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Knight Time Comes for Doctor Dream

Pop music: New owners with deeper pockets plan to produce more albums, including one by a regrouped Manic Hispanic. They've also signed Zebrahead.

January 27, 1998|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORANGE — Doctor Dream is waking up.

After two sluggish, directionless years, Orange County's longest-running and most prolific record company is getting a fresh start under a team of owners that includes the managers of the hit kid-pop trio Hanson.

The new Doctor Dream is a joint venture between Mercury Records, which is bankrolling the attempted business resuscitation, and the partnership that will run the company: Hanson managers Christopher Sabec and Sterling McIllwaine; Howard Benson, a Los Angeles-based record producer; and Steve Ochs, a Capitol Records executive who moves to Doctor Dream to run daily operations.

The new Doctor Dream team has begun by signing the Orange County band Zebrahead and persuading the sporadically active O.C. spoof-punk band, Manic Hispanic, to regroup for another album.

Ochs said the label aims to put out seven to 10 albums a year, compared to just three 1997 releases and four or five in 1996. Mai Tai Records, a Doctor Dream subsidiary specializing in instrumental music for the retro-lounge pop subculture, may add to that total.

"Our first goal is to really tap into Orange County and Los Angeles [for talent] and have the feel that we really are from someplace," Ochs said, noting that other successful independents such as Mammoth and Matador started from a regional base.

"We want to be the real nexus for [Orange County]," Benson said.

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Doctor Dream became a clearinghouse for much of the interesting independent / alternative rock coming out of Orange County from 1986 through 1994. David Hayes started the company in 1983 by issuing a 45-rpm single from his Santa Ana home, then started putting out albums in 1986. But he never had the investors or major label partner to make Doctor Dream more than a struggling operation.

"It was getting to the point where it was more of a business than I got into it for," said Hayes, whose main motivation was to give bands he liked a creative outlet. (His father, an insurance company owner, funded the label.) "It became a nightmare, trying to collect money, keep afloat and keep positive."

Hayes says he had planned to liquidate last year when Benson proposed buying Doctor Dream with money fronted by Mercury. The sale went through six months ago, and the new management took over this month after plotting its strategy.

All parties declined to disclose the selling price, but Ray Anderson, Doctor Dream's president in 1994-95, said that based on the payoff for his small stake, the new owners "got a steal."

Benson knew about Doctor Dream firsthand, having produced "It's Allright," the last of three albums by the label's most successful band, the now-defunct Cadillac Tramps.

"I always loved the stuff on that label," said the producer, who has also recorded Motorhead, T.S.O.L. and Sepultura, among others.

Doctor Dream had a few successes by small-independent standards, in which titles topping 10,000 in sales may be considered good sellers. But it never had a breakthrough, and no Doctor Dream album has hit even the 20,000 mark, said Josh Agle, a longtime label staffer.

Its top sellers, he said, have been the Cadillac Tramps' 1991 debut album and "Secret Agent Sounds," a spy-film tribute compilation, both of which made it to the high teens.

Still, the new owners say Doctor Dream's catalog of 70 albums helped cinch the deal. They plan to generate quick cash by licensing tracks from the archives for films and TV and by placing them on alterna-rock compilation albums.

Ochs believes the compilations could do especially well overseas: "The Orange County scene the last few years has started to get a lot of notoriety," he said.

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Besides Zebrahead and Manic Hispanic, the new regime expects releases this year from Welt, a Sacramento pop-punk band, and Los Infernos, which plays a roots-punk style akin to the Cadillac Tramps. Also signed are the Orange County punk band Knockout and two local surf-instrumental acts that record for Mai Tai, the Tiki Tones and the Huntington Cads.

"We want bands that will work hard, build fan bases and tour their butts off," Ochs said. "If radio [airplay] comes, that's gravy."

Doctor Dream becomes the third Orange County-based record company with funding from a major label. Time Bomb, in Laguna Beach, is headed by music industry veteran Jim Guerinot and backed by BMG. Way Cool Music, in Sunset Beach, is a joint venture of Jacobs and MCA Records. The other nationally significant O.C. label, punk specialists Revelation Records, moved from Connecticut to Huntington Beach in 1991.

Though Hayes signed bands from across the country, Doctor Dream had a strong Orange County identity, putting out more promising local records than any other record company. They include albums by El Grupo Sexo, Ann De Jarnett, Eggplant, Swamp Zombies, National People's Gang, Joyride and Cadillac Tramps--a good bit of the cream of O.C. alterna-rock from the mid-'80s through the mid-'90s.

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Hayes, who now lives in Arizona, said he became disillusioned with Doctor Dream's business affairs and with griping from bands that failed to see their records turn into moneymakers.

"If the new owners do something with it, I can say, 'I started that company,' " he said. "I believe we created something that, hopefully, now that it's [properly] funded, will go on to do great things."

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