Rob (Robert) Zabrecky (06.02.68) hit it off with Celso Chavez (03.22.68- 09.05.12) because of their common love for music while attending Los Angeles Valley College in Van nuts. Both got into music at an early age. In 1989 when they were living in Silver Lake they started performing as an offbeat cabaret / circus act with anyone else they could find. The act could consist of a couple of dramatic skits and then they went into some songs. The first show was at Bebop Records and Fine Art.
In a short amount of time they evolved from coffeehouse regulars into staples of the L.A. club circuit haunting the likes of Al`s Bar, The Palomino, Jabberjaw, Pik-Me-Up etc. They mixed haphazard punk-folk compositions with store-front theater to some measurable success. Early song topics were heavily focused on things that they thought was cool: reckless abandon, girls, takings drugs and not wanting to work a job. In the beginning they had no upright bass guitar, only minimalistic drums consisting of bongos or a floor and snare. Rob mostly sang and played guitar on a couple of songs. Doing minimalistic pop stuff. The early years had the same kind of feel compared to the recording years, just with different instruments. That’s the way Zabrecky remembered it. They weren’t the typical quiet evening entertainment. Possum Dixon shows often resembled unruly jam sessions, with friends and members of the audience joining the group whenever the spirit moved them. The mentality was if you knew how to play an instrument, get on stage and do it. Or if you couldn’t play an instrument and just wanted to jump around and be in a band, they could be a member of Possum Dixon. So they went through a lot of disposal band members, like one show members. The band was also a part of the Silver Lake music scene evolving around the LA celebrated venue Spaceland. When it opened in 1995 the inaugural artist include Possum Dixon, Beck and Foo Fighters.
Robert “Sully” O`Sullivan was the first to make the transition from audience to band member in 1990. A month later Richard Treuel joined the band on drums. Sully knew Rob since junior high, and Rich since he was seven. At one point the three of them lived within two blocks of each other and attended school together. Both of Sully’s brothers played in bands, and he picked up the guitar in high school just like any other stoner. He took lessons for a long time before he decided to: “forget all that shit and PLAY.” Sully was original a guitar player in the band, but he also wanted to play the piano even though he didn’t know how. He always had this thing about piano since it got a lot more capabilities. He rented a piano for six months and hired a teacher. He showed where the keys where, then Sully fired him and bought a used Rhodes. He was kind of screwing around with it at first. Rob asked him to bring it to practice a few times, and it became a mainstay ever since. The piano brings something extra in, something different. His angel of playing piano and to contribute to the music was to put a little something in, or take something out of a song. Sully felt he was rewriting the songs all the time. He didn’t practice at home, and learned piano playing live fridays night or when they rehearsed. This is the same approach Rob learned to play the upright bass. Basically on the stage. Even though rumors have it Rob had one lesson, and when the teacher wasn’t looking he learned Break On Through (The Doors). Sully was considered as the smart one in the band. For Celso and Rob playing live was everything. It gave them the most pleasure of anything. Robert was also loving the concerts, but he was also the one wishing they could have spent more time in studio, being more hands-on.
Richard Treuel played drums in Twister Naked, a band he was really involved with at that time. He knew about Possum Dixon since he went to school with Rob and Sully. So the first time they asked him to join was when Possum Dixon was between drummers. Richard said no. This was in 1991, but later that year he was looking for a change. He’s seen Possum Dixon and really liked their stuff, so he called them up. When Sully and Richard were enlisted it resulted in a fuller musical range moving toward a tighter, more structured sound. Chronicling their hometown’s east side slacker life with a pop-rock sensibility. Musically the songwriting sessions were free-form. It usually starts with an idea, words and a couple of bars. Zabrecky said in an interview with LA Times (1993) that he had no explanation about the songwriting process: “It’s a void for me, it’s an enigma. I pick up the guitar, words comes out, music comes out, its falls out and it’s done. I wish I knew how, man. I’d write a lot more songs.”
The name for the band was chosen when a local publication needed to print one. Almost without thinking Chavez suggested Possum Dixon while watching a segment of «Americas Most Wanted» about Southern fugitive James «Possum» Dixon. The name stuck. I guess after a while they got tired of answering questions about the band name. In an interview with RAD magazine Zabrecky came up with an alternative explanation:
“It was an actual car in the sixties, good ol`Possum Dixon. I think it was Chrysler or Plymouth that put it out. It was like a demo car that was never released for production. I mean it wasn’t legit car name, it was just a slang name for it.”
The band had an inner drive to keep playing music. Being in a band gave meaning. To meet with friends with the same gripes and play some songs was the greatest release of frustration. And they kept on hustling to keep things moving forward. Richard was working in an advertisement company bringing bagels, coffee and doughnuts, same as Celso was doing somewhere else. Sully was working in a customer service department for a post house on a weekend shift. Since they couldn’t afford a rehearsal space they did the next best thing: they stole it. Zabrecky worked as a mailroom clerk for a company (no name mentioned). He found out the company had an offsite warehouse. All they needed was to crack an alarm code and duplicate an office key. They started to rehearse there about 4 times a week. They went out after office hour, and practiced all night. The electric bill was reported to be astronomical. By day they hide the equipment with boxes. They even shot a music video there, the first version of Watch The Girl Destroy Me. Beside rehearsing they used fax machines, sent out flyers and stole paper. The bond between band members grew strong aiming for the same goal. And Possum Dixon had that anti-establishment attitude and the need to rebel against the mainstream. In the early years when the happening thing in L.A. was heavy and loud, the band sometimes got billed with some of the heavier punk bands like Vandals and Mentors. The kids gave them a hard time because they wanted to hear punk music. So Possum Dixon gave the punk kids everything they didn’t want to hear. As Robert described in an interview with Flipside (1992): “I thrive on that shit. The heavy looks and stuff.”
After years of gigging coffeehouses and dives in hometown Los Angeles, rehearsing three times a week, designing its own t-shirts and bumper stickers, creating dirt cheap videos and by 1992 Possum Dixon had logged a number of mini-tours, launched their own label Surf Detective Records and produced self-released 7 inch singles and cassettes and a 3×7 inch box released by Pronto Records. When they started up the music scene was closed to a band that played neither garage, grunge, posing pop or metal. But the boys knew that growing up in L.A. today’s lunch is tomorrow’s garbage. For the last 3,5 years the band been playing a show every week. That’s one of the main reasons a strong following was built and eventually the band found themselves part of a flowering art-infused, indie and coffeehouse scene in Los Angeles. In the early years staying true to yourself was one Possum Dixons strengths.
The band never shopped their tapes for a record deal. They established their own record label, Surf Detective (1992), and by the release of Nerves / Who You Are 7“ they already got a manager, Jay Scavo (J. Scavo Artist Management). And how they got the attention from Interscope Records was not based on tapes they sent, but by playing at the South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas. They played in a warehouse that easily could fit 1000 people, only 30 people or less attended the show. At least 10 of the audience where friends of the band. During the show a cab with an A&R rep from Interscope Records pulls up, with two babes on each side of him, at the same time the band was playing the last chord of Days Of Wine And Roses. He had stopped the cab because the chords and chorus was pulling him in. When he introduced himself to Rob and that he was from Interscope Records, Rob blew him off. The man was Chuck Reed, formerly a roadie for Rank And File and D.I. At the same time someone else at Interscope had a tape of Possum Dixon, so I guess the herd theory kicked in and they gave Possum Dixon a call. One of the reasons they got signed was that the record label said “We want you the way you are”. They had confidence in the band because they had confidence in themselves.
The band was known for its hectic live shows. The Times (1994) wrote in a review that they all came from the bowling-pin school of rock stagecraft, repeatedly flopping to the floor, wrestling with each other or rolling about while attempting to extract something more or less (usually less) coherent from their instruments. Rob swinging his bass around like a psychotic dance partner, Sully playing his keyboard with his face or while kneeling on top of the piano and Celso jumping into everyone and everything like a juiced pinball. Celso said in an interview with The Times (1993) the band approached its live shows as a “big celebration, chaos, just having to release a lot of tension”. In the early days the band could end the set where Zabrecky shoved the microphone into his mouth, put a pair of pantyhose over his head and then do a Madonna medley consisting of Lucky Star and Like A Virgin while he was writhing on the ground as Chavez banged his guitar. Zabrecky: “We`re not shoe-gazers. We`re up there celebrating. The idea is to get people on their feet dancing.” The band was distinguished as The Band Who Wiggles While They Play.
For the debut album they hooked up with the record producer Earl Mankey because they wanted someone familier with L.A. music. Interscope had never heard about him and wanted someone more current. Earl Mankey used to be a guitar player in Sparks, and has produced L.A. bands like The Runaways, Concrete Blonds, 20/20, Permanent Green Light and of cores Sparks. As an engineer he has worked with Elton John, The Beach Boys, The Cramps, The Addicts to mention a few. The plan was to record “a timeless album”. Try to recall the energy and focus of those old records by the Police, the B-52s and others without seeming trapped in the past. Possum Dixon had Earl come in every day, and the band was pleased that none of the arrangement where changed to the songs. He only simplified them. And he let the boys have control over the creativity. They even co-produced the album with Mankey. He basically let the band go as loose as they wanted. Mankeys attitude was that he wasn’t there to change, he was there to capture. When they had an idea, he usually responded: “Its your song, you guys knows what’s going on”. The band finished the record in 6 weeks and way under budget. There are no tricks on the album, they did all that live. Zabrecky said in an interview with Puncture (1994) that the whole album literally occurs within a few block between USC and the Dodger Stadium. It’s an 11 song ode to L.A. They had created an album that fully captures what it’s like to be young, creative, broke, involved in a series of neurotic relationships, stuck in horrible day jobs while living in one of the most “glamorous” cities in the world. The L.A. iconography keeps coming up throughout the record. For Zabrecky it was a surprise that people actually listen to the words on the album. And people at the same age (Zabrecky 25 years old) used to approach him after shows to say they empathize with the record because they had jobs they hated. With the debut album out the band embraced their new lifestyle with a mixture of unadulterated awe and caution. In an interview with BAM; Magazine (1993) Sully described his hopes and fears about the record:
“You got your dick flying in the wind. You’re scared that the CD will bomb…but then what if it does something amazing? I want the record everywhere. I’ll be bummed if it doesn’t get a fair chance, but wherever it lands, it lands, you know”.
Rich still couldn’t believe they got their own band and traveling across the country simply because of their music. They got a kick when their songs appear on radio channels like KROQ, or couldn’t believe they were doing in-store concerts like the Tower Records on Sunset under a huge poster-board mock up of their CD. Celso was reported to be most comfortable with his new situation already acclimating himself to life on the road describing it as: “It’s beautifully strange.”
After the release they immediately embarked tour schedule throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan headlining and supporting groups such as the Dead Milkmen, The Lemonheads, Reverend Horton Heat, X, and Violent Femmes. In the UK they played at the NME / Melody Maker stage at the Reading festival. They toured for about 2 years supporting the debut album. They appeared on such television shows as Late Night with Conan O’Brien and MTVs 120 Minutes to promote their album.
When the album was released, radio stations picked up “Watch the Girl Destroy Me”. Aided by a steady flow of both radio airplay and MTV airplay (the song’s hit video), the track hit No. 9 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart in the U.S. Sales grew, quickly swelling to over 75,000 copies in just over few months (according to SoundScan it sold around 31,000 units.) In 1994, as they were gaining momentum, Interscope refused to release a second single although the record was selling strongly. The label basically dropped promotion of the album after about six months. At that time, Beck and Weezer were just starting to enter the charts, and Possum Dixon found themselves passed over for a second chance at broader success. So Possum Dixon started to experience what many others band has been through, the feeling that the record label didn’t see their vision. Interscope didn’t think the album would fly at radio, so they didn’t do much with it. In the book Majorlabelland And Assorted Oddities (by Peter Crigler) Zabrecky said that Interscope marketing department wanted to sell him as some sort of “foxy lead singer poster boy”, but that notion was fought tooth and nail and didn’t happen.
In the spring of 1995 the group was recording their second Interscope release Star Maps. This time the band chose Boston producer Tim O’Heir (Sebadoh, Folk Implosion, Superdrag) to capture the band’s dark, moody, new wave-ish emotions. Originally the album was supposed to be called Griffith Park located NW of the Dodger Stadium (check the back cover of the album). The band has always included traces of L.A. like Millie’s Diners, Silver Lake, Echo Park into their songs. It was written and recorded under the influence of hard drugs. It was a turning point from being a band of school friends to becoming a band on the edge of self destruction. A close friend of Zabrecky committed suicide from depression. The shock of the loss took a heavy toll on the whole band, exacerbating an already out of control drug issue. And to add more chaos Rich Treuel quit the band. So they had session drummer Josh Freese (Devo, Guns N Roses, Sting, Nine Inch Nails) and re-introducing Byron Reynolds to finish up the album. Byron used to be a member of the band in the heydays of cassette demos which he helped produce. He was the permanent drummer till the band broke up in 1998.
Zabrecky said in an interview with Verbal Rocket (1998) after the first album they lost focus as a group. At the time self destruction seemed like a good idea during the recording of Star Maps. And the result is a record that twitches and throbs with a chewed fingernails sense of worry that often spills into panic. Again the critics were positive. Raygun magazine described the group as “a rough-yet polished band whose anguished pop songs and intelligent, esoteric lyrics are love themes for the dysfunctional 90s”. After the release the band started a new touring schedule. This time it wasn’t as exciting as the first time they toured. Seeing the world through van windows. They got booked for the 2nd stage at the fifth annual Lollapalooza in 1995. Main attraction on this festival was Beck, Pavement and Sonic Youth. According to SoundScan Star Maps sold a disappointing 7,300 units. But the album Star Maps was the bands own favorite.
After the touring schedule was over, the band released two EPs: Sunshine Or Noir and Tropic Of Celso. They also contributed a song to 1997’s We Are Not DEVO tribute album. Around this time Robert O’Sullivan quit to pursue other interests. In an interview by No-FI magazine (1997) Zabrecky answered this when asked about the real deal behind the departure of Robert:
“So ah, I would say creative differences only because he got lot of really good ideas and he’s really smart and really talented. I think in some ways he kinda outgrew the band. He was growing in a different way though. We are all definitely going somewhere and we are in transition…but he was heading somewhere else and, you know, we started this band so we could do things that were different. We weren’t gonna be having these restrictions and once when we felt we were restricting each other, that’s when he felt it was time to split.
Possum Dixons long term ambitions were modest and practical. They had no bombastic dreams of headlining Lollapalooza. The goal was to sell a couple of hundred-thousand records, and still play the smaller venues. Half the goal was to stay out of day jobs.
When the band was hitting studio to record the third full lenght album the band was consisting of Zabrecky, Chavez and Reynolds. During the process the band enlisted the help of longtime friend and guitarist Matt Devine. He played guitar on the first version of Watch The Girl Destroy Me from 1990. Even though the band was somewhat critical of the groups label Interscope since the release of the debut album in 1993, things were more positive for the third releases. They band worked hard with the label to come up with something they both liked and bent a little to find a happy medium. Part of finding that middle ground turned out to be drawing in several established artist to contribute to the project. Fred Schneider (B 52s), Dave Stewart (Eurythmics) and Jane Wiedlin (Go-Gos) pitched in on the songwriting. For production they hired Ric Ocasek (The Cars). The pairing with Ocasek was arranged after Ric placed a call to Interscope head Jimmy Iovine about the albums demos. Up to that point the band didn’t know much about him as a producer, other than the Weezer album and a Bad Religion record that they didn’t listen to a lot. But when they started to work together they said he spun them out creatively. Songs that the band were going to scrap, things that Zabrecky wouldn’t play to his worst enemy, turned out to be some of the things Ocasek liked. Steve Berman (Interscope head of marketing) said the label, after working through peaks and valleys with the band, is looking forward to breaking the act on a large scale. In other words: the group was pressured by the record company to deliver a hit single. The end result is an album that was more The Cars than Possum Dixon, and overshadowed what the group was best known for. Following the release, the group became even more disillusioned and broke up. New Sheet is a product of friends staying together as a band for a few extra years because they didn’t knew what else to do.
Since the beginning as wild teenagers and guys in the early 20s both Zabrecky and Chavez regularly over-indulged when it came to drugs. Smoking crack, taking heroin and pills. They were doing exactly what they wanted to do: making records for a major label and touring the world. And as Zabrecky stated: «life couldn’t have been any better for a good five years». But drugs started to take a toll on the band, and at the end of the 90s the band had burned out. And drugs had a lot to do with it. Zabrecky got sober in 1996 and gave up lifestyle he had fallen into using a lot of intravenous drugs. But Chavez wasn’t ready to make that commitment at that point, and they parted. During touring to support the new album Celso left the band to “pursue personal interests”. The band continued the tour with Rob, Byron, guitarist Carrey Fosse and keyboardist Stan Fairbank. Celso Chavez died on May 9 2012 after complication from staph infection led to pneumonia. Celso had been doing a lot of harm to his body for a long time, and it finally took its unfortunate toll.
- Rob Zabrecky: vocals, bass guitar, double bass (1989–1998)
- Celso Chavez: guitar, vocals (1989–1998)
- Robert O’Sullivan: guitar, keyboards (1990–1997)
- Rich Truel: drums (1990, 1992–1995)
- Byron Reynolds: drums (1991, 1995–1998)
- Steve P: drums (1992)
- Bryan Kovacs: drums (1989–1990)
This biography is compiled from articles online, magazines, radio and TV interviews.