Union Underground

DESPITE AN ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT STANCE, THE members of The Union Underground elected to leave the world of indie bands and sign with a major affiliated label.Without a hit or its final lineup in place, the San Antonio metal/alt band signed to Portrait/Columbia in 1998. The next year, bassist John Moyer joined to complete the lineup.

Photo: Tom Craig
Mars Music Amphitheatre.

The label signing came at the hands of group manager James Jeda, who gained interest in the now 4-year-old act after reading a review in Music Connection.

“I started doing promotion through my label (Triton) with the band. I didn’t want to stagnate them on an indie,” Jeda told POLLSTAR. “I knew Columbia needed a rock band Alice In Chains was down. … I didn’t want them floundering around on an indie and all indies are like that … if you don’t have the right promotion behind your band, the band suffers.”

Being virtually unknown when it signed with Portrait didn’t hurt the quartet, which takes pride in its anarchic stance and anti-establishment lyrics meant even for record execs the same bunch it inked a deal with. Not too many people knew the band well enough to call it hypocritical.

“People say the whole anti-establishment thing has to be along certain terms, but I think if you have people working for you and they’re working in your best interest, you’re sticking to your guns in terms of where you come from or what your roots are,” guitarist Patrick Kennison told POLLSTAR. “Nobody in our record company came to us and said, ‘Take this off your record,’ or, ‘You can’t have the word f**k on there,’ so we feel we’re still staying true. All we did is turn that whole attitude around and have it work for us instead of against us.”

The band with the ‘tude also includes lead singer/guitarist Bryan Scott and drummer Josh Memelo. Although the unit is a relative newcomer, its members have done the routine playing small clubs, building a fanbase, self-promoting.

“Being from Texas, we don’t have a lot of clubs to go showcase, so we’ve had to do a grassroots thing and build fans the hard way,” Kennison said.

These days, the 20-something-year-olds are still inventing PR schemes. When they supported Marilyn Manson’s tour last fall, they rewarded Unionheads who sported tattoos of the group’s logo. Via e-mail, “I tell them which tour bus is ours and to show up at the gig that day and wait by the bus. As soon as I see them, I hand them a backstage pass,” Kennison said.

In addition to the personal touch, the band bolstered public awareness through a self-titled record that was released in Texas and sold about 50,000 copies. That led to offers from indie labels and “brought us to the major labels,” Kennison said. About half the CD’s songs were included on The Union Underground’s Portrait debut, Education in Rebellion, released last July. At press time, nearly 240,000 units had been sold.

Besides increased sales and exposure, having a major backer has paid off in other ways. “My wallet’s so fat I can’t sit,” Kennison joked.

More outings are another benefit. Last year, the group toured for its longest stretch yet slightly more than six months, Kennison said.

“This band has always been set up to work from the studio out. What we basically did was a lot of recording,” he said. “That put us out of live mode for a while but that was fine with us. By the time we get ready to hit the road, we kind of reinvent ourselves, forget about the record and figure out how to make things work live. That’s where we are now.”

According to the group’s responsible agent, Michael Arfin, “One of the perspectives of the band from day one was to do their show and headline.” He told POLLSTAR, “A lot of what we’ve done for the past six months is headline the band. We will continue to do that in March and April with a combination of active rock and modern rock radio shows.”

Hard Rock Live gets an earful from Union Underground singer Bryan Scott.

Arfin and The Union Underground teamed last April when the group “was brought to my attention by Liana Farnham at Sony,” he said. “I heard a three-song sampler and was immediately blown away.”

After they partnered, “Killing The Fly,” the band’s second single, went to radio in December. Its debut single on Portrait, “Turn Me On ‘Mr. Deadman,'” rose to No. 5 at rock radio nationwide.

2001 began with SnoCore Rock tour dates in January followed by gigs with Spike 1000 and Slaves On Dope, the first act signed to Ozzy Osbourne’s Divine Recordings. The members will also showcase in Europe in April, Jeda said, and he announced that “we have a confirmed commitment from Ozzfest that Union Underground will be on that show.”

Despite the post-signing payoffs, there is a flip side. “Once you step up to a major label, a lot of control issues inevitably fall through your hands. You can’t OK and bless everything that comes out of the label,” Kennison conceded. “That’s probably where a lot of people have a problem: trusting them to make the right decisions when you’re not there.”

“With the people at Portrait, we have the love of an indie label yet we’ve got the power of the major being on Columbia and Sony,” he added.

With faith in Portrait, the band hopes it will someday “have hardcore fans like Metallica did back in the early days. If we could be a quarter as cool for a quarter as long, I’d be happy,” Kennison said.