What Fun Life Was: Bedhead, ’90s Indie Rock, and Word-of-Mouth FandomJohn Maxwell
If you walked into Newbury Comics on Newbury Street in Boston between 1996 and 1999, I probably sold you a CD. And there was a pretty good chance that the reason you bought that CD was because you heard it playing on the store’s stereo. It was pretty common to see browsing customers perk up when they heard something they liked. They would wander over to the registers or to the glass counter where the employees were usually busy putting magnetic security strips inside of CDs by poking a hole in the cellophane on the spine. They would ask what we were playing — sometimes knowingly, like they needed their memory jogged, sometimes inquisitively. Then, a couple of minutes later, you would see them checking out with a copy of whatever we were playing. These were counted as victories.
Playing music in the store was a competitive act for those of us who worked there. You played antisocial noise because you didn’t care about the job, or you played something you knew people would like because maybe you did. You played Aaliyah or Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity as a way of flirting with a coworker, and you played some Brit-pop band’s new import single because you knew it would impress your Anglophile boss. One guy I worked with — a bass player named Josh, who played in a dark, Am Rep–style metal band called Anodyne — was especially fond of putting on the Melvins for a 3 p.m. Saturday crowd during the first warm weather of the year, just to watch the store clear out (and you wonder why music retail died). We played music to impress the customers, but we mostly did it to impress — or intimidate — each other.
Theoretically, we were supposed to play new stuff, popular stuff, or new stuff that had a chance of being popular. But toward the end of the night, around 9:30 p.m., a half-hour before closing, we would play the stuff we wanted to hear. This was like the 10-to-1 slot on Saturday Night Live. This is where I heard many of my favorite bands for the first time. And one night, Josh put on Beheaded by Bedhead.
There were very few second chances in underground music back then. If Josh hadn’t been working that night, if he hadn’t been feeling benevolent — he actually said, “You might like this,” when he put Beheaded on (this was not like him) — if I had been counting out drawers or developing my burgeoning smoking habit rather than just standing around, who knows if I would have heard Bedhead’s glacial guitar rock.
And that would have been it. Maybe I would have read about them in Spin, Alternative Press, or Magnet. But Bedhead could have just as easily passed me by, like so many other bands surely did. There would be no YouTube rabbit holes, Spotify playlists, Bandcamp searches, or SoundCloud deep dives. Someone might tell you about a band, you might jot down something you heard in a store, or make a list of records that sounded promising based on reviews you read. But the onus to discover was on you. As was the cost.
There was so much anxiety around what to buy back then. Even as a record store employee, someone who was literally surrounded by music, I remember the horse-trading I would do in my head over what records to purchase. Sometimes it was a self-sustaining habit. Because there was only so much money and so many records, if an album that I bought didn’t click with me, I would put it in a pile to be sold, hoping that whatever I picked up at the store on credit would work out better. Sometimes this albums-as-transient-property act got comical; I must have bought and sold Helium’s The Dirt of Luck like three times before I actually decided that I liked it.
Bedhead was not exactly a popular group, even by indie rock standards. The band was a quintet from Texas, led by brothers Matt and Bubba Kadane and rounded out by Tench Coxe on guitar, Kris Wheat on bass, and Trini Martinez on drums. The Kadanes both sang and played guitar. Over the course of six years, they released three albums and two EPs, initially put out on the Texas label Trance Syndicate, which was run by Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey. These were fairly available during the time when the band was active — Trance was distributed by the Chicago indie label Touch & Go — and they have never really gone out of print. But those records, along with a collection of singles and B sides, were lovingly re-released last month as a boxed set on the impeccable Numero Group label, as Bedhead 1992-1998.
The boxed set comes with an 80-page booklet. There’s something strange about holding all this information — it weighs more than any of the CDs — in your hand. With Bedhead, the band’s obscurity, and by extension the mystery surrounding them, wasn’t a flaw in self-promotion; it was sort of the point.
“The records really are tied to the spirit of secrecy,” says Matt Kadane, on the phone from Pasadena, California, where he now lives. “We always liked that with other bands … I mean, we thought of New Order, when nobody knew what New Order looked like in 1982 or ’83, before they released Low-life. They had the biggest 12-inch in the history of music with ‘Blue Monday.’ It was pretty great that they could also benefit from anonymity. Maybe this does sound sort of precious, but we thought of not putting anything on records as a reaction to video culture, just as a reaction to general self-promotion, which we saw as getting in the way of listening to the music. So even if you’ve got an audience of 50, if you still put your image on the record, it’ll affect the experience of those 50 people. So, I don’t know that it was an ethos. It made sense despite our total obscurity. In fact, we were obscure by necessity.”
The necessity that Kadane is referring to has something to do with the act of aesthetic and physical willpower it took to simply be an independent rock band at that time. “I moved out of Texas basically right after the first record came out. It was pretty tough to try to create an identity for ourselves in the early ’90s. The music scene was dominated by hardcore, or by really abrasive-sounding music, a lot of which is really amazing. So to try to forge our identity against that, which we very much associated with Texas, meant that that whole process was just permanently a part of who we were.”
There was also the practical matter of getting around the country and playing shows to few people for not very much money. Bands would piece together tours, playing small clubs, bars, and house shows, traveling in a van and sleeping on floors. Starting those tours from Texas added a degree of difficulty to the endeavor. “Making those big trips, we had kind of carried our Texas identity with us. We were more freakish when we showed up. I mean … coming all the way from Texas. It was just really hard to escape it, and we were happy to embrace it at the same time.”
If there was a perception of Bedhead on the road as “freakish,” the band’s recordings were no less enigmatic. They were like mystery boxes. Some shade of white, a logo that looked like it was stenciled onto the side of a piece of machinery, a blurred black-and-white photo of instruments lying around a spare room, some info about whatever recording studio they tracked at, and a label release number. That was really it.
This meant that you filled in all the space with your imagination. At various points in the ’90s, I thought Bedhead were Evangelical Christians, Texas acid heads, desert prophets, shut-ins, and librarians. This was a band with a sound that inspired a lot of tall tales. Yeah, man. Bedhead. I hear they only play churches.
The thing is, there was no way to check those stories out! There was no immediate resource to find out where a band was from, whether they were psychedelic ministers, or whether they were even still together. Hell, it was hard to find out if a band was touring. You had to keep your eye on ads in the back of alternative weeklies or be on the lookout for fliers outside of record stores and rock clubs.
For a few years, every 20 months or so, there would be a Bedhead album — Whatfunlifewas (1994), Beheaded (1996), and Transaction de Novo (1998). When you did read about them, it was rarely with the fawning appreciation you’re seeing in this piece. They were often compared to bands like Low and Codeine — other groups that kept the tempo slow and low and played seasonal-affective-disorder music. That never scanned for me. I was obsessed with cataloging music at that time — this was San Diego post-hardcore, that was D.C. post-hardcore, this was lo-fi, eight-track indie pop, etc. Bedhead was just Bedhead. Nothing sounded like them. They sounded like no one else.
I saw them play live once and they were a bit spectral — five lanky, bearded dudes who stared at the floor while they played — but they were basically normal guys. There were 50 people at T.T. the Bear’s Place that night, and I imagine that we were the 50 biggest Bedhead fans within a three-state area at that time.
I heard Beheaded when it came out and then went back to Whatfunlifewas, only to discover that it was perhaps one of the best song-for-song albums of the decade (seriously, there are no bad tracks on this thing). When Transaction de Novo was released, it was quickly followed by rumors that the band had broken up. I took that CD with me on a semester abroad, with about 10 others in a CD book. When I got back, the Kadane brothers had formed a new band called the New Year. Bedhead was done.
Over the course of those Bedhead albums, their sound could go from codeine country to sheets of corrugated noise. They would jump from the quiet of the third Velvet Underground album to the aggression of White Light/White Heat in the course of the same song.
“If we sounded like the Velvet Underground, that’s in part because we listened to them and we liked them,” says Matt. “We liked Joy Division and New Order, which was sort of the same universe we were in.” Those last two would certainly make sense.
The presentation of the music might have been a bit monastic, but for those of us who fell under the spell, it became something of a religion. Maybe it was the effort you had to put in to be a fan — the records had to be sought out, the songs required patience, the aura demanded faith — but there was definitely a Muhammad-goes-to-the-mountain sensation to being a fan of Bedhead.
In turn, Bedhead’s fans could seem a bit evangelical. Well, I became evangelical. I would tell friends about them until they consented to listening, and then I would watch over them as they heard “Rest of the Day” for the first time, because I was a really annoying person.
This is basically Bedhead’s “Free Bird.” It’s the second track on Beheaded, and I still remember the first time I heard it. It was in the store, that first night, and it was like the wattage on the lightbulbs got stronger. The setting helped — I recommend you listen to the whole song, but I insist that you at least hear what this band does from 3:50 on. Doing so while standing in a room with six speakers blaring at you is ideal, but in-ear headphones will do fine. The finale of “Rest of the Day” would sound incredible on anything.
In Bedhead songs, there was always something incredible around the bend. What will start as a nice but seemingly minor song will build, and build, and build, until it breaks wide open. They do that on “Rest of the Day,” and all over Whatfunlifewas — on “Powder,” “Crushing,” “Bedside Table,” and “Living Well.” By the time that Transaction came out, the band knew where they were in its lifespan.
“‘The Present’ [the last song on their last album] sounds like a song with a lot of finality to me,” says Bubba Kadane, on the phone from Texas.
For ardent listeners, this boxed set is a gorgeous package of records that likely never left the rotation. But for the Kadane brothers, revisiting Bedhead is a different experience.
“Age is a huge part of it. When I look back at that stuff, and I see pictures of us and I think, God, we looked so young. Digging back in, after so long, had its strange moments,” says Bubba.
For Matt, going back was like visiting a version of himself that he had worked to grow out of. “Listening to especially the first record, and maybe the other two — especially for me — I was pretty depressed over the course of that band. It bummed me out. I probably shouldn’t admit this to a sports website [laughs], but it made me pretty weepy. I sat down and listened to the first record, and I was overcome by being transported back to that emotional state.”
This happens to me with music all the time. I remember albums I listened to after breakups or after moving to a new city. Certain albums, regardless of their quality, have incredible meaning for me because of what was happening in my life when they were the constant soundtrack. Bedhead was different, though. Bedhead never left me. The intensity of the attraction is definitely tied to how much I felt like this was my band. It was lucky that I found them, but once I did, they were mine. No matter how many people I told about them, they were mine. Their music, for me, is timeless. But my relationship to them could have only sprung out of that very weird time, right before everyone knew everything.
This is a pretty special thing to have happen to you. As with love, you’re lucky if you find one band like this in your life. Actually, it’s not like love. It is love.