There are only so many times you can play Salt Lake City. You can rule supremely at whatever local club you like, but sooner than later you gotta load up the truck and move to Beverly; mow a new lawn, find a fresh market for your music. For Chris Stearman, the summer of ‘99 was the time and his bandmates in Ramona Sway, which Stearman and guitarist Eli Probst formed from the debris of the once-promising local rockers Wish, decided to follow suit. Destination? Los Angeles. Result?
“L.A. sucked,” says Stearman, “but it taught me what I need to know to be in this business. Things like what practices a ‘good’ band employs, and what kind of ethics control this industry.” He pauses, then adds, “I’d have to say my L.A. experience kicked my ass, but I came away wiser than when I left.”
Wiser, yes, but also depressed, poor and tired. And without a band. Salt Lake seemed like a good place to recuperate and, despite his L.A. experience, build a new band, Medicine Circus. The name would come from a comment Stearman’s father made some eight years earlier. “When I was 18, I did a report on nationalized vs. privatized medicine and I interviewed my father, a practicing physician at the time. During the interview he said, ‘It’s like a fuckin’ circus ... like some medicine circus.’ So, years later, it resurfaces as the name of my band.”
Through placing newspaper ads and posting fliers all over town, Stearman met up with guitarist Ben Moffat, whom he began informally jamming with. Drummer Landy Alger, however, would be the official second member of Medicine Circus and the bassist would be Rob Brian. This first incarnation of Medicine Circus would begin playing out in Spring 2001. Four months later, Moffat would enlist, only to see Brian split. “So, back to the flyers I went,” says Stearman. Christian Wadsworth responded and Stearman has “never worried about the stability of Medicine Circus since.”
To avoid some kinks—chiefly in the creative dynamic—that existed within Wish and Ramona Sway, Stearman established a nothing-sucks, we-explore-everything policy. “Anyone in the band can contribute anything they want. If they want to write a certain kind of song, I and everyone else will do our best to make it so. But no one can ever dislike anything. All that does is limit the ideas and creativity that would otherwise flow freely. Last time I checked, we are in the business of being creative. Why would I fuck with that?”
Well, guess what? It works. On their debut CD, Empty, Medicine Circus, in mining the maybe too-familiar sounds of Stone Temple Pilots and Radiohead, find a sweet psychedelic prescription: guitars and vocals rule in tandem; mood is the goal. For instance, “Sway” opens the disc, literally picking up where Ramona Sway left off: it was the final track on RS’ Thrill For TV (at least the lyrics are the same). Stearman jettisoned the original Pearl Jammy arrangement for a more paisley bouquet of jangly guitars and ethereal, overdubbed vocals, more suited to Medicine Circus’ aesthetic.
It’s a fine introduction, although Stearman has already dissected it and begun plotting Medicine Circus’ sophomore release. The first track, “Beneath the Undertow,” has already been recorded with engineer Henry Miller (Luv Apple), who has given it a sonic Hi-Pro glow. “Empty is just a little repetitive. Everything on it has been reworked and has evolved. We’ve learned a lot about writing and arranging. Henry has contributed greatly to our band’s progress and we share many of the same ideals. We just hope he likes us as much as we like him.”
The band plans to complete the disc for an April release, at which point they’ll hit the road. Not to L.A.—just a tour. But first and foremost, they’ll court Salt Lake crowds. “Touring is absolutely essential. But I also believe that if we can’t develop a large enough fan base in our hometown, there is really not a lot of hope for us. So that leaves us with one option: draw a crowd or die.”