Once upon a time there was a Memphis buzz band called. Human Radio. Keyboardist Ross Rice, guitarist Kye Kennedy, bassist Steve Arnold, and multi-instrumentalist Peter Hyrka had all built strong reputations playing in other 80's-era bands, and this union of premier players was often regarded as the coming of a local pop/rock supergroup. Human Radio played sprawling, three-set shows full of original material and unexpected covers. The band quickly built a large local following and signed a two record deal with Columbia. The group's first radio single, "Me and Elvis," received quite a bit of national attention, but it also marked the beginning of the end for a band that didn't want to be pigeonholed as a novelty act.
After many years apart, Human Radio has reformed. The group has been playing together in Nashville and writing new material. They are coming back to Memphis this week for a show at Minglewood Hall. That news seemed like a perfectly good excuse to ask Rice—also a founding member of the long-running band FreeWorld — to tell a classic story about a band that wanted too much too soon.
Fly on the Wall: I have a pretty clear memory of getting off work waiting tables on a Wednesday night and going Downtown to the South End with my co-workers to hear a band called Human Radio. But I don’t really know much about the origin story.
Ross Rice: We were all fairly well recognized musicians individually when we put that band together. It really started out with me and Kye [Kennedy]. We’d gone to school together and worked together. When Calculated X was done he came back from San Francisco and we decided to start something. We had a production deal going at Memphis Sound productions, which had a studio down where the old Hard Rock used to be. We we're able to attract Steve Arnold and Steve Ebe. Peter Hyrka was just going to sit in but quickly he was a permanent member. And we had that regular Wednesday night at the South End.
And you’d get great crowds on a Wednesday.
I was a founding member of Freeworld. We started Freeworld two years earlier and played Tuesday nights at the South End. Same kind of deal. So I called Jake Schorr. I said, “dude give me a night!” And he did. So, we had some original stuff but played a lot of cover stuff too. We played Frank Zappa, Steely Dan, Squeeze. It was a an eclectic set. Just a bunch of stuff that we liked, that we were sort of into. And that sort of began the whole “quirky and clever” thing about us that we've never been able to escape. It was cool because we could do anything we wanted to do. We didn't want have to make a decision about what not to do, so we did everything. And then things picked up really quickly. Maybe too quickly, to be honest. It was too fast really, in retrospect.
Yes, I remember. You were a bunch of guys playing the South End, then you were signed and being primed to be the next big thing.
I kind of wish that we had had more time and built this thing up more slowly. You know, to build more of a regional base. We were playing Nashville doing well. Doing great in Little Rock. We were playing in Jackson and St. Louis. So we were branching out, but we really hadn't created a base for ourselves. We were very much a Memphis Nashville axis group.
And yet you ink a deal with Columbia.
That was a strange time when we got signed in that. Everybody was getting signed. You had Rob Jungklas,Jimmy Davis, John Kilzner. There was something going on in the industry, signing people left and right. We we're doing Memphis producer showcases. I think one showcase had ten bands and four of those ten bands got signed. The producer showcases lead to some private showcases and one day we got a call from [A&R man] Larry Hamby from Columbia. He flew in at noon. We had to block all the light out of the windows at Proud Mary’s so we could put on our light show. He walked in the door, we played 30 minutes, he walked out, got back on the plane and left. Three days later he calls and says, “we’re interested.” it was a very heady time.
You mention the light show. So you’ve got no regional base, but from the beginning you guys had a level of polish and showmanship that not many other area bands had. It’s easy to see how a label guy might be impressed by a group that's ready to go out on the road and sell it.
I'm still a little stunned looking back on it. We’d all played in a lot of Memphis-style music bands. I was in The Coolers with Duck Dunn for two years. I played two years every week with Duck. I got to do fucking "Green Onions" with Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, and Steve Potts seven times. I didn't have to do this anymore. After that, everything else is gravy. Human Radio was almost a direct response to all of that. We wanted to do something like we hadn't done yet. We always had the best sound available. And we had the light guy— and dude, we paid out the ass for those guys. We didn't make any money when the light guy showed up. It was sort of a calculated gamble on our part. We wanted to elevate ourselves. We wanted to present ourselves, especially once we got cranking, at the best level we could.
The label story is kind of a classic. Am I right to say that you guys had one idea of who you wanted to be and the label had another.
Yes. Well. It’s… We presented ourselves to our producer Dave Kahne. Here we are getting ready to make this record. And there's a process of trying to figure out what the band’s going to become. Because we were all over the place and wanted to be that way. But the general idea was to narrow it down. So, they came and looked at us and in a lot of ways we were re-created in Dave Kahne’s mental image. We were up for whatever. This is how it's done, let’s do it. We went along willingly with a lot of those decisions.
Like making “Me and Elvis” the first single.
It was crazy to us. When I wrote “Me and Elvis,” it was a joke it. It was just a ska tune, a kind of three-minute little jalapeno popper. It was a goofy song about Elvis for Memphis and people liked it but we never took it seriously. We just went with the flow. And then, all of a sudden, here we are and the record’s done. And they're saying that’s the single, and we're going, “oh shit,” because we could see what was going to happen. Because it’s a novelty tune. We got a lot of play because the morning jocks thought, “what a cute clever little tune about Elvis.”
Elvis was everywhere.
There was an Elvis zeitgeist going on at that point, I guess. We got to tap into it. Mojo Nixon had his song Elvis is Everywhere. So we got some good single action out of that. But there was a gradual process and we weren't really aware of it, being in the middle of it. This process where we’re turning into something we’re not really sure we want to be yet. So there was a conflict. But I don't want to sound like we were fighting them or anything. We were willing to make changes. We wanted success, and wanted to be good ballplayers. We wanted them to like us and to take care of us.
What’s interesting is when the record was done and we came back to Memphis and played again. People were like, “What the hell happened to you guys?” And we're like, “What do you mean what happened?” The people who had seen us when we were a bunch of goofballs at the South End though that we might've been spoiled by the process.
I remember seeing the video for “Me and Elvis” a lot.
Really? You must have stayed up late. I think we got a lot of late night play. The video did okay but the highest we got with MTV was medium rotation. I think there was a perception that we are getting a bit more play than we were, maybe our machinery was doing a good job on that. The video probably give the perception things are going a bit better than they were, actually. We were doing really quite well the sales of the record, actually. We beat a hundred thousand units, and that's not a bad thing for a new band. We also had a treatment for a second video for the song, “My First Million.” They test marketed that tune, and in every radio market they tested it was top-five phones.
So what happened?
We had a good run. I have to say, it was a beautiful thing. Memphis is not an easy town to break in, and I'm still surprised that we were able to achieve what we are able to achieve. For us the end was a direct byproduct of the speed of our ascent. The problem was, we were signed under [Walter] Yetnikoff, right before he left Columbia. There was a change of the guard and Don Ienner became the president. In a nutshell, when Ienner finally came around check out what the Hell’s going on with us, he didn't get it at all. I clearly wasn't cute enough to front the band, for starters. And there are other issues. And when the president of a label lets you know he's not really into your stuff, you're dead right then. That was the first domino for us. We came back to Memphis and had a lot of catching up to do because we hadn’t built the base we needed to survive something like this. So we’re traveling in a Penske truck. We’d put all of our gear in the bottom and we’d but the drum riser and our sleeping bags in the back and we’d go down the road in the back of the Penske truck. That's how we made it to a lot of shows. I think we probably gave some carbon monoxide damage to ourselves over the years doing that.
We were guaranteed a second record, but were given the option to leave. We thought we should do that because we felt like we are no longer welcome at Columbia. We looked around at other labels and they're like, “Well, Columbia records is the biggest label in the world. What makes you think we can do it for you?” There was a lot of that. We carried on for another couple of years. We were also sort of feeling the crunch financially. We just couldn't sustain it. We spent a lot of money on production. That was one of our hallmarks. It's kind of what made us and as with broke us at the same time. we really had a moment where we decided that we could keep doing this and really fall apart as friends or we could call it off. And one thing I'll say about us, we've all been very close friends from the beginning.
What were some of the high points?
I wish I could remember more of the high points. I seem to remember all the crazy shit that went down. Like this one time, when we played the Whiskey in Los Angeles we were in the limo being taken to do a sound check and there is this is terrible traffic jam. It's awful. So we’ve got this Russian limo driver who knows all the back streets, and Vladimir finds his way to the source of the traffic jam. And it's our bus. Our bus blocking Sunset Avenue pretty much from 2-6 in the afternoon on a Friday. As our bus driver was backing into the parking lot of the Whiskey the motor fell out of the mount. This was supposed to be the day I was going to enjoy our Whiskey gig. We considered putting our banner on the top of the bus for the TV helicopters. But then we considered the possibility of death threats and thought maybe it was a bad idea.
How did the reunion happen?
This friend of the band’s Kim Collins is a musician in Nashville. She’s in the band Smoking Flowers. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, so there was a big Nashville fundraiser and I got a call [in New York] asking if I could come down and play a show. I was in a position where I could do that. We rehearsed, and did the show. We had a packed room and just got that feeling, “Wow, this sounds pretty good.”
Human Radio is at Minglewood Hall's 1884 Lounge Friday, July 10 at 9 p.m. $10.00