Testify – John Reen Davis and Bob Weber of the Anarchitex
Punk Rock has been so commercialized, commoditized, and tamed that these days you can likely turn on Disney channel and find some teen sitcom with a character that superficially swipes from the genre. But it wasn’t always that way. Punk actually had something to say and that made a lot of society antsy and given the political turmoil of the Reagan 80’s the genre was filled with biting social commentary and youthful angst. Houston’s scene was no exception and so music and art flourished in the “scary” Montrose where all the stoners, hippies, faggots, and other walks of society shunned by suburbia resided. It was a place where cheap rent gave way to an explosion of music and art.
One band that rose from that era was the much beloved Anarchitex. The band – which boasts members of Really Red, Happy Fingers Institute, and The Pain Teens – reunited a couple of years ago and this weekend they celebrate the release of a new album. It’s an album that, despite the band’s elder statesmen status, is brimming with youthful fire, scrap, and angst. Hell, it’s why yourPunk Rock Card application was rejected. Clearly, age hasn’t dulled their knives. We contacted vocalist John Reen Davis and drummer Bob Weber to discuss the band, the CD, and Punk rock.
FPH – For the uninitiated why don’t you give a brief history of the band. Some people may not realize that the Anarchitex have been around for a while.
Davis – When I met Torry he was in a band called the Beatless. We were involved with a group of poets and Torry wrote music to some of my poetry which turned out very well, When the Beatless broke up Torry asked me to join his new project called Anarchitex, Originally Torry did most of the songwriting and vocals I just came on for a few songs toward the end of the set. In fact we still do a couple of Beatless tunes.
Come to think of it, he may have just wanted help carrying his instruments. By the way, Anarchitex is still Torry’s band. He’s cool about everybody having input but Torry makes the final decisions. I’m just the guy he asked to do vocals. Even the reunion was his idea. HFI was my project in the same way.
FPH – Tell us about the new record, where it was recorded, how the material came together, the writing, production and everything else?
Davis – The basic tracks were done at Sugar Hill Studios with Andy Bradley on the board. This was primarily so we could get a professional sound on the rhythm tracks. We did that part on reel-to-reel. The rest was done in Scott’s home studio.
FPH – (With tongue firmly in cheek) Why are a bunch of old coots still playing punk rock? Why don’t you just leave punk to the kids?
Davis -At one point we did sort of give up punk rock for a while. After Anarchitex broke up in the 80’s Torry and I went on to bands like Naked Amerika and Happy Fingers Institute, which used really complex arrangements and included a lot of technical wizardry. And of course Scott moved on to the Pain Teens and a couple of hundred other bands. We got back together in 2007 for the Axiom reunion show and had such a good time we decided to keep going. I forgot how much I liked the simplicity of just one bass, one guitar with drums and vocals. After about 10 minutes we decided to drop the idea of mimicking ourselves from the ’80s (there was initially some talk of getting a saxophone.) Instead we reformed as a living, breathing band, creating in the moment. We loved the old material but discovered we had become better musicians and performers over the years.
Weber – I quit playing drums almost 20 years before because I couldn’t handle the disorganized unit that was the Anarchitex of the 80’s. Plus, I desperately needed a break from the scene. Torry called me about playing the Axiom reunion and wooed me back. Dianna Ray (Mydolls) gave me an old drum set that was in up in her attic. I’ve been rebuilding and repairing that old set for almost four years now. My time may be up when it completely disintegrates. Oh yeah – the real answer to your question is that I still don’t know how to tango.
FPH – When I listen to the tracks on the album I’m reminded how broad Punk was as a genre. Many people now tend to reduce it to Pop Punk or hardcore but there was a lot more going on back then. Why do you think the genre was such an open field and why do you think – some people see it defined so narrowly?
Davis – When I started listening to Punk there were no rules and I just soaked it up like a sponge. I always wanted to have a band and I wanted to just like the clash and the jam. Like the ButtholeSurfers and Really Red. And the Patti Smith Group and Suicide and The Stranglers and the Cramps and the Crass and the Stranglers and Tom Robinson Band and…like that. Originally whether you were a punk or not was an intangible. If other punks thought you were cool you were a punk (even if other punks thought you weren’t.) It’s kind of like Calvinists being in the Elect. Some people can’t deal with intangibles. If you can quantify the problem as a set of rules to follow in the right sequence than yes you can conclusively prove whether you’re a punk or not And I think punks have been charactered in the media and some people approach the music with that stereotype in mind. Of course the music industry likes to define musical genres narrowly, because it makes it easier to target you to a particular audience.
Weber – Punk evolved from the destruction of rules about what music should be. One of my favorite albums of all time is “20 Jazz-Funk Greats” by Throbbing Gristle. It’s beautiful….and sometimes nearly unbearable. It’s not anywhere close to MDC, but in my book it is hardcore. If you don’t define punk as punk, then it gets lost in the vast universe of sound, the no-rules chaos that is one definition of anarchy.
FPH – John, your lyrics are rife with pointed and biting social commentaries with this nice flow that’s like you’re reading poetry. Can you elaborate on how you approach lyric writing, where you get your inspiration, and how lyrics and the music inform and shape each other?
Davis – I’m a real fucking poet I’ll have you know! Been to the university and read Chaucer in the Middle English, I have. When I was writing free verse I tried to approach it intellectually like Eliot or Auden rather than being the guy working out his childhood trauma on Open Mic Nite so i dissected language to understand its structure so I could use language as an artistic tool. Of course I forgot all that years ago. Now I just stand on my head and try to get some shit to rhyme. I think some of the best songs happen when Torry and I work out the music and lyrics separately and sync them up. That way you have two complete ideas going into the thing. Sometimes Torry will write music to something I’ve already written or vice versa. I should also point out there are about 4 songs on the CD Torry wrote completely on his own. As far as inspiration, sometimes I’ll take on some subject that’s on my mind which is sometimes successful but can be a little linear. Sometimes little bits of poetry will bounce around in my mind and eventually these will congeal into something. I think that gets better results, although it can sometimes be slow going. “Mean and Bitter” and “More Intelligent” each took about 7 years. Seriously.
This would probably be a good time to mention I’m working on a new version of Gilgamesh. It’s about 2/3 written.
FPH – I didn’t mean to suggest that you weren’t a poet simply that you approached vocalist duties more like a poet than they typical vocalist.
Davis – I was meaning to be a bit humorous with my answer. I wasn’t offended but did mean to emphasize my didactic approach to the problem. Have you ever watched bands on TV with the closed captions on? It’s amazing to see how many well respected bands have really stupid lyrics. I don’t know how you can write a song that doesn’t mean anything. From a poetic point of view punk rock is a challenge. You really have to simplify. Bob recently read some lyrics I’m working on and noticed I write in 4/4 time. See, he thinks like a drummer. I’ve gotten so used to it I sometimes do it without thinking. Punk Rock and Rock music in general is similar to Anglo-Saxon poetry. So are most genres that evolved from blues. No matter what you call it, it’s all the same damn music,
FPH – Back in the 80’s when I first heard of the Anarchitex there was this free flow of ideas between musicians, artists, and writers. Do you find that interconnection is still there between disciplines in Houston or not. Why is that important if at all?
Davis -I think we lost a lot of synergy when Montrose became and occupied territory. When I was starting out all the poets and musicians and actors and sculptors lived in closer proximity. Or it may be I’m so old no one cool will talk to me. I think it’s great when that kind of synergy happens. It’s nice to see a visual representation of your musical ideas, for instance. I’m especially impressed, for instance, by the undeservedly great artwork Catherine Bendig did for the CD. We got to get that on a T Shirt which is another artistic discipline.
Weber – People are so wrapped up in the digital, how can they find the time to mingle with other creators? (That word reminds me of the Mingle Brothers’ parties.) I’m guilty of that too, so I know that it reenergizes me to get out to live performance or openings of any kind. Mary Hayslip’s recent shows were a blast! If you avoid the interaction, you can lose inspiration or become lost in a canyon of your own thoughts.
FPH – On a similar note, how do you think that music is informed and made better by other disciplines both within the arts and outside of the arts?
Davis – I think the more information the better; the more tools you have to work with. It’s even better if it’s from a source outside your normal range of experience, something you would never have thought of otherwise.
FPH – Why go through the effort, time, and cost to make music when you know that you will, in all probability, never see the wide popularity, riches, or fame of a Justin Beiber?
Davis – Whenever I get jealous of Justin Beiber I just remind myself I’m way cuter. What. else would I be doing with my time? After HFI broke up I was without a band and it got really boring.
Weber - It’s more difficult for a snail to get through your minds eye than for race car driver to find peace in the monotony of last year’s 4th of July fireworks.
FPH – Time to play elder statesmen. Houston has a lot of talented musicians out there, why don’t you toss them one small piece of wisdom that you’ve learned after all these years of making music?
Davis – Never piss off the sound man and get offstage before you start boring people.
Here is an Anarchitex film from 1984…
Here’s are Anarchitex in live 1984 (Yes, that is a very young JR Delgado on Bass)…
And here is the band today…
The Anarchitex perform Saturday May28, 2011 @ Cactus 5pm, all ages, refreshments provided by St. Arnold’s