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When it comes to rock and roll, you would think that a garage is a garage is a garage. Sure, the space might not actually be a garage per se. Maybe the rock and roll lab in question is actually a warehouse, or a "practice studio." But the physical structure of the place doesn't matter any more than where it's located -- and anyone who spends enough time in there and has enough talent and gets enough breaks should have some remote shot at fulfilling a rock dream or two.
Unless perhaps this metaphorical garage is located in Houston, Texas. If this is your fate, the path becomes somewhat less promising. Here's something like a best-case scenario: You'll appear on a local compilation or three and build a loyal following of hundreds. You'll come out with a couple of EPs, hell, you might even release a full-length and "tour" all the way to Austin, Dallas, Beaumont and the metropolis that is Lake Charles, Louisiana. Later, you'll break up and re-form every once in a while for strategic "high-profile" shows. What's almost certain is that Steve Albini won't come knocking on that garage door, begging to produce your next record. In a way, all Houston bands are garage bands, so rarely are they heard outside the city limits.
The only real hope is to get out of town, take the well-worn road to Los Angeles, or Austin, or San Francisco, or New York. It's only a cliché if it doesn't work. But taking that step is an incredible leap of faith. Your family will call you crazy to your face. Many of your friends will say the same thing behind your back and hope somehow it filters through.
But to hear the former Houstonians in hard rock band the Business Machines tell it, the move to L.A. was the only thing that made sense.
"Bands in Houston were just getting a tad too comfortable," remembers bassist Andrew Harper of Houston circa Y2K. "They probably felt like the fact that they had a following in Houston was cool. And maybe they were seen as pretty hip, but that pretty much equated to nothing. When bands get big in Houston they get comfortable, and that kind of prevents them from doing bigger and better things. Houston is not a city where having a following equates to a possible record deal."
Having watched and participated in this pattern for the better part of six years, Harper -- like most of his bandmates, a late-'90s Lamar High School grad -- was looking for a way out. When an opportunity to join an already established band in Nevada presented itself, Harper jumped with both feet. But rather than scuttle back home after that break fizzled, Harper spent a few weeks in Los Angeles. There he visited friends and solidified the connections he had made over the course of tours with previous local bands, most prominently Quickstep Maneuver.
Harper was drawn by the Darwinism of L.A.'s competitive scene. "If you could survive out there as a band -- which is definitely tough to do, given the competition -- and make a name for yourself, then you're going good places," Harper says.
For former Dig Dug singer Lucas Juarez, who now mans the mike for the Business Machines, the move was far less calculated. Juarez had nothing to lose and feared that he was slipping into a rut here. Since Harper had managed to get them shows in Houston they couldn't have gotten otherwise, and given that he "has done a lot of shit and knows a lot people," it really wasn't that big a leap for Juarez to think that Harper could make L.A. work for him as well.
Dig Dug, which Business Machines guitarist John Christoffel also has on his résumé, "had done a couple of tours," Juarez remembers, "and I knew that I wanted to be out there somewhere trying to do something with a band; taking it seriously and trying to reach some people. I've got a lot of shit to say."
And that "shit" is one-third of what lands the Business Machines, both lyrically and sonically, square between the (International) Noise Conspiracy and early Guns N' Roses. The band's name is intended to point out the similarities between the New Economy's ubiquitous microchip-powered devices and their robotized operators, and the band believes that social injustice, big business and the government all suck in equal measure. But there's something you can do about it: Party until names like John Ashcroft and Halliburton are rendered safely meaningless. As they sing on "Down But Not Out," "Maybe I'll sell coke, but first I've gotta buy a gun. But shit, man, who am I kidding? I'm broke as fuck."
"It's how everybody relates to the big machine that we're fucking in," says Juarez. "Everybody was born into it and you've just gotta deal with it. That's why you've gotta find a job that you like, because you have to work, or else you'll die."
Other topics include the Enron debacle, which they dub "The Biggest Little Whorehouse in Texas," and "Chronic Marriage Syndrome," which they define as the growing confusion between sex and love and the denigration of the institution of marriage to which it has led.
Christoffel's barroom inferno guitar and the free-swinging yet precise rhythm section of bassist Harper and original Ties That Bind drummer Alex Arizpe constitute the rest of the Business Machines. The task of capturing this particular blend accurately was taken on by the increasingly ubiquitous yet still much-sought-after Steve Albini. The band spent a week in Chicago with the former Nirvana and Bush producer and Big Black band member last April recording and mixing the current disc. Potentially heady stuff for a band fresh off the boat from Houston
"It was a big surprise for me," says Juarez, "because shit, you know, 'Steve Albini' just sounds like a name, like a baseball player. The only thing I knew about Big Black was the ads in the back of fucking Thrasher magazine trying to sell shirts, and then I started reading about him and was like 'Whoa!' But working with him was sooo easy. When we came to him all he'd heard was a shitty, shitty demo and he still knew what it was supposed to sound like: pretty raw."
Juarez confesses to a couple of tense days when they were first feeling each other out, but says that by the end they were trading recipes. Harper and Arizpe laud Albini's own surprisingly hands-on approach. Arizpe recounts that Albini went so far as to stoop to grunt work like tuning the drums.
Former drummer Juarez had to tune a different instrument in the studio: his voice. Juarez semi-coherently explains the advent of his career as a front man and his rock and roll evolution thusly:
"I think when I ran out of beer and ran out of money, when we moved out here, and I was singing, like, not totally fucking twisted, it was a lot better. Don't get me wrong, I didn't stop partying. I just sort of mellowed it out a little bit so I could get the fucking job done. Then, once I got the job done, it was fucking Adderall and alcohol all night, just walking around in this fucking town where I don't know where I'm at 'cause I'm so fucked up. But I made it home okay, and I'm still being a good boy."
The Business Machines have been hawking their beautifully unpolished wares at shows ever since, but so far have not seen the record officially released. Most of the indie labels are as broke as the bands, and the majors are so worried about recapturing their revenue streams that they've become more risk-averse than ever. If they can't find a label by the end of 2003, the Business Machines will simply release the record on their own.
In the meantime, a seven-week coast-to-coast tour looms. That epic jaunt will culminate in a showcase back home at the Viper Room in L.A. The band members are excited about the road for its own sake, but they also see it for exactly what it is: another facet of the game to be mastered on the way to running the table.
And it sure beats the hell out of the garage, both the literal one and the figurative one that is the city of Houston.
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