Lost in Space: The story of Big Dipper
From its casual late 1980s beginnings, through three landmark Homestead albums and a heart-breaking ill-fated jump to the majors, Big Dipper’s story tells you everything you need to know about talent caught in the money machine. Yet, now 15 years after Big Dipper’s break-up, there’s also room for optimism, as a great, overlooked band finally gets the reissue it deserve. “I thought there was a good chance that we would never have all of our best material on one collection,” said Gary Waleik. “I’m really thrilled that we finally do.”
The history books are full of great bands you never heard of, bands so unlucky or ill-timed or out of step with the mainstream that no one ever figured out what to do with them. Big Dipper, formed in Boston in 1986 with members from the Embarrassment, Volcano Sons, Dumptruck and XS, was one of these, its jangly, melodic yet aggressive punk sound falling through the cracks in an era of goth, hair metal, shoe-gaze and the beginnings of grunge.
The band’s sound – captured now on a three-disc box set Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology – seems almost tailored made for a burgeoning college rock/alternative market, prickly love songs next to goofball surrealities and sardonic pop-punk rants. Yet the band never really made an impact beyond Boston, New York and certain Midwestern cities, despite a relentless touring schedule. It didn’t help that the band played its cards wrong, alienating fans with a switch from indie-heavyweight Homestead to Epic for its fourth (and worst) album.
“In a different era, Big Dipper would’ve been notching hit after hit,” wrote WFMU DJ Tom Scharpling in his introduction to the new box set. “But the indie climate of the mid- to late 80s was not exactly on the radar of more than a few thousand sad weirdos spread throughout the country who didn’t want to hear Circus of Power albums. So the songs didn’t make it onto the radio and into junior proms… But that doesn’t diminish how perfect those songs are.”
The songs, then, are the main constant in this story, the linchpin that unites Big Dipper’s incidental beginnings, its big-hearted early albums and its miscalculated bid for success. “When we started we called ourselves, and we still call ourselves, a songwriter’s forum,” said Waleik. “The idea was that if you write a beautiful song, a really worthwhile song, you can never destroy that song. It doesn’t matter. It can be done by an organ grinder and his monkey, and it’s still a great song.”
In the mid 1980s, the Embarrassment’s Bill Goffrier had basically given up music, coming to Boston to study painting instead. He’s not even sure if he brought his guitar, and when he listened to music it was more likely to be Frank Sinatra than anything current. At the same time, Gary Waleik was struggling to fit his songs into a tightly controlled, top-down-managed Volcano Suns. The two of them met almost by accident, through someone’s girlfriend. Waleik knew about the Embarrassment. Goffrier showed up at one or two Volcano Sons shows. Once Goffrier got his degree in painting from Boston College in 1985, the two of them started hanging out, casually at first, batting around ideas, melodies and finally songs on Bill Goffrier’s front porch.
“The more we talked, we thought we had a common interest in just making music for the love of the music,” said Goffrier, by phone during a break from his job teaching elementary school art south of Boston. “We just wanted to find an outlet for songs and recording and whatever. We were really not trying to strategize and create a group.”
Goffrier added that, at first, the pair of them seemed to talk more than they played, bouncing ideas about songwriting and songcraft off each other and finding common ground. “We agreed that the priority had to be songcraft and songwriting – that really cut across any sort of musical style,” said Goffrier. “We were talking a lot about what makes a good song and what you need and what you don’t need and how you rearrange and adapt them to many different styles.”
At one point, Waleik pulled out a 4-track, and the two of them began recording demos. The earliest version of “Ron Klaus Wrecked His House,” said Goffrier came from these very low-key, casual sessions. Waleik brought in Steve Michener, also from Volcano Sons, as a bass player and third songwriter. Waleik’s cousin, Jeff Oliphant, then drumming in a speedcore band called XS, came in as well. The four of them started practicing at Oliphant’s house in Concord, MA, and Big Dipper, still at that point nameless, began to seem like a band.
They began recording together almost immediately, laying down songs in a suburban Massachusetts with Fort Apache producer Lou Giordano. Pretty soon they had a half dozen demos of songs like “Faith Healer,” “Wrong in the Charts” and “San Quentin, CA.” Waleik knew Homestead’s Gerard Cosloy from his work with Volcano Sons. He sent Cosloy a cassette, almost on a whim and got a surprising response. “Then he basically sent a contract in the mail saying, ‘Sign here if you like the terms.’” Waleik remembered. “We didn’t even have a name for the band at the time.”
Homestead was ready to release the demos as they were, but Waleik and Goffrier thought they could be improved. For “San Quentin, CA,” for example, Goffrier changed the chord progressions from the original version. (You can hear both recordings on Supercluster.) “It was the same melody. We just found some different chords to help move that melody in a little different way,” he said. “It gave the melody a little bit of a different mood and kept things from being quite as repetitive.”
Yet the main thing that Goffrier and Waleik remember about these early sessions was how much fun they were. “With that first batch of songs we recorded, we weren’t under contract. We didn’t have a name of the band. We hadn’t played any shows yet. We were just doing it for the sheer satisfaction and joy of doing it. And it was very low pressure,” said Waleik.
Boo-Boo was released in 1987 and seemed to set the band on a path for modest success. “Faith Healer” became a hit in the Boston area; the video of “Faith Healer” included in the box set, made for $700 with home-constructed props, was played a few times on MTV.
Heavens, considered by many to be the band’s high water mark, followed the same year, recorded Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie, again at Fort Apache. “There’s a sensibility there that I think is on all of my favorite records,” said Waleik. “I struggle to explain this without sounding kind of pretentious, but I think it’s a deeply spiritual record. It’s not a religious record, but it’s about soul searching. And there’s some fun thrown in. There’s some good comic relief, you know. But I think there’s a sense of wonder and a sense of beauty about it that sets it apart not only from our other work but also from a lot of the records that came out around the same time. I think it’s just a beautiful record.”
“We were in love with the whole process of songwriting and recording,” Waleik added. “We were doing the very best we could with the time and the money we had. We were discovering new and fun ways to write songs together.”
For instance, “All Going Out Together” started with a dream that bass player Steve Michener had had, a melody and a bassline that stuck with him after he woke up. He hummed the melody to Waleik and Oliphant and the structure of the song emerged. Later, Michener huddled together over the lyrics. Before the end of the session, the song was finished. “It may have taken two or three hours but I remember it as taking like 15 minutes,” said Waleik. The creative juices were flowing so well that it just went bang, bang, bang. Here’s a song. And there was an adrenaline rush, a sense of accomplishment when you can do that, and I think, that carried throughout the songwriting process, leading up to recording Heavens.”
After Heavens, the band began touring furiously, criss-crossing the country, hitting college towns. As they toured, they inevitably went to record stores, often within blocks of the clubs they played. More often than not, they would find not a single copy of any of their records on display. “In some cases, it was because someone had bought one and they had not restocked,” said Waleik. “In most cases, though, it was because they had no idea who we were. They hadn’t heard from anyone at Homestead. We were very frustrated that we were playing a lot and killing ourselves on the road and getting really good airplay in a lot of places, but the records weren’t in the stores.”
As Big Dipper became increasingly frustrated with distribution, they began to think about switching labels. They were recording Craps, their last Homestead record, as a small-scale bidding war erupted between Epic and IRS. Both Goffrier and Waleik say that they were distracted, both by the pressures of their touring schedule and developments on the business side – and that Craps suffered as a result.
“I think in retrospect, although there are some real highs on that record… ‘Ron Klaus Wrecked His House’ and ‘Bonnie’ and ‘Hey Mr. Lincoln’ are really very, very good songs,” said Waleik. “Even though they may be a little bit on the polished side, I really like those songs a lot.”
But, he added, “I think we were in too much of a rush to get that record done and out of our Homestead contract. That was the last record. We thought that there would be bigger and better things for us and that we would give them the record and move on. I think we were on a …we were really cranking out the tunes and the records at that time, and we wanted to stay on schedule. I think a good half of that record could have been much better.”
Meanwhile, Epic, which won the bidding war, was making big promises. “They had us thinking that we were poppy enough just to be some regular pop rock band with a much bigger, sort of mainstream audience but that we weren’t able to reach those people. We needed major help,” said Goffrier. “I think the comparison at the time was XTC.”
Waleik remembers Epic executives pointing to their success with Living Color, a success that, he later found out, had more to do with the band’s opening slot for the Rolling Stones than anything Epic had done for them. But as the band’s airplay and touring schedule continued to produce only modest sales, the major’s distribution power seemed increasingly attractive. “Ultimately, it was obviously a bad fit for us, but we felt like there would be nowhere to go unless we could find a label that could distribute us and push us harder than Homestead could,” said Waleik. Homestead offered Big Dipper more money, to try to keep the band, but Big Dipper signed an eight-record deal with Epic in December of 1989.
On its surface, the deal with Epic seemed positive, promising a long-term, lucrative relationship with a label that believed in Big Dipper. The advance on the eighth and final record would have been $600,000, an unbelievably large sum for this scruffy college rock band. Yet, at every turn, Epic had options to exit the deal. Big Dipper, by contrast, had none. And the relationship began to go sour almost from the beginning.
Initially, the first Epic record was slated for October 1990, giving the band almost a year to write and record new material. They started immediately, and produced some demos that the label liked. Could they finish an album by April, label executives asked, then tour through the summer? Big Dipper said, sure, and got to work. They went to Charlotte, North Carolina for three months to record new material and finished on time. Then things started to go downhill.
“On the day our record came out, one of the key guys at Epic who knew anything about indie rock quit,” said Waleik. “One of our managers quit. We had planned this big tour in June July, and Epic pulled our tour support. It was a disaster.”
Moreover, the band was never happy with Slam. I don’t think it was the right record for us…in terms of the songs, in terms of the cover, the god-awful cover, it was just terrible,” said Waleik.
Michener left the band in July of 1990, but Big Dipper continued to record, laying down a series of angry, aggressive songs that would not see daylight until the reissued Superconductor some 18 years later. The songs were, to put it mildly, not what Epic was looking for. “The Epic guy came up to Boston one time and had us play them all for him in our rehearsal space,” Goffrier remembered. “ He wasn’t impressed, I don’t think. He didn’t say much. He may have known that we were not long for the label and didn’t want to say, but we just went about our business anyway and thought we were getting the next album together. Then we found out we weren’t going to make another album.”
Big Dipper was dropped from Epic in May 1991. Waleik and Goffrier tried to find another label home, but found every door closed. “We kept writing and writing, recording and recording, just having faith in our abilities as songwriters that somebody would pick us up and we’d be fine,” said Waleik. “But it became clear that no one was interested.” Now, nearly 20 years later, Waleik still seems mystified and hurt by his band’s sudden fall from grace. “When you’ve written songs like ‘Restaurant Cloud’ and ‘Wake up the King’ and a handful of others….but god, they’re great songs. I mean, I’m not the kind of guy who pats myself on the back, but they really are good songs. It really is dumbfounding to me why no one was willing to pick those up,” he said.
“I’m usually not that paranoid, but you have to understand that in 1991 and 1992, there was a whole new raft of labels popping up that were really indie rock labels, but they had, in a lot of cases, major label backing and distribution,” he added. “I’m talking Interscope. Matador. There were a bunch of them. I thought that they would be perfect for us. Sort of mid-level labels. And the fact that absolutely no one wanted to…I mean, some people told me ‘Don’t send me the demos. I won’t listen to them.’”
Eventually, two of the new songs were released as a single, “The Beast”, backed by “Approach of a Human Being” by a friend of Goffrier who had handled some Embarrassment reissues. The rest languished for decades, as Goffrier went back to teaching art, Michener to running a vineyard, and Waleik to radio production.
And yet, in this age of eBay and MySpace, even the most obscure bands live on indefinitely, and Big Dipper was no exception. The band’s MySpace page began to elicit a steady stream of comments, “I saw you in 1987 and you were great.” “When are you going to get back together?” and the like. WFMU DJ Tom Scharpling began his campaign to reunite the band in 2004. About the same time, Merge Records head Mac McCaughan wrote a long essay about Heavens on his blog.
By 2007, Waleik was working with Merge, pulling together demo tapes and old masters for an expanded reissue. Homestead was, apparently, still mad at the band. He had to enlist a mole at the Dutch East India Warehouses to retrieve some early recordings. The finished product contains 49 songs and a video, all but one of the band’s main recordings (Slam! is missing), plus the 15 songs intended for Very Loud Array and five unreleased tracks and alternate takes. One essay by Tom Scharpling makes the case for the band’s overlooked importance, while another by Gary Waleik traces the band’s dissolution in the early 1990s. There are track-by-track commentaries on songs from the first three albums from all four original members.
And, perhaps most important, there are the songs…the fractious joy of “A Song to be Beautiful” the angsty pop of “She’s Fetching,” the pure exuberance of “Faith Healer,” all together and readily accessible for the first time in decades. It’s a long-delayed happy ending for a band stymied by politics and bad luck. “Those songs all just remind me of really good times with very little on the line,” said Bill Goffrier. “In every one of them, we were just playing songs the way we wanted to play them. It makes me happy every time I hear them.”
By Jennifer Kelly