The Unsung Heroes
Illustrations by Tim Dorsey
By: Joe Folladori
A music scene is a hell of a lot more than a bunch of bands bouncing off of one another in a vacuum. There are numerous individuals in this city who never set foot upon a stage yet their interest, enthusiasm, hard work, and passion have helped to create the ecosystem that exists today. We’d like to take a moment to pay tribute to a few of the scene’s quiet, vital champions.
Kurt Brennan and Kevin Bakos, two of the staunchest supporters of local music this city has ever seen, took over ownership of Sound Exchange in 1999. If you haven’t been to Sound Exchange before, I really don’t get you. They carry an insane amount of local music; unfortunately, the Kevin Novak cassette packaged inside a sealed block of concrete is now sold out.
What do you remember about “the state of the scene” back in 2003?
I clearly remember that everyone thought it sucked, so unlike today.
How does a record store even stay in business in 2013? I thought the music industry was dying a terrible, terrible death. Aren’t brick and mortar stores crumbly old dinosaurs?
Running any small business is perilous. We have managed to make it through some tough times by being flexible and trying new things. The ‘music industry’ has been self-victimizing since the ‘70s at least. They thought video games were going to put them under then. Seems silly now, right?
Have there been any Houston bands from the past decade you don’t think have received their proper due from the city/community/scene at large?
None that I can think of. I feel that this town is very supportive of its bands.
You have a very large selection of local music. Let’s say my ‘Promising Local Band’ wants to sell our first release at your store. It’s a three-song CD-R in a plastic bag. It’s also terrible, but we worked really hard so we’d like to charge $12. Can we make a deal?
Sure, come on by. We will gladly consign any local band’s efforts. We once had a guy drop off a cassette tape with a raw chicken part taped to it.
Do you have any favorite in-stores from the past decade?
That would be like naming a favorite child, but among the standouts, I would have to say the Pelt/Charalambides/Rotten Piece show, Man or Astro-Man?, Fatal Flying Guilloteens, Roger Nusic, Crank Sturgeon, almost ALL of our metal shows, Dosh, and more we’re probably forgetting.
Where do you see Sound Exchange in 2023?
In a giant clear bubble with clerks in jet packs. You just watch! It’ll happen!!
Bars and clubs in this town come and go like Free Radicals, but Lelia Rodgers has maintained Rudyard’s British Pub as one of the best spots for grown-ups to enjoy music, a hot meal, and a cold drink or five since the Houston scene’s defining sound was funk-metal. Apologies to any in the under-21 set reading this – one of the most frustrating experiences of my life was getting turned away from an of Montreal show back before I knew “All Ages” wasn’t a given. But sometimes you want to see some music without a bunch of goddamn kids running around, watching the band through their phones, and paying for a soda at the bar with a debit card. And sometimes you want to go out to a pub and know that the staff and bands are well taken care of, the kitchen’s serving fat cheeseburgers, and the drinks are served by professionals. Lelia’s firm, guiding hand and low tolerance for bullshit have made Rudyard’s something of a Rock of Gibraltar – other bars will pop up and become the ‘place to be’ for a year or two, but Rudz will quietly outlive them all.
The Sound Girl
Lauren Oakes runs sound at Fitzgerald’s. She kind of reminds me of Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica – she’s really good at what she does and you do not want to fuck with her while she’s doing her job.
How’d you get into running live sound?
I got to record an album in a studio when I was a teenager and the engineer let me help mix it. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. A few years later, I tried to go to school for studio engineering but it really wasn’t for me, so I just sent emails to a bunch of venues asking if they needed an intern and only one replied. It was Jeremy at Fitz. He threw me into mixing shows and I just learned by fucking it up.
Do you have any favorite Houston bands to work with? What makes them so goddamn special, huh?
There are a lot of really good local bands in Houston right now, which is awesome. It’s nice to be able to get excited to go to work and mix a show that I would probably be at otherwise. Some of these bands absolutely blow me away. I would name some, but I can see that backfiring on me. I love all Houston bands.
What do you wish everyone you ran sound for came to the table already knowing?
Show up on time, please.
Have you ever punched anybody out (or come close) for fucking up your equipment?
I’ve had to yell at bands before, but I wouldn’t hit anyone. I’ve never understood why someone would look at a monitor and decide to stand on it or throw a microphone or something. Just treat the gear like your grandma owns it and it would make her cry if you broke something.
The Tamale Guy
You’ve been out all night. You met up with some friends, you saw a few bands, and you’ve been having a good time. You’ve had something to drink. Earlier, there was music and dancing, or something approximating dancing. You’re smiling. Your ears are ringing. You want a tamale.
You probably don’t know you want a tamale, but you do. Some nights that start off like tonight started off end in grand epiphanies, or true love. Most of the time they just end so that another day can begin. It’s late. You’re tired. Oh man, you need a tamale.
And there is a guy, a tamale guy – The Tamale Guy – and he knows you. He knows you better than you know yourself. He knows what you need. It’s in his blood. It’s in his name. He weaves in and out of the crowds that form outside of concerts, through the throngs of smokers on bar patios. He offers foil-wrapped packs of tamales, unconscionably cheap; far more than one person could consume in order to foster friendship and community. He has vegetarian options and incredibly spicy tomatillo sauce. Sometimes he is not a man but rather two small ladies. He was created by your dreams, and oh are you happy to see him.
Francisco – Owner of Francisco’s
Do bands really rehearse in garages anymore? I tried it once years ago and it was a disaster. We spent an hour thinking we were gonna die of heatstroke. Then my dad came home. It was pathetic. If your ‘Promising Local Band’ is even going to pretend to take yourselves seriously, you need to get a real practice space. It doesn’t get much realer than Francisco’s Studios, a four-story converted warehouse just east of downtown that for years has given noise terrorists of every stripe a place to make an unholy racket.
Francisco’s has provided countless Houston musicians a blank slate on which to paint their dreams, to fine-tune their craft without worrying about neighbors and noise complaints. Bands share practice spaces, then ideas; friendships form, community is fostered. Francisco’s has been strengthening that which we might call a scene for years now. Just remember to bring your own toilet paper.
The Medicine Man
Who are you?
You’re going to print this?
Put “Governor Rick Perry.”
What’s your connection to Houston’s music community?
You’re talking to me about selling weed, right?
That’s… Pretty much, yeah.
Who are some Houston musicians you’ve sold to?
Oh man. Um, (redacted), (redacted), (redacted), (redacted). I still see (redacted) once in awhile. The guys from (redacted). I used to see (redacted), (redacted), Devin the Dude, (redacted).
Do you consider (what you do) an integral part of the music community?
Yes. I would say yes. Not as much as beer. I don’t think everybody would stop making music if they couldn’t buy weed anywhere. A lot of people would be really grumpy for a few months. And some people would move to California.
Why do you think musicians gravitate towards alternative medicine?
Because it gets you high? (laughs) I’m just here to help. Some people just need to calm down at the end of the day. Uhhhh, musicians probably tend to… The ones who get high tend to get high more than average, non-musicians do. I haven’t done any studies.
What’s the best local band to listen to high?
Don’t tell a band that they’re really good to listen to high. That makes it sound like “you guys were boring when I wasn’t fucked up.” Just tell a band they sounded good.
As owner and operator of Dead City Sound recording studios, Chris Ryan had a hand in some of the best albums of the past decade – everything from Jana Hunter’s There’s No Home to Fatal Flying Guilloteens’ Quantum Fucking, not to mention literally dozens and dozens of other releases. Chris has done time in a festival’s worth of bands – The Energy, Secret Prostitutes, God’s Temple of Family Deliverance to name the tip of the iceberg – but it’s his work behind the boards, making Houston’s best bands sound as good as the limits of audio technology will allow, that really mark him as one of the biggest driving forces in making Houston’s music community the pragmatically spit-shined machine it is today. Sadly, Dead City Sound is no longer a full-time concern, as Chris explained via email.
“I moved out of the studio about a year and a half ago and have a full-time adult job. I moved all my stuff to my practice space downtown and just record on the weekends. Mostly just friends who are in bands that need a place to record, and I record my own stuff. “
Ah man, you broke your guitar. That sucks. What are you going to do? Get a new guitar? That’s stupid. How did you break it? Did you go all Pete Townshend and smash it onstage? Please tell me you didn’t do that. That’s been dumb for 40 years. It’s probably not that bad. You should take it to James Love and get it fixed. He’s a wizard.
How long have you been at Rockin’ Robin?
I have been at Rockin’ Robin approximately 5 years and 7 months.
Are there any repairs that frustrate you? Like, is there a guitarist’s equivalent of driving with the emergency brake on?
It’s usually the people that frustrate me, not the repairs. I get lots of stupid questions (like these… haha, totally kidding!) I don’t like gluing braces in acoustic guitars. It can be difficult to reach what you’re trying to glue back together and you can’t see what you’re doing most of the time either. Repairing someone else’s shitty repair job can be frustrating, as well.
What’s your favorite piece of gear to fix? This is a particularly stupid question.
Nothing in particular comes to mind. I’m just happy when I’m able to help someone out. There are times when someone thinks their guitar is hopeless and when I can bring it back to life, it’s a good feeling.
Has being a professional instrument doctor affected you as a musician? Do you ever get sick of even looking at a guitar, or do you feel kind of Horse Whispery when you pick one up just to play?
I still have my preferences but I’ll play anything now. After dealing with so many neurotic people stressing out about stupid details that no one else is going to notice, taking all the fun out of guitar, I’ve developed a “who gives a shit” attitude towards most of it. I get sick of looking at other people’s guitars but I could never be mad at mine.
He’s an older gentleman, quiet, polite. He goes to a ton of shows. He is not there for the drink specials, he is not there to hang out with his friend in the opening band, he is not there to get seen. He is there for the music. He is thoughtful and appreciative. He does not talk during quiet songs, nor does he take this opportunity to yell ‘’woo;” he waits for the song to finish and he applauds. He does not gratuitously film the bands, forcing those standing behind him to watch the concert via his phone; if he wants to watch a show later, he uses his memory. He does not go onto the patio when a band he is unfamiliar with performs; he relishes the opportunity to make a new discovery. He is an honest-to-god fan, and he makes the world go ‘round.
To paraphrase David Sedaris, “every generation thinks they invented rock and roll.” While new blood is constantly appearing to reinvigorate the scene, yesterday’s heroes find themselves spending more and more time on family and career and realize they may not be able to devote themselves to ‘the lifestyle’ and all that comes with it. Matt Brownlie is a bit different than most of the individuals we’ve chosen for this list; as the former frontman for The Groceries and Bring Back the Guns, he has spent his share of time in the spotlight.
Brownlie is a friendly, thoughtful Buddhist with a crop of curly graying hair. He’s a husband and a father and would be the first to admit he doesn’t get out to see much live music any longer, but before fatherhood he was knee-deep in Houston band life, booking the eclectic Down With the Scene/Houston Underground Social Hour concert series at the Rhythm Room and Rudyard’s. In recent years, he’s branched out into theatre, appearing in Catastrophic Theatre’s ‘Life is Happy and Sad’ (as Daniel Johnston) and ‘Bluefinger.’ He and Jana Hunter started a record label, Feow!, which was not long for this world but did introduce the world to Deer Tick. And he paid his dues and made all of the right moves with a near-perfect band that, in the end, did not “make” it.
Ask Brownlie questions about the Houston scene and he’ll have valuable perspective and wisdom you wouldn’t get from somebody who’s currently hustling, still “in the shit.” Every conversation I’ve ever had with him makes me happy to be from Houston.