Lower Westheimer on a warm Tuesday night. A burly, bearded Hispanic tough guy in a red checked shirt with the sleeves cut off is ambling east, carrying a sack full of eggs in one hand, a gallon of milk in the other. He walks past a futon store and a secondhand clothes shop that's proudly displaying "I Got Bucked at Gilley's" shirts -- Urban Cowirony. Out of a doorway a pallid street freak appears, an androgynous teenage boy clad all in tight black clothes punctuated by a wide silver studded belt. He looks like Marilyn Manson but smells very nice -- is that Opium he's wearing? Tough guy mutters under his breath, turns around, shakes his head and continues on toward his date with a plate of scrambled eggs and a cool glass of milk. And the reporter who took it all in heads into Poison Girl to interview Mike Haaga.
The more things change in the Montrose, the more they stay the same on lower Westheimer. Sure, there are chichi restaurants down there these days and a condo or two, and the weekend teenage cruising gridlock may be long gone. But it's still the place where the desperadoes go to get stewed, screwed and tattooed, and where everybody else goes to gawk at them, beat them up, have sex with them for money, buy or sell drugs, or engage in some decadent combination of all of those things. Lower Westheimer is still our very own Tenderloin, despite the best efforts of the chamber of commerce types over the last 20 years.
And like lower Westheimer, Mike Haaga has remained essentially the same, even if he's undergone a stylistic transformation. Haaga may no longer be the metal merchant he was in dead horse, one of Houston's most beloved bands of the 1990s, but he's still every bit the genius he was then. You can hear that before you meet him -- it's plain in the grooves of his solo debut, The Plus and Minus Show, 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. Haaga is backed by a couple of dozen of Houston's top musicians in various combinations -- Middlefinger dudes here, various Imperial Monkeys there, a Grocery yonder and a Suspect, a Pure Rubbish guy and a Flamin' Hellcat scattered about -- but somehow the album is seamless. It's Mike Haaga leading the Houston Rock All-Stars, and the result is a landmark CD in Houston rock history, one that screams "Epic!" from the first spin on and keeps restating that case every time you play it.
And here is the man himself, seated at a picnic table in the beer garden of the hippest new bar in town, telling the story of the album as pink geckos skitter about on the white clapboard wall behind him and a young tabby cat that acts like it owns the place swats at the moths whirling around the lights.
First, about that album title What exactly is a Plus and Minus Show, anyway? Haaga, who looks almost exactly like Neil off The Young Ones, pauses, thinks long and hard and gives an answer the hippie Englishman he resembles would be proud of. "Everything has a plus and a minus. It's as simple as that -- life, death -- and as complicated as that. It some ways it turned out to be a project that was about adding and subtracting people, but honestly it's how I try to look at life and how life keeps popping up. You have to see the negatives and positives."
The back of the album has an advisory that reads, "Warning: Contains only trace amounts of metal." "That's for the extreme metal fans that are gonna be pissed at me," Haaga notes. He has branded what he's now playing as "heavy mellow." "Yeah, man, I look at the record as heavy," he says. "It's intense, kinda angry at times. Heavy mellow is just where I found myself after so long doing heavy music. It describes what I'm doing -- I snuck some double bass on the end of 'Supernaïve,' but it's kinda floaty instead of punchy."
Haaga says he's always been a fan of other types of music. "If you coulda seen me when I was 17," he reminisces. "I was a big Cure fan, big Smiths fan. Big Dead Kennedys fan. If you weren't into that back then, too bad for you. Then somehow I got -- I don't want to say sucked in -- but all of a sudden I was doing metal. And metal is something that I totally understand -- the angst, the total hatred -- I get all of that." But today, he thinks the form has run its course. He's sick of flogging a dead horse. "You can't get any more aggressive, you can't get any more angry," he says. "It's all been done. And for me, what could be more 'metal' than to make an album of music that isn't metal?"
And he hopes that with this record, he's rebranded himself thoroughly. "Not to diss my metal stuff at all, but for so long, I would talk about doing something with some other guys and they would come over and" -- he flails his arms like a metal drummer in full thrash mode -- "and I'd be like, 'Yeah, I get that, I love that,' but I feel like I had to break that barrier for myself. Everybody totally pigeonholed me as someone who bashes their head -- and why shouldn't they? It was fun. But it was one of my goals to get out of that, and with this record I think I've done that."
Remarkably for an album that was made by so many musicians and was so long in the making, it has a seamless flow, a real feel of album rather than collection of songs. The power pop of "Looking Beyond" segues nicely into the sunny harmonies of "Mountains Fall Down," which flows in turn into the anthemic pop-grunge of "If and When." That's precisely the way Haaga wanted it to sound. "Every song was approached the exact way in my eyes, and we just got really good performances, with people letting me adjust them -- 'adjust' is a horrible word -- just sort of let me play with their sounds, ideas and arrangements. I wanted to harness all of their talents without making it sound like 'Oh, this is that person from that band.' It was really more to get them to accentuate what they can do for a song -- my songs. I tried to let everybody solo and have their voice, but honestly the idea that I and my engineer-producer Tim Gerron had was to sift through the parts and stop it from being this big jumbled mess. I've been describing it to some folks as my Ween record, but it's a hell of a lot different than a Ween record in some ways. But it definitely jumps around."
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Haaga let all the players use the same good gear he provided if they chose. "These are local musicians," he says with a laugh. "They were happy to be able to use DW drums, or be able to go in the equipment room and pick out a Fender Twin if that was what made sense. It allowed people to feel good and sound good."
Taking The Plus and Minus Show on the road will be difficult -- he's got a couple of dozen musicians to pick and choose from, most of whom have day jobs and families. Difficult, but not insurmountable. Right now he has a core band of the rhythm section of Jason and Brian Davis from Middlefinger/30footFALL and he's working on Dave Cummings of Clouseaux/Middlefinger to take over the keys. "I just plan to build it from there, and if I can build it the way I want, there will be a lot of folks on stage," he says. "I'm ready for the next record -- I've learned a lot about recording, producing and putting people together, but I also have to tour this stuff."
Meanwhile, expect local gigs (none are scheduled yet, but that should change soon) to be spectacular. Haaga is on a mission to shake this town up, and he's already done it once before. "Bands should put on more than just a show," he says. "Every single show should be something that people will remember. You should stamp it in some way, whether you throw out shrubbery or just dress up like a fool. Houston could use some excitement. It's not that there isn't a lot of talent or that there aren't good shows, but we just need more bands playing with each other that aren't the exact same types of music. And just fuckin' livin' it man, doin' it every single day. To me, with dead horse and with this project, it's what I think about all day, every day."
Poison Girl's patio -- empty when we started the interview -- is now full of happy, buzzed patrons. There's a wee hint of fall in the not-as-hot-as-normal air, but Westheimer's still Westheimer, and Haaga -- metal or no -- is still Haaga. But this record could change some things. Pick it up and see what you think.