Death in Vegas
Death in Vegas
Born out of the re-ignited dance club scene that swept through London, England, during the mid-1990s, Death in Vegas formed in 1994 and spent three years perfecting tracks for their debut album, Dead Elvis. Dubbed the next great big beat act by club enthusiasts and the British press, the band quickly gained acceptance in America, with their video for the single “Dirt” gaining regular airplay on MTV (Music Television) and a tour of the United States. But despite the group’s success with dance music, Death in Vegas decided to dedicate their follow-up album, The Contino Sessions, issued in 1999 by Time Bomb/Concrete, to trance rock. Though the record, which featured a cast of well-known guests vocalists, including the legendary rocker Iggy Pop, failed to secure a home on night club dance floors, The Contino Sessions’ more experimental British rock sound nonetheless captured the attention of both the music press and psychedelic rock enthusiasts. “Death in Vegas’ quirky debut, Dead Elvis, was rather pretentious, a mish-mash of live instruments-play-techno big beat and youth/rave-nation trendiness,” wrote Fred Mills of Magnet magazine. However, the group’s follow-up,
Members include Richard Fearless (born c. 1971), DJ, artwork; Steve Hellier (left band in 1998), production, engineering; Tim Holmes (became a full-time member in 1998), production, engineering.
Formed band and signed with Concrete Records, 1994; released debut album, Dead Elvis, 1997; released The Contino Sessions, which featured live instrumentation and guest vocalists, 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Time Bomb Recordings, 31652 2ndAve., Laguna Beach, CA 92651. Website —Death in Vegas at Time Bomb Recordings, http://www.timebombrecordings.com.
continued Mills, “is both diverse and intensely focused… a rock ‘n’ roll record through and through.”
Death in Vegas began to take shape in the early 1990s when graphic artist, amateur photographer, and night club DJ Richard Fearless and producer Steve Hellier, at the time a BBC World Service engineer, started recording demo tapes. Fearless, a former member of bands such as Joy Club and Moral Panic and a resident spinner at the Heavenly Social in London (the same club made famous by the internationally successful techno duo the Chemical Brothers), pursued art as well as music throughout his life. At age 13, he won an art scholarship to attend a fine arts boarding school and later earned a graphic design degree from the London College of Printing. His creative aspirations seemed to run in the family and developed naturally; Fearless’s mother made a living as an art teacher, while his sister designed shoes. His collaborator enjoyed a musical and artistic background as well. Hellier, the son of a painter, noted that his earliest memories consisted of jazz musicians dropping by the family home for impromptu jam sessions.
In 1994, the pair’s early demo tapes came to the attention of the British label Concrete Records. After signing a contract that year with Concrete, which included a clause stating that Fearless would use his skills as a graphic designer for album sleeves and other visuals (including advertisements) related to the band, Death in Vegas released their debut single, “Opium Shuffle,” in 1995 in the United Kingdom. At that time, Fearless and Hellier were known as Dead Elvis, a name that didn’t go over well with Elvis Presley fans and led many club goers to show up at gigs expecting a Presley tribute performance. Thus, they changed the name to Death in Vegas, maintaining their fascination with the pop culture’s obsession with the rock and roll legend.
March of 1996 saw the release of the duo’s second British single and their first outing as Death in Vegas entitled, “Dirt,” which became a popular club scene song. According to the group’s official website at Time Bomb Recordings, the early singles led many to view Death in Vegas as “something of a dance music anomaly; a mixed up clattering garage band with a love of dirty basslines, dub reggae, Vegas-era Elvis, ’60s pop art and James Ellroy thrillers.” However, witthe release of their first album, 1997’s Dead Elvis, “it became clear that Death in Vegas were much more than a couple of good-time studio boffins with a neat line in mashed up breakbeats and Studio One samples.” Influenced by New York art school bands, ska, hip-hop, and techno, Dead Elvis, although not intended to become just another dance record, enjoyed instant success among clubbers.
Consequently, the album was lumped in with the big beat genre, also due in part to Fearless’s continued residency at the Heavenly Social. Nonetheless, Death in Vegas started to see their audience widen. The macabre, disturbing video for “Dirt,” which featured an eight-armed soldier in a garter belt, received regular rotation on MTV’s Buzz Bin program, and Death in Vegas toured the United States for the first time with the techno group Crystal Method in addition to the Chemical Brothers. American audiences were entranced by Death in Vegas’ live shows. Rather than using samplers and sequences for performances as do most electrónica outfits, Death in Vegas opted for an array of live instruments, guitars, and vocals (by guest vocalist Rankin Roger during 1997). Likewise, the stunning visuals implemented during Death in Vegas gigs attracted attention: a collage of pop culture images projected behind the band on grainy 16 millimeter film.
Fearless himself made headlines for the act’s supporting artwork. Encouraging the misguided assumption that the name Death in Vegas suggests a death metal sound, Fearless, along with his graphic artist cohort William Beaven, designed the album sleeves in the spirit of Americana trash culture—complete with gothic lettering, twisted spines, and skulls and x-rays. Fearless and Beaven’s artwork gained so much attention around the time of Dead Elvis’ release that the designs were exhibited at Dazed & Confused magazine’s gallery in London. Dead Elvis earned critical accolades as well, spending the year near the top of several British music press polls.
In the two years between releasing their debut and subsequent album, Death in Vegas remained active within music, art, and entertainment circles. Fearless continued to DJ at the Heavenly Social, in addition to other venues throughout the world, and produced tracks for Scottish solo artist Dot Allison, former vocalist for the group One Dove. Fearless and Allison began dating while working together. In addition, Fearless delved further into filmmaking and won a showing at one of London’s Kentra film nights. He also continued to exhibit his artwork the world over in cities such as San Francisco, Paris, and Tokyo. Another one of Fearless’s many non-musical, on-going projects included a collection of photographs detailing his travels.
During this time, Hellier departed Death in Vegas to concentrate on producing, and Fearless set up his own recording and design studio, which he christened “The Contino Rooms.” Tim Holmes, who helped Hellier and Fearless engineer Dead Elvis, stepped in full-time in 1998 as Hellier’s replacement. Together, Fearless and Holmes recorded Death in Vegas’ second album, appropriately titled The Contino Sessions, which earned the band worldwide critical acclaim.
The Contino Sessions, released in 1999 on Time Bomb/Concrete, revealed a wide range of influences, from rock bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, Can, and Iggy Pop’s the Stooges, to techno acts like Underground Resistance and Primal Scream. Death in Vegas also invoked the music of 1980s neo-psychedelic bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Loop, and Spaceman 3, the groups that so enthralled Fearless as a teen, to figure into The Contino Sessions’ overall sound. “I’m still excited by dance music, but we were trying to get away from the whole ‘electronica’ thing, which seemed to be exploding in America,” Fearless said to Simon Reynolds in Spin, explaining the reasoning behind taking Death in Vegas in a new direction. “It would have been too easy to make an album that rode on that wave.” The group also used live musicians for the album, which further separated the album from Death in Vegas’ debut. “What I love about the best techno is how hypnotic and monotonous it is,” continued Fearless. “When there is a change [in musical structure], you notice it so much more. That’s what we tried to do, but using live musicians. We get the guys to play along to the tracks, and then we sample, rework, and loop the best bits.”
In addition to implementing live instrumentation, Death in Vegas also contacted various rock and roll heroes to add vocals to selected songs, and to Fearless’s surprise, all were willing to participate. As a result, Iggy Pop appeared reciting a morbid tale for the song “Aisha,” Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie added vocals reminiscent of Bob Dylan for “Soul Auctioneer,” and the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Jim Reid sang for the punk/rock track “Broken Little Sister.” “I wanted to work with three male vocalists who were very in tune with each other,” said Fearless in an interview with Liza Ghorbani for RollingStone.com. “And there was a parallel line there, not just in lyrical content, but there’s a dark edge to them. You think Mary Chain, Primal Scream and the Stooges, and there’s some territory there. Certainly the Mary Chain and Primal Scream were influenced by the Stooges.” Other guest vocalists included the London Community Gospel Choir, as well as Allison for the track “Dirge.” While Fearless himself named the space rock song “Neptune City” as his favorite track on the album, several reviewers called attention to “Aladdin’s Story,” which Rob Sheffield in Rolling Stone in 1999 described as “one of the strangest, loveliest songs you’ll hear all year.”
Dead Elvis, (includes “Opium Shuffle” and “Dirt”), Concrete, 1997.
The Contino Sessions, (includes “Aladdin’s Story”), Time Bomb/Concrete, 1999.
Independent, December 5, 1997, pp. 16-17; November 9, 1999, p. 9.
Magnet, October/November 1999, p. 71.
Rolling Stone, October 14, 1999, p. 36.
Spin, October 1999, pp. 125-126.
Toronto Sun, November 20, 1999, p. 54.
Death in Vegas at Time Bomb Recordings, http://www.timebombrecordings.com (December 24, 1999).
Death in Vegas Unofficial website, http://www.cgocable.net/jgage/bio.htm (December 24, 1999).
Rolling Stone.com, http://www.rollingstone.tunes.com (December 24, 1999).
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