneuver—and the moment the band could effectively kiss local support goodbye—they figured out ways to skip the new-band-in-town drudgery.
"We were opening up for [established local rock group] Feable Weiner, and we had a buddy that made concert posters. So we put our names real big on it, and then put 'With Feable Weiner' under it, to make it look like we're headlining," Ferrari explains. "And we were passing out flyers, telling everybody this band kicks ass, you gotta see this band, you gotta hear this band. But they didn't know that we played in the band until they saw us onstage, and then they were like, 'You guys are assholes. But I liked your band.' "
The gamble paid off. The more they taunted the crowd, the more the crowd wanted. The band played deliberately shortened sets, then goaded the crowd into buying the merch.
"I'd always go out there and be like, 'Y'all wanna hear some more songs?' " explains Ferrari. "And I'd hype 'em up and they'd just be screaming, and then I'd be like, 'CDs are over there. Go buy one.' And they'd be like 'fuck you' and start booing, but then go buy it."
"It was really just to piss people off," says Decious of their bombastic antics. "And honestly, it worked. [People would say] 'I think these guys are assholes, but I'll at least listen to their music to see how much I hate it.' Nine out of 10 would hate it, but one would be like, 'I don't think that's bad.' "
Their sold-out debut was one of the few shows they would play in Nashville in their early days, a fact that still makes some local music supporters seethe. But even then, they knew that to make it big, they were going to have to reach well outside the Music City.
"We really didn't care what anyone in this town ever thought of us," says Decious. "You can be the best band in Nashville, and what does that really get you? What does that mean?"
Indeed—just ask Jason and the Scorchers, to date one of Nashville's most-loved rock bands. Once thought most likely to succeed in their heyday 25 years ago, they never quite parlayed that hometown loyalty into much else. Friction, who was born and raised in Nashville and still calls the city home, offers a more pragmatic assessment.
"A major reason for the perception that we haven't worked hard enough to build a fan base in Nashville is simply because Nashville is one of the only cities in the country where all-ages shows and beer sales can't go hand-in-hand," explains Friction, whose iPod is loaded with Nashville bands that he often praises in interviews. "In most cities, you would just get a wristband if you're of legal drinking age and an X on your hand if you're not."
What the band lacked in hometown warmth, they made up for with booking smarts. They quickly devised a touring method that would maximize their exposure, gradually expanding outward from Nashville. Friction, then still the booking agent for The Muse, used the relationships he'd forged to expand the group's reach. He organized show swaps, offering an out-of-town band a guarantee in exchange for a promise of similar treatment in their hometown.
He also pulled on old trick out of the local-band magician's hat and made up a fake name and booking agency—"John Nonnel" (John "Lennon" backwards) and Brash Booking—and claimed to "represent" the band when booking shows out of town. They knew they had to start regionally and hit the Southeast hard, and saw the fruits of their labor as crowds thickened on repeat visits. "Why go to fucking New York if someone don't know you in Alabama?" Ferrari asks. "What's the point?"
Life on the road was fast and cheap—just the way the band liked it. Friction worked full-time managing the band's rudimentary business: booking tour dates, ordering T-shirts, maintaining the website and coordinating photo shoots and college radio appearances.
The rest of the band figured out ways to get by. Ferrari worked as a substitute teacher, and the band did everything from eating out of garbage cans to donating plasma to fund tours. Their base of operations was a fleabag hang nicknamed the Hollywood House.
"We had, like, eight dudes in the same house and we were all just doing drugs and fuckin' the same bitches on the same days, sometimes at the same time, just getting rowdy," Ferrari recalls. "We had a guy living in the laundry room. Jamie lived in the garage. Everybody played in a band."
"You kinda just did whatever you had to do to make it," Decious says. "It was 'all for one and one for all' at that point, y'know?"
They would spend about 250 days a year touring, playing whatever venues would have them. Oftentimes, they'd earn just enough to give everyone a $3 per day road budget—scarcely enough for a pack of cheap cigarettes, and the band smoked a lot. Eventually, they made friends with members of the band Sadaharu, who put them in touch with C.I. Records, a Pennsylvania-based independent label specializing in dour, self-serious bands with names like Once Nothing and August Burns Red. C.I. made room on their roster for the Spiders' cheerfully decadent bubblegum punk, and their debut full-length Hot Pink was released in January 2005.
The album cover was designed to look like the sleeve of a well-worn early '60s teen pop record—all three members posed smiling and stiff-kneed with their instruments. The time warp touch continued on the album, which begins with the pop of a needle hitting a record and hisses and crackles in between songs.
The album found the Spiders refining both their sound and their image. They had become more confident as musicians and more adept at plucking what they liked from the pop music pantheon—shades of Elvis Costello, Mötley Crüe and Cheap Trick creep in—and weaving it into their own lean pop framework. Almost every song is a two-minute romp down a fantasyland Sunset Strip loaded with easy drugs and dangerous women.
It was good enough to raise eyebrows in Los Angeles. Friction re-established contact with Jason Hollis, an old friend from Nashville who had moved to Los Angeles. Hollis put them in touch with Dan Catullo, a well-connected music-DVD producer, and the two took on the role of managing the band. It wasn't long before Catullo had secured them a gig that most hungry young bands would kill for: a private major-label showcase at L.A.'s Viper Room.
Located on the real-life Sunset Strip, the Viper Room is virtually synonymous with Hollywood decadence—it's best known, depending on whom you ask, as the elite nightspot once co-owned by Johnny Depp, the site of River Phoenix's untimely death by overdose in 1993, or the club that filled in for London Fog in Oliver Stone's The Doors. It was the perfect location for the Pink Spiders to strut their stuff to a crowd filled with major-label suits. They called their old friend Dave Paulson, today The Tennessean's pop music critic, who was then scraping by in Nashville on two minimum-wage restaurant jobs while fronting the pop-rock band The Privates. They asked him to come out and play second guitar for the show, and he accepted. The four camped out together in an apartment/storage space above Catullo's recording studio.
On March 2, 2005, the night of the showcase, the band was nervous but confident. Their set was an unqualified success.
"We played...to a room full of suits who were madly texting on their BlackBerrys the entire time," says Friction. "After the set, the curtains closed and Jordan Schur [then president of Geffen Records] ran onstage. He was immediately stopped by security but just barreled through them."
"He was like, 'I gotta have this band!!!' with his arms wide open and all that," says Ferrari, "and we were like, 'That guy's cool!' "
After they finished their set, they moved through the crowd, shaking hands and fielding offers. In a matter of weeks, they had 11 major-label offers on the table. Paulson was in awe—his old friends appeared poised to take over the world.
"I think [the Pink Spiders are] the kind of band that, with the right song, would just translate to radio immediately," says Paulson. "In my head, I was like, 'This is the kind of band where, you know, the machine could work.' "
After meeting with other labels, they walked into the Geffen offices to find themselves greeted by the entire label staff with a pizza party in the conference room. Schur, a fountain of boundless enthusiasm for the boys, introduced them as "the newest artists on Geffen Records." It was Schur's support, coupled with Geffen's impressive rock legacy (Weezer, Nirvana, The Pixies, Guns N' Roses), that sealed the deal. After a period of aggressive negotiating, The Pink Spiders signed their major-label contract.
"The contract we signed was supposedly the best a new band had gotten in years," says Friction. If nothing else, it was indicative of the enormous confidence Schur had in the band's bankable appeal. And what wasn't to like? The band had snappy outfits and jaunty pop-punk pizzazz—and they were ready, in industry lingo, to play ball. Friction was brought on as a songwriter for the label, and they were guaranteed tour support, publicity and a major push for TV and radio. Each member also walked away with roughly $30,000 in label advance money after the businessmen got paid. And they even got to celebrate, major-label style. Sort of.
"They took us to Six Flags," says Decious. "We wanted to go to a strip club and do all the fun things that you do when you sign a record deal, and we were talking to the president [at Six Flags] and he was like, 'Can you guys even get in there?' He had no idea that we were old enough to drink."
"[It was] one of those once-in-a-lifetime, 'you wouldn't believe it unless you were there' kind of things," says Friction. Almost overnight, they had gone from sleeping in their van to basking in the glow of fast cash and major-label promises.
They moved out to Los Angeles to be close to the label and started writing their debut album. Decious and Friction moved in together into an apartment on Sunset Boulevard, and Ferrari found a place in the grimy Gershwin Hollywood Hotel and Hostel, a favorite of drug dealers. The notoriously debauched poet/novelist Charles Bukowski wrote some of his most famous works there.)
"I liked hanging out with dirty people," says Ferrari. "I liked to stay in my roots."
They made themselves comfortable quickly in Los Angeles, but they were soon yanked from one coast to the other when the label chose former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek to produce their debut in New York at Electric Lady. Ocasek, who had produced Weezer's beloved debut record (referred to as the Blue Album) and worked with No Doubt, Nada Surf and Bad Religion, seemed a perfect fit for the Pink Spiders. But the recording process was stressful—Ocasek would not tolerate drinking in the studio—and the band didn't take well to New York.
"L.A. is sunny, everyone's nice—everyone's phony, but that's fine. [New York is] grimy," says Ferrari. "It's cold.... If you hold the door open for someone, they think you're trying to mug them."
And for the first time, the Spiders found themselves without the production control they had grown accustomed to. When Friction stepped in to try to mix the album, their high-profile mixer, Tom Lord-Alge, wouldn't let him. "Every time [Matt] had a suggestion, [Lord-Alge] would just point at the wall of platinum and gold records. He wouldn't even talk," says Ferrari.
Strangely, the acumen they had exhibited for catchy, single-worthy album cuts on Hot Pink had come to haunt them. The label demanded that they re-record five of their debut's 11 tracks for their first Geffen full-length, Teenage Graffiti. The record even took its name from a Hot Pink track. Still, the band was happy to re-record the songs that had gotten them noticed, and eager to see what they would sound like with Ocasek at the controls.
Unfortunately, Ocasek's hands-off recording process failed to yield the slick, polished product the label had been hoping for. The band had to re-record several tracks in Los Angeles.
"In hindsight, [Ocasek's mix] may have been better, but it wasn't really thick or big, which was what the label wanted," Decious says. "They were like, 'It has to sound like a Blink-182 record.' "
Eventually, the label had a finished album it was prepared to get behind, and the release date was set for April 2006—a date that would give it time to become part of the nation's summer soundtrack. The time came to choose a single, and the band lobbied heavily for one of the songs from Hot Pink that they had breathed new life into: a schizophrenic ditty called "Modern Swinger." In just over three minutes, "Modern Swinger" gamely switches steps from anxiety to aggression to exuberance. It's as close to a checklist for the Spiders' oeuvre of rock 'n' roll bluster as any new listener could expect: cheerfully nodding to fast women, no-strings sex, cocaine, cigarettes and Hollywood dreams gone awry, all while building to a shimmy-inducing sing-along chorus.
The label didn't want to touch it.
Instead, they opted for "Little Razorblade," a tepid ballad that the band had only grudgingly resuscitated from their earlier album. Operatic production values had elevated it from a plodding, tossed-off mid-tempo track on Hot Pink into a plodding, synthesizer-driven luxury liner of a pop song. The Pink Spiders had built a reputation on their ability to craft two-minute hit-and-run pop rock confections. Clocking in at over four minutes, "Little Razorblade" is infuriatingly inert. It. Just. Doesn't. Move.
Nevertheless, Geffen maintained its expensive course in the absolute wrong direction. The label tapped big-time video director Joseph Kahn, who had helmed big-budget clips for everyone from U2 to Britney Spears. Kahn was enthusiastic about the project, and he was given a tremendous budget.
Bob Ferrari, ever outspoken, had clear ideas about where to take the video. "I wanted to be shooting dice," he says. "I wanted us in the Jacuzzi with hot girls...like Rick James videos. Something just decadent and ridiculous. I wanted us going down the street in a limousine with a hot tub in the back, having a ball with girls who'd never talk to us unless we had money. 'Cause it's funny."
But the label had bigger things in mind than fulfilling Ferrari's thug-life fantasy. If The Pink Spiders had any doubt about the target demographic Geffen had selected for them, the completed video surely wiped it away. The "Little Razorblade" video is a superbly produced paean to roller-skating girls and Matt Friction's clean-scrubbed, boyish face. The storyline goes something like this: Model-in-glasses discovers a secret portal to another dimension in a Laundromat dryer, enters Pink Spiderland, where girls in shiny gold shorts skate circles around The Pink Spiders as they perform on a monolithic platform in front of a giant stadium monitor that bears their name. Model-in-glasses takes off glasses, lets hair down, becomes model-on-skates. Has blast. Video morphs into psychedelic orgy of band logos and vanity shots. Girl wakes up in Laundromat. It was all a dream. Or was it? Pink balloon floats out of secret portal/dryer.
Nobody in the band knew quite what to say. "It was just too much," Ferrari says. "No dude is gonna admit they like this band after seeing that."
As planned by Geffen, the video made an auspicious debut on MTV's hit show TRL (Total Request Live) in April 2006, where its fate would be determined by viewer votes. It peaked at No. 12—just two places away from staying in rotation on the show. The alternative music video channel Fuse kept the video in heavy rotation, and the song reached No. 1 on Los Angeles' influential radio station KROQ.
By most standards, The Pink Spiders were moving along nicely. But Jordan Schur and Geffen expected more for their money.
"Their idea was, we were gonna be some kind of, like, Backstreet Boys band or something," says Decious. "And we were just like, 'That's not really what we are.' "
Determined to make the best of the situation, the band charged on to the Warped Tour that summer, where they peculiarly found themselves both over- and underexposed. Arguably one of the most bizarre annual events in American music, the traveling festival is a youth-oriented punk-rock bonanza that drowns itself in corporate sponsorship to keep the ticket prices affordable to teens. Most of the bands have paid their dues the traditional way—building a solid hometown fan base, releasing a few records on smaller independent labels, opening for a bigger headlining act, and finally, if they've even made it that far, releasing a major-label debut and video.
The Pink Spiders had skipped half of those steps—they were never embraced as a hometown band, and they had gone from playing basements and dive bars to signing with a major label and releasing a polished single on MTV. As far as the other bands knew, they were fabricated by the label to cash in on the youth market.
"Everyone was kinda like, 'Why are these guys on TV? I've never heard of them,' " says Ferrari. "And they thought we were put together [by the label], too, because of the marketing. It's like, 'Oh, there's the drummer with glasses—he's the goofy one. Then there's the handsome bass player and the lead singer that's quiet.' "
At a festival heavily stacked with punk bands who pride themselves on their DIY ethos, the Spiders were prime targets for some good old-fashioned mockery.
"It's kind of enraging," says Dave Paulson, who played second guitar with the band on Warped and several other tours, "because those bands had been touring for years with other bands who were kinda big in that punk-Epitaph [Records] realm. The reason they hadn't heard of The Pink Spiders was because they were playing basements. And when they skipped that level, people just acted like they came out of nowhere, when they were playing far shittier shows than a lot of those guys did."
Further complicating matters for the band was the fact that their highly touted major-label debut, Teenage Graffiti, scheduled for an April 1 release, had somehow still failed to appear.
"We were on TRL in April, and the fuckin' record comes out in August, so this song's being played on the radio like a motherfucker," says Decious, "and there was no product. You couldn't go anywhere and get it.... We did the whole fucking Warped Tour with a single and no product.... We'd sell some copies of Hot Pink, but we kept thinking we were gonna have Teenage Graffiti, but...do you sell this album with all these [original recordings of the] songs on it? It's gonna confuse people."
Paulson was similarly shocked. "I think it's baffling," he says. "Maybe they were really expecting that song to take TRL by storm and create a buzz for two months. It just seems like you wouldn't take that chance with a video that was clearly so expensive."
"I fought with anyone and everyone [at the label] until I was out of breath," says Friction, "but ultimately there's nothing you can do."
The album finally hit stores on Aug. 1, in the waning days of the band's Warped Tour dates, with little fanfare and no talk of a second single. Nobody has ever been able to offer the band a satisfactory explanation for the delay, but, as Paulson notes, "That seems to be what happens to major labels—it's an inefficient business where things don't happen on time.... You'll see that on any band's MySpace page. It'll say ['Coming in Fall!'] for a while, and then it'll be like, 'Coming in Spring!' 'Coming in Summer!' And maybe they hope to get it out that soon. But they just can't."
Teenage Graffiti was well-received by many critics—Rolling Stone raved that it had "...enough catchy charm and ass-kicking propulsion to suggest a ballsier Weezer or a punk-schooled Cheap Trick," and prophesized that "...the Spiders are ready to spin a power-pop revolution." For a new rock act making its major-label debut, the album sold reasonably well—it reached No. 84 on the Billboard top 100 and ultimately sold roughly 80,000 copies. But by the label's standards, it was a dismal return on Geffen's monumental investment.
The label struggled to recoup expenses by exposing the band in any way it could. The Pink Spiders hawked cell phones for Motorola, donned Ed Hardy designer T-shirts, had a song featured on Madden '06. They were even approached by two separate production companies to appear in their own TV show. "The idea was to have a sort of modern-day Monkees, but not as campy," says Friction.
Their music was played in Urban Outfitters and Hot Topic stores nationwide. It was all part of a plan to market The Pink Spiders as a lifestyle brand as well as a rock group. And they were happy to participate—maybe too happy.
"It was funny, 'cause [the Motorola reps] were like, 'We can't get any bands to hold the gear.' And we were like, 'Well, fuck, we'll do it. We don't care,' " says Ferrari. "We wanted to be nothing like any other band. Every other band is like, 'We're not gonna hold the phone,' and we were like, 'Fuck it. I'll drink Coke. I like Pepsi better, but I'll say I like Coke better if they're gonna give me a check.' Why not? [The production company people] were like, 'Well, you're not gonna be one of those bands that just, like, wants their integrity, and all this bullshit'.... And we were like, 'No, no, no, no, no!' "
But despite all attempts to saturate the market with the Pink Spiders brand, the scruffy rock band that Geffen had dreamed of turning into the 21st century Monkees remained a scruffy rock band—one who proved strangely resistant to the demographic shoehorning they had poured truckloads of cash into facilitating.
"It seems like the kind of budget and the kind of approach to it...wouldn't happen anymore," says Paulson. "It very well might have been one of the last. It seemed like the model of advance and plan that you would give a band 10 years ago when people were selling [millions of records]."
Part of the problem was that The Pink Spiders straddled the realm of sugary teen-oriented pop and sexed-up rock 'n' roll sleaze so stubbornly that they couldn't secure a foothold in either camp. The band refused to cut down on their drinking, smoking and swearing, and their insistence on staying just dirty enough to be rendered untouchable by taste-making teen publications cost them. But the label consistently sent them out on tours with hand-holdingly saccharine pop-punk acts like Yellowcard and Fall Out Boy, where the crowd response was generally lukewarm.
"We were all saying [this isn't our crowd]," Decious says. "But whenever you're talking to the people that hold the cards, it doesn't really fucking matter what you're saying. It's like, 'Here's what you're gonna do.' "
Not surprisingly, the band's relationship with the label became strained. By fall 2006, Geffen's support dried up. But the band was under a three-record contract, and when the time came to record their second album, tentatively titled Sweat It Out, Geffen assigned them to another legendary hit-making producer: Brendan O'Brien, who'd produced albums for the Stone Temple Pilots, Bruce Springsteen and Rage Against the Machine. But after Teenage Graffiti's disappointing showing, they made it clear that they expected nothing short of a hit record.
What happened next is a convergence of nearly every music-business cliché since Chuck Berry signed to Chess. A corporate restructuring shunted label president Schur, the band's biggest in-house supporter, to an imprint called Suretone. Under enormous pressure to churn out hits, Friction wrote 25 new songs. Half were rejected. When the album was finally recorded, the label "didn't hear a single." (Schur did not respond to requests for comment.) The parent company, Universal, decided to cut its losses. In a matter of months, the band went from Geffen's darlings to office pariahs.
Less than two weeks later, they hit the road in a school bus on a self-financed tour. On the road between Nashville and Atlanta, their bus caught on fire.
Finally, before The Pink Spiders could close the book on rock catastrophe, they had to finish the hoariest chapter of all: "Money Disputes." The $30,000 advances that had lit up dollar signs in Decious' and Ferrari's eyes three years ago had dwindled. The man called Bob Ferrari couldn't even afford to buy a used car.
"I live off about $600 a month," says Bob. "If I can't get that, then what the fuck am I doing? And it comes to respect for yourself. Self-esteem issues. You feel worthless."
As sole credited songwriter, Friction enjoyed the fruits of exclusive publishing rights to all of their material. Whenever a Pink Spiders song is consumed in any way—purchased on an album, performed live, played on radio or television, or licensed for any other purpose—Friction profits. Some bands, like Nirvana and U2, split the publishing rights to keep the peace among the band, but it's not the industry standard. As Friction notes, "Publishing rights by definition belong to the songwriter.... When Garth Brooks writes a song, the band that plays on the record doesn't share in the publishing royalties, they get paid other ways."
But it didn't sit well with his bandmates. "Fuckin' Ryan Adams splits publishing with [his backing band] The Cardinals," Decious says. "You think they write the songs?"
Friction says he had given the other members of the band several loans, which he says he no longer expects to be repaid. "Almost everything I made, I've put back into this band," he says.
But as the Spiders brought on additional crew for their self-financed tours, the profit margin became increasingly thin.
"Any money that the band would make would go back into the band, and so the band would have a few grand in the band account, but me and Bob were just flat broke," says Jon. "We'd always go on tours with the idea that, at the end of the tour we'll split the money up, and then we made this new record and—from the first record, we added Dave [Paulson]...and we were like, all right, another guitarist [Joe Reilly] is probably not a bad idea. And so on this last tour we went out, and he decided to bring another person [keyboardist Raf Cevallos]. And we were kinda like...'What?' So then we're paying him, and we're paying another guy to be tour manager and play guitar? And they were getting paid about a grand a week, but the band members aren't getting paid?"
Something didn't feel right to Decious and Ferrari. "Another thing that I'd always heard was that, if you don't split the publishing, you get paid like a hired gun," says Decious. "Hell, we didn't know that, but it does make a lot of sense."
"What would happen was, when the money was out and gone, we'd have to call our business manager, and she'd be like, 'Okay, I gotta call Matt and see if that's cool,' " explains Ferrari. "And she'd call Matt and Matt would give us some money, but it was never enough."
For Decious, who also shared an apartment with Friction, the final straw came in the form of a water bill. "I was like, 'I can't really keep touring,' " says Decious, " 'if the band has money to take two people to take on tour with us, but we can't afford to pay my 20-something-dollar water bill.' And [Matt] was like, 'We just don't have the money,' and I was like, 'I don't really see myself doing this anymore.' "
Bob followed him out. "[Bob] said the same thing that I would have said if he quit," says Decious. "He said The Pink Spiders was three people—to have that band without those three people was just cheating the fans.... It's more of like a caricature of what it was."
Decious and Ferrari played their final show, in Charlotte, N.C., on June 18, then arranged to be dropped off in Nashville the next day. They had canceled the evening's scheduled show at The End, and Friction took the night off to regroup.
The next evening, the new Pink Spiders debuted at Cave 9 in Birmingham. Tour keyboardist Raf Cevallos moved to second guitar, and second guitarist Joe Reilly took Ferrari's seat behind the drums. They flew in a fourth honorary Spider, their friend Ben Young, to strap on the bass.
"Of course I miss Jon and Bob," says Friction in an email from the road. "I love those guys like brothers and I always will.... I'm genuinely just glad that they're doing what makes them happy. Isn't that what this is all supposed to be about anyways? Jon's a great songwriter. He needs to have his own creative outlet. I can completely understand and respect that. We're still friends. We've moved on for the better of everyone involved."
Decious has been housesitting in Brentwood and enjoying his downtime. Bob Ferrari finally bought a car and is looking for a job again. With Dixie Whiskey, they've found a project that's perfectly comfortable in the Music City. They're happy to be playing the music that they like, and they're glad to be home.
Sweat It Out, The Pink Spiders' long-delayed second major-label album, is scheduled for a September release on Friction's own independent label, Mean Buzz, in partnership with Adrenaline Music. The planned first single, "Gimme Chemicals," is a thickly layered ode to the life of the party. In the lead up to the chorus, Matt Friction shares what he's learned from the entire wild ride: "All this pressure and all this pain / All these sins swim through my veins / If I could do it again / I'd probably do it the same."
In other words: The machine may not have worked the way The Pink Spiders dreamed it would. But that's no reason to shut it down.