Remember When: Elliott Smith Broke Out While His Band Collapsed

Given how revered Elliott Smith’s albums are decades after he made them, it can be hard to remember that he didn’t achieve great popularity during his all-too-brief lifetime. Smith never experienced having a Gold record or an album that ranked higher than No. 99 on the Billboard 200 (a ranking achieved by his 2000 release, Figure 8). Even after gaining widespread attention for his performance at the 1998 Academy Awards ceremony, it wasn’t until the posthumous release of Smith’s final album From a Basement on a Hill that he had a major commercial hit, topping Billboard’s Independent Albums chart and reaching No. 19 on the Billboard 200.

Videos by American Songwriter

Yet less than two years prior to making his appearance at the Oscars, Smith appeared to be well on his way to a major breakthrough. Between 1993 and 1995, he had released two albums with the Portland-based rock quartet Heatmiser as well as a pair of critically acclaimed solo albums. Even though none of those four albums sold well, Heatmiser secured a deal with Virgin Records. While Heatmiser appeared to be on the fast track to stardom, they would soon find themselves splintered beyond the point of repair.

Instead of coasting towards a commercial breakthrough, Heatmiser struggled to even complete their third album, Mic City Sons. When the album was released in 1996, there was little fanfare. It’s worth revisiting the album and the story behind it, as it stands up to the quality work that each of Heatmiser’s members produced throughout their careers.

The Tumultuous Making of Mic City Sons

By the time they recorded Mic City Sons, Smith was emerging as the best-known member of Heatmiser. However, the other three members went on to make many notable albums. Neil Gust, who split the songwriting, guitar and lead singing duties with Smith, formed another Portland-based indie rock band, No. 2, which has released three albums. Bassist Sam Coomes is one half of the prolific rock duo Quasi (along with former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss). Drummer Tony Lash has produced, mixed or mastered albums by The Dandy Warhols, Death Cab for Cutie, the Minders, and Quarterflash, and has also worked on albums by No. 2 and Quasi.

As is often the case with bands that have made a few albums together, the members of Heatmiser had different ideas about the musical direction they should take going forward. For Mic City Sons, Smith wanted to proceed in the more laid-back direction he had taken with his solo albums. Gust was continuing to write harder-edged rock songs, but most of the conflict within Heatmiser was between Smith and Lash. In serving as a producer and mixer for Mic City Sons, Lash often disagreed with Smith about how the album should sound. In discussing the album on the Life of the Record podcast, Lash noted that Smith would often get frustrated with his production choices but not voice his opposition until he was already upset.

Adding to the tension was the growing disparity in attention received by Smith and the band’s other members. On Life of the Record, Gust talked about how he felt that people in the music industry “no longer had any use” for him, as they were focused on connecting with Smith.

A Big-Label Contract, A Big Letdown

There was also the matter of the contract with Virgin. Gust recalled that the band had eagerly looked forward to getting a deal with a major label, but when the day to sign the contract came, “it didn’t feel celebratory.” Gust said this was partly because Smith wasn’t sold on the terms of the deal, which gave Heatmiser’s prior label, Frontier Records, a share of the proceeds from his solo ventures.

In an interview that Smith did with Under the Radar in 2003—seven months before his death—he suggested the deal itself hastened the band’s breakup. Virgin’s deal included a clause stating they could keep members who left Heatmiser under contract. According to Smith, “they didn’t pick up Neil’s option, only mine. … They said the reason they had signed Heatmiser was that they’d been hoping [the breakup] would happen or something to that effect. They said that right in front of Neil and I couldn’t believe it.”

Heatmiser’s Demise and Smith’s Breakthrough

Though the process of making Mic City Sons was difficult, Heatmiser and Virgin were happy with the final result. However, instead of the album’s release being a springboard to greater success, Virgin put few resources behind promoting the album, releasing it on a subsidiary label, Caroline Records. Heatmiser had difficulty coordinating plans for live dates, and according to Gust, once Virgin got wind of the lack of a tour, they completely stopped any promotion of Mic City Sons.

Heatmiser eventually put together a brief tour, but only after Lash quit the band. It would be their last tour, and they would break up shortly thereafter.

Smith’s third album Either/Or—his final record with the independent label Kill Rock Stars—was released just four months after Heatmiser put out Mic City Sons. Either/Or would be Smith’s last album not to chart, but it set the stage for his even greater successes with DreamWorks Records (which bought out Smith’s contract with Virgin). The album included three songs—”Between the Bars,” “Angeles,” and “Say Yes”—which were included on the soundtrack album for Good Will Hunting. A fourth non-album song, “Miss Misery,” earned Smith an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song and his appearance on the awards program.

Smith’s solo albums have rightfully received acclaim over the decades that followed their release. Heatmiser’s three albums have not gotten nearly as much attention, but there is no shortage of reasons to explore them. Not only do they offer a way to hear how Smith’s songs work in the context of a rock band, but they are also a good entry point for learning about the work of Gust, Lash, and Coomes for those who are not yet familiar with their discographies. Mic City Sons is a great jumping-off point for that exploration, as it features a blend of Smith’s softer arrangements with a more raucous sound.

When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Photo by Theo Wargo/WireImage

Leave a Reply

Swifties Rally Around Fan Who Needed To Sell Taylor Swift-Signed Guitar To Afford Wedding

Swifties Rally Around Fan Who Needed To Sell Taylor Swift-Signed Guitar To Afford Wedding