Rock 'N Roll Case Study:
Exploring Rock 'N Roll's past...

JUNE 2005 ISSUE

"I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger"
Interview with the Roman Candles
By Ronnie

The ROMAN CANDLES [left to right]: Mike E. Hicks (drums, vocals), Paul Minor (guitar, vocals), Carl Ziegler (bass, vocals)

Intro:
In 1988 I was talked into going to see a band with my brother and a few friends at a club on 6th Street in Austin. The warm-up band happened to be the Roman Candles. What caught my attention was the cleverness of their songs-a very infectious power-pop blend played by a trio years before Green Day took off. When they ended their set with a cover of George Harrison's "What Is Life?" I was hooked! With the recent demise of Doctors Mob, I had been looking for a new band to follow regularly in Austin - and I had found that 'new' band. I followed the band between 1988 and 1989, going to as many gigs as I could and buying their 2 cassettes (back when this was the norm for bands that didn't have vinyl out) and their 7" vinyl release.

But then it was like they fell off the map...nothing...no more listings in the AUSTIN CHRONICLE (the guide for all the band gigs in Austin). I never heard about the band again. Then, one day I was cleaning out my music room and found a box full of old cassettes, including the Roman Candles releases. With the advent of the internet, I did a little searching and located all three former members, Paul Minor, Carl Zeigler, and Mike E. Hicks. All of them consented to be interviewed.

E.C.: First, give me a little background on the band, how you came together, etc.?

Paul: I met Mike in Louisiana in 1979 when I was in Junior High marching band. He was a year or two ahead of me and I thought he and his drum section buddies were pretty cool. I moved to Austin with my family in 1980. Some years later I was looking for a drummer and ran into him at Steamboat on 6th. He and his brother had moved to Austin to play music.

I don't remember who introduced me and Carl, but I was friends with a few of his friends from the Wild Seeds and Zeitgeist, and I went to parties at his yellow house on Fruth Street a couple times. I think our first couple of practices were at Mike's house up off 51st St. but we converted Carl's basement at "Big Yellow" into a rehearsal room pretty early on. I had a Roland Spirit practice amp that had the vinyl cover gnawed off by rats at a different rehearsal place. It had this amazing tone until the speaker blew and I put the chassis into a different cabinet, one of those old Crates. Carl shard his house with the bassist for Wild Seeds Paul Swift and a guy who sold weed. They had their giant AC window unit rigged directly into the power line. The house is a coffee shop now with a giant patio full of hanging plants and coeds on laptops. I am actually performing a solo gig there tomorrow and I am hoping they will let me check out the basement for old time's sake.

Carl: I grew up in Dallas and loved Austin from the time I was able to drive a car there. My friends all went there and started bands (ZEITGEIST, WILD SEEDS, THE MAKE). I was mixing ZEITGEIST at the time and thought it would be better to live in Austin, instead of them having to pick me up in Dallas on the way to tour. I had played in band in high school and college, but when I met Minor, it just clicked like never before. Funny, I don't remember meeting Paul either. We were both so into the scene. I do remember mixing Paul's band THE URGE at THE BEACH (The 'holest' of the 'hole in the wall' clubs).

Mike: I moved to Austin in 1985...had a couple of bands. Model Citizens, a Eurodisco band with my brother Billy, Jody Lazo, Joe Richardson, and Rob Noxious from '85-'86. THE RESISTORS, a roots rock 3 piece with Billy and Robert Hancock from '86-'87. I had known Paul when I was in High School. Paul and Carl had done a few gigs with a drummer named Mike Copp (sp?) before I came on board. I responded to an ad in the Chronicle in late '87 (Oct I think). Several things immediately impressed me about the group. The first was they already had a fairly large batch of songs since Paul was such a prolific writer. Carl was solid on bass, they had a tremendous work ethic, and Paul was a budding PR wiz. We quickly worked up two sets of material and were gigging by the end of the year.

Paul: We were brainstorming in vain for names for the band for weeks and we finally came across a passage in Kerouac's "On the Road" that talks about people who are never bored and burn like roman candles, so we thought that's good enough. I have some friends who delight in recounting the story of playing a pickup gig with their thrown-together band at Ruby's barbecue (across the alley from big yellow) way back then. The old black man who was sweeping up after the gig said "Y'all boys pretty good, what's the name?" One of the smartasses in the band blurted out "Sperm Warriors." The old man shook his head and replied, "Sperm Warriors? That's the worst name I've heard since Roman Candles!"

E.C.: I saw the band a lot between 1988 & 1989 - how long did the Roman Candles exist?

Paul: I'm no good at dates, anyone else?

Carl: Shit, too much drink and drugs. Maybe '88 to '90.

Mike: If I remember correctly it was Oct '87 through March of '90.

E.C.: What led to the breakup?

Paul: I don't recall that specific discussion, but I think Carl may have said he was through first. I remember some musical tension, differences in direction. I remember some fights over girls and things, and just generally being kind of sick of each other. We did a fair amount of road trips and recording projects and drinking and partying together and maybe it just ran its course.

Mike: We had basically taken it as far as it would go without major retooling. We had played all the major venues in town on numerous occasions, were getting decent press (with a few exceptions), and had a small following but we just couldn't punch through to the next level. For the record I think I left the band first. I was ready to do something else. Was hearing through the grapevine about other gigs and wanted the freedom to pursue them. I'm sure the others were not far behind in these feelings...I just struck first.

Carl: Beating your head against a wall for 3 or 4 years was just about all one could take. People glamorize it, but rock 'n roll is a very hard life, if you do it right.

E.C.: What was the attitude of the band? Was 'fame and fortune' in the picture or was the point just to have fun?

Paul: I think we all wanted to be part of that Austin music scene that was kind of taking off at the time with the True Believers and Wild Seeds and all that late 80s indie rock thing. We worshiped the Replacements and then later Guns and Roses and we wanted to rock in that kind of restless and reckless way. We had very limited knowledge of how the music business worked and we were just naive enough to buy a van and record a single and go play Baton Rouge and Shreveport and sleep on floors as if that was the road to success. We admired bands like Dash Rip Rock that played a circuit of rowdy college parties and clubs and made a living. We were that dangerous combination of clueless and ambitious.

Mike: Paul's chronicle ad did say "Fame and Fortune guaranteed". Paul's definition of ambitious and clueless is dead on. I can honestly say of all the bands before or after it was the most fun I ever had and it is always a pleasure to see them.

Carl: That just about says it all. It was kind of sad in retrospect, to see these guys who wanted something very bad, but just didn't know how to get there. Still, it was fun. I've been out with many bands and the thing about the ROMAN CANDLES' was that we really did get along with each other. Other bands always had these little soap operas going on, but with the CANDLES it was just the guys on an extended night-out.

Paul: I worked at a copy shop on campus, so we had posters and press kits and CD sleeves out the ass for nothing. We used to get some decent reviews and I was obsessed with compiling and distributing our media. One time near the end, I had a blow to my ego in the form of Peter Blackstock, who is now publisher of No Depression. I had taken his lukewarm review of our show at Aquafest and removed the unflattering paragraphs, making for a much more positive review. He came up to me at Liberty Lunch and said "I'm in charge of reviewing press kits for South by Southwest applications, and I must say I take offense to your re-editing of my work. It could damage my credibility as a journalist for you to distribute these chopped up articles under my by-line." I've never had a review published in No Depression.

E.C.: The music of the Roman Candles almost seemed out of place at the time (late '80s). Your brand of power-pop seemed almost a little too polished for the "new sincerity" scene that happened in Austin in the '80s. You were almost like the precursor to bands such as Green Day - the power trio that does catchy, power-pop songs. However, you weren't 'punk' (like Green Day pretends to be...) and this was a few years before grunge caught on. Do you feel like you were a little short-changed with recognition? Or did you feel like your big break didn't happen because of the timing?

Mike: I think it was a combination of factors. Timing was definitely a HUGE one. I remember vividly that a friend once said "you guys sound like one of those skinny tie bands". I liked that just fine; but in '88-'89 I guess that was not hip again yet. I also feel that with Paul going it alone as lead vocalist we just did not have the range and power a lot of the songs deserved...understand what I am saying here. I am not saying that myself or Carl would have propelled us to having "gold plated toilet seats" either, but if we had divvied up the songs based on vocal range I think a potential producer would have had a broader palette to choose from...not to mention it would have made our live performances MUCH stronger. However, as we have seen time and again with Austin bands, "the BIG BREAK" is often the Kiss of Death.

Paul: As for a big break, I don't think we had the big picture in focus at all back then. We had good friends like Reivers and Big Car that were working in the major label market and I honestly had no idea how that was done. I can't recall making any serous effort at conceiving a game plan that had that kind of success as a goal. We gave people tapes and stuff, but the main focus was playing live in as many dives as we could string together. I kind of recall thinking that those bands who were negotiating label deals were playing very complicated and perilous games that were out of my league.

As for our sound being out of sync with the times, I think that's a good observation but I don't think we were conscious of it at the time. We were playing songs that were a natural progression from what we grew up on, the Who, the Beatles, Kinks, and there was all this punk stuff going on all around us but we played jangly guitars and sang 3 part harmonies so it was kind of impossible to incorporate black flag tempos or television textures into our songs. Now that you mention it, we had such diverse influences bombarding us I think it could have contributed to our loss of direction. For example, I recall deconstructing songs for hours because I was tired of certain rhythms that sounded like strumming pop guitars and I wanted to go in a more four on the floor AC/DC style. It was like second guessing our natural instincts because of music being in such a transition we didn't know what we wanted to sound like. The projects I started immediately after were pretty bad attempts at a harder edge rock thing. Someone just reminded me of one of my songs from this period called "Under the Wagon." It sounds like some half ass hair metal band. I also had a pretty lame grungy kind of bands that emulated early Aerosmith and Pearl Jam kind of guitar riffs. Joining Beaver Nelson's band in 92 kind of took me back into a song oriented traditional rock music and I am very glad for that.

Carl: I listen to it now and it sounds like the way teenagers fuck. Man, the tempo is desperate. Like, I cant believe I'm doing this and actually pulling it off. Well, it never was quite pulled off. I agree with Paul, I don't think we could have handled a big break. It was good for what it was, road-house rock, and I am proud when I look back and hear how hard we tried to change our sound, but we had sooo far to go to make the big time.

E.C.: I have your two cassette releases ("ROMAN CANDLES"-1988 & "DEAD PRESIDENTS"-1989) and your vinyl release ("WALKIN' HOME DRUNK"-1989). Were there any other releases? I know there were other songs that I saw you play live that were never released - were any of these recorded?

Mike: No other releases...however we recorded almost every rehearsal on the Fostex for analysis...they are all on tape somewhere...maybe in Paul's sock drawer. I wouldn't vouch for the quality, though.

Paul: I am sure I have all of our later material recorded on 2 track cassette demos; some maybe even have a few vocal overdubs on the Fostex.

E.C.: Bands today might find it hard to understand a time when CD's did not exist, but two of your releases were on cassette. Please describe the process for me-I imagine that you used a regular recording studio? Who decided the artwork on the releases? How many cassettes were produced?

Carl: I remember that Joe McDermott just left his recording rig with us at the little house behind that duplex. He just threw up his hands and requested that we not put his name on anything with backwards recordings. Ha, we did, we just didn't credit him for it. By the way, I think Paul mixed all of that second tape, right?

Paul: Those projects were done on 8 or 16 track 1/2 inch analog tape machines in home studio situations. The basics are mostly live, there's some overdub guitars and vocals, and we just took the masters to places that manufactured bulk cassette copies, probably 100 at a time. We stole artwork from postcards or magazines and used the xerox machine to make the sleeves and labels.

Mike: Cost was very prohibitive in those days...we recorded the first two cassettes on a mobile 8-track in a cinder block building behind somebody's house...Glen Benavides from Doctor's Mob I think. If we had access to the kind of gear available now we could have done some really great things. We did "Walkin" in a real studio and you can hear the difference.

E.C.: As for unreleased songs, what immediately comes to mind was a song with "yesterdays" in the title. It was a song that I saw you do live a couple of times. I can't remember all the lyrics, but I can still vividly remember the melody of that song. Can you recall what song I'm talking about?

Carl: Nope, can't remember...

Mike: Sorry, not ringing a bell...

Paul: It must be "Don't leave me in Yesterday" which I recall being an attempt to emulate the beat from "Lover's Rock" by the Clash.

The ROMAN CANDLES [left to right]: Paul Minor (guitar, vocals), Carl Ziegler (bass, vocals), Mike E. Hicks (drums, vocals)

E.C.: When "Walkin' Home Drunk" (1989 vinyl EP) came out, I was surprised that some of the performances included of the older songs were complete re-records. Why the decision to do these over again? Were you unhappy with the original recordings?

Paul: That doesn't seem like our style, what songs did we do over?

Carl: I really don't think those were do-overs. I thought it was stuff from the first tape - it may have been remixed.

Mike: No re-records that I remember...just remixes...all secondary to... $COST$.

E.C.: What differences did you personally see between the first and second cassettes? Both recording wise and songwriting wise?

Paul: We were kind of a rootsier band on the first cassette, even down to the rodeo boots cover. By the second cassette we had started going for a more bombastic sound, and the songs are more like heavy and intense. The songs are moodier and meaner. The first cassette is softer and more fragile.

Carl: Paul and I have talked about this before. The CANDLES really, really tried to become a better band. We'd have rehearsals that went on for hours just concentrating on one song. Trying to find the "nut" or morsel that would make that song just right. Re-arranging existing songs to fit our new concept of ourselves. It was hard and frustrating, but it made a difference.

Mike: Not much recording wise...performance was tighter and we had more songs to choose from...just continued evolution.

E.C.: While the first cassette put me in power-pop nirvana, the second cassette really showed a growth in clever lyric writing, especially on songs like "Me or My Bottle". Where the songs for the 2nd cassette written differently from the 1st or were they 'leftovers' from the 1st cassette?

Mike: I would not really call them leftovers... I think as Paul began hearing the sound of the actual band in his head his writing became more tailored to our sound.

Paul: I think the second cassette songs were much more collaborative. I can hear lots of ideas on the songs on the second cassette that came from everybody in the band, whereas the first cassette was basically interpretations of a batch of demos I did before the band started. Me or my Bottle is a good example of a song written from the experience of being in the band and living the roadhouse dive lifestyle. The "Monaco" was a Conoco station in New Orleans where you could buy liquor all night. Listening to it now, I like the music, and the lyrics are amusing, but I can't stand my strained and struggling vocal. Carl's lead vocal on the next song is so much sweeter.

E.C.: I had seen you perform a few covers live (such as George Harrison's "What Is Life?") - but what made you decide to include a Deep Purple cover ("Highway Star")on the "Dead Presidents" cassette?

Carl: That was one place I could contribute to the band. I didn't write much, but I had a knack for hearing songs and know that they could be "CANDLIZED". I still do it. The Monkees "The Girl That I Knew Somewhere" is one of the latest songs. Man, without any DEEP PURPLE experience Paul sure laid into that solo!!

I think we originally learned that cover for a '70s HOOT NIGHT and just fell in love with it's balls-out sound. I also remember that we looked at the tape on the reel and made the call that we had enough to do "Highway Star". I love that the tape ran out just as we ended the song.

Paul: "Highway Star" was something that Mike and Carl loved and proposed we attempt; I had no experience with Deep Purple before that. Mike sings it great, I was playing a Les Paul for the first time and the tape actually ran out right at the end so we had to add that crazy echo on the master.

Mike: We worked it up for a 70's hoot night and got such a great response that it stuck...it also prompted many "why don't you sing more?" questions from peers and fans.

E.C.: As for lyrics, I have a question about a specific song. At one live show I remember you (Paul) giving an introduction to "Your Biggest Mistake" by saying that the song was about 'abortion'. But listening to the words, I can't really tell if it was a 'pro' or 'anti' abortion song. Was this ambiguity intentional?

Paul: That song is from the point of view of an unwanted child who has had a very tough life and wishes that their single mother had made a different choice. The ambiguity is intentional and I have had mixed results in trying to discuss it or explain it to people who want it to support either side. I actually recorded a new version of it a couple of years ago with a jaunty piano part and changed a few lyrics. "Heed my insistence and cease my existence in your mind like you did long ago...”

E.C.: "Walkin' Home Drunk" simply screamed "power pop classic". Were you hedging your bets on this song? Because it seems like shortly after the release is when I stop seeing listings for the band in the Chronicle?

Carl: I don’t think we ever hedged our bets on one thing. That song was the most produced, I mean, we actually recorded in a real studio (the only time, I think) with a real “Austin” producer. I thought Dead President was after that single?

Mike: No bet hedging to my knowledge...I think that is when we started running out of steam...you know how fickle the press can be...

Paul: That song is kind of formulaic and it actually screams to me of a Jason and The Scorchers progression. It was a true story basically about walking back to my house on Cherrywood. I think I joined some other projects while I lived over there another year or so and started doing more crew type jobs like road managing and picking up some sideman bass jobs. I'm sure the Candles went on for awhile after that single until sometime before I joined the Neptunes and went to Nashville with the Wagoneers. I know I have about a dozen more songs listed from that period and we also did some Candles tours.

Some toe-tapping titles we did live after the last recordings: Tama Janowitz (released on Superego's second CD My Bad as Tarot Shuffle), Fate Worse than Life, The Candles Burning (subtle eh?), One Way Out, Heartache Waiting to Happen, Your Secrets are Safe, Heaven Help Me, Cruel...One of our most memorable gigs was opening for Dash Rip Rock at Chimes in Baton Rouge on Halloween and we played Hocus Pocus by Focus with giant witches hats on. What year would that have been?

E.C.: Any regrets about the Roman Candles?

Paul: In the words of Ronnie Lane, “I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger”. I listen to those cassettes now and think mostly of all we had to left to learn. We were learning it then. The experience was SO educational. The experiences were so valuable to what I do now, and I'm still learning it now.

Carl: Personally, I regret not making a commitment to playing music. I have kind of let my musical creative side down since those years. As for the Candles, I think it was a growth experience. We all came into it with our own weakness and it was amazing how we all complimented each other. Paul was a good songwriter and guitarist, but a weak vocalist. Mike was a good drummer and a great singer, but kind of wild, no subtlety. I was the weakest musician but I could sing. By the end of the Candles, Paul had improved his vocal stylings and we were helping arrange songs and supporting him with some pretty good backing vocals. Mike was tamed a bit and learned some drumming nuance. I improved musically and learned how to play in a rhythm section.

Mike: My biggest regret is that I didn't have more of a sense of 'ownership' in the band...looking back it is almost like I was just a sideman...I wish we had been more like the Beatles or Squeeze...with everyone singing and writing... I didn’t think Paul could let anyone else sing his songs. And Carl and I just could not compete with his prodigious output of songs. Most of what I've said throughout this interview I kept to myself in those days. Maybe the difference between 25 and 42...or maybe 18 years of life as a working drummer instead of an 'artist'. I also regret that someone in the business did not' take us under their wing' so we could grow as a band without so much pressure. Foster, Jr did an outstanding job as manager but the 'connections' just were not available. But like Gibby Haynes said: "Son, It's always better to regret something you HAVE done than something you HAVEN'T..."

E.C.: Will we ever see a CD compilation of the Roman Candles like we did with another Austin band, Doctors Mob?

Carl: Very unlikely.

Paul: No plans. My cassettes actually sound pretty deteriorated and I honestly would have a very hard time finding any master 2-track reels, I have not seen any around here for years. Best left unsolved.

Mike: I don't think the material exists in a form with adequate quality to merit such an endeavor.

E.C.: Doctors Mob has done sporadic ‘reunion’ shows over the years in Austin. Will we ever see a Roman Candles reunion show?

Mike: I doubt that the demand is there to do that without it coming off as self-indulgent. We had an opportunity to play at the Talla Bena Pigfest a few years back but Carl said he had not even picked up a bass in years...quite a disappointment for me...there was video and audio recording capability there...Oh Well...

Paul: That would be so pointless from the standpoint of business. If we were ever very popular back then maybe we could still fill a small room now, ala Javelin Boot. I wouldn't even feel like it was worth the effort. Wannabes are still around, and alot of the people from the 80s like Jon Dee and Michael Hall and the McCarthy Brothers are still playing around town, so reunions just seem self-indulgent unless there is a demand for it.

I am a professional musician and I put bands together all the time for special events, so of course I would always consider any offer. Maybe we could play the Talla Bena Pigroast; we always did better in bayou country.

Carl: I’m with Paul, no point. If we would have been packin' the house in Austin then maybe. Mike Foster has an annual Pigfest at his daddy’s farm and that would be the most likely place for a reunion. Still, after not playing bass for many years, I would need about two weeks of practice with somebody…

E.C.: What are all the members doing today? I know that Paul and Carl live in Austin, but what happened to Mike?

Mike: What happened to Mike....WOW...hard to distill almost 18 years into a few lines but I will try. After leaving the Candles I freelanced and did stints with several Austin bands. Recorded and gigged with Greg Schilling (Hell's Cafe). Filled the drum throne for Hand of Glory; with Joe Doerr (Leroi Bros), Bill Anderson (Poison 13), and Tim Swingle (Doctor's Mob) for over 2 years and two European tours. Played drums and percussion with country reggae pioneers ITEX for 3 years. Did a brief stint with a SKA band called House in Orbit.

In March of '93 I turned 30 and decided to go back to college, so I moved back to Louisiana and enlisted in the Army National Guard to finance it. Got my BSN in Nursing in 2000 and got married along the way...Sharon and I have a 4 year son named Sean who is starting to drum a little. All during the years I have continued performing with cats like Kenny Stinson, Dale Hawkins, Marcia Ball, James Burton, etc, etc. all over the South. Did a short European tour in '99 with a blues diva named Lucille Almond.

I now live in Ashland, Oregon. I am an ICU nurse and front a local cover band called THREE. We play almost every weekend. Am also a Flight Nurse in the Oregon Air National Guard. Was promoted to Captain just last month. LIFE IS GOOD...

Carl: I’ve been happily married for 12 years. Two lovely kids who are very musical and love the Beatles, Monkees, and U2. Good start for a new generation of rockers. I work IT for the Texas Department of Public Safety. My mother says it’s so nice that I’m working for them and not being arrested by them. I think she was relieved in my change of life-style. My wife is a writer and wonderful mother.

In closing, I think my life after the Candles has been the most fulfilling, but I think that the time on the road and playing was the most fun. Here is a big hint on why we didn’t stay together…we never, ever got ask to do an interview like this.

E.C.: Paul - tell me about Minor Productions and Superego. Have you put the musical lessons that you learned from your past bands into these projects?

Paul: Minor productions website really says it all. I've diversified and I really enjoy mixing live sound, especially on my own PA rigs. I also book and promote a lot of special events, for private functions, non-profits and clubs. I still sing both covers and originals at regular gigs and have been playing solo a lot more lately. I just finished a new album of covers called "Rock & Roll Radio."

ROMAN CANDLES Discography-

Roman Candles-(cassette)-1988
Dead Presidents-(cassette)-1989
Walking Home Drunk-(7" vinyl EP)-1989