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The Unusual Suspects

He said, he said with Houston's former ska kings

 "How can a bad dream become such a bad reality? / I just want things back the way they used to be."

-- "Amnesia" -- The Suspects

"I never thought we would ever play again," says Bill Grady, the cofounding member and guitarist for Houston ska legends The Suspects, of the group's upcoming reunion show. This week's performance will be the first time the group has appeared together since their farewell show four years ago. In August 2002, the band ended their nearly ten-year-long career in front of a packed audience at their unofficial home, Fitzgerald's. The show closed with a cover of Fishbone's "Bonin' in the Boneyard," but according to Grady, that wasn't how it was supposed to go down.

It took just 72 hours, a dozen e-mails and phone calls to get a Suspects reunion show together.
Photo courtesy of The Suspects
It took just 72 hours, a dozen e-mails and phone calls to get a Suspects reunion show together.

"I heard them say, 'We're gonna play "Bonin' in the Boneyard" for the last song at sound check,'" says Grady. "I was like, 'Man, that is a bad idea -- please don't do it.'" Grady says he objected because while the band had toyed around with the tune at some practices, he and lead guitarist Alan Hernandez didn't know the song.

"All that aside, why would we play [a cover] as our last song?" Grady says he asked the band. He was met with halfhearted agreement from the members, who said they wouldn't play it, but he wasn't convinced he'd won them over. He was right, he hadn't. At the end of the set, someone again suggested they play the song. "Alan just goes 'Fuck y'all' and takes off his guitar and walks offstage," Grady says. "I'm like, 'aww, this is bad news.'" He says he then turned to lead signer Thomas Escalante and asked him what to do. Escalante suggested he just take off his guitar and sing along. "I said, 'I don't know this song!' and Thomas says, 'Just wing it, it's cool.' So we limped through the song -- it sucked."

This seemingly small incident, however, was part of a larger issue for Grady and Hernandez. The pair had recently discovered that several other members of the band had been working on a new project, Clouseaux, for more than a year, without ever mentioning it. Grady and Hernandez felt marginalized.

"Half The Suspects were playing in a new band, and they didn't talk about or mention it for a whole year? Come on!" Grady says. "When I found that out, I was like, 'Okay, Alan, it's time to quit; let's play the last show.'"

And they did, a last show with a disastrous last song.

The Suspects were the foundation of the Houston ska scene, and other than the recently disbanded Los Skarnarles, it's hard to find a group that's matched their success. The band was nominated for and won a number of Houston Press Music Awards, including Best Ska/Punk Band, Best Drummer (Claudio DePujadas), Best Vocalist (Escalante), Best Horn Section and Song of the Year ("Caffeine").

Grady started The Suspects in 1993 with bassist Charlie Esparza. The group's first release, Ninety-Nine Paid, consisted of both third wave and skinhead reggae tracks. After the album's release, the band parted ways with then-lead singer Chris Kendrick, who was replaced by Escalante. Ninety-Nine was followed by How I Learned to Stop WorryingÖAnd Love the Ska, the EP Panic Button! and, finally, Lost Along the Way. Unfortunately, Lost was their last release.

Soon after the album was released, Grady says practices became more infrequent and shows harder to book. He figured it was because the guys were losing interest, but that was before he learned about the Clouseaux project. Grady says he didn't have a problem with the guys being involved in other projects -- he was upset that it had never been mentioned. He felt it was being kept a secret.

"I've never been cheated on, but I kind of imagine that's what it's supposed to feel like. I was flabbergasted," says Grady. Although he isn't entirely over the breakup, Grady says much of the anger and resentment has subsided.

Escalante admits although he knew that the choice to play "Bonin' in the Boneyard" at the group's last show had upset Grady and Hernandez, he never knew his and other Suspect members' participation in Clouseaux was a problem. "I never knew it bothered him," says Escalante.

It seems the biggest problem in the band was miscommunication. Escalante says he and the other members assumed the band broke up because it had run its course. Grady says he felt marginalized and deceived.

So how did The Suspects move from "I feel cheated on" to "Hey, let's play a reunion show?" Pretty easily, actually. Saxophonist Andy Hocker called, said he was going to be in town and suggested they play a reunion. Grady says 72 hours and a dozen phone calls and e-mails later, the show was in place. According to Grady, reunions had been talked about in the past, but were canceled because of scheduling conflicts. Most, if not all, of the members have full-time jobs and families. A few have moved out of town -- Hocker, keyboardist Joe Cote and DePujadas -- and getting them all here on the same night hasn't been easy. In fact, El Orbits' David Beebe will be stepping in for DePujadas, who couldn't make it down from his new home in Philadelphia.

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