Band Suicide

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

So it was time for the big push. Maybe, just maybe, a Houston rock band would make it out of here -- all the way to Conan O'Brien and Austin City Limits. Maybe the nation would find out there was more than just rap and country down here.

February would be the key. Haaga tried to schedule a bunch of rehearsals. No luck. One of the band members lived in Austin and a couple more in Conroe, so the logistics were always difficult. And then there was the fact that most of the guys had day jobs and girlfriends -- Haaga himself delivers pizza and is married with a stepson.

And most important, the other guys in his band had other bands. Sure, none of those bands had as much momentum or potential as this one, but the guys' roles were bigger, and why would you want to rehearse with your B-band when you could gig with your A-band?

Pete Gordon: "Today there's all these bands that stare 
at their shoes and bore people to death."
Daniel Kramer
Pete Gordon: "Today there's all these bands that stare at their shoes and bore people to death."
Drop Trio keyboardist Ian Varley: "We seem 
amateurish, therefore fans lose interest."
Daniel Kramer
Drop Trio keyboardist Ian Varley: "We seem amateurish, therefore fans lose interest."

Days turned into weeks, and weeks into a month. February passed, as did the first weeks of March. The band never rehearsed even once.

"We had a whole month before that where we didn't rehearse, and it wasn't my fault," Haaga says. "That really did me in. It made me think -- I got all these cool things to happen, and nobody said 'Wow, let's do it, let's be a part of it.' They were just like, 'Yeah, we'll do this. No sweat.' That really shattered my enthusiasm."

After that, this was a dead band walking. Sure, the CD went on to sweep most of the major music awards for both the Houston Press and Free Press Houston, and sure, a few more rave reviews trickled in. But the band and thus the CD were pretty much kaput after that March week. Hell, when the time came for the Press cover photo that honored their five wins, Haaga couldn't even convince all four of his bandmates to even show up and say cheese.

Welcome to Houston, where no great rock band escapes alive. Haaga's is the story of just one glorious failure, how one of the best rock CDs of this millennium went unheard, but there are plenty more lesser tales of woe where that came from.

Recently, an L.A.-based Web site called printed a list of "20 Reasons Why Musicians Get Stuck at the Local or Regional Level." Most Houston bands make about ten of these mistakes on a daily basis. Either the bands have no goals, or their goals are poorly defined, or each member has different goals. (See the scenario above.) Other bands change styles with each album. Still others seldom rehearse (again, see above) or rarely put much thought or effort into their live shows, while another contingent believes fervently that they will be "discovered," fairy tale-style, even if they don't bother to put up a Web site or publicize their gigs in any way.

Others hire their friends, lovers or siblings as "managers," despite the fact that these people, well meaning and enthusiastic as they are, usually don't have a clue about the workings of the music business or any contacts whatsoever. And then, just so they can say "Yeah, we've got a record deal," the bands sign with some shoestring operation that can get their stuff into only about three record stores. Or maybe they keep their school friends in the band whether or not they can play a lick, or they write "challenging" material (not to say "songs") designed to appeal to 50 freaks in every major city and then wonder why they don't get rich and famous.

It's not all the musicians' fault. There are some external factors holding down the scene as well. There's the well-known sprawl of the city and the lack of a centralized entertainment district. Also, for a city of its size, Houston lacks the hordes of traditional, hedonistic college students who fuel the music scenes of places like Austin and, to a lesser extent, Dallas-Fort Worth.

And then there's the local media, specifically the Buzz and the Houston Chronicle. Although Haaga had been the leader of dead horse, Houston's foremost rock band of the early '90s, and had later put in stints in the Demonseeds (which opened for Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top) and Superjoint Ritual, which also included Phil Anselmo of Pantera infamy, he garnered almost no attention from either of those vital local sources. Outside of the wee-hours local-music ghetto on Sunday nights, the Buzz played his record only once, and that was when Haaga's brother ponied up a few hundred dollars during a Katrina relief promotion. As for the Chronicle, not one of that paper's four music reviewers printed an opinion on the CD.

Local clubs also drop the ball in many cases, at least in the opinion of keyboardist Ian Varley of the multiple Press Music Award-winning jazz/funk/rock band Drop Trio. He says shoddy show production often turns even the most accomplished groups into apparent dilettantes. Varley believes that most local shows are train wrecks: They run too late, the sound is bad, there are technical glitches, musicians are running around the club trying to get their gear right. "We seem amateurish, therefore fans lose interest," he says. And they seem that way, he says, because of a classic catch-22: Since few people come see them, they can't afford to hire a manager, a roadie or a soundman, and since they can't afford those services, they look like amateurs.

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