Artist Spotlight: Course of Empire (or; We’re Doomed, But the Show Must Go On)

In writing these pieces, usually the artists fall into one of three categories. The first ones are groups that are marginally popular in a cult way, that flirt with mainstream success, but that they are culturally important in their influence, like Faith No More or Ministry. The second ones are artists that are newer, have a few releases on Bandcamp, but struck me in such a way that I feel compelled to help spread the word, like Maggot Heart and Deth Crux… my God, I love Deth Crux. The third are bands like Truly, who have roots in the 90s, but for some reason just don’t resonate and through poor timing (and usually major label hijinks) just didn’t make it. Course of Empire exists in the third category.

The origins of the band go back to Southern Methodist University in 1984. Guitarist Mike Graff and drummer Anthony Headley both had an interest in cinema, but making movies at that time was expensive, and neither could afford to process the film. They had a professor who was making art films, and the duo started making ambient soundtracks for him. Soon, they were using the TV studio on campus to rehearse, and they decided that they were more interested in music than film.

The duo placed an ad in an independent record store looking for a singer “with an interest in

vegetarianism and ideas concerning mass consciousness”. Vaughn Stevenson was a drifter from North Carolina who happened to stop in Dallas on his way back from Los Angeles, and took the vocalist position. The trio started working on music together in December of 1987, and added bassist Paul Semrad.

The band decided they had a moral and philosophical agenda, and named themselves after a series of paintings by 19th century painter Thomas Cole, depicting the rise and fall of industrialized nations. Course of Empire was born, and played their first show July 4, 1988.  In January 1989, the group went to a showing of Japanese Kodo drummers, and Headley had the idea to add a second drummer to the lineup.

“We had all basically been brought up around the early ’80s gothic sort of stuff,” Graff said. “We had an

interest in dark things, and fairly industrial rock.  But we basically wondered what it would be like if we took the kind of things the Kodo drummers did, but fuse it with sharp guitars and see what happened.”

By March of 1989, the band had enlisted Chad Lovell as second drummer. Lovell was a well known drummer locally, but was fed up with playing in metal cover bands. So, he cut his hair and quit music altogether, and worked part time as a video editor. “It’s somewhat cinematic,” Lovell said.  “That’s how I think about music – like big giant landscapes.  We’re somewhat expansive, dealing with broader imagery.”

But the band wasn’t finished there.

“Standing up on stage sets up all sorts of weird expectations and barriers that we’re just figuring out how to deal with,” Graff said. “We’d put drums out in the audience, and everybody would just be beating and pounding on them.  It was basically this exercise in tribalism.  We would take a pre-written song and turn it into something where we no longer had control over it because it just developed organically.  Sometimes, it was really great and went into weird musical parts that we never could have foreseen. Sometimes, it ended up just being a bunch of drunk idiots just pounding on stuff.”

Eventually, the band had to discontinue the drums because people were getting hurt. “Kids started throwing drums across the room and people were getting hit in the face. I still have a flyer from one of our shows with blood all over it,” Stevenson said.

After gaining a strong local following, the group was invited to record a track for a local music compilation called Dude, You Rock! on Triple X Records (which also included Reverend Horton Heat and Rigor Mortis). The day before the recording, Lovell quit the band. Headley didn’t know both drum parts, and couldn’t play both parts, so the band hired future Pearl Jam drummer Dave Abbruzzese. Abbruzzese would only last about four months before Lovell returned to the band.

(The compilation version is not on YouTube, so here is the Course of Empire version.)

“It’s really ‘Man’s Jig’. We all grow up in our own traditions and there’s this idea that we have the inside track to the truth with a capital ‘T’,” Graff said. “It’s just a frustration with that type of thing. Religion is supposedly about love and all these people are slashing each other.”

Not long after the release of the compilation, a bidding war ensued over Course of Empire between local record labels Dragon Street and Carpe Diem. Ultimately, the band chose Carpe Diem because it was only a one album deal, whereas Dragon Street wanted mulitple albums. “The band chose Carpe Diem because of the three-year commitment Dragon Street wanted. Not knowing what might happen next, we didn’t want to over-commit ourselves,” Semrad said.

Course of Empire (1990 / 1992)

“You always hear the stereotype about the band that’s concerned with the environment,” Stevenson Said. “I hate to say it, but I guess that’s us.”

“It’s our desire to let go and not try to predict, control, and analyze,” says Graff.

The album revels in mysticism, the inevitability of death, the downsides of organized religion, the sustainability of the earth, and busty blonde bombshells. Ok, maybe not the last one. The album sounds kind of flat, and it has the parts that will become great for them in the future, but at this moment they’re kind of disjointed. In early press, the band is often referred to as “U2 with a Bauhaus hangover”… and what I mean by that is that The Dallas Observer called them that, and then continued to throw that line out as often as possible because someone there thought it was really cleaver. Anyway, it’s not entirely wrong, and most of that comes from Graff’s guitar. It is alternatingly spacey the way The Edge’s early playing was, and it’s also chaotic like Daniel Ash, but I think the bigger influence that was often overlooked was Killing Joke’s Geordie Walker. Graff really blends all of these things together in a style all his own.

Course of Empire has some of the ambient style stuff of the early work Graff and Headley did together, some of the darker stuff, but then some heavy punch-you-in-the-face stuff. “P’tah!” opens the album and grows into a rock song from long drum intro leading into “Coming of the Century”. “Copious” is borderline industrial with it’s machine-like drumming (the drumming that usually gets them wrongly placed in the “industrial” category), and “Peace Child” could be the reason for the U2 comparison… with different vocals it could be a mid 80’s U2 track. “Thrust” really shows off the Killing Joke influence, and “Dawn of the Great Eastern Sun” is the long acoustic guitar piece with ambient soundscapes that is totally not at all in line with the rest of the album except to say that it is perfectly Course of Empire.

Carpe Diem’s game plan all along was to market the album to the entire nation, with the hope that a bigger label would pick it up… as is the usual procedure with local, indie labels. After Course of Empire’s release, they were picked up by Zoo, where they became labelmates with Matthew Sweet and Tool. Zoo reissued the album in 1992 in a digitally remixed and remastered edition, but it’s the same track-list, and I never could hear the difference.

Infested! (1993)

After the release of Course of Empire and the Zoo Entertainment re-release, the band was getting some good press, but in light of then current music trends they were starting to get shoved into the industrial category. “There are some industrial bands we like, but we don’t like being dumped into a label like industrial, metal, or gothic,” Stevenson said. “We’re the aftermath of industrial. We’re a post-industrial, anti-rock’n’roll band… Whatever comes out, we do.”

Meanwhile, after the short tour for their debut album, original first drummer Headley left the band. It seems that no reason may have been given, but then again, when your band has sold a total of 100 records over ten years, maybe no one thought it was news worthy. So, the band was on the search for a second drummer, but meanwhile had a local friend Kyle Thomas (at some point he played with Reverend Horton Heat) filling in for live shows.

“We’re trying for Derek Smalls,” Graff said.

Instead of Smalls, the band ended up with Michael Jerome, who was in many local bands and had played with Toadies. The only thing he recorded with Toadies was their self-released cassette single “Dig a Hole”/”I Hope You Die” in 1990.

“We couldn’t find a drummer we could work with,” Graff said. “We finally talked Michael into joining us.”

“I just want to play the drums, grab something to eat, go home, and watch PBS,” Jerome said.

Don’t we all, Mike? Don’t we all?

Before recording their second album, the first for Zoo Entertainment, the group had worked up a cover of Fear’s “Let’s Have a War”. The band recorded it as a B-side for “Infested!”, which was released ahead of their next album.

Another B-side from the single, “Joy”, really could’ve been on the album it’s so good. At the same time, it almost doesn’t fit with the chaos of the full length release. It’s just a shame that it was relegated to B-side status where fewer people would hear it… but let’s face it, probably the same amount of people would’ve heard it on the album anyway.

I’ll get to the actual song “Infested!” later, but the single features and edited version of the track and most importantly, a “Darwin Goodman Mix” which remixes the song with samples of Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing”. The way the disc is sequenced, the single mix and the remix run together into a nine minute rush. Unfortunately, no one has uploaded them together. I know they say be the change you want to see, but I don’t have time for that.

Initiation (1994)

The band had an impressive showcase and CMJ Music Fest in October 1993, and had grown considerably, outgrowing much of their debut. “It’s like when you write letters to a girl you’re freaked out about, and for whatever reason, you forget to mail one of those letters,” Lovell said. “You find the letter two years later and then when you read it, you’re like ‘what was I thinking’?”

While the band still had the same concerns and themes in their songs, they added topics such as the New World Order, Illuminati history, and Chaos Theory. “”We got our hands on conspiracy literature which kind of freaks you out,” Graff said. “It’s exactly what happened to Fishbone’s Kendall Jones.”

“Kendall was one of the founding members of Fishbone and a couple of years ago he split and joined this cult,” Lovell added. “That’s where he still lives and several band members and his girlfriend, who was our A&R agent over at Zoo, tried to get him back from the cult and he ended up suing them and they ended up getting charges pressed against them.  And they ended up losing, like, 80 thousand dollars. He’s still in that cult. I mean, he burned everything that had to do with Fishbone and the white devil pretty much.  But anyway, he had given me that book to check out and he had warned me ahead of time that, “this book will drive you crazy”. And man, it pretty much did.  I have to say it’s a dangerous book.”

… Right. But, they also were turning their focus inward. “You can’t be 18 and angsty forever. The angst has turned into melancholy,” Semrad said.

“We’re trying to be an answer to bands like Ministry,” Stevenson said. “They seem to be so negative all the time. Obviously, we still feel a lot of frustration. But when you start listening to what they’re saying in most industrial songs, it’s just really depressing. We wanted to stand toe-to-toe with someone like that, but try to be more positive. You can’t go around moping forever. We’re just not that way.”

The album version of “Infested!” adds over two-minutes to the single run time, but makes use of the Kodo drumming style, sounding like a clock ticking, or maybe a bomb. Paired with the frenzied, buzzing guitars, the song is an aural assault. “It’s about population control – a kind of joke on the ‘save-the-planet/we’re-all-rats-on-a-sinking-ship’ thing.  Actually, it’s not so much that the planet’s infested as are the people who are on it,” says Graff.

The album continues with a heavy rock assault with “Hiss”, White Vision Blowout”, and “Breed”. “Breed” was, at the time, the band’s favorite track from the album and details humanity’s unsuccessful attempts to suppress the most basic of urges.

The album isn’t all just aggressive rock. “Apparition” is a sweeping almost-ballad about a hallucinogenic vision and a conversation with… an apparition. Walked right into that one. Meanwhile, “Minions” explores more of the capabilities they can do with two drummers.

Closing out the album, is “The Chihuahuaphile”, a Spanish guitar ballad. “That’s just a little joke after all that noise,” Stevenson said. “After all, we’re musicians. We’re just guys in a rock band.”

The band was also getting experimental, whether it was on purpose or not. Lovell was trying to make a distorted deep voice, but that didn’t happen. “We had just watched Hellraiser, and I went over to the board; I was going to try to fuck around with this processor… Something was hooked up wrong and it just started squealing out this weird noise.”

“It’s one of those things where at first you hear feedback and you think ah, that’s bad, and you turn it off,” Graff said. “But if you stop and listen to it, there’s a tonal center to it, and there are all these sounds floating around in there that are constantly generating melodies.”

“You’re sitting here and you think nothing is going on,” Stevenson said. “But then when you hear that, you want to rip the fabric and see what’s really happening. It’s eye-opening. Much of the time it looks like there is nothing going on out there, when in fact there are other worlds, things going on that we can’t necessarily perceive. Just when you think you know what’s going on, you realize you don’t.” 

Course of Empire named the track “The Gate”, and they not only kept this and put it on the album, they attached it to the end of the album’s title track. Maybe this is why the band never went platinum? Food for thought…

Many compact discs of the era had hidden tracks, often times they were a pain in the ass to access. Course of Empire managed to put three on Initiation. Buried in “The Gate”, is “Tomorrow”, which could only be heard by making specific adjustments to the stereo mix. The Benny Darwin Mix of “Infested!” was added at the end of “The Chihuahuaphile”, which was moved to track 23 (the number of the Illuminati), and the band “The Running Man” in the pre-gap of the CD. This is when you first put in a CD, and “rewind” before the first track. Wikipedia lists only 116 CDs using this method, probably the most popular was Songs In the Key of X, which had a Nick Cave and Dirty Three song.

There was a ton of buzz about the band, crowds loved them, and critics loved them as well. The video for “Infested!” had been accepted at MTV for airplay on 120 Minutes, and they toured behind the album, with Prong, Sister Machine Gun, and Machines of Loving Grace, among others… often teamed up with industrial acts.

“We’d like to make enough money on the record to retire from the music industry and go to culinary school,” Stevenson said. “I want to be a pastry chef.”

Telepathic Last Words (1997)

“If you’re not successful, then you make a great record and no one gets to hear it,” Jerome said. “But I guess that happens a lot.”

Course of Empire was having some issues with Zoo Entertainment. Surprised? If you’ve read practically any other write-up I’ve done, you’re not at all surprised. Zoo only put the band on tour for six months to support the album, and then completely dropped the ball in getting “Infested!” on a high-profile soundtrack.

In what can only be considered a stunning plan for the future, the band used the recording budget from Zoo to turn their rehearsal space into a 32-track digital recording studio. “We got about halfway through, and we’re like, are we going to be able to pull this off?” Graff said. “It’s kind of like getting yourself in a situation like the Grinch getting halfway down the chimney and getting stuck.  It’s just a matter of relaxing and getting on through it.”

“I wasn’t going to listen to certain nay-sayers,” said Lovell. “I wanted to buy ourselves some longevity instead of spending a ton of money to go into some big, fancy studio.  We could have spent $175,000 recording in someone else’s studio, and after it’s all over, all we have is this little silver disc.  This way, we can still have our little silver disc, and we get to keep the recording no matter what.”

The band hired This Mortal Coil member John Fryer to produce the follow up for Zoo. Fryer had a track record producing Depeche Mode, Clan of Xymox, Love and Rockets, but perhaps most importantly, Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine. “It was a stroke of luck to have someone like him pop up in your back yard,” Graff said.

Course of Empire completed their third album, but had more hang ups from Zoo. Even the label wasn ‘t sure the status of the next record, with the publicist saying, “I don’t really know what’s going on to be quite honest… we have a record, but we don’t have a release date.” Zoo chose to sit on it, and focus entirely on other, more popular acts.

“I would guess they are looking at funneling a lot more effort into [Tool’s album] to make sure it pops, which, considering they had a platinum record last time, makes sense,” Graff said. “It’s no coincidence that we spent most of our recording budget buying our own recording rig.  It’s not totally ironic that the album is called Telepathic Last Words.”

Because of Zoo’s inattention set the band on negotiating getting released from their contract. The band was able to walk away with the album and the studio. “Part of our deal in leaving Zoo is that we can’t make any disparaging remarks about them,” Lovell said.

Zoo Entertainment went out of business in 1997, and eventually their catalog was absorbed by Sony Music. The band was then snatched up by TVT, who then asked the band if there was anything they’d like to change on the next record before moving forward. So, the band re-sequenced, re-edited, and added four more songs for the album.

Telepathic Last Words retains all of the prior trademarks of the band, yet is somehow more accessible. “It’s like old school glam rock mixed in with what you’d expect from us,” Graff said.  “We were trying to capture the frame of mind before punk happened, when people were still trying to do glam rock.”

The album is named after Harry Houdini’s alleged final trick, to contact his wife from beyond the grave, and veers away from conspiracy theories, and replaces them with the people who are influenced by them. “The Information”, the lead single, details a person working hard and struggling to get by, and can’t grasp why other people aren’t swayed by the information he holds as gospel.

“The last record was about getting caught up in looking for answers in this pile of information that was being passed around in the underground – conspiracies, whatever,” Stevenson said.  “This album is more about just trying to find your own little spot of sanity in the middle of it all.”

“I found it to be much more interesting to look at the psyche of someone who had been more or less swept away by all the paranoia, than the actual ‘conspiracy’ itself,” Semrad said.

The album turns out to be the band’s most accessible release, although that was probably accidental, after all that we’ve already learned about the band. “The Information”, “New Maps”, and a re-recording of “Coming of the Century” from their debut are the ones that sound most like the band’s prior recordings.

“The original had ’80s-style production with really long reverb and stuff,” Graff said.  “We wanted to make it a lot tighter and more raw, so we took a lot of the reverb out. When we originally wrote the song, it was 1989 and we thought, ‘What kind of strange shit will be happening when the millennium rolls around? But now it almost is the coming of the century, so for us to go back and record the song the way we wanted – it’s sort of like saying, ‘Fuck yeah, we’re still here’.”


Two of the tracks added for the TVT release were “Automatic Writing #17”, with its chorus of “If you light yourself on fire, the world will pay to watch you burn”, and one of my favorite songs ever, “Blue Moon”. The original was completed in 1934, but you’re probably most familiar with the doo-wop version my The Marcels. Course of Empire turns the romantic standard into a psychedelic ballad with a middle eastern flair.

As for the album’s namesake, “Houdini’s Blind” details Houdini’s last days as if he had died in a stunt, “You’re doomed, but the show must go on”. (He actually died from either appendicitis or blunt for trauma after being attacked in his dressing room.)

After “The Information” failed to take off… well… anywhere, and the band had an aborted tour with Rob Halford’s industrial project Two, the band returned to Texas in sour spirits. They decided to play one final show, and then call it quits. On July 18, 1998, Course of Empire played its last show ever.

“You know how hard it is to have a relationship with a girl for 10 years? Try having it with four guys,” Stevenson said jokingly. “But we’re alright. I am sort of the one who brought it to a head, but everyone I think feels similarly. In my mind, this was sort of the last record anyway, but I was willing to try to give it a full shot if that’s what everyone wanted to do. Although I’ve changed my mind in the past, I was convinced this was it.”

Other Stuff

Graff put out a live album, Phone Calls From the Dead, in 2004. It’s partially from the final Course of Empire show, and the rest is sourced from crowd recordings. I haven’t gotten it yet, but it seems like he did a good job mastering it, because everything I’ve I read people are thrilled with it.

I could just fucking kick myself. Even though the band has been inactive for decades, the website was selling CDRs of Demos and DVDs of live shows. They were up forever, but have recently been taken down. As of September 2020, there is a post saying that new merch will be available soon. How soon? Who’s to say. Also as of 2020, they still have an email list that is still active.

Graff and Jerome co-founded Halls of the Machine, which from what I’ve heard, is the Course of Empire ambient side stretched out to the length of… a band’s career? I don’t know. They released 2007’s Atmospheres For Lovers and Sleepers and 2017’s All Tribal Dignitaries.

Graff’s personal website hasn’t been updated since January 2016, except to provided a link for “Love For Lovell”.

Lovell co-founded Deep Ellum Radio. Unfortunately, Lovell suffered a fall at home on November 18, 2019. Lovell was airlifted, triaged, and is apparently still in the hospital as of January 11, 2021. Details are slim, for obvious reasons.

Jerome went on to play with John Cale, Richard Thompson, Shelby Lynne, k.d. lang, and joined Better Than Ezra in 2009.

Semrad did some writing for The Dallas Observer, but hasn’t published anything with them since 2011. It appears that he does music and sound design for local theater.

Stevenson has dropped off the planet, probably returning to his nomadic lifestyle.

One more thing before I wrap it up. During the Initiation sessions, the band recorded a cover of T. Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer”. It’s reported that Zoo desperately wanted to put the song out as a single… yet, didn’t. Mrs. Doom really loves this track, even though she knows nothing of this band. So enjoy the song, and see you next week!