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Uncle Tupelo: From Belleville to Rockville

By Steve Pick

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 5, 1990

UNCLE TUPELO won't be voted the best unsigned band in America in 1990 as they were last year by the readers of College Media Journal, a national tip sheet. Next week, the Belleville band's debut LP, ''No Depression,'' will be released by Rockville Records, one of the biggest independent labels in the country. ''We had shopped our demo tape around to a lot of labels,'' said Mike Heidorn, the group's drummer. ''Most of the big labels called us once, but then, when we called back to ask them about it, they said they had it but weren't interested. ''Rockville, however, called us back,'' he continued. ''We talked to them for a long time. We went and played for them a few times. Last fall, we played at the CMJ convention in New York, and that finalized the deal.'' ''Then it took about six months to work everything out,'' added Jeff Tweedy, the bass player. ''We wanted to get the record released as soon as we could. To speed things up, we recorded the album in Boston before the contract was signed.'' Heidorn, Tweedy, and guitarist Jay Farrar went to Boston a few months ago, where they recorded 13 songs in 10 days at Fort Apache Studios, where the likes of Dinosaur Jr., Throwing Muses, the Pixies, and Big Dipper had recorded their well-received material. ''It was great to work there,'' Heidorn said. ''You could actually hear the vocals while recording. When we made the demo, we had no monitors.''

'We had become shy about doing things in a studio the way we do them live,'' Tweedy said. ''After one take, the people at Fort Apache said, 'Well, that sounds good, but why don't you make it a lot louder?' We said, 'Sure, we can do that.' '' Anyone who has seen one of Uncle Tupelo's performances knows just how noisy the band can get. They have a reputation for rowdy, boisterous and energetic shows. That's all very true, but with all the noise you could almost overlook the high quality of the band's songwriting skills. These guys write tightly focused slices of life, and put them to memorable melodies. ''The mechanics of songwriting are just to listen to a lot of everybody else's songs,'' Tweedy said.

The members of the band didn't mention that in addition to the usual influences of young rock bands, Uncle Tupelo is well-acquainted with a wide range of older music. The members understand the connection between Woody Guthrie, Neil Young and Black Flag. The title track of the new album is an old Carter Family song written during the '30s, and Uncle Tupelo plays it straight. Farrar's acoustic guitar-picking abilities on this and on the other couple of folk-derived originals are every bit as impressive as his electric slashing chords in other songs.

''All of the songs on the album, except for two, have been around for a while,'' Tweedy said. ''But we had to put them out on the record. We've been staying pretty much ahead of the game, so we'll be ready for the next one.'' Uncle Tupelo will also have a song in a forthcoming movie, ''A Matter of Degrees,'' which will star John Doe, the former crooner with the rock band X. Now that ''No Depression'' is available, it will show the world how good Uncle Tupelo is, and some other band will just have to be declared the best unsigned band in the country. This one is spoken for.

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