Dan Dixon sinks into his chair, sipping black coffee and chain-smoking cigarettes in a back room at the Factory, a new recording studio on Glen Iris Drive where he works as head engineer. Behind him sit stacks of vinyl copies of Dropsonic's VI, his group's first release for Underrated Records — a new label, helmed by former Injected manager Aaron Wachtel, that recently scooped up fellow locals the Booze, Geri X, and Biters as well.
After 11 years, six albums and five labels, Dixon seems indifferent about the potential impact the new release could have on the group's fate. "I don't know the shelf-life of this band, but it's on us to do something with it," he says. "If nothing happens with this record, I'm going to be a garbage man, or something else."
That would be a far cry from the group's long-held position as a commercially viable stepson to the local indie rock scene. But even at its peak — when promises of a 2005 deal with Dallas Austin's Rowdy Records led to only 5,000 pressed copies of a CD (Insects with Angel Wings) that never saw proper distribution — Dropsonic suffered from the kind of disappointment that plagued the group from the beginning.
Though Dixon (guitar/vocals), Dave Chase (bass) and Brian Hunter (drums) name-drop groups from the Jesus Lizard to Led Zeppelin as influences, their tendency toward polished, '90s rock generica has kept the band stuck in a rut. "When it comes to the indies, we were never obtuse enough for labels like Touch and Go or Matador," Dixon says. "And major labels always balk at our stuff, even though they've been sniffing around for years."
The conundrum is poignantly illustrated when Dixon hands over a copy of VI and the first two songs are titled "Losing Streak" and "Shortchanged." But he shrugs it off. "That's just the way I write," he deadpans. "They could be about the band, or my girlfriend moving away, or they could be about my father, who's been sick as hell for years. I don't spend a lot of time analyzing the lyrics these days."
Still, when he sings, "Don't let me waste my time, using up all my lines/Just show me how you feel/Am I just spinning wheels," on "Losing Streak," one can't help but connect the dots.
Since '08 they've remained grounded in Atlanta, while Dixon looked after his father who succumbed to brain cancer this month. VI came together during that time, and bares the mark of a charged, death-afflicted album. From the foreboding collection of skulls on the cover to the barreling rhythms of "Mortal Coil," VI is darker than anything Dropsonic has churned out in the past.
Since its '99 debut, Sleep With the Fishes, Dropsonic has habitually bedded down with fly-by-night indie labels for each new release, but the relationships never last. The group's 2000 pairing with Moodswing Records for The Big Nothing ended with a cease and desist letter from the band's attorney, and a Moodswing compilation with liner notes that read, "Dropsonic has been intentionally omitted from this release because Dan Dixon is a dickhead. Now it's in print." Subsequent deals with Michigan-based 54º 40' or Fight! (Belle), and St. Louis' Ascetic Records (The Low Life) were equally short-lived.
And then there was Rowdy.
"I was loading in gear to play next to a rusty water heater at one of our shittiest shows ever in Indiana," Dixon recalls. "My phone rang and it was Dallas saying that he wanted to put some money in my pocket. I looked around at this shitty house and said, 'OK.'"
Moodswing had sent some releases to Austin, who likely favored Dropsonic because it had more commercial potential than any other group on the label (Some Soviet Station, Jet By Day).
"He took us out for lobster dinner and kept saying we're going to be the next Nirvana, but nothing happened," Hunter recalls. "He's a good guy, but his business head wasn't on right."
Dropsonic continued playing out-of-town shows and gaining fans, particularly in the Midwest, while clout in the group's hometown ebbed and flowed. As older fans aged, newcomers oblivious to Dropsonic's local presence replaced them.
The decision to sign with yet another indie upstart seems like a lateral move. But Dropsonic's popularity has always resulted from its ability to push product through relentless touring. In the Internet age, that kind of entrepreneurial spirit gets a lot of mileage — label support or not.
Through it all Dixon remains undaunted. In the next room, Biters are heard playing riffs from songs he co-produced for their last EP, It's OK to Like Biters. It's also the same room where Dixon recorded and mixed material within the last year for other Atlanta bands, including Hawks, Whores and the Booze. Even if VI doesn't take off, Dixon has a bright future in the studio. And that beats hanging off the back of a garbage truck.