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POP EYE

Bob Pfeifer, Talented Talent Scout

July 19, 1987|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

For the past seven years, Bob Pfeifer has been knocking around the music scene, trying to convince a major-label A&R exec to give him a shot at the spotlight. A bona-fide underground popster, Pfeifer founded the Human Switchboard, a short-lived group that produced one critically beloved album ("Who's Landing in My Hangar"), then broke up, leaving Pfeifer with a solo career (he recently put out an album on Jem Records).

But Pfeifer doesn't have to worry about attracting talent scouts anymore. He's signed with Epic Records--but as an A&R man, not a performer.

Now in New York, Pfeifer plans a move to Los Angeles next month, where he'll be on the look-out for a new generation of "cutting-edge" bands. Epic has never been known as a particularly adventuresome label, but Pfeifer insists that's about to change, largely due to the presence of Epic's new A&R chief, Don Grierson.

"He's really a hip guy," said Pfeifer, who still talks a lot more like a shoot-from-the-hip musician than a polished exec. "The label really seems willing to take more chances and go off in a lot of different directions. We just signed a skateboard act out of Chicago, we're doing dance 12-inchers now and I'm listening to a tape right now of a guy that sounds a helluva lot like Leonard Cohen. So I'm happy, and I haven't even gotten a paycheck yet."

Pfeifer insists that he'd be just as content signing a commercial band as an offbeat one. "I'd love to sign an act that could sell a million records--and still be cool," he said. "The priority is looking for wild ideas and unusual combinations. I really like all kinds of music, just as long as its not pretentious or fake.

"I mean, I used to (have sex) listening to the first side of Miles Davis' 'Jack Johnson' album. I like Tom Petty, Bryan Adams and Rosanne Cash. And I'd love to take a band like Firehose and have Robert Palmer and Ornette Coleman produce them. So, how's that for a spectrum?"

Still, what persuaded Pfeifer to put aside--at least for the near future--a still-promising career as a performer? "Well, I don't see this as leaving music, just approaching it from a different direction," he said. "But I didn't want to end up like Willie Alexander, Jonathan Richman or some of these guys who are washing dishes instead of doing their next album. I'll always write music and produce it--but Epic is the priority in my life right now."

Pfeifer is by no means the first artist to make the transition to record exec. Paul Atkinson, who was a member of the Zombies, is now a successful A&R exec at RCA Records, while Bobby Colomby, once the drummer in Blood, Sweat & Tears, worked as a talent scout for Epic and Capitol before leaving for a career in TV.

Pfeifer acknowledges that he's not a typical A&R exec. "I've been phoning bands, you know, musicians that I've known for a lot of years. And they're really surprised. They say 'no one's ever called us up before--we're supposed to call you!' "

As for the move to L.A., Pfeifer says he isn't worried. "I was out in the spring and it was great. If I woke up depressed, I'd look outside and it was sunny and I'd say, 'Geez, how can you be depressed when it's so sunny outside?'

"And I'm learning all the right slang so I can make myself understood. You know--'That's really severe . . . or totally rad ' . . . and I'm getting some sunglasses right away."

Now if Pfeifer could just master the most crucial aspect of A&R existence--filling out expense accounts. "I've got all these receipts in my wallet, so I've got to learn how to do that stuff," he said. "But I'm not complaining. I've lived in poverty for so long, it's nice to be able to finally pay the rent."

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