A Brief History of the Best Unsigned Band in America (no shit)
A lot has been written about Two Cow Garage on this website and not enough has been written about the band elsewhere. While groups like My Morning Jacket, Kings of Leon, Band of Horses and Midlake have received critical acclaim as great new Americana/roots rock/alt-country/ (insert your favorite label here) bands and have consequently gained national followings, Two Cow Garage has been almost completely ignored, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.
It certainly isn’t laziness – Two Cow routinely plays 200 shows a year across the country. It definitely isn’t a lack of talent – over the course of three albums, the band has shown obvious growth both lyrically and musically. It could be the band’s self-effacing attitude – all of the members are humble to a fault, and the music world thrives on big personalities and big egos (they make for better quotes and better stories). It might be the band’s name – somehow it seems to evoke the image of a suburban cover band. “Two Car Garage?” is usually a person’s first response when I mention the band to someone who hasn’t heard of them (which is, unfortunately, most people). Or, I suppose, it just may have something to do with bad timing – as one of the band members observed recently, “Rock and roll is just not really cool right now. And we are definitely not cool.”
Nonetheless, it’s baffling that no independent label has shown an interest in Two Cow Garage. For their part, the band members rarely mention signing with a label as any kind of goal, they are usually focused on just making enough money to eat and put gas in their van. But if a band as talented, exciting and hard-working as Two Cow Garage can’t get a deal with a decent-sized independent label, then the music industry is truly fucked. [You just wake up, Rumpelstiltskin? – Ed.] The group will probably be red-faced with embarrassment at reading that statement, but given what it has accomplished with minimum resources, Two Cow Garage is exactly the type of band for which independent labels were supposedly created.
I first met the members of Two Cow Garage in the fall of 2002. A friend had burned a copy of the band’s first album for me. It was a solid set of songs that fit easily into the “alt-country” category. I liked the music enough to part with five dollars when the band came to Chicago, but nothing on the album prepared me for the performance that Two Cow Garage unleashed that night. The band played with a passion that I’d rarely seen onstage (and I go to a lot of shows). Everything was faster, harder and louder than it had been on the album. Onstage, the group generated an energy and presence that could not be ignored.
I imagine this is what it was like seeing The Ramones or The Clash in 1976 or The Replacements in 1984 or Nirvana in 1990. Either you dismissed it and headed for the door or you stood there transfixed knowing you were witnessing something special.
With each return to Chicago, the band seemed to get tighter and more confident, and the audience grew little by little. Two Cow Garage was gaining a reputation (via internet groups like Postcard) as a killer live band and, in the process, building a fan base in the D.I.Y. tradition of punk and hardcore groups like Social Distortion and Black Flag – traversing the country in a white GMC van, driving 8 to 12 hours a day to play for little money in front of small audiences, sleeping on friends’ and fans’ floors (or in the van), then getting up the next day to do it all over again. But the results of Two Cow’s constant touring could be heard in the musical leap from the band’s debut to its 2004 follow-up entitled The Wall Against Our Back.
Manager Chris Flint secured a distribution deal for Wall through Red Eye (Yep Roc’s distribution arm) ensuring that the album could be found in stores. The band hit the road again, doing exactly what they’d done for the previous two years – playing a lot of gigs, driving many miles, smoking a lot of cigarettes and building a small but loyal following. The band even toured Europe, where Wall was released on the Sonic Rendezvous label. The album received good reviews in the usual weekly alternatives of whatever city the band happened to be playing, and it even garnered their first national review in Harp magazine (again, a positive one). And through some strange turn of events, “Make It Out Alive” was played on a Monday Night Football telecast underneath a second-half recap of the game. (The band didn’t receive any money or credit for this, but they certainly got a kick out of it.) For a time, the band even became self-sufficient, able to live gig-to-gig off their tour earnings without any “assistance” from Flint.
Two Cow Garage had made progress, but when the band finally stopped touring behind Wall, its small but steady income also came to an end. This began a period of doubt and soul-searching. Though he kept writing songs, Micah Schnabel began to question what he was doing with his life. Sweeney admitted that around this time he “questioned whether or not I wanted to be in Two Cow anymore… I really just wanted to explode, but at the same time I was so incredibly disappointed I wanted to hide away and just give up.”
Ultimately, when Two Cow finally did get back into Echo Lab studio (with Best and Pence again in the control room), the band was emboldened by its recent struggles. They had a wealth of material and there was a new emotional depth in songs like “Should’ve California,” “No Shame” and “Blanket Grey” that expressed the fear, worry and doubt with which the group had been wrestling. The resulting album, simply entitled III, is Two Cow’s most accomplished work yet, and should bring them new fans while helping to tear-off the alt-country label they’ve been stuck with since the first record.
Chris Flint negotiated a new distribution deal with Denver-based independent label Suburban Home Records. Shortly thereafter, the label posted a statement on its website proclaiming “Suburban Home Adopts Two Cow Garage”. Saying, “I truly believe in this band’s greatness,” the label’s founder, Virgil Dickerson, explained that by “adopting” Two Cow he planned “to treat the band and their upcoming album as if they were on Suburban Home” by posting mp3s, tour dates and streaming the new album. This may not seem like much, but for a band that couldn’t afford to re-design its own website it was a welcome gesture and provided some much-needed assurance that someone believed in them.
Things seemed to be looking brighter for Two Cow Garage. When III was officially released in April, the group finally got some national exposure via a feature in No Depression magazine (pdf) and an article on MSNBC.com. The band hit the road in support of the new album, covering most of the country in only a few months. The band members weren’t much closer to financial stability, but progress was being made. Two Cow Garage had survived a rough patch and emerged as a better and more confident band.
Then, a bomb dropped on the group…
Find out what happens to the band in these two video pieces produced by John Boston, the director of the Two Cow Garage 2005 feature documentary, The Long Way Around.
GloNo Video: Two Cow Garage – No Regrets (Part 1)
GloNo Video: Two Cow Garage – No Regrets (Part 2)
If you buy the albums from their site, the band gets to keep more of the money.
Exclusive Two Cow Garage acoustic performances available on director John Boston’s MySpace page.