Cloaked in Ambition

Houston's Drapes have more on their minds than simply getting by

Perhaps the most overlooked hiding place for the burgeoning essence of rock and roll is the rehearsal space. Here, a band's spirit is more easily discernible than on stage or on CD, and the reason is obvious: It's where a group feels most at home. The Drapes' practice den resembles a mix between a dive bar and a dorm room. Empty beer cans, pizza boxes and the persistent musty stink of sweat, cigarette smoke and stale booze attack the senses. Despite the mess -- and the daunting mishmash of guitar cables, electrical cords and broken guitar strings, the Drapes' headquarters is a sociomusical nexus of sorts; some might even call it an underground hot spot. Dubbed Club Safe Parking, the onetime neighborhood watering hole plays host to semi-regular live shows from local and out-of-town acts. It's also a reasonably well-equipped recording studio, in addition to providing a home for Drapes drummer/guitarist Gram LeBron, fellow local musician Trey Pool and a pair of dogs.

Buoyed by previous stints in other locally well-regarded bands, the Drapes have a decided advantage over most other Houston acts: the "hip by association" factor. Their roster is made up of ex-members of local indie-rock anti-heroes de Schmog and Schrasj. So, while their immediate goals are relatively modest -- to record their own music, tour the region, essentially make a living playing music full time -- expectations on the outside are higher, given the band's reputable lineage. Thus, when the Drapes' Christian Sweeney utters the ultimate aspiring-rocker cliche -- something about wanting to quit his day job -- the reality of just how difficult a proposition that is truly sinks in.

Formed at the beginning of 1998 after their respective bands went on indefinite hiatus (the result of key members of both de Schmog and Schrasj leaving town), the Drapes are adamant that this is not merely a way to kill time until their other groups inevitably re-form. A union of diverse talent and divergent tastes, the Drapes are led by the Sweeney brothers, drummer/guitarist Christian and guitarist/banjo player Kilian. They're joined by LeBron and bassist Jonathan Sage. All members except Sage sing lead vocals at some point, though Kilian handles a majority of the vocals.

Over an impromptu meal of (what else?) beer and pizza, the foursome candidly assesses beginning anew, the murky state of the music scene in Houston, and how getting out can sometimes mean moving up (and sometimes not). They confess that starting fresh gave them pause at first. Where their previous bands had established fan bases, now the crowds are smaller, and audiences aren't sure what to expect as the group struggles to get used to the new songs and to each other. Yet, the Drapes keep things in perspective with a healthy sense of humor. And no, they don't consider themselves a supergroup.

"We're super guys, if that's what you mean," says Gram, the group's designated smart-ass.

On a more serious note, Christian Sweeney adds, "With de Schmog, we had people who liked us, had a lot of people at shows and it's weird to start over not knowing any of the songs, playing in front of nobody."

Like most local bands, the Drapes have their own opinions about how to make the Houston scene a more productive environment. They're honest enough not to play cheerleaders in public, yet they're savvy enough not to diss it outright, but rather, offer tips on how more experienced musicians can make things better for up-and-comers based on their disproportionate amount of time in the trenches. Straight-up, they suggest that artists become more critical of each other so that everyone grows.

"It seems like a couple of bands will get together, and they all really encourage each other. But I don't think they encourage each other in any way other than letting them play shows with each other or going to see each other's shows," LeBron says. "I don't think that there is anything wrong with telling someone why you don't like their band. I don't like the idea of supporting local music just because it's local."

Adds Kilian Sweeney, "I think the problem is that everybody is patting each other on the back and not being competitive enough to say: 'Really work on that song' or 'You're not quite there.' You see less of that where it's needed than you see: 'We just got to keep sticking up for each other.' I think Houston has a lot to offer; I don't think that it has to have this united front."

Then, there's the necessity of getting off one's ass and hitting the pavement -- or, in some cases, the lack thereof. "With my old band [Schrasj], [touring was] how we were able to sell as many records and put out all that stuff, because not many people in Houston liked us. But outside of it, there was a lot of interest," LeBron admits. "It's just so silly for a band to go on tour that no one has ever heard of; it's just the dumbest thing. I always see these little bands who are just like, 'We're just going to go, we're just going to go [on tour].' And it's just like, 'You'll just be sad when you get back.' "

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