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Houston Rock Scene Woes, Continued

A tri-ologue with three scene vets about selling out, not being true to yourself and rocking too hard

Brad Moore has been a dedicated observer of and participant in the Houston rock scene for about 15 years. A former denizen of the gone-but-not-forgotten Lexington Street rock enclave; a member of the bands the Keenlies, Bloodfart, the Oilers and the One and Only Cigarettes; a band booker at Laveau's; and a bartender at Rudyard's and Poison Girl, Moore has seen a lot. "I've baby-sat and seen a million bands since I've been here," says Moore, who came to Houston from his native South Carolina to attend the University of Houston.

And he has a theory about what is ailing the scene these days, and hell, for lo these many years, one he expounded on at length at the Cozy Corner in Westbury one afternoon a couple of weeks ago [see The Nightfly, page 58]. "I was reading this interview a few weeks ago, and I can't even remember who it was with," he says. "It was like James Taylor or someone out of the Byrds, but at any rate, the guy said this: 'Not rocking is the hardest thing there is to do.' Not that it's easy to go out and make a bunch of noise, but it's harder to just settle down on stage and play with proficiency and sing with dynamics. In short, it's hard not to rock.

"And there are a lot of bands here that don't understand that or are afraid to be perceived as soft or wimpy by not rocking, like, all the time," he continues. "I know tons of bands here where at home the members are listening to Radiohead or Beck or Coltrane or Johnny Cash or Pink Floyd or Death Cab or the Postal Service or whatever, but then when they get on stage, it's all just distorted guitars and hollering. It is like they are scared not to rock."

"They go home and listen to well-observed national music, and yet they want their own bands to be obscure," says Michael Haaga, the one-time front man of thrash metal combos dead horse and Demonseeds and the auteur behind 2005's multi-Press award-winning album The Plus and Minus Show. "There seems to be an attitude here of, 'If you're successful you're selling out,' and I just don't buy that. Some of these bands just seem to be playing for themselves. If you want to play music for yourself, stop going out and playing shows. I grew up hearing that attitude here: 'I play for myself, man. We play for ourselves.' Well, then, get your practice room and go play your shows."

Local alternative pop-rock singer-songwriter Tody Castillo has a slightly different view. He believes bands don't play that way because they want to, necessarily -- he thinks it's all they can do. Castillo now calls his mood-shifting, lush and damn-near orchestrated music "pretty rock and roll," but he freely admits that he used to be one of those who were frightened not to rock. "That's what I used to do when I first started," he says. "You get up there on stage and you think you have to go balls-out from the first note to the last."

Castillo believes Moore is on the money when he speaks of poor dynamics. That's one of the perils of coming out of the box rocking with little else in your arsenal, he says. "Your second song has to be as loud as the first one and so on and on until the last, and it just doesn't make any sense. It's boring, man; I got real tired of it. So now I come out and say, 'Okay I'm gonna do my waltz now; I hope you like it.' And it's weird. You can hear the space in the club and you just hope people won't walk out."

Haaga says it's more complicated than that. "The dynamics of a good show are just the good dynamics of a good show," he says. "Especially if you have hits already, maybe you do go out there and open with something that is a little pick-me-up to the crowd and follow that with a couple more...But if you don't have dynamics in your music, it doesn't matter what you do at your shows, anyway...If you are a band that just has balls-out rock music, you are just gonna have to play to an audience that is just into balls-out rock 100 percent. And there is always gonna be that, but the bands that break out of that are the ones that are gonna have appeal to a larger audience."

According to Castillo, one of the secrets to maturing as a musician and reaching that larger audience is learning what to leave out. It isn't so much what you play as what you don't. "That applies even when we are playing as a three-piece," he says. "Especially when we are playing as a three-piece. You stand up there and think, 'Dude, we're up here and we don't have that extra guitar, we have got to fill that space.' Nononono. Just leave that space alone."

It does seem a peculiarly youthful misstep. Think of the young guitarists over-shredding or overplaying, the young rappers firing off senseless polysyllables, the teenage R&B singers and their mindless melisma. And the less-is-more rule applies to just about every artistic endeavor. Take writing, for example. Young writers tend to try to explain life, the universe and everything in each and every sentence they write.

Both Moore and Castillo grant that some of their animus toward the all-rock, all-the-time music of so many local bands comes from the fact that they are getting older. But both also take pains to say that there is a place for all-out aural assault. (Moore wants it to be known that he came up on Hsker D and still digs Slayer. "I am not a folkie!" he laughs.) They just believe that more bands here should mix things up. Unless you are a master of hard rock -- a band like AC/DC or Motörhead -- you should dab some more colors of paint on your palette. "I don't want to hear a Motörhead ballad, but I don't want to hear Motörhead six nights a week, either," says Moore. (Or should that be Moöre?) Haaga says that you can and should rock the face off your audience a few times every show, but if and only if you build up to it.

Think of it as like baseball: Very few pitchers can thrive by uncorking one fastball after another. For every Curt Schilling type -- a let's-see-if-you-can-catch-up-with-thisfireballer -- there are dozens of flamethrowing guys who never get out of Triple-A ball. Most successful major league pitchers have at least two and as many as four good pitches, and they can change speeds with all of them. They have dynamics on the mound. And to return to the painting analogy, Picasso could get away with a monochromatic phase like his Blue Period because and only because he was Pablo Freakin' Picasso, and anyway he eventually got over it and invented and/or popularized cubism.

The same goes for successful bands. "Look at Led Zeppelin," Moore says. "Fuckin' 20 percent of their records were acoustic-ish, no-drums kind of things." And the same could be said for Guns N' Roses, and even the mighty Black Sabbath had their elves-gamboling-in-a-glade moments.

The thing is, chances are all those local screamo bands on MySpace and the opening slots of four-band local shows know all this. They probably just can't do much about it yet. Castillo believes that, besides simple immaturity and ignorance, one of the reasons bands rock too hard all night long is that they use it as a veil. "For me, what I was doing was just covering for not having real songs," he admits. "Even AC/DC, yeah, they're rockin', but those guys have songs. When I had Tody and the Royals, I was always like, 'Come on, let's raawwwwk,' but then I just got so tired of it, 'cause that's not what I was listening to. But it's scary to get up there as a songwriter and just be like, 'Dude, I'm just gonna stand up here and just play something real nice.'"

There was a time when it was both novel and took courage to play loud. It was brave when Dylan went electric, when Blue Cheer and the 13th Floor Elevators mapped hitherto unfathomed decibels (and levels of lysergic intoxication), when the Sex Pistols took their newfangled, snarling punk to honky-tonks in the Valley and Memphis. Those days are gone. Today the brave thing to do is to work hard enough on music that can be played quietly enough to be appreciated on its own merits.

"It's harder and it takes a lot more guts, because it exposes your songs," says Castillo. "It's like that thing where you see if you can play your song solo on an acoustic guitar and will it make sense?"

Haaga's view is darker. He thinks that many in the music community don't care if you try to step up your songcraft. To do so means you are "selling out," he says. "Man, I don't even understand that whole concept anymore," he says. "I think it's way overused and really out of date, and really just immature to say that. There is no selling out -- there is a certain amount of give-and-take in your art...There's a fine line between success and selling out, and I think that's what's confused in Houston."

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