Hi-fi aspirations

Singer-songwriter Bill Fox's circuitous path to cult status.

To fully appreciate how Bill Fox got here, you have to first realize where he was.

It was 1988, shortly before his band, the Mice, would jet to Europe for a series of shows to promote their new record. Bill Fox decided he didn’t want to do it anymore. “No longer was that garage-pop thing relevant for the kind of songs I was writing,” Fox said recently from his Cleveland home. “I just kinda let it crumble.”

Bill Fox

Tractor, Friday, July 3

The Mice were Cleveland’s power-pop wunderkinds—part Badfinger, part Replacements, an airtight trio with two glistening slabs of hooks-laden vinyl on their 1985-88 r鳵m鮠Ohio legend even has it that Guided by Voices front man Robert Pollard took notes on Fox’s lyric structure and melodies. But Fox filed away all of the accolades and dropped out of the music scene’s sight.

Eight years later, as a telemarketer with a guitar, a four-track, and a slew of songs scattered over 80 cassette tapes, Fox dropped demos on the desks of 30 independent labels hoping someone would bite. No one did. So Fox and a friend did it themselves, choosing 15 songs from the hundreds Fox kept in a box in his bedroom, then recording them straight to DAT. His hometown label Cherry Pop Records released Shelter from the Smoke in 1996, and Bill Fox was back in the music business. Sort of.

“I was urged to do it for a long time, and after a while you get sick of telemarketing,” Fox said. “I had sold my four-track to pay the rent, so I was just hoping someone might put me on their label and pay to put my records out.”

Someone did. Fox delivered a copy of Shelter to New York’s SpinArt Records (home to another Cleveland band, the Revelers, led by his brother Tommy), who signed him to a record deal and slapped an advance in his pocket. The result: Transit Byzantium, released in May, an uncluttered mix of 18 songs from that same batch of home recordings.

The new record has garnered Fox a national underground buzz, landing him on the cover of CMJ and selling well enough on the West Coast for SpinArt to send Fox on a mini-tour of Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Even with the Mice, he never had shows this far west.

Transit is peppered with Bob Dylan’s savvy, Woody Guthrie’s storytelling, Steve Forbert’s playfulness, Roger McGuinn’s melodies, and Robert Pollard’s moxie. Imagine sparse acoustic folk clashing with Big Starish riffs, moving lyrics that display a witty outlook on love and life. “How many more songs of hate and paranoia can be sung with any kind of originality?” Fox noted. “It’s become a joke.”

The obvious nasal vocal delivery aside, Fox nods to Dylan both graphically and lyrically on Transit. A 1998 Dylan concert ticket stub on the CD jacket was a last-minute addition. (Fox: “We just looked at each other, laughed, and said, ‘Should we do it?'”) And on “Quartermaster’s Wintertime,” Fox remembers a line from more than three decades ago: “There’s no chance at all/That a hard rain will fall/On a quartermaster’s wintertime.”

Fox keeps it simple, tackling traditional numbers like “Mary of the Wild Moor,” yet bypassing the waltzlike delivery of the Louvin Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys for a finger-snapping interpretation straight out of the annals of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” “I subscribe to what Seinfeld says—’When you have rules, it makes the game fun,'” Fox explained. “That’s what I like about the traditional structures of songs. You work within those frameworks.”

While Fox admits a fascination with home recordings—his own and others’—he hopes the success of Transit Byzantium, coupled with his trip out west, might open the doors for studio recording, something he hasn’t done since the Mice split up. “I’m dying to lay some tracks down somewhere,” he said, “I’d love to record a rock ‘n’ roll record, but I’m not in a position to put up my own money. Until then, I’ll just keep recording what I record—lo-fi stuff.

“I’m able to go a few months without working with the money I got from SpinArt,” Fox continued. “But I’m a telemarketer, and I’ll end up in that business again when the money runs out. Just living and writing songs.”