Chapter 7: Dallas (Bubba Kadane Part 1)
I’m staying at the Quality Inn Market Center in Dallas. This weekend, it just so happens, is the annual Mary Kay convention. Makeup retailers from all over the United States have congregated here, on this very weekend, to…do something with makeup. I don’t really know, exactly. I’m just expecting a parking lot packed with pink Cadillacs and a lobby of overweight housewives speaking in high, nasally voices.
As I’m riding the painstakingly slow elevator up to room 420, I’m crammed between three women in evening gowns. At least I think they’re evening gowns—I’m not entirely sure what differentiates a fancy dress from an evening gown. Two white women, one big and one small, and a smaller Asian woman are gabbing noncommittally about their accommodations and the heat. I feel the urge to say something to these women, and the first thought that pops into my head is an old quote from The Simpsons.
“Did you guys just come from the prom?” I ask, trying to make my voice crack. The women don’t laugh, but instead inform me that there’s ‘this big convention’ in Dallas and so they’re going to a dinner tonight.
“What kind of work do you ladies do?”
“Oh—is that what the horrible stench in here is?” I don’t ask.
They exit on the third floor and I on the fourth. My room is about one-hundred and thirty degrees and the air conditioner’s HIGH function isn’t working. Never one to speak up when placed in a frustrating situation, I take the high road and, instead of complaining about my accommodations, spend the next hour lying in bed thinking up jingles for Quality Inn’s marketing team. The best one went something like, “Quality Inn: All that’s lacking is qual-it-ty.”
It’s a lot funnier when I sing it aloud.
[Bedhead – “Parade” MP3]
The first Bedhead album I heard was Transaction de Novo. A friend sent it to me my freshman year in college and I was instantly hooked. It was so labored, and yet sounded so effortless. I’d never heard anything quite as affecting as “More Than Ever” and “Parade,” the latter tune having blown me away with its five-minute ascent to a glorious crescendo. And those guitar tones! Three, sometimes four counter-melodies; a build-up of sustained notes held for different lengths. A few years later, I read an interview where one of the Kadane brothers stated that the intention with Bedhead was to make guitars sound like violins. I didn’t know quite how to describe it at the time, but those guitar parts were what made their music so immediate and enrapturing.
The first time I met Bubba Kadane was in July of 2004 at a New Year show at the Knitting Factory in New York. A month or so prior to that, a message on their website called for supporters to help promote the band’s upcoming shows by hanging up posters. I replied with my address and said I would be glad to help. Bubba responded, telling me that materials were on the way, and that I should approach him at the show so he could thank me. A few days later a package of baby blue posters exclaiming “The End Is Near” arrived, which I took a to Princeton Record Exchange, Kim’s Music and Video, and some other record stores in the New York/New Jersey area. A sense of accomplishment washed over me as I completed my menial task, and I fired off another e-mail stating that I had done my job and would say ‘hi’ at the performance.
In the bar at the Knitting Factory I sat drinking and carrying on a cell phone conversation as the band put together their merchandise table. Once the t-shirts and records were in order, Bubba, clad in a t-shirt and blue jeans, stood behind the table chatting with fans while money and goods exchanged hands.
I stood up and walked over to him. He smiled and said hello. I introduced myself to him, and said that we had spoken via e-mail, and I helped promote the show. He shook my hand greedily and thanked me as I reiterated the different places I’d pampered with posters. Bubba said that he wanted to give me a t-shirt to thank me, and asked what size without giving me an opportunity to voice dissent. I told him if I didn’t have to pay for a shirt, I wanted to pay for a copy of “Newness Ends” on vinyl, and he insisted that I just take both items and not worry about paying. I gushed and thanked him profusely. After the show—which amazed me, as the band sounded identical to their records—I raced home and wrote Bubba a ‘Thank You’ note. Bubba’s response was simply to enjoy the shirt and vinyl, and to please keep in touch. Nearly a year passed without contact, until I asked if he was still living in Dallas, and if he might want to sit down and talk when I passed through town. Again, Bubba was welcoming, offering both his services as well as several local contacts like King Coffey, Matthew Barnhart, Robert Wolinsky and Kevin McAlister. Through the first week of my travels we firmed up a date and location. I anticipated an informative and thorough conversation. I was not disappointed.
I want to make sure I get to the ACME office on time, so I park my car on Parry Avenue over an hour early and walk around the area, looking for somewhere to eat. The streets in this neighborhood are without traffic, and pedestrians are sparse. I walk into a place called The Meridian Room, a dimly lit bar with a good beer selection, one particularly attractive, dark haired waitress, and a reasonable menu. I ordered a grilled three-cheese sandwich with bacon and drank a bottle of Fat Tire, followed by a pint of Boddingtons. The meal is relatively quiet, and when I am finished I walk once more around the block before sitting down in the entranceway to ACME. Across the street, Fair Park is lit up as families and couples are entering or exiting the grounds.
Bubba shows up in a non-descript gray t-shirt and dark pants. He is of average height, with short, kind-of shaggy brown hair and a light beard. He is bespectacled. I stand to greet him, and with a big smile he introduces himself while extending his hand towards me. He asks if his directions were good. I tell him they were perfect. He unlocks the main door and shows me inside. After a brief tour of ACME’s offices, we sit on two white couches that are positioned opposite one another in the front corner of the room. He asks if I would like a glass of water and returns holding one for each of us. When the tape starts rolling, he’s describing the work he and Matthew Barnhart—who is both the studio manager and an engineer at The Echo Lab in Denton, Texas, yet still has time to be The New Year’s sound guy—do at ACME, which is a compact disc manufacturer that also specializes in DVD burning, duplication, and replication.
Bubba speaks slowly, with a hint of an accent. He pauses often, as if he’s planning exactly what to say next. He’s incredibly thorough, stating and restating ideas to be as clear as possible. At times, he wanders off into brilliantly-crafted stories. We speak more about the history of Bedhead and The New Year than I originally intended, but even in the profile he sketches of his musical career, there are some great points about Texas’s music and the relationships between Dallas, Austin, and Houston.
“…So we do some stuff here,” Bubba is saying, pointing to the grid of compact disc cases hanging on the wall. “You know, something like that was done here,” Bubba says, his finger stopping on a yellow-colored album. “Then a lot of the larger stuff, there’s a plant out in Carrollton that’s twenty minutes from here, back up I-35—like if you were going past your hotel another fifteen minutes. We have kind of a relationship with them.”
“Right…right.” I urge him on. I’m still soaking in this scene, looking around at the computer desks with screen savers and vibrant colors.
“So, that is mostly the day job,” Bubba continues, “but it’s a good, flexible one.”
“Yeah, it seems like it,” I shrug.
“I mean…I’m probably the most flexible one in the whole band right now.”
“What’s everyone else doing?” I ask.
“There are seven of us, actually, that travel around on tour—we have a sound guy, Matthew Barnhart—”
“Oh, from Echo Lab?” I ask.
“Yeah, he’s also actually our sound guy,” Bubba informs me. He’s pretty flexible, too. He works at the University of North Texas, in Denton. Matt was doing some teaching at Harvard and at Brown. He started out as a teacher’s assistant and worked his way up. He’s been writing his dissertation and he just finally finished, so he got a job up at William Hobart Smith, which is a school up in Ithaca, New York.” He stops himself and reaches for his water. “Where are you from again?”
“Livingston, New Jersey,” I answer. “It’s about fifteen miles outside of Manhattan…but yeah, Ithaca is sort-of upstate, if I remember.”
“Yeah, yeah, so you know where it is. He’s actually moving to a town called…Trumansburg?”
“Trumansburg…I don’t know.”
“Chris Brokaw,” he says, getting back to the band, “He’s pretty flexible, too, because he’s basically a full-time musician. Peter [Schmidt], he lives here and does graphic design stuff. He has a fairly flexible schedule, too, except for certain times of the month. Mike [Donofrio], he is working as a bar clerk, and he just moved to Vermont.
“Do you know where in?” I inquire.
“He’s in, uh…” Bubba laughs. “It popped out of my head, he just moved from New York.”
“I went to school in Vermont for a year, so—as far as the big cities there—there’s Burlington…there’s Montpellier…”
“Montpellier,” He responds. “That just…fizzled out. I hope it’s not a sign of things to come…” He jokes. “And then Josh [McKay], he plays miscellaneous things in Athens. He’s pretty much a full-time musician too. I would say he’s quite flexible. So, if you can catch Chris and Josh far enough in advance—when they don’t have anything to do—it is pretty easy for us all to get together.”
“Athens seems to be another place that’s been conducive to the arts, but I’ve never been there,” I admit.
“Athens is one of those places that seems like it’s huge and really well-known as a music town,” Bubba says, “but really there’s just a few places to play and people don’t really come out to shows that much. It’s kind of weird. We’ve never had great shows there. I know a lot of other people who have had similar experiences…whereas in Dallas—people don’t particularly consider it a music town, like Austin or Athens or something—but there are tons of places to play between here and Denton and Fort Worth—you know, there are about twenty decent places to play. It’s kind of weird, but yeah…So, tell me what you’re doing—what have you done so far? What’s your whole plan?” Bubba asks me.
“I started, I guess, ten or eleven days ago. I was in Louisville for two or three days, I was in Chicago for two or three days…From Dallas I’m going down to Austin for a few days, then I’ll snake my way over to Tucson and then up the west coast, hitting San Diego, L.A., and San Francisco. I was going to go up to the Olympia, Washington area but no one has gotten back to me yet, so it’s a bit tenuous at the moment.”
“Who are the bands that you’re interested in right now?” he asks me.
“In Louisville, I spoke to Tim Furnish from Crain…and I spoke to a guy named Stephen George, who writes for the city’s big weekly paper, and has played with a bunch of local hardcore bands—and then a kid named JK McKnight, who’s a singer/songwriter and a promoter. He puts on a yearly festival in Louisville that draws all the different artistic communities together for one day each summer. In Chicago I spoke to Tim [Midgett]—whom I know you already know—and Jeff Mueller. Here I’m speaking to you, and hopefully I’ll talk to Andrew Kenny from American Analog Set or a member of Explosions in the Sky—who I’ve interviewed before—about Austin, but they haven’t gotten back to me…Calexico in Arizona, Beulah and Tarentel in San Francisco…” I’m speeding up to get through it all. “Do you know Tarentel?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Bubba responds.
“They’re an experimental band from the bay area. Really cool stuff.”
“So, what’s the plan…do you have anyone interested in publishing it or are you just going to do it?”
“No. I mean, I just graduated from colleg two months ago and I don’t really know how the whole thing works,” I admit. “But I figured—if I went too fast and told everyone in the world what I wanted to do, I could end up being one-upped by, like, any number of publications.”
“Exactly,” Bubba says. “There’s that, and then there’s…well, you’d probably want to do it without feeling any sort of pressure.”
“Oh, yeah absolutely,” I say. “It’s way easier to talk to people and—”
“Decide what you like later,” he finishes.
“Well, that sounds cool,” he says. “What’s the percentage of response that you got?”
“I’m hesitant to say that it’s gone well,” I chuckle. “At first I was probably over-ambitious, and I e-mailed maybe forty-five or fifty different bands—under the assumption that 95% probably wouldn’t even write back. And at first, no one did. But, steadily, I’ve gotten some nice responses, and I’m trying to line up maybe two or three interviews in each city. A lot more folks are willing to do phone or e-mail interviews because they might be on tour now, or vacation, or something—like Miles, from the band Beulah—he’s having surgery the week I’m going to be in town. I guess a lot of people are more receptive to doing it that way—which I don’t mind—I pretty much assume I’m imposing on everyone’s lives, anyway.”
“Yeah, everybody gets pretty crazy sometimes…and obviously you didn’t expect to show up in Chicago and have something happen to Mike [Dahlquist],” Bubba notes.
“What day did you show up there?” Bubba wonders.
“Actually, I got there that day, the day he was killed. I showed up and met with Tim at, like, 7:00pm. We spoke for an hour or something and he—the three of them had gotten killed at lunchtime, and nobody knew until…I didn’t find out until the next night, even.”
“So Tim didn’t know then?” he asks.
“No idea,” I say.
“I guess he hadn’t gotten the call yet.”
“Yeah…” I’m starting to feel a little uncomfortable about this part of the conversation, because while I didn’t know Michael, I know Bubba did. I sit silently, waiting for him to continue.
“Um, yeah, because I was…my brother and I were with my mom on vacation at the time.”
“Where were you?” I ask.
“We were out in California,” Bubba answers. “And…I mean, from…well, I got back on Monday night so we found out while we were there. On Friday or something…so that night I got back here and, like, yeah.” At this point I believe he felt my unease and quickly decided to change the topic. “Well, anyway, tell me what you want to know?”
“You and Matt grew up in Wichita Falls?”
“Yeah,” he answers.
“What was that environment like?”
“In Wichita Falls?” He asks for clarification. “Well, did you grow up in a small town?”
“Eh—not really,” I say. “It’s kind of a large, typically upper middle-class suburb.”
“Yeah—Wichita Falls is kind of hard to describe if you’re not from Texas, for starters. It’s not a real small town. There were about 100,000 people when we were there.”
“That’s a small town?”
“Well, it was like a small town since it didn’t have a lot going on. It may as well culturally be one stop sign. Just a crossroads, you know? There were some cool people there, but, my personal experience was, well…I couldn’t stand school. I was fine in school—good in school, but I couldn’t stand being there, I couldn’t stand all the people. I got along with everyone there just fine, but I didn’t want to hang out with anybody afterwards but Matt. My brother had a similar experience and I think that, in a nutshell—not going into any other details or aspects—helped drive us to music, you know? We listened to a lot of music and just got into it. Just like anyone gets more [and] more into something. He had taken piano lessons when he was eight years old or something like that—for about five years. And then I guess it was during my early teen years when I decided I wanted to play guitar—and Matt decided to do it too. We ended up taking lessons from this funny old guy who worked at a music store in downtown Wichita Falls. The guy, to put it bluntly, he smelled horrible. He lived in his van. He hung out at the library. I don’t think he ever showered anywhere. Incredible guitar player—unbelievable. It was inspirational just to be there and watch him play, but it was hard to be in the same closet-sized room with him. My brother couldn’t handle it, he was like, ‘I can’t do it!’ I kept going and taking these lessons, which was more like watching someone really great play and wanting to be like him. I don’t think I learned a whole lot when I was there.
“When I took lessons it was like that too. I didn’t learn a whole lot. I think most people who try… it’s like that,” I say. “Minus the smell, maybe.”
“Yeah, you know—and if you’re lucky enough to take lessons from someone who’s really great…but mostly you play on your own and learn. So, my brother had gotten more into keyboards. He started playing keyboards with a drum machine. I had a shitty little Peavey guitar. He had a shitty little keyboard. We had a shitty little four-track; a shitty little drum machine. Everything was shitty. It wasn’t like now, with hard disk recording or anything. I don’t even know if you’ve ever seen anything like this four-track. This was probably in the early 80’s, you know? I was about a freshman or sophomore and he was in junior high. So we just gradually acquired more and more stuff. Whatever money we got for birthday presents or for mowing the lawn or whatever, just constantly went into upgrades. It’s the kind of thing that just took over. We didn’t really care about anything else. I don’t remember spending a dime on anything else, I really don’t. I went to a movie every now and then. Other than music-related stuff, I honestly can’t tell you a single thing I purchased. After a certain point, later in high school, I wasn’t hanging out with friends, Matt and I were just hanging out and playing music after school. That’s what we did. We made four-track recordings all the time—non-stop. They were terrible. There was that learning process. We didn’t end up releasing any music until Bedhead’s first single in ’92, so there’s like a ten-year period of learning and forming bands. Moving to Dallas was when we first started playing with other people. We didn’t play with anyone else except this one guy who we played with in Wichita Falls. Once we were in Dallas we formed a band with one of our good friends, Mischo McKay. He’s the drummer for Macha. He formed Macha with his brother later on, but I’ve known Mischo since we went to school together in ’79. He and Matt and I formed a trio band. Then, actually, after a while…I know you must know who the Dixie Chicks are …do you know Marty?”
“I don’t know the names, but…”
“Yeah well, she’s the fiddle player. They’re all from here,” Bubba informs me. “She was actually in our band for a while with Matt, Mischo and I. Crazy, huh?”
“Oh, wow! She played fiddle, or something else?”
“It’s funny, because some of the songs that ended up being on Bedhead records—the early ones—were starting to come about around that time, so she actually…“Dead Language,” on the first four-song EP, and “Unfinished” on the first Bedhead record, those melodies on guitar were originally written for violin.”
“When you were in Wichita Falls,” I backtrack slightly, “did that town of 100,000 have a place to see shows, or did you have to go out of town?”
“It was a weird time then, because in the early ‘80s there were just kind of goofy bands. There were bands on a local level that sounded like the bands on a national level. That was twenty-three years ago. All the bands were big hair, keyboards and cover bands…things like that. All the bands that were around were cover bands. There were some original bands that were okay, but a lot of Dallas bands would go to Wichita Falls and play this one bar. There were a couple places, but the only place I ever went to see anything was this dive club called Frank’s Place. I think that’s the case in a lot of places though—the times were kind of lame. Except for a few really good things that were happening, it was full of shit.”
“So what were you listening to at the time?” I ask.
Bubba takes a sip of his water and leans back into the couch. “I was listening the usual decent things around that time—everything from the bigger stuff, like Joy Division and New Order and things like that, to Minutemen. It’s hard to remember sometimes when you got into certain things. Shortly after that, it would’ve been a few of the similar things—like Hüsker Dü, you know? You kind of follow those trails. Like you hear a New Order record and it takes you back to Joy Division, that whole thing—also The Smiths. Around that time—when I first moved to Dallas in 1985—was when those bands were…I would go see pretty much everything that came through town. It was actually a pretty great time to see shows later in the mid-‘80s. There was stuff going on that was incredible. The record stores were better. There was a record store right next to where you ate, called Metamorphosis—and then it became another record store called Direct Hit Records that was also a label that our first singles came out on…actually, we ended up talking in an area that has a little bit of history with it, because Direct Hit was right there.” He motions with his head to where it once existed on this street. “This place, Bar Soap, right here,” He points over his shoulder towards the club—which is six feet away from us, “was where Bedhead played some of the first shows. When I moved here, my brother would come into town for shows, and we would go see something like The Smiths or whatever. Then downtown, if you were to head down Exposition and go straight down that way…” his hands are veering left and right simulating a car in transit, “…there’s a place called Deep Ellum, which has really grown now. Bedhead played some of the last shows down there. It’s about a one-thousand-person capacity place. The first clubs that started were really cool, too—there were places called the Theater Gallery, and Club Clearview, and Prophet Bar. We used to not even know what was going on down there—we used to go down and you could see shows for two bucks. It was cool. I saw Minutemen, like, two weeks before D. Boon died. They played this place called the Twilight Room. I kept going to see everything, you know? That was my college-age time and Matt’s, like, end-of-high-school-beginning-of-college age. Honestly, that was the last time I was really into going to shows all the time. That ended, you know, in the late ‘80s. I just didn’t have…the part of it that’s changed—for me—is getting more into making music, and still being a listener, but not the same sort of rabid listener. Also, just not being interested in as much stuff that’s going on, you know? Everybody has their time when there’s a lot of music that they like, and it fits in at the right age. It was exciting living here. Everything came through here. There were some concert halls—just, in general, incredible places to see shows. It sounded great. Every place you went, the venue was great. It was really music-oriented, you know? A lot of places now seem to have that kitschy selling point, or need to cater to a different kind of group, or a larger group, or dance stuff after midnight—you know—live bands being in the back of the bus. That, I will say, has changed for the worst. That was kind of, for us, the end of being sort of on the sidelines as a listener, and moving into participating. In the late ‘80s or early ‘90s.”
“So it was, maybe, within four or five years from the time you moved here, things started to take off for you?”
“Well, less than that, really,” Bubba points out. “Probably about two or three years later, when my brother moved here in ‘87. We both went to undergraduate college here, and then we started playing with Mischo. The timeline is like: ’85, I moved here; ’87, Matt moved here; ‘87-’88, we formed a band with Mischo that lasted a year or so, until around the time Marty came in—we only played a handful of shows. Then around ’89, we met Trini, who became the drummer in Bedhead, and found another viola player. The four of us played around. We played shows with Mischo, but really just a couple shows. Then we started over again, with just Trini and Matt. We found out that Tench was interested and wanted to play. He had been in bands…I used to go see him in bands. He had a band called End Over End. I saw them a couple times. Peter Schmidt also had a band called Three on a Hill, and he and Tench were buddies. It’s kind of funny that Peter stepped in and had the same position that Tench had in Bedhead. Their bands were both trailblazers as far as this area goes. They were well-known bands around here—good, original, local bands.”
“What did Three on a Hill and End Over End sound like?” I ask.
“They were both trios with guitar, bass, and drums,” he states. “End Over End was… well, both, actually were pop rock—like ‘80s pop rock. It was fairly upbeat, more rock than pop—a ‘rock sensibility’ I guess you’d call it. Tench was the kind of guy who knew every Led Zeppelin riff and…” he chuckles, “you know…”
“There’s always one…” I say, knowing the type. We both laugh.
“Yeah, and he played it really well, too. Both of those guys—Peter and Tench—are great musicians. Peter, you could just say a song and he could get the whole thing nailed. In a lot of ways, I’ll bad mouth that era in the early ‘80s and say there was nothing going on, but at least back then people were still of the mindset that you [needed] to learn how to play to be good—even in the wake of punk rock. You have to remember that all this happened in an era before people started releasing four-track records, and demo-kind-of-stuff was being labeled ‘Lo-Fi’. It was before all of that. We were so lucky to be playing with guys who were really solid, good musicians and not sterile. They just knew what was good and what was bad, and they agreed with us on what was good and bad.”
“When did Kris enter into the equation?” I ask.
“Brokaw or Wheat?”
“Wheat,” I clarify.
“Oh right, Wheat,” Bubba reminds himself, shaking his head. He takes another sip of water, sighs, and launches into the story. “Well, we hooked up with Tench when he just wasn’t playing anymore. End over End had broken up. Peter had asked Tench to play in Three on a Hill, and they played a few shows together. After Tench said he’d be into playing with Matt and I, we played this long show at a club downtown where we had a residency on Tuesday nights—which was cool because it gradually built up an audience for us. Matt was playing bass, Tench played guitar, and I played guitar. We met Kris at the show. He just really liked the band. He came up afterwards and started talking to us. On that particular night, we had an early show at this place, and then a late show across the street at another club. So we were talking to Kris and he seemed like a cool guy. We got along instantly. We said, ‘Hey, we have to go,’ and he said, ‘Oh, I’ll help, what do you need help with?’ He helped us take all our equipment and roll it across the street. So we go over and play this other show, and we kind of just kept hanging out with him. At this point we were still trying to find what we wanted to do. We had just come off drums, bass, guitar and viola. Then Tench came in, we didn’t want to use the viola anymore. So Matt and I were gradually forming the idea of three guitars, bass and drums. Originally we asked Kris…well, something came up in conversation about him playing with us because we liked him in the short amount of time we knew him. We asked if he wanted to come play and try it. He said he knew how to play guitar. He shows up, and we say, ‘Okay…’ and we were going to start playing a song, I can’t remember, it was something like, ‘This one goes D-A-G-A’ or something—I don’t remember—and he looks at us like, ‘What?’ It turns out he couldn’t play a lick…At all. He was just bullshitting. So, he was really embarrassed at the time—but we laugh about it now. He admitted that he really wanted to play with us, and we said, ‘Well, you know, practice and maybe something will work out.’ We still didn’t even have a band yet; it was just the four of us, and my brother ended up moving in with these people to a warehouse space, and we set up a practice area. We knew a bunch of the guys he was living with, so we would hang out there often. At the time, the song ‘Bedside Table’ was starting to take shape. The basic parts were there and we were working on it. So Matt and Wheat were hanging out one night, and Matt wanted to play drums and wanted someone to play bass. So Matt asked, ‘Hey Wheat, do you think you can play this?’ figuring maybe he could play the bass. Kris always had more rhythm than he had fingers or dexterity—it turned out he could play bass well enough to get by. That’s how it gradually came together. We kind of taught Wheat how to play bass. I shouldn’t say we, but…he learned how to play bass with those songs. He joined the band and it worked out well. He got better and better…he was a good bass player for what we were doing at the time. Kris has a great sense of rhythm. He could play drums. His love of music is bigger than his ability as a musician, and that counts for a lot—a large number of people are like that. Matt and I [had been] worked out in the previous band, which taught us a lot. In that ten years of going from a keyboard/drum machine/guitar band to playing in a trio where I was the solo guitar and Matt was bassist along with a drummer…playing with a really great violin player like Marty of the Dixie Chicks, who, by the way, you may not know it, is an incredible musician. Maybe—and Matt would say this too—the best musician we’ve ever played with, in terms of ear and ability. She’s really great. Then moving into viola, bass and guitar. All these things enabled us to learn what we liked and didn’t like, and because of that we learned how to fill space and work with space in that way. Until that—when it was just the two of us, or the two of us with a drummer—we weren’t completely happy with the music. We were constantly listening back through recordings and being unhappy. But coming here, and playing with people from Denton who had different backgrounds, was unbelievably great. Marty’s background was in bluegrass. She used to tour with her sister and play bluegrass festivals. The viola player was a schooled player, Trini played in reggae bands…it was weird trying to get him to turn the beat around, because he used to play snare on the one—and trying to get him to do the rock kick on the one, snare on the two was the opposite—everything was turned around. Tench came from being a lead guitar player in rock bands. Hair down to here,” Bubba says, pointing his navel. “Peter would play with his shirt off. They were full-out rock bands,” he nods in approval. “We had all these differences and experiences, and we all got along really well. Then you know, when we got to the point where Matt started playing guitar and Wheat was on bass, we realized this was it. All the songs we had worked on for the past four years—in my opinion—whereas they sounded weak before, gained power from that new setup. Plus, it was unique, you know? We became something other than just a regular old band with an odd lineup and a cello. It became something that we had wanted and hoped to do. It also turned out not to be that complicated, but we felt like we learned a lot from playing with bowed string instruments. Those were the parts that Tench ended up playing. We still had that in our minds—that sustained, bowed-note melody line. So, we would try to get the guitar to sound like that. We were messing with tone and sustain and the right amount of distortion. I was playing some of those parts too. Later on, we started with more intertwining parts.”
“The first show was in Austin,” I comment. “How was that? Well-received?”
“It was cool,” Bubba answers. “This guy was having an art opening, and he just wanted a band. It was called Dobie. I think it’s still there. It was kind of an arts theater on Guadalupe. The band played in the lobby and we just had a couple of friends there. It was so hard to get shows at the time. We couldn’t get a show in Austin to save our lives. I think we played one show in Houston, in front of two people. What turned things around was—Dallas, Denton and Fort Worth are combined a lot—there was this place in Fort Worth called Mad Hatters. We played there one night. Peter subbed for Tench, who was studying Russian and going back and forth between here and Russia a lot. Shows would come up and Peter would fill in. We had one show where we opened for Fugazi. That was a huge show.”
“Really? That’s such an interesting pairing.”
“Yeah, I know. Huge, too! I swear—to this day there are still people that come up to me having seen that show. That same week, we had a show with Come—Brokaw’s band—so we met him that week and we both liked each other’s bands. That was the beginning of that friendship. But yeah, this place in Fort Worth called Mad Hatters. We played that show and got to know the booking agent there. So I started talking to him—Josh was his name—and I told him, ‘I think it’d be a great idea if we could put on a two-dollar show.’ The owner wouldn’t go for it. He’d rather charge one person two-hundred dollars than one-hundred people two dollars. So I said, ‘I swear it will work, just try and get him to do it. We can pass out fliers. You can do it. I know it will work.’ Around this time we were doing the first single. It wasn’t out just yet. I think it came out in May of ’92. It was all in the same time, but not quite yet. So we finally got the guy to do it, and we put on the show …I guess shows were, usually, at least five dollars at the time. That was across the board. So, it turned out our show was a huge success. The place was packed with two hundred people. We did it again, like, a month later—around the time the single came out. The single sold, like, five-hundred copies in the first month. This was a shock to us, but seven-inch records were cool at the time. Then we were able to go back and play the five- or six-dollar shows. The single sold one-thousand copies and we didn’t press any more after that. That’s when things took off for us: the single, and those shows. Then we were able to play some bigger shows here in town, and then we could finally get a show in Austin.”
“You mentioned the single…” I begin.
“It came out on Direct Hit Records—the record store that was right down here,” Bubba says again, pointing over my shoulder. “Then [Kelly Keys] put out another single on Direct Hit. Then, we actually had a friend who worked at Club Clearview and he started giving us lots of opening slots—that’s when we first met Yo La Tengo—it just kind of built up like that. Before we had even traveled out of Texas we went to Germany to play for ten days, because my brother went to high school with a German exchange student and he said, ‘Y’all come over and play some shows, sometime.’ So we did this little German tour in the dead of winter—in, like, February of ’93, or something like that. So we go over and do Germany before we ever even play Oklahoma,” he laughs. “It was cool, but, you know, a totally life-changing experience.”
“I’d imagine it to be.”
“It was great, it was the dead of winter and we all got sick, but there were some really great shows. Just going from playing Texas to playing Berlin and Köln was really…” He can’t find the right word.
“What kinds of crowds did you draw—I mean, without anything available over there?” I ask.
“Nobody knew who the hell we were,” Bubba admits. “But there were these towns that were small enough where people would just go out to shows. For the most part they were good. Out of eight or nine shows, a good solid seven were decent. I don’t think you could go into Germany and do that now—they’ve had a transition, and things have changed a lot in what they listen to. You know, we came back from doing that and it’s when we played a show in Austin that King [Coffey] came out to see [us] and he wanted to put out the record. That’s when we started recording the record, in ’93. WhatFunLifeWas came out in ’94. We didn’t even tour after that record came out. We didn’t even do it until ’95 or something like that, a little tour.”
“Was that due to geography? Or…”
“A little bit. It’s weird how little we played the usual band way, you know? We go along with the usual band things now and we didn’t then, and we had the luxury then more than we do now. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I think we thought, ‘This record is going to be fucking great!’”
“‘…And we can just rest on our laurels.’” I add.
“Yeah!” Bubba laughs, “By the time we headed out again, we’d put out the record and then the 4-Song19:10 EP came out in October of ‘94, then The Dark Ages EP came out in late ’95. Then Beheaded came out in ’96. Then we did a big tour—a six-week U.S. and Canada tour.”
“When you stated playing around in Texas and then out into the country,” I ask, “did you notice at all from city to city if there were similarities and differences between bands from those places?”
“Not really, because at the time we were much more an anomaly than we seem now. I mean—it was punk rock. At the time, Texas was—you had to be as nasty and aggressive as you could possibly be. If you look back at the bands at the time—and especially the bands on Trance [Syndicate] at the time—bands like Crust…we were going to play places…Houston has always been a really weird place, if you’re talking about different areas. Have you ever been there?”
“Just the airport. I have a lot of family there and I think they’re pissed I’m not stopping by.” I chuckle, recalling a phone call back home where the subject of my not visiting was broached.
“Oh, really?” Bubba asks. “Houston is a weird place. It’s geographically kind of strange. It’s weird because there are no zoning laws. So you can have something like a head shop right next to somebody’s house,” he says, laughing. “There’s strange stuff like that in Houston. Consequently, the music there has always been really weird—more bizarre than, say, Austin. I’m being totally stereotypical—it’s more hooky. The Dallas and Denton area has been a little more into rock music, and Houston was more experimental and aggressive, and you needed to be unique to stand out. We would go play these places, and—I’m not exaggerating just to have a story—we would go play places with punk rock bands. In San Antonio and Austin too, we’d be playing with punk rock bands! We would seriously be trying to write a set list, and someone would ask, ‘Ok, what are our most aggressive and fastest things? Oh, we don’t have any. They’re going to kill us!’” He laughs loudly. “And so, we would try to do that and realized we couldn’t and we’d just say, ‘We gotta play.’ We’d play the set list and it turned out fine.”
“Did you guys make a conscious effort to try and speed things up ever?”
“Once we got past our little bit of fear about the whole thing, we would play and it would be cool—just like the show we played with Fugazi. We were playing in front of receptive audiences, audiences who were generally receptive to music and wouldn’t pigeonhole us. But that was how all the bands were playing at the time. Think of all the bands that came along later that played slower—they came after that—I mean, there were some things going on in different parts of the country, but I’m speaking about in Texas. We didn’t even realize we were doing that half the time—we didn’t realize in our own little world that we were slowing things down. Later on we kept doing it, too. We kept taking earlier songs like ‘Bedside Table,’ and ‘Liferaft’ even slower on some live recordings that I would listen to in ’98. They were slower than they were in ’94. I don’t know what it was—it was constantly trying to feel that groove on things. I was always kind of communicating with Trini and I remember, more often than not, trying to get him in that sort of pocket. It always felt to me like if it sped up, it was a waste…that’s basically a long-winded way of saying we weren’t even conscious of what we were doing at the time. But, it was different playing in different cities. Just to give you a brief rundown of places in Texas, Denton was—North Texas is actually the biggest music school nationwide, outside of Berklee. It’s a huge jazz school, so there were just tons of musicians there, and a ton of rock musicians too. So Denton has always been–-in some ways it’s kind of like Austin, in the sense that there are a higher percentage of places in the city to play, as opposed to Dallas. It’s like Athens too. It’s kind of a smaller college town, but probably more musical then Athens. Austin is more like college kids running around, so that brings to it more of a party element.”
“Well, that would hint that Austin is also more mainstream, I guess.”
“Yeah, exactly. So, Austin has a lot of—it’s an incredible music city in the sense that…I don’t know if you’ve been to South by Southwest?”
“No, I haven’t. I answer”
“It’s totally insane, but the city can contain and accommodate so much music going on. You walk down the streets and every place is a venue, or has become one. There are so many that are located all over town.”
“It’s mostly relegated to Sixth Street, right?”
“Mostly in that area, yeah,” he says, “but you wouldn’t believe how the whole city is taken over by it, and how—I guess what I’m saying is, there aren’t a lot of cities you could do that in. Look at New York when they have the CMJ Marathon—how everything is so scattered around, it doesn’t overtake the city. In Austin, it’s like that—it makes sense. It’s not like a city being unnaturally taken over. It’s almost like they could do it every week of the year if they wanted to. So it’s really intense in that way. It can hold every kind of music going on. There are great record stores, too. Waterloo—you have to go there—it’s a great classic record store in the sense that it’s the center of the city and every kind of person goes to it, not just the ‘indie’ kids in cardigan sweaters—moms and dads and kids, everybody goes there. There are other smaller record stores. Austin, in a really big way—an across-the-board kind of way—supports music a lot.”
“Being—as you said—‘an anomaly’ inside of Texas, what was it like when you finally went out on that first, longer, U.S. tour?”
“By that time, we had become known enough that it was actually pretty good. It was a headlining thing. We did this tour with two bands, and it actually worked. We were playing shows in Canada that were good—some of them were great. We were just starting to play bigger shows in bigger cities—we were starting to build audiences in other places like New York and San Francisco, and that was in ’96. By the time the last tour that we did…it was great.”
“Did you notice, at the time, the same types of things going on musically in these cities that were happening in Texas?” I ask.
“Oh yeah, definitely,” he answers. “I think you could take California and break it down easily. San Francisco is like Austin, Los Angeles is like Dallas, and San Diego is like Houston. I think you could easily do that because there are a lot of similarities between the two states. You can go to—the best cities for us now, and for Bedhead back then, were Austin, Dallas, New York, Chicago and San Francisco. In ’98 we had gotten to the point where we could play a place like Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco for two nights—a four-hundred-capacity place—and we were ecstatic; both nights would sell out. We did one show that was twenty-one and over, and one that was all ages. We did the same thing in Chicago, at the Empty Bottle.”
“Did you get to play Lounge Ax, in Chicago, at all? I spoke to Jeff Mueller about his time there, and he made it sound like an incredible experience for both performers and the audience.”
“Yeah,” he says, “the first time we ever played in Chicago we played Lounge Ax. Actually, the first time we ever did anything outside of Texas was a show in Oklahoma, after the German tour. The first time we ever kicked off a tour was to go play the Cardigan Festival, Atlanta, and Chicago. I think it was Tortoise’s first tour, or something; we always joke about that now—Tortoise used to open for us and now…so, yeah—Lounge Ax was a great place to play, but then there were also these places like San Diego—or places you heard about being huge music venues, like Chapel Hill or Athens, that turned out to be lame. We never played a good show there. I’ve heard more of the same from other bands about Chapel Hill than anywhere else. It was just—we were treated really well, they’d book us back through—we just didn’t like any of those shows. We’d play a place like Memphis on a Sunday night and have a better show than a place like Chapel Hill on a Wednesday or something, you know? We had decent shows in Los Angeles, and always had good shows in Seattle, too. We’d have a good show in Montréal and Calgary, but we wouldn’t in Athens or Chapel Hill. Those are, you know, big music cities—but it’s not like they’re small towns pining for something. I just don’t know what it is half the time. It’s really hard to pin something like that down. The largest show we ever played in Chapel Hill was when we opened for Luna there, because they could draw five-hundred people in that town. But then, they wouldn’t draw many more people than we did in other places—maybe it fits what you were saying about a college town being a little more mainstream?”
“I find that fascinating,” I comment, “because a couple friends kept heckling me and telling me along the way, ‘How can you go around the country writing a book about music and not go to Athens, or Chapel Hill?’”
“Yeah, right,” he nods. “There are so many weird things that are really hard to get a grip on sometimes. We would have never done that well in Dallas if we weren’t from here. We would’ve just come through because we were going to Austin, you know? This last tour that [The New Year] did with Silkworm in April, of the West Coast—we decided that since we got enough money—there were some really good offers from the clubs—we just decided to fly out there. So we skipped Albuquerque, Tucson, San Diego, Boise, Denver, all those places that we would’ve used to have to play. It was great. Nobody lost any money and we lived it up and had a great time. It cut out all the stuff that, historically, didn’t work—you know? It’s all fun. It’s not that we mind going to places like Tucson or anything…You have to work so hard, I guess, to go back through each place twice a year that there’s no way…”
TO BE CONTINUED…
Leave a Comment