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Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow

Southern soul gets the AC/DC treatment in the John Sparrow's cage

Buzz. Some bands have it, most bands don't. There are bands that have played Houston for a decade or more and still cross our minds only as mere names in cold print, eliciting the same sort of yawn with which one might greet another hot and humid August morning.

But one local band has broken free of that ghetto. When the John Sparrow plays, people talk about it for days afterward; friends call their friends and gush, "You've got to see this band!" According to Rockpile Records manager Robert Garcia, no fewer than three customers raved unbidden about the John Sparrow after a recent show. It's downright weird, he says. In his experience, "More people come in the store and run down bands after seeing them perform than speak good of them."

Still, even though they've been around for three years, the John Sparrow remains fairly low-profile in its hometown. "We live here, but I don't want to ever be considered a local band, because that's what you stay: a local band," says singer-guitarist Kevin Richardson. "We don't worry about our shows here so much. I think too many bands here try to make their show the big event. It's not gonna happen, and even if you get 100 people out to your show, what does that amount to?"

Music geeks, especially in the UK, have found them, though, and often compare their sound to early punk and mod bands. Critics' shorthand descriptions most often read, "sounds like the Clash, the Jam and early Who with Southern rock mixed in."

Richardson doesn't necessarily agree with that classification. His prefers his own designation: "AC/DC playing Stax," referring to the legendary Memphis soul label. "We started R&B here in the South, and that comes through in our music. How could we come from here and not reflect that in our music?" he wonders. "I don't know how many Arhoolie blues records I have that were recorded here, then there's Gold Star [label] and all the other [musical] history here.

"I think our songs are pretty pop, too," he adds. "We tend to blast through them because that's just the background we come from. That's just what we learned to do growing up on Ramones and good punk rock bands, but they're definitely pop songs."

"We're working in the pop structure but trying to bring different things to it," chips in bassist Steve Longoria. "I think we have more in common with bands that have been doing it awhile but that aren't getting the big nod -- like the Brian Jonestown Massacre. [Maybe] they don't dress in matching clothes or have the right haircut or shoes."

Public perception and media opinion are "more based on style," agrees drummer Michael DeLeon, a former Westbury Square. "But we don't want to wear costumes and get stuck in that."

And since the John Sparrow signed with L.A. garage/punk/psych label Bomp! Records -- and have thus become labelmates of the Brian Jonestown Massacre -- they won't have to. The band is recording an album, with Massacre front man Anton Alfred Newcombe producing.

You can tell by the way the members jump into the conversation so freely that this is a collaborative band. Richardson is the chief lyric writer and often lays out the bare bones of the song, and then the group dynamic takes over. "Michael has fallen into the arranger role really well. He sits back and hears the parts -- like he'll suggest to play this part, build it up here…," says guitarist Trey Barnette.

"If everybody can't add input on a song, then it's not a good song and it's not usually worth having," says Richardson. "I think that's the problem with most bands: They let one person write the song and you get all this overindulgence."

"If you have your feelings hurt every time someone comes up with a criticism, then you should stay in your room and record by yourself," DeLeon adds.

This craftsmanship and teamwork show in their three-minute pop masterpieces, the type that stick after one or two listens. They've taken their influences and crafted their own sound, and instead of gimmicks, they specialize in content. The John Sparrow's latest five-song demo -- the one that got them the Bomp! deal -- includes the gem "Penelope, Please!," a tune that handily demonstrates their talent for writing songs that sound instantly familiar. Another cut, the catchy "Air Raid Siren," harks back to mod roots with a dash of Britpop.

Being able to make the music sound classic and simultaneously new marks them for bigger things. But they insist that hitting the big time isn't the point. "Music is about having fun, whether people on a wide scale appreciate it or not," DeLeon says. "If a small circle of people are really loyal to you, that's more rewarding than playing a big show where people are just waiting for you to get off the stage."

So far their recorded output is two cuts on a split seven-inch single with Nevada band Crushstory and a self-titled EP, both on the Chicago independent label Arms Reach Recordings.

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