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Band Suicide

Why so many Houston music groups self-destruct right on the brink of having it made

For most who heard it, Michael Haaga's solo debut, The Plus and Minus Show, was the kind of magical record you fall in love with on first listen. What's more, you stayed in love with it for a long time. That it had strong melodies and pop hooks was immediately apparent, as was its masterful mix of aching beauty and controlled power, love and rage, melancholy and elation. And you could listen to it over and over again, finding new nuances in both the music and the lyrics each time -- it's beautiful without being precious, operatic without being pretentious, powerful and instructive without being shrill and hectoring.

And what's more, it's an album -- not a collection of singles rounded out by filler. It even has an overarching lyrical theme. Even though it's not religious, its theme is worthy of Dostoyevsky or even the New Testament: a supercohesive pastiche on learning to love the world (and your place in it) when the world doesn't seem worth it.

On its release, every critic who wrote about the album was entranced by it. All two of us. In September 2004, this writer -- then still dazzled by the surface shine -- called it "a three-years-in-the-making opus of dark '80s-style rock, warm psychedelic pop, Beatlesque splendor, majestic metal-tinged doo-wop, Beach Boys harmonies and Flaming Lips-style freakouts" and an album that "screams 'Epic!' from the first spin and keeps restating that case every time you play it."

Michael Haaga (with his "Minus Bird") found a road closure on his highway to fame.
Michael Haaga (with his "Minus Bird") found a road closure on his highway to fame.
Michael Haaga (with his "Minus Bird") found a road 
closure on his highway to fame.
Daniel Kramer
Michael Haaga (with his "Minus Bird") found a road closure on his highway to fame.

A little later, former Press music editor Brad Tyer, writing in the pages of the Missoula Independent, the paper he now edits, raved thusly: "It's just big smart rock. Not brainiac stuff, just great melodies, tight arrangements, bold dynamics, compelling lyrics, crack backup, rock-god-caliber vocals and an uninterrupted flow of 11 progressively indelible rock songs that aren't scared of sounding like anything." And then he went on to name-check XTC, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, Elliott Smith, Jonathan Richman and Pearl Jam, before inventing some intriguing new bands: "Bits sound like Elvis Costello fronting Def Leppard and other bits sound like James Hetfield if Metallica were just Tori Amos," he wrote.

So far so good. Maybe the reviews were few and widely scattered, but they were both jaw-dropping raves. Now it was time to take The Plus and Minus Show live. Buoyed by these clips, in the fall of '04 Haaga assembled a band and started to gig. There was a visual theme to go along with that of the music: a little black-and-white penguinlike bird with a wind-up key in its back set against an orange-and-yellow field. Haaga made a cutout of the bird and decked out his band in matching bright orange shirts, ties and Converse high-tops. He also came up with a full line of Plus and Minus Show merchandise: buttons, stickers, T-shirts in several colors and designs. In short, he was fighting the good fight.

Continental Club co-owner Pete Gordon was impressed enough to give them a string of gigs in December '04 and January '05, despite the fact that Haaga's music was a little outside the Continental's prevailing rootsy vibe. What he saw in Haaga was a guy who understood the live end of the biz. "People are putting on live shows that people aren't coming back to," Gordon says. "Today, there's all these bands that stare at their shoes and bore people to death. Haaga put everybody in orange shirts, orange ties and orange shoes. At least he was doin' something. You know there's a show on stage."

Still, Haaga's show wasn't all the way there yet. Most local bands are a little better in concert than on CD, if only because of the excitement built into the live music experience. Not so with Haaga's band: If the Plus and Minus Show album was a perfect ten, the live shows rated somewhere in the six or seven range. "The record was really good, but I never thought the show was quite there," Haaga says. "Even though a lot of people were like, 'Yeah, y'all were supertight,' we never really were. Not to be an asshole, but the bar is low for rock in Houston.

"Yeah, we were good. But I didn't want to be that. I wanted to be fuckin' phenomenal. I wanted people to come see our show and remember it for the rest of their life. Maybe that's asking for too much -- not every show from even a great band is phenomenal, but I came from a band [dead horse] where our shows were events."

And most observers believed this band would build into that. All the guys in the band were supremely talented musicians -- surely they would grow into the songs. A couple of weeks of intense, dedicated rehearsals, and the live show would blossom. In the meantime, Haaga had lined up some pretty big gigs for March, a key month in the music business when many bands are signed or sent on well-funded tours and media blitzes.

In short, Haaga had done everything a fledgling Houston band could do; he landed a live set on KPFT and an opening slot for Louis XIV and Hot Hot Heat, two bands getting heavy pushes from major labels. And he had gotten a showcase at South By Southwest. Few Houston bands as new as this -- about six months old -- have ever had so much momentum. At the end of March 2005, The Plus and Minus Show would be a blip on the national music screen, and once the album started getting heard, in all likelihood it would take off.

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