Band Suicide

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

After the CD came out, Bunch told Haaga that he would be at his service if and when he could pull the band together. Bunch would then mobilize a small army of tour and radio promoters, publicists, street teams and club owners to push the album. Trouble was, Haaga could not win the band over. "He never called me and said, 'Hey, we've played three straight amazing shows, everybody's going in the same direction, I think I'm at my best and I'm ready for you to shine the spotlight on me,' " Bunch remembers. "I never got that phone call."

"I was like, 'Okay, there's a great record here, there's some really good press, there's some awards, there's a video, there's South By Southwest,' and there was more and more stuff than that," Haaga says. "And I wondered when any of these things would turn into commitment. I think they thought I was the only one that should be gratified."

In the band members' defense, though all of them played on the record, none of them had a hand in writing any of the songs. Haaga handpicked close to 20 different players to make the record and then assembled a five-piece band after the record was done.

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.

Still, in Bunch's view, Haaga's bandmates should have been gratified by the mere fact that Haaga had wanted them to play with him. "The guys in Mike's band didn't get the concept that Mike was an incredibly talented guy," he says. "They all had the idea that their other bands were just as good. Mike had just enough notoriety to where they thought they would give it a try, but they didn't grasp that it's only once every ten years that someone that talented comes along. A smart, well-adjusted musician will recognize when they are in the presence of greatness, and they won't get pissed off if someone else has gotten some glory."

Not that Haaga is without his defects. He is meticulous to a fault. The Plus and Minus Show took about two years to write and another two years to record. In other words, the album took over four years to complete -- about the same time Beethoven toiled over his Fifth Symphony. "That's part of my problem," Haaga acknowledges. "The people I work with want a quicker fix. And I don't blame 'em."

And Haaga lacks assertiveness in a traditional sense. Instead of telling you something directly, he might mail you a drawing or send you a mixtape with the message buried within, or he might talk in circles for half an hour instead of just spitting out what needs to be said.

This indirect method didn't work with The Plus and Minus Show. Haaga never could sell the guys on the concept that they were a band. "I was spoiled because [dead horse] was relatively successful -- it proved worthwhile to stay together and do things," he says. "Ultimately I guess we didn't grow in the same direction, but for a good five or six years we were all on the same page. We enjoyed getting together and rehearsing. We didn't really care that we were poor; we just enjoyed hanging out and playing video games before you practiced, and then you rehearsed for four hours. We had a really good time together."

Haaga is now in his mid-thirties, and most of his new band was about a decade younger. He believes that life has gotten somehow harder for everybody since the dead horse days. "There's less hours in the day for everybody," he says. But he also believes that this generation of rock musicians approaches their careers fundamentally differently than his did. "Now there's this whole mind-set where you have to go straight from rags to riches. Now people just really want to get famous," he says. "The camaraderie of a band, the idea of a unit, just seems to be gone."

Ramon Medina, the guitarist in the excellent though damn-near-intentionally obscure psych-rock band Linus Pauling Quartet, spoke for many of Houston's best bands when he sent me the following e-mail: "Musicians [in Houston] don't make music because it's popular, it will sell, or anything more than it is fun to make music. Some people play soccer, some write books, others simply make music. No great mystery -- it's just fun and rewarding, even if everyone hates your music. That's why Houston will never get anywhere in any traditional sense. Our vision of success isn't to be the next U2 or whatnot; we simply want to make good music and have fun doing it."

And while you get the impression that Haaga would indeed like to be the next U2, he refuses to brand The Plus and Minus Show a failure, even though he has pretty much moved on from the record. (Instead of resuscitating The Plus and Minus Show with a new band, he's now spending a lot of his free time archiving dead horse recordings, articles, photos and band paperwork.) "Coming out of a total metal background, I had a lot of fear in putting that record out. It wasn't really that people were gonna harm me, but that people wouldn't accept it, or that it just wouldn't be good. And it came out perfectly good. So in a lot of ways, it was the biggest success and the biggest relief and the biggest joy I ever had -- not being in Superjoint Ritual or opening for Lynyrd Skynyrd or having my band's T-shirts on MTV. I'd been wanting to do that record since I was 16 or 17," Haaga says.

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