There's nothing St. Louis loves more than reunions — especially when it involves beloved bands from the past. '90s electro-rockers Gravity Kills do an annual gig around Thanksgiving, while beloved '80s act the Unconscious is playing at Lucas School House on Friday night. But the reformation of late-'80s Landing staple Pale Divine has caused the biggest local buzz this year.
To mark the occasion, the band is releasing what guitarist Richard Fortus hopes is a "quality time capsule" of its time together: a boxed set featuring a remastered version of its debut, Freedom in a Cage, a CD of unreleased demos and two DVDs of live footage. The set comes in a lavish, book-like package full of vintage photographs and quotes from musicians, writers and DJs about the band's significance.
When it came time to look back, Fortus — who now plays with Guns 'n Roses, among other gigs — was surprised to find out how influential Pale Divine was locally.
"Basically, the one consistent thing was people said that we raised the bar as far as what was expected from a band," he says, calling from his Los Angeles home just before Thanksgiving. "That was flattering — and interesting, because I didn't really realize that at the time.
"There were so many bands, and everybody had their own thing going on. Especially when we first started, because you had bands like the Unconscious, and then you had Uncle Tupelo, and you had Chicken Truck and Stranded Lads. Everybody was doing their own thing. It wasn't until we got signed that we started noticing, 'Hey, there's a lot of bands that sort of sound like us.'"
What that sound exactly was is harder to pin down. The quartet's influences were diverse, and included the Britgoth of Gene Loves Jezebel and the Cult, the metal-funk of Red Hot Chili Peppers and the dreamy melancholy of the Psychedelic Furs.
"In terms of the industry, it was difficult for them to say, 'Well, who are they? What is this band's sound?'" says bassist Dan Angenend. "Well, it's like we're all these sounds. That's hard to market."
And while that likely contributed to why Pale Divine never became superstars, it's only part of the story.
On a frigid night in early December, three-fourths of the band – Angenend, vocalist Michael Schaerer and drummer Greg Miller — are at the new Shock City Studios in Soulard, preparing to re-learn and fine-tune its vast catalog of songs. Angenend says that things are going "better than expected" for the gig; the band is re-learning an impressive 25 to 30 songs for the night.
Pale Divine — then known as the Eyes — formed in 1984. Miller knew Fortus through a mutual friend. Even then, the latter's talent for and love of the instrument was apparent. In fact, Miller remembers Fortus answering the door at his house with a guitar slung around his neck.
"We saw how phenomenal he was," the drummer says. "And it was like, Wow, I want to jam with this guy because he's so good."
Along with bassist Steve Hanock, the pair started playing together in the basement, mostly on jazz-fusion stuff in the vein of Mahavishnu Orchestra. And then one day, Fortus mentioned he knew a vocalist he thought they should play with.
"He had tapes, and we're, like, blown away by these vocals," Miller says. "For some reason at that time, we thought he sounded just like Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull."
Schaerer, without missing a beat, says, "Because it was my favorite band." Everyone laughs loudly.
Miller continues: "We finally did get to meet Michael at a party. I remember I was in a different room, and Michael was in [another room] playing. [I said] That's Michael, that's the voice! But we had never seen him. We went into the room and Michael was sitting there — [and we're like] 'Where's the guy with the long hair?' He had really short black hair, and he had a leather jacket on. He almost looked a little bit angry."
The second-wave ska of the English Beat influenced the band's early songs. But the Eyes didn't start to gain popularity and traction until it started taking cues from bands like U2, R.E.M. and the Psychedelic Furs. And things really took off when bassist Dan Angenend, who was already playing at clubs like Kennedy's (now the Landing outpost of the Drunken Fish) with the Newsboys, defected from the band to join the Eyes.
In 1988 the band released its debut cassette, Freedom in a Cage. By now, the Eyes was becoming a popular regional draw, from big cities like Chicago and Kansas City, to college towns like Columbia, Carbondale and Lawrence, Kansas. But it was their local shows — especially at Kennedy's — that became the stuff of legend.
"It was like the Thunderdome, man," Schaerer says. "It was great. It was so packed. On the DVD, you can see there are a lot of crowd shots. And you get a sense of how exciting it was. Here we are on this ten-by-ten stage and we're surrounded — literally, in front of us, above us and behind us — there's people just loving it."
Based on enthusiastic word-of-mouth from local promoters (and the persistence of manager Peter Carson), the Eyes soon started drawing the attention of major labels. Not everybody liked the band; a rep for RCA listened to one song and promptly went to play video games for the rest of the set. But in 1990 the band inked a deal with Atlantic Records. (Fun fact: Their A&R man was Jason Flom, who also signed Skid Row and Tori Amos, and went on to be chairman and CEO of both Atlantic and Virgin records.)
In some ways, getting a record deal was the beginning of the end for the Eyes — both literally and figuratively. For starters, it had to change its name to Pale Divine to avoid conflict with another band of the same name. Second, interpersonal conflicts had started to take their toll.
"By the time we did get signed, we were pretty much over each other," Fortus says. "There was a lot of tension with the singer, with Michael and the rest of us. Animosity. It was a difficult situation." (Schaerer freely admits that today: "I like to think I prepared Rich for his experience with Axl [Rose].")
Not helping matters was the process that birthed Pale Divine's major-label debut, Straight to Goodbye. Produced by Simon Rogers (Peter Murphy, the Fall, Lightning Seeds), Goodbye sounded airless, glossy and polished in all the wrong ways. It was mastered at Abbey Road Studios without any band members present, and they weren't happy with the results. And although recorded in October 1990, Goodbye wasn't released until September 1991 — just before Nirvana exploded.
"The biggest problem for us was [that] we were a great live band; that was really our strength," Angenend says. "And that did not come off with the record. At all. For whatever reason — we picked the wrong producer, we didn't know our own strengths well enough."
Still, the band made a video for "My Addiction" and had a wonderful experience touring with the Psychedelic Furs (which is where Fortus met Furs vocalist Richard Butler, whom he later collaborated with in the excellent Love Spit Love). But things deteriorated further when Pale Divine started preparing demos for its second record. Label mergers and maneuvers meant it was moved from Atlantic to ATCO, which promptly merged with East West.
That label's president at the time, Sylvia Rhone, was more into acts like En Vogue. It was clear that Pale Divine's uncategorizable rock wasn't going to be her cup of tea. "We had one meeting with her, and it was like, This lady is never going to be into this," Angenend recalls. "And she wasn't."
The band asked to be released from its contract, and the label assented. After two final shows at Kennedy's, Pale Divine broke up.
The members of Pale Divine continued to play in much-beloved local bands after the split, including Rainbox, Radio Iodine and Great Big Everything. But marriages and fatherhood soon took precedence over music for Miller and Angenend: The former now works in IT for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and the latter works for a small company that reproduces artwork on canvas.
Schaerer stuck with music, though. He teaches guitar, voice and songwriting lessons, and plays regularly around town both solo and with Amy Miller. Fortus, meanwhile, also focuses on session work, scoring films and doing music for video games. Recent highlights include touring with pop sensation Rihanna; playing on "When Nobody Loves You," the theme song to the James Bond video game, Quantum of Solace; and writing a movie score for the upcoming Women in Trouble with Robyn Hitchcock.
Looking back, Fortus feels that Pale Divine would have had a better chance at stardom had it been an upstart band today.
"At that time, there was no choice, really, for a band like us," he says. "We didn't belong at an indie label. And at that point, it wouldn't work for us. If we would have been out now with the following that we had, the grassroots following, we would have been fine — and would have done much better to carry on with an indie or a smaller label. Or doing it ourselves. We would have had far more success."
Indeed, the band certainly was mainstream enough to compete, as the unreleased Atlantic demos on the boxed set prove. "Dream" is a sprawling psychedelic-rock number that would've fit easily on the grunge-heavy Singles soundtrack. "Hunter" explodes into a heavy, almost Southern-rock-sounding tune. The catchy "Burn Like the Sun" aligns with the sunburned psych-shoegaze of acts like Ride. And highlight "Poverty Beach" is a bouncy, acoustic-guitar-driven number that's a dead ringer for a Britpop gem (i.e., Housemartins, Divine Comedy, Trashcan Sinatras).
Even though hindsight is 20-20, the members of Pale Divine don't seem burdened by regrets. The passage of time has softened any animosity — and what's left is only excitement at being able to be together onstage again.
"That was the high point of my week, every time we played," Angenend says. "It was a great feeling. It's really cool that we got to do it as long as we did. It sort of left with a little bit of a bad taste in everybody's mouth, I think. But to me, it's really exciting to be doing another gig. It's a celebration rather than a downer.
"All the stuff that we were dragging around at that time, whatever internal divides we all had with our situation — it's all gone; it's all water under the bridge. And [the reunion] can be about what we started out to do — at least for a couple of hours."