By Dew Ailes
By Chad Garrison
By Mabel Suen
By Chris Kornelis
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By Allison Babka
By Daniel Hill
Local clubs are littered with the ghosts of bands who signed national major-label record deals after experiencing regional success. A few made tiny ripples at MTV or on the radio; fewer still made Story of the Year-size leaps to mainstream ubiquity. Arguably, though, many of these local boys done good -- Stir, Radio Iodine, the Bottle Rockets and yes, even the Urge -- became more than blips on the regional radar because of Gravity Kills.
The quartet's backstory is legendary in local circles. After their song "Guilty" appeared on the 105.7-FM-sponsored Pointessential, Volume 1CD, the pulsating tune became a monster hit on local airwaves in 1994 -- before Gravity Kills even had a record deal. Thanks to Nine Inch Nails, trendspotters immediately lumped the band in with the industrial-/electronic-rock emergence that was happening at the time. But bassist Kurt Kerns stresses that his band's lineage wasn't based on Trent Reznor's platinum-selling empire of dirt.
"Gravity Kills, what it was born from, was trying to take drum 'n' bass beats -- or for that matter, we loved big beat music at the time," he says. "We were combining this with big guitars.
"I'm not going to say I don't like Nine Inch Nails, and I wouldn't say they're not an influence. But one of the most frustrating things for us was being lumped into that category. I didn't even own a KMFDM record before Gravity Kills. I always thought of us as tech-rock, not necessarily industrial."
Whatever genre Gravity Kills did (or did not) fit into, TVT Records liked the band and won the label bidding war that erupted. (Fun facts: American Idol judge and then-A&R dude Randy Jackson approached the band about signing it to a label, and Atlantic Records reportedly inked the Bottle Rockets to a deal after seeing a St. Louis gig -- during a trip where the label had come to town to ostensibly woo Gravity Kills.) Appearances on the Se7en and Mortal Kombat soundtracks and an opening slot on the Sex Pistols' 1996 reunion extravaganza helped make Gravity Kills' self-titled debut a strong seller.
These halcyon days didn't last, however. The A&R man who signed the group left TVT -- and Gravity Kills' second album, 1998's Perversion, fell through the cracks. In fact, after the group's dissolution three years ago, few thought a Gravity Kills reunion would ever happen.
"I told myself I'd never, ever set foot onstage with that band again," vocalist Jeff Scheel says. "I just wanted to leave it in the past, and then I could romanticize it."
Keyboardist Doug Firley expresses similar thoughts: "I'd never thought that we would play again. I had offers to be in other bands and do projects to get onstage. But I really considered myself fully retired [from performing] and really happy with that. I had done everything I wanted to do."
Their hesitation is understandable, judging from how Gravity Kills ended. In 2002 the band was on Sanctuary Records, having extricated itself from the TVT deal. By this time, Kerns had left the band, citing a desire to spend time with his family and to return to practicing architecture. The parting was amicable, but his departure changed the chemistry of Gravity Kills' core -- especially because Firley, Kerns and guitarist Matt Dudenhoeffer had been making music together since they were young teenagers growing up in Jefferson City.
Still, all seemed well as the band began supporting its third CD, Superstarved. But as the year progressed, the band's relationship with the label suddenly became rather similar to a romantic relationship spiraling into splitsville. The tour support checks stopped coming. Distribution disappeared. According to Firley, even a local Best Buy they visited didn't carry copies of the CD -- or even know the band still existed.
"We did what we thought was a really fantastic record," Firley says. "Our single 'One Thing' was climbing the charts. And we got forgotten, basically. We never really got a straight answer [from the label] as to what happened. That was pretty much the writing on the wall, with them not supporting the record."
Dejected, nearly broke and crippled by more bad luck -- Firley broke his hand after slamming it into his keyboard apparatus -- Gravity Kills returned home and had to sell off the components of the recording studio it owned. Its members scattered to different occupations: Dudenhoeffer returned to an engineering job, while Firley went on tour with Alicia Keys as a keyboard tech and then worked as a draftsman before forming the production team Shock City Productions with Chris Loesch.
So the question remains: Why toast the past, when band members so diligently established lives distinct from Gravity Kills? According to Kerns, their careers are precisely what helped facilitate the gig, after idle reformation chatter cropped up a few months ago.
"We all had success in other areas of our lives now," he says. "It felt like we could come back and do a show now -- and not, one, look like we were trying to live in the past, and two, we weren't trying to hang onto something that wasn't happening or there anymore. It's easier now to go onstage now -- the victorious warrior not of music, but of other aspects of our lives."
Scheel now works in Oklahoma City as a representative for local and regional bands; he's also in a new group, Star 13. Kerns works for the architecture firm the Lawrence Group and has helped design sleek office and studio spaces for alternative radio giants such as KROQ-FM in Los Angeles and Live-105 in San Francisco.
His current project in St. Louis involves designing a combination living space/ recording studio/commercial zone in the Benton Park historical district. In fact, the recording studio will be called Shock City Music Works -- an entity that belongs to Firley and Loesch's Shock City Productions. (Shock City's success -- besides working with locals Tobi Kai & the Strays and On Tracy Lane, Firley is in talks with a new national record label to start producing its bands -- caused it to outgrow its west-county digs and merited this expansion.)
In the end, no one in Gravity Kills is sure what to expect from Friday's show, although whether their skills are intact is at least not a concern.
"The other night, Matt and I got together, and Doug; we went through the set for the first time," Kerns says. "Three songs into it, we looked at each other -- we just had this grin. It was like an old jacket that fits really well. It was like, 'Yeah, this feels good.'"