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Veruca Salt is America's Most Wanted

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”’You look hot! You look sexy!”’ As Veruca Salt’s tour van rumbles past barren Missouri flatlands on Interstate 70, Nina Gordon recalls the breathless blandishments she’s endured recently. ”What’s the most ridiculous thing an industry person ever said to you, Jim?”

Her brother, Jim Shapiro (Nina takes their mother’s surname), ponders this for a moment. ”After we’d played, like, eight shows, we were up in Milwaukee and [an A&R exec] said, ‘We want Veruca Salt to turn our label around the way — ”’ A venomous glare from his sister stops him dead. ”No?”

”Sorry. Let’s blow this subject off,” Gordon says brusquely. ”And scratch the ‘You look sexy’ part, too, if you don’t mind.”

Veruca Salt have reason to fear flattery. The Chicago quartet — which also includes singer-guitarist Louise Post, 27, and bassist Steve Lack, 24 — rocketed from novice to Next Big Thing in less than a year. Miners of chart-ready noise-pop nuggets, they ignited a major-label bidding war over the summer that participants rank as the fiercest in memory. Last month, the group signed to alterna-heavyweight DGC Records (Nirvana, Beck, Counting Crows) for what a source involved in the negotiations calls ”the best new-artist deal ever” — a five-album contract that boasts an estimated $500,000 advance, with incentive formulas that escalate to a $2.5 million advance for the fifth record.

But Veruca Salt’s profile — encompassing every contemporary signpost of ”hot” — is both its blessing and its curse: The brightest blip on modern-rock’s radar screen threatens to become more emblem than act.

Even their atypically highbrow roots evince Gen X hallmarks. Drummer Shapiro, 29, and singer-guitarist Gordon, 26, children of a Chicago lawyer, accumulated their musical experience on a relatively privileged plane — he at Yale as bassist in a band named U Thant, she on a year abroad from Tufts in Paris (learning chords from her brother over the phone). Both eventually returned home after college, slackened by unrelated bouts of ennui: ”I was depressed and paralyzed — virtually shiftless,” says Shapiro. Echoes Gordon, ”I didn’t have a plan; I had this open-ended life.”

Focus solidified in the form of Post — a St. Louis native who majored in English at Barnard. Introduced in early 1992, she and Gordon started collaborating on songs; a Chicago Reader ad tossed up Lack — a funeral director’s son whose series of bands, he says, ”never really got out of the coffin room” in which they practiced.

Veruca Salt (a bratty reference to the Charlie & the Chocolate Factory character) may have embarked on the standard garage-band flight path, but timing lifted them into higher altitudes. In A&R circles last year, the buzz on Kim Deal’s Breeders was fueling a thirst for mixed-gender, female-fronted bands, and the Second City had been tagged as a ”Next Seattle” stud farm thanks to hometown successes Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, and Urge Overkill. Salt’s set list, shot through with the twin ’90s bromides of melodic pop hooks and raving guitars, only further stimulated major-label saliva glands.

”We had so many songs ready to go, we wanted to make a record,” says Gordon. So when a four-song demo struck deaf ears at indie pashas Sub Pop, Matador, and Mammoth Records, they signed a three-album deal as the first act on Chicagoan Jim Powers’ fledgling Minty Fresh Records and recorded their debut, American Thighs, for under $5,000.

A March 1994 gig at the buzz-brewing South by Southwest conference in Austin, Tex., ”was really when industry people started paying attention to us,” says Gordon. After the band’s short set, suits fell over themselves spouting hyperbole. Typical spiel: ”If I sign one band this year, I want it to be this band!” Soon Post and Gordon were averaging 17 messages per day on their answering machines, and the nine-month-old band was sucked into the humming ”crème brûlée circuit” of corporate-card wining and dining.

”This happens with a lot of new bands,” says Peter

Mensch, who, along with partner Cliff Burnstein, manages Veruca Salt, as well as Metallica and Def Leppard. ”The way things happen now, every hot new band gets five labels involved. The difference with Veruca Salt is that they had a track on the radio that was doing well.”

Minty Fresh had released that cut, ”Seether,” as a seven-inch vinyl single in March; within six weeks the 2,000-copy U.S. run and the 10,000-copy U.K. pressing had sold out. In America, hungry programmers exchanged homemade DAT tapes of the obscure single, which topped playlists at both Chicago’s Q101 and L.A.’s influential KROQ and currently perches at No. 10 on Billboard‘s Modern Rock chart. That promise drew ”all the big guns” into the fray, says London Records VP of A&R Ken Friedman, one of the band’s many suitors.

In what insiders view as a bid to lasso Salt, DGC signed a distribution deal with Minty Fresh in July and slipped Powers, its owner, an A&R job. According to Mensch, the band was leaning toward Virgin Records — in part because their relationship with Powers ”was up and down.” That prompted a lunch invitation from supermogul and DGC chairman David Geffen. But the band signed on only after Powers licensed Thighs to DGC on Oct. 3, which gave that label the right to up the album’s royalties — something Virgin couldn’t offer.

MTV immediately dropped the $2,000 Super-8 ”Seether” video into its Buzz Bin, and DGC slapped the band onto a bill with label mates Hole. But Geffen execs, burned by criticism earlier this year that their demands may have contributed to Kurt Cobain’s suicide, stridently deny get-rich-fast schemes. ”When you open yourself up to an audience, then obviously you need to be protected at the same time,” says Geffen’s head of marketing, Robert Smith. ”[So] we have to be extremely sensitive to what the artists want and don’t want to do. This is not about jumping in and exploiting a hit quickly.”

Unfortunately, the coincidences that have propelled Veruca Salt’s embryonic career have already chipped their image — and not only in the Chicago bathroom stalls pockmarked with ”Veruca Sucks” graffiti. ”They’re only the thing because everyone figures they’re probably the thing,” says Sub Pop exec Nils Bernstein, voicing a prevalent complaint. ”It’s like, ‘Oh! Veruca Salt — they’re the example of ‘Band to Like.”’

These tyros bear that cross with quickly learned detachment. ”Thinking about music in terms of business is disillusioning,” says Post wearily. But, adds Shapiro, ”you hope that the same reasons you think what you’re doing is good are the reasons people like it. In fact, people like your stuff for all different reasons … only some of which are the things that ever seemed important to you in the first place.”

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