A few years ago, when I was working as an intern for X-treme Radio, I was standing at the station's van outside a concert when a woman accosted me and demanded to know why Hemlock was never played on local radio. I stammered my way through some sort of explanation, doing my best given that I wasn't really a station employee and therefore hardly privy to executive decisions. She kept at me, not satisfied with the answer and determined to find out why a band from Las Vegas which had been around longer than nearly any other local band, regularly drawing hundreds or even thousands of fans to shows all across the Southwest, and was on the radio in other cities couldn't get airplay in its hometown.
I still don't know the answer. "I guess if I sang a little bit cuter, and a little prettier, they probably would play us," jokes Chad Smith, Hemlock's singer, bassist, songwriter and sole original member, a never-say-die metalhead who's shepherded his baby through 11 years of lineup changes, financial hardship and endless weeks on the road. He's also seen the band to unprecedented popularity, released five albums (including the new Bleed the Dream) without the benefit of a record label, toured with such national acts as Slipknot and Slayer, and managed to make a living solely from playing music for the last eight years.
With all the talk about the Killers right now, Hemlock is the true Vegas success story, a band that has gone past buzz and trends and become a self-sustaining machine. Smith and his band mates (drummer Jerry Walker and guitarists Brandon Wiebke and Kris Shadden) spent $15,000 of their own money to record Bleed the Dream, working with producer Mikey Doling, who has played with hard-rock acts Snot and Soulfly. They'll make it back in merchandise with ease, as Hemlock is one savvy marketing machine, pushing everything from standard T-shirts and CDs to panties, mousepads and antenna balls at their concerts and on their website, www.hemlockworld.com.
"Even though I'm the lead singer in the band, I'm the first one out there always flyering," Smith says about promoting the band. He's prepared to keep doing it, too—not willing to go for the first label deal that comes around. "We wouldn't turn down a deal, if we got the right offer," he says, but he's obviously wary after being close to signing a few times only to get burned. "We're out touring the U.S. and doing it, making it happen, we just don't have the label support behind it," he adds. "Which all a label really is, anyway, is a bank loan with interest on it, because you've got to pay back all the money they loan you, plus some. They know how to get the distribution, but we have distribution ourselves. They know how to buy ads, but we can buy ads. It's cool to see a lot of good bands coming out, but it's also kind of hard to see them try and make it or break it, because the labels have such huge expectations for them."
Whatever the setbacks—whether near-misses at label success, the continued shut-out on Vegas radio or the departure of more band members (including Smith's own brother, Brian, the band's former drummer)—Smith will keep Hemlock going because it's his passion and his life. "It'll run through my head for half a second," he says about quitting, "and then I'll get some e-mail, or I'll get some letter in the mail about how we helped a kid out in New Mexico or out in Louisiana or wherever."
"Plus," he adds, "all the lyrics on our CD are about not giving up on your dreams, so I don't want to be a hypocrite."