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Whether playing in front of 10 or 10,000, for Frogpond, life on the road is part of the job.


 

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Frogpond
It's Always Wednesday on the Road

by Tim McMahan

"You tend to forget what day it is," said Frogpond singer/guitarist Heidi Phillips from her cell phone somewhere on a Tennessee turnpike. "We have this thing in the van where, if anyone asks, it's always Wednesday and there's always eight hours until we get there."

After driving all night from a gig in Orlando, the band has just finished the load-in and sound check at the night's venue, The End in Nashville. Now it's time to find the hotel -- an inexpensive knockoff of a Days Inn -- and get some well-deserved shut-eye and maybe a bite to eat before the show. Their 15-passenger tour van, affectionately named "Te Te," purrs like a kitten as all eyes remain peeled for the glowing neon hotel sign.

It's day 71 of the four-month road trip for Phillips and her comrades, bassist Justine Volpe and drummer Billy Johnson. The Kansas City punk-pop trio has been busy supporting their new CD, Safe Ride Home, the old-fashioned, grassroots way: by playing every nightclub and venue they possibly can. Before they get to the Ranch Bowl Oct. 2, they'll have cut a path through Mississippi, deep into the heart of Texas, up through Des Moines, Wichita and even have played at Cunningham's in Kearney. So far, they've played to auditorium crowds numbering in the thousands as openers for the Goo Goo Dolls and in near-empty nightclubs to fewer than a dozen lonely, open-minded fans.

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"Our show at The Nick wasn't a first," Phillips said of the recent Birmingham, Ala., gig that drew less than 10. "When you go on the road, you have to expect nights like that. The next time you roll into town, a few more people will show up. It's part of the job. What are you gonna do about it, kick and scream?"

Phillips and company should know. They've been playing the road circuit since the band formed back in '94 in the tiny Midwestern college town of Warrensburg, Mo., home of Central Missouri State University's Fighting Mules. Phillips wanted to pull together a band of friends to help flesh out some of her songs. Among them was Volpe. With no background in music whatsoever, she learned to play bass 10 days before her first gig.

Over the next couple years, Frogpond would garner a reputation as one of the region's best live bands, leading to opening spots for The Toadies and Everclear. One early career highlight was playing a Kansas City gig where R.E.M.'s Mike Mills was in the audience. Afterward, he invited the band to play at the "Monster" tour's wrap party in Atlanta.

"Call it luck or chance," Phillips says. "I love R.E.M. and it was one of the coolest gigs we've played."

The good luck just kept on coming. After moving to Lawrence, Kan., Frogpond recorded its first CD, "Count to Ten," with Everclear's Art Alexakis behind the knobs. Released on TriStar Records in the fall of '96, the CD received critical raves, and the band's fans continued to grow as they spent the next year on the road.


"Our show at The Nick wasn't a first," Phillips said of the recent Birmingham, Ala., gig that drew less than 10.



"I used to let things like that bother me. Now I'm more concerned about our own stuff. We can't force people to like what we do."


 

When they returned to the studio in February '98, they had secured a record deal with Columbia's new C2 Records label. Safe Ride Home continued the band's tradition of writing indie-style post-punk pop ballads about love, frustration and regret -- all the stuff that made the grunge era feel so good. You'll recognize the strong cast of female-led band influences throughout the 13 tracks: Throwing Muses, Belly, That Dog, Liz Phair, all the best from the days before Lilith and the evil Alanis/Jewel/Crow triad began to do their damnedest to quash whatever remained of urban-indie chick rock, post-Cobain. Frogpond retains all the early '90s punkiness, heavy/jangly guitars, soaring harmonies and cynicism of a bygone era whose only standing ally is a weather-beaten Courtney Love.

Phillips is quite aware of the change in music trends since she first picked up an ax and Frogpond was playing shows with the likes of Lawrence legends Kill Creek and Stick back in the day. With the today's airwaves now littered with bad glam-rock, pseudo-metal and the tired white rap of outfits like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock, she's content retreating to CDs by Ani DiFranco and Middle Eastern techno break-beat DJ Calvin Singh. There's nothing she can do about where popular music is headed.

"We do our thing," she said. "Evidently, people like the direction music is headed. Things change, sometimes for the better, and sometimes… I used to let things like that bother me. Now I'm more concerned about our own stuff. We can't force people to like what we do.

 

"There's so many bands out there," she added. "We can't let anyone affect our own self worth. It shouldn't come from other people's acceptance. It's cool when people relate to what we do. But ultimately, in the end, you and your friends are the only things that really matter."

These days, Phillips and Volpe share a rarely-visited house in Kansas City. They say in their bio that "home isn't the place where you live, it's where you find yourself." If that's the case, then Frogpond's home may be the road for a very long time, and certainly that distance from their Midwestern roots eventually will affect those friendships they value so much.

"You miss your friends and family and things like that," Phillips said. "It's kind of hard to keep in touch with everyone. Your life goes on in one direction, theirs goes in another. It just makes it a little bit tougher."

The interview comes to a conclusion as the van rolls into the hotel parking lot. Time for only a couple final questions: After traveling around the country, how does the rest of America compare to Warrensburg and the Midwest.

"Ultimately, it's not so different," Phillips said. "People are the same no matter where you go. For the most part, they're good and nice."

And what about the future?

"We're fine with the way things are going," she said. "You gotta do what you gotta do. We're just trying to get our music heard. It's not really about MTV. It takes a lot of hard work, dedication and being true to yourself. I love music and it's what makes me happy, however it fits into my life."


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Printed in The Reader September 30, 1999.

Copyright 1999 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.


"Your life goes on in one direction, theirs goes in another. It just makes it a little bit tougher."