Talking to Simpleton's downtown headquarters from the Press's offices can be scary. At the nearby bus station, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice drops off a Greyhound full of embittered and aimless parolees every day. Many of them are said to dwell under the Pierce Elevated, far from the watchful eyes of their parole officers.
I was walking under the Pierce when a couple of tough-looking guys approached, identically dressed in what looked to be prison-release-issue white tees and blue slacks. Great. I lowered my eyes to a baby food jar filled with must have been the urine of a seriously diseased person. Life downtown is full of such mildly unsettling experiences.
Suddenly, what sounded exactly like a rifle's report thundered through the air. I winced in alarm. A nearby flock of pigeons erupted into the sky. Cars stopped on Milam as people looked for a sniper. Even the parolees looked scared.
Simpleton releases its sophomore album, Baby You're a Star, Friday, August 16, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak Drive. I-45, Slowvak, Downfall and Red Star are also on the bill. For more information, call 713-862-3838.
It was a tremendous relief to make it to Simpleton's high-rise apartment. But I had taken perhaps an appropriate journey to meet the most urban rock band in Houston. Their sound is sophisticated, suave, sprawling and a little sleazy in the best possible way, and its fusion of punk and rap melds the two mainstreams of black and white city music of the last 25 years.
"The reason we started this band was that before, we were all in these hard-core bands that nobody would have dug," says front man BC, who was born Brian Clements. "It was this supersecret underground shit, technical fucking underground crap. So when we started Simpleton, our concept was this: Make music that was acceptable to the masses, and once it was deciphered and figured out by actual music fans, they would dig it also. If you are a songwriter or musician or a true music fan, we want you to dig it just as much as a nonchalant 104 listener. We're not trying to be smart or anything like that."
The approach works. On one recent evening, Simpleton's Lima-era Astros anthem "Milo" attracted some attention as it blared out of the juke at Cecil's. A nicotine-seasoned voice drawled over a funky rock groove, "Maybe one day, the World Se-ries," and then the song closed with a furious, bash-your-head-against-the-wall chanting of "Astros just get it on." Who are these guys? Two Cecil's patrons were instantly hooked. One was this writer. The other was a total stranger. Both of us hustled over to the box to find out who this stunning band was.
Yes, they're a rap-rock band, but few bands of their ilk have their musicianship and lyrical quality. Simpleton sounds just commercial enough to get on the radio and cooler than just about everything else on the rock dial. Though none of them has a jazz background, their music flows like the honey that came out of Charlie Parker's sax. Elsewhere, Jon Black's ghettodelic guitar, Marc Armaos's propulsive upright bass and Beans Wheeler's frenetic drums alternately thump as funky as the Meters and pummel like the early, lean and hungry Chili Peppers. Over it all are Clements's raps, most of which seem to come from some long, dark and desperate 2 a.m. of the soul.
Of course, the rah-rah "Milo" is an exception to that rule. Clements's father once submitted the song to Drayton McLane for airplay at the Field Formerly Known as Enron. "The Astros couldn't play the song because of some kind of BMI or ASCAP thing," says Clements, "but if we would do a demo of us singing the national anthem, they might consider us."
For a while BC toyed with the amusing idea of rapping the national anthem. "That would be a first," he notes. But common sense prevailed. "We'd get booed off the field," he predicts.
One landmark achievement the band has a more realistic shot at attaining is to become the first rock rap group ever to release a chopped and screwed remix. Up to now, the Houston-born superslow and rearranged remixes have been the sole preserve of gangsta rappers, but the Bayou City is carrying DJ Screw's legacy into numerous genres. Dope House rapper Juan Gotti, for example, features a sample of screwed norteño from borderlands legend Ramon Ayala on his June release, No Sett Trippin'.
Thomas Escalante of Plethorazine Records recently introduced the remix idea to Simpleton. But as we sit in atomic space-age chairs around a retro kidney-shaped coffee table at Leon's Lounge, the band is taking a wait-and-see stance. They don't want to sacrifice quality for novelty. "We're going to send a couple of songs over to [Green Thumb Records] DJs Walter Kronik and Scrawberry," says Black. "If we like those, then we'll think about the whole album."
What drew Escalante to Simpleton was not just their talent but their work ethic, which is beginning to pay off in the form of little coincidences. One morning not long ago, I popped a copy of Baby You're a Star into the car CD player. As soon as I looked up, I saw a guy on the corner wearing a Simpleton T-shirt.
"Yeah, you see those shirts around," says Escalante. "It's all about grassroots, and Simpleton is working it. They're literally selling T-shirts to people out in the streets. It's not just about music, it's also promotion. These guys are doing it, and I think they'll reap what they sow."
Back at Leon's, another little seed sprouts roots as a young Walkman-wearing African-American man approaches the table. "Y'all are Simpleton, right?" he asks, looking surprised. "What are y'all doing over here?"
"Talking to the Houston Press," Clements replies.
"Well, this is my hangout," the fan says, and shyly walks over to the bar. Clements follows.
"He knows more about us than we do," Clements says a few minutes later. "He knows all the lyrics of our most obscure songs off the first record. He's always walking down the street and he always has his headphones on. He just told me that he's listening to a new compilation tape right now with two of our songs on it."
You can get to know Clements fairly well by listening to Simpleton's records. His persona on the mike is no invention. He is what he raps -- a well-meaning ne'er-do-well who wishes every day were Sunday. Who wants a job when there are days to sleep through, bars to hit, women to chase and great lineups to watch on MTV and Fox? "If ignorance is bliss, then I'm as happy as a clam not doing all I can but doing all I want," off their new tune "Unfinished," seems to be his motto. But you can hear the substance beneath all the pop culture disarray when you listen to the sly, rapid-fire wordplay on his albums and just in conversation. Where many rap-rockers might think the Beat Poets were an East Coast hip-hop posse, BC calls them (along with Hunter S. Thompson) a primary influence on his songwriting.
Not that he wants to talk about such a literary legacy when the rest of the band is within earshot. When the band members are together, they act as all tight-knit bands do: They lay in to one another. Drummer Wheeler is the band's unofficial whipping boy.
"We used to have this game we played called Gulag," Black remembers with relish. "You ever seen Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome? You know where they chant, 'Bust a deal and face the wheel,' and then they put this big mask on him and make him ride a horse into the desert? We used to have this big papier-mâché head and we'd make Beans put it on and we'd shoot rubber bands at him and throw darts at his head. Gu-lag! Gu-lag! Gu-lag!"
Wheeler is stepping out of the whipping boy role now, Clements adds. Perhaps it's because he's drumming for Los Skarnales these days, too. He goes on to praise Wheeler's "great big heart that he crams into his itty-bitty torso...He should stumble around off-balance, but he doesn't."
Clements isn't feeling so generous minutes later when bassist Armaos rips the rapper's last band, Taste of Garlic, whose first album was called mydixiewrecked. (Roll that around on your tongue for a while. Wait, don't!)
"That band was great for what it was, for our age," Clements says. "When you're 17, 18 years old, what do you think about? Weed, pussy and your own dick."
"Too bad y'all didn't release that album until you were 25," Armaos says to general merriment.
Later, Wheeler and Clements clash when Black's discussion of the Dallas and Houston music scenes quickly devolves into which Texas metropolis has the best tittie bars. Wheeler takes the side of DFW. "You're out of your mind, dude," Clements says. "Just 'cause Pantera owns a club up there doesn't mean their scene is better."
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KLOL DJ Zakk United once gave Simpleton a taste of Pantera's lifestyle, one that could be theirs soon with a couple of breaks. It was an event the band remembers fondly. "It was great: open bar, they brought us a deli tray of fajitas, egg rolls, chicken strips, free bottles of champagne," Clements says. "Everybody else at the club hated us because we were getting all this shit free."
Not that the band was stingy with its lavish bounty. "Every now and then I'd give some poor guy a taquito," the big-hearted Wheeler remembers.
Escalante hopes that if and when Simpleton breaks big, the band will give Houston more than a taquito to remember them by. "I really think they have a good shot at making a name for themselves beyond Texas," he says. "Personally, I hope that they keep it in the family and stay in Houston rather than move to L.A. That doesn't do anybody any favors here, or themselves, for that matter."
And as Pantera has proved, you can have plenty of fun in your own backyard.