The music business is full of hard-luck stories, but no Austin band rose faster and fell harder than metal band Pariah in the 1990s. Like Guns N' Roses three years earlier, they were signed to Geffen Records by golden boy talent scout Tom Zutaut. But there were no multiplatinum records or stadium tours for the former classmates at Clark High School in San Antonio.
"We were on the label for five years and have only one album to show for it," said singer Dave Derrick. "It was a frustrating time, to say the least."
After relocating to Austin in 1990, Pariah regularly sold out 1,000-capacity venues, but on their final show, soon after officially being dropped by Geffen in 1995, they played to less than 300 at their home club, the Back Room.
Two weeks later, the band's bassist and driving force, Sims Ellison, put a shotgun to his face and pulled the trigger.
But in taking his own life, Ellison, who suffered from anxiety and depression for years, eventually helped save the lives of other musicians. His suicide was the inspiration for the SIMS Foundation, which provides low-cost mental health services to uninsured musicians who, because of irregular working hours, low pay, easy access to alcohol and drugs and often-volatile intraband relationships, have a unique set of psychological needs.
"Anytime SIMS sets up anywhere in the public, we have at least one person come up to us and say they wouldn't be there if it wasn't for SIMS," said Tricia Forbes, executive director of the foundation.
Ellison didn't drink or smoke, but the band was his life. When it crumbled and his mates, including younger brother Kyle Ellison, went their separate ways after nearly 10 years of constant camaraderie, it was apparently too much for 28-year-old Sims Ellison. On top of that, his girlfriend of nearly three years, then-unknown actress Renee Zellweger, had broken up with him six months earlier.
"I miss him every day," says Pariah singer Dave Derrick, who will play a Pariah tribute set Saturday at the Austin Music Hall as part of the 15th anniversary SIMS Foundation Benefit Bash. "It bothers me that most people only remember Sims as the guy who killed himself, if they know him at all. He was the sweetest guy you could meet, with a goofy sense of humor. He spent every waking hour working on making Pariah as successful as possible."
Pariah drummer Shandon Sahm, who currently plays with the Meat Puppets, recalls Sims Ellison as full of nervous energy. "He used to say, 'If you ain't stressed, it ain't happening,'" said Sahm, the youngest son of Texas music legend Doug Sahm.
"If he was in a place where people knew him as Sims, the bass player for Pariah, he was totally cool," said Derrick. "But if he was in any other social situation, he couldn't cope. He'd show up at a backyard barbecue and pace for 10 minutes and leave." Derrick said he never saw Sims Ellison finish a plate of food. "He would constantly stir his food, but not eat it."
Derrick wondered if two middle school incidents forged Sims Ellison's social phobia. "When he was about in eighth grade he bought a Mötley Crüe T-shirt at a concert and was robbed of it at knife-point in the bathroom. Then a few months later, a bully went up to him at the mall in front of his friends and cold-cocked Sims for no reason. Knocked him out just to show off," Derrick said. "He knew that, as a member of Pariah, he was protected — no one was going to hurt him."
The three years with Zellweger, when the band was signed to Geffen, were Sims Ellison's happiest, Sahm said. Zellweger's best friend at the time, her "Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation" co-star Lisa Newmyer, dated Kyle Ellison, younger than Sims by three years, and the four practically lived together at the Railyard Apartments downtown.
In December 1994, Zellweger split with Sims Ellison and moved to LA, where "Jerry Maguire" would make her a star less than two years later.
Derrick said Sims Ellison bought himself a shotgun for Christmas that month.
Meanwhile, Geffen Records had decided to drop Pariah and pay the band $50,000 to dissolve the two-album deal. The band, rounded out by guitarist Jared Tuten, decided to take a hiatus after one last show at the Back Room.
"Sims was really bummed about everything," said Derrick, "and I told him he really should get a dog. His eyes lit up and he said, 'That's a great idea!'" That was the last time Derrick saw Sims Ellison, who got a job at Urban Outfitters on the Drag two weeks before his death.
"Some people were theorizing that he killed himself because Renee left him or because the band was being dropped, but it was deeper than that," Derrick said. "Being on Geffen was worse than being dropped by Geffen. That wasn't it. There was something inside him that none of us could see. You play it back in your head, like 'I should've done this or done that,' but the truth is that we were all in shock when it happened."
David Garza, who will serve as music director for Saturday's benefit, is one of thousands of Austin musicians helped by the assistance program inspired by the Sims Ellison tragedy. "I was having a hard time a few years ago with a personal relationship and with my label," said Garza, who released two critically acclaimed but soft-selling albums on Atlantic in 1998 and 2001. "I was raised Mexican American Catholic. We didn't go to therapy — that was for weirdos. If you had a problem, you went to confession." But Garza had musician friends who'd been helped by SIMS, which provides counseling and psychiatric services and refers clients to a network of 60 therapists and treatment centers that charge greatly reduced rates. With an operating budget of $600,000 a year (about 25 percent of which comes from KGSR's "Broadcasts" CD), SIMS helps an estimated 600 Austin musicians a year.
Obviously, such musician-aimed services weren't available to Pariah, whose disappointing career could be summed up by the night in early '94 when the members gathered around the TV to watch their video for "Powerless" debut on MTV's "Headbangers Ball." They waited and waited for almost three hours until just before 2 a.m., when their video aired, the last one of the night.
Signed after a South by Southwest showcase in 1990, Pariah had to wait almost three years until the release of "To Mock a Killing Bird" in 1993. In between, Nirvana exploded and grunge made Pariah's brand of glam metal obsolete.
"Pariah had the worst timing ever," said the band's co-manager Wayne Nagel, who founded the SIMS Foundation in June 1995 with his Austin Rehearsal Complex partner Don Harvey and Sims' father, Houston oil engineer Don Ellison. "If the record had come out the year after they were signed, it would've been a whole different story." Instead the band was forced to wait more than two years while Geffen threw all its clout and resources into the much-delayed Guns N' Roses "Use Your Illusion" two-album project.
"Sims was saying, 'What are we going to do? Metal's not cool anymore,'" Sahm said of one of Ellison's obsessions. "We started off as a hard rock band like Guns N' Roses and somewhere along the line we turned into Smashing Pumpkins. Still, I think we were getting better as a band by expanding our horizons."
Geffen didn't see it that way, according to Nagel. "Zutaut was the king of metal," Nagel said of the A&R man who signed Mötley Crüe and Metallica before Guns N' Roses. "He wanted the band to keep it metal."
Treated like kings by Geffen before "To Mock a Killing Bird" came out, the band couldn't get phone calls returned when the album didn't take off.
Pariah met Zutaut, who did not answer an e-mail request for comment, backstage at SXSW 1990 after a scorching set at the Back Room. "He said he didn't have time to sign another band, but that, just by him coming backstage, we were going to get signed," Sahm said, with a laugh.
Nagel said Pariah received eight offers from labels after that SXSW appearance. It turns out that Zutaut did sign Pariah to Geffen, but he wasn't kidding about being too busy. "It was all about Guns N' Roses," said Derrick. "We weren't the only band put on hold."
Sahm said, looking back, the band should've signed with Chrysalis, who Photoshopped a group photo of the band so they looked at home inside the label's headquarters. "They loved our song 'Shatter Me' and were ready to put it out to radio right away. But instead we went with the big shot. Chrysalis couldn't give us a $100,000 advance, but Geffen did." The label also gave Pariah a $250,000 recording budget that soared to $500,000 by the time the album was finished at Madonna's Maverick recording studio in LA. (Sims Ellison hit it off with Madonna and appeared in her "Deeper and Deeper" video.)
"We were young and stupid," Derrick said of signing with Geffen for the upfront money. "But we were all in it together. If there was any motto with Pariah, it was 'The band comes first.'"
The SIMS Foundation, named after a lovable, yet troubled Austin musician, was formed for what comes next.