For most who heard it, Michael Haaga's solo debut, The Plus and Minus Show, was the kind of magical record you fall in love with on first listen. What's more, you stayed in love with it for a long time. That it had strong melodies and pop hooks was immediately apparent, as was its masterful mix of aching beauty and controlled power, love and rage, melancholy and elation. And you could listen to it over and over again, finding new nuances in both the music and the lyrics each time -- it's beautiful without being precious, operatic without being pretentious, powerful and instructive without being shrill and hectoring.
And what's more, it's an album -- not a collection of singles rounded out by filler. It even has an overarching lyrical theme. Even though it's not religious, its theme is worthy of Dostoyevsky or even the New Testament: a supercohesive pastiche on learning to love the world (and your place in it) when the world doesn't seem worth it.
On its release, every critic who wrote about the album was entranced by it. All two of us. In September 2004, this writer -- then still dazzled by the surface shine -- called it "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" and an album that "screams 'Epic!' from the first spin and keeps restating that case every time you play it."
A little later, former Press music editor Brad Tyer, writing in the pages of the Missoula Independent, the paper he now edits, raved thusly: "It's just big smart rock. Not brainiac stuff, just great melodies, tight arrangements, bold dynamics, compelling lyrics, crack backup, rock-god-caliber vocals and an uninterrupted flow of 11 progressively indelible rock songs that aren't scared of sounding like anything." And then he went on to name-check XTC, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, Elliott Smith, Jonathan Richman and Pearl Jam, before inventing some intriguing new bands: "Bits sound like Elvis Costello fronting Def Leppard and other bits sound like James Hetfield if Metallica were just Tori Amos," he wrote.
So far so good. Maybe the reviews were few and widely scattered, but they were both jaw-dropping raves. Now it was time to take The Plus and Minus Show live. Buoyed by these clips, in the fall of '04 Haaga assembled a band and started to gig. There was a visual theme to go along with that of the music: a little black-and-white penguinlike bird with a wind-up key in its back set against an orange-and-yellow field. Haaga made a cutout of the bird and decked out his band in matching bright orange shirts, ties and Converse high-tops. He also came up with a full line of Plus and Minus Show merchandise: buttons, stickers, T-shirts in several colors and designs. In short, he was fighting the good fight.
Continental Club co-owner Pete Gordon was impressed enough to give them a string of gigs in December '04 and January '05, despite the fact that Haaga's music was a little outside the Continental's prevailing rootsy vibe. What he saw in Haaga was a guy who understood the live end of the biz. "People are putting on live shows that people aren't coming back to," Gordon says. "Today, there's all these bands that stare at their shoes and bore people to death. Haaga put everybody in orange shirts, orange ties and orange shoes. At least he was doin' something. You know there's a show on stage."
Still, Haaga's show wasn't all the way there yet. Most local bands are a little better in concert than on CD, if only because of the excitement built into the live music experience. Not so with Haaga's band: If the Plus and Minus Show album was a perfect ten, the live shows rated somewhere in the six or seven range. "The record was really good, but I never thought the show was quite there," Haaga says. "Even though a lot of people were like, 'Yeah, y'all were supertight,' we never really were. Not to be an asshole, but the bar is low for rock in Houston.
"Yeah, we were good. But I didn't want to be that. I wanted to be fuckin' phenomenal. I wanted people to come see our show and remember it for the rest of their life. Maybe that's asking for too much -- not every show from even a great band is phenomenal, but I came from a band [dead horse] where our shows were events."
And most observers believed this band would build into that. All the guys in the band were supremely talented musicians -- surely they would grow into the songs. A couple of weeks of intense, dedicated rehearsals, and the live show would blossom. In the meantime, Haaga had lined up some pretty big gigs for March, a key month in the music business when many bands are signed or sent on well-funded tours and media blitzes.
In short, Haaga had done everything a fledgling Houston band could do; he landed a live set on KPFT and an opening slot for Louis XIV and Hot Hot Heat, two bands getting heavy pushes from major labels. And he had gotten a showcase at South By Southwest. Few Houston bands as new as this -- about six months old -- have ever had so much momentum. At the end of March 2005, The Plus and Minus Show would be a blip on the national music screen, and once the album started getting heard, in all likelihood it would take off.
So it was time for the big push. Maybe, just maybe, a Houston rock band would make it out of here -- all the way to Conan O'Brien and Austin City Limits. Maybe the nation would find out there was more than just rap and country down here.
February would be the key. Haaga tried to schedule a bunch of rehearsals. No luck. One of the band members lived in Austin and a couple more in Conroe, so the logistics were always difficult. And then there was the fact that most of the guys had day jobs and girlfriends -- Haaga himself delivers pizza and is married with a stepson.
And most important, the other guys in his band had other bands. Sure, none of those bands had as much momentum or potential as this one, but the guys' roles were bigger, and why would you want to rehearse with your B-band when you could gig with your A-band?
Days turned into weeks, and weeks into a month. February passed, as did the first weeks of March. The band never rehearsed even once.
"We had a whole month before that where we didn't rehearse, and it wasn't my fault," Haaga says. "That really did me in. It made me think -- I got all these cool things to happen, and nobody said 'Wow, let's do it, let's be a part of it.' They were just like, 'Yeah, we'll do this. No sweat.' That really shattered my enthusiasm."
After that, this was a dead band walking. Sure, the CD went on to sweep most of the major music awards for both the Houston Press and Free Press Houston, and sure, a few more rave reviews trickled in. But the band and thus the CD were pretty much kaput after that March week. Hell, when the time came for the Press cover photo that honored their five wins, Haaga couldn't even convince all four of his bandmates to even show up and say cheese.
Welcome to Houston, where no great rock band escapes alive. Haaga's is the story of just one glorious failure, how one of the best rock CDs of this millennium went unheard, but there are plenty more lesser tales of woe where that came from.
Recently, an L.A.-based Web site called Musicbizadvice.com printed a list of "20 Reasons Why Musicians Get Stuck at the Local or Regional Level." Most Houston bands make about ten of these mistakes on a daily basis. Either the bands have no goals, or their goals are poorly defined, or each member has different goals. (See the scenario above.) Other bands change styles with each album. Still others seldom rehearse (again, see above) or rarely put much thought or effort into their live shows, while another contingent believes fervently that they will be "discovered," fairy tale-style, even if they don't bother to put up a Web site or publicize their gigs in any way.
Others hire their friends, lovers or siblings as "managers," despite the fact that these people, well meaning and enthusiastic as they are, usually don't have a clue about the workings of the music business or any contacts whatsoever. And then, just so they can say "Yeah, we've got a record deal," the bands sign with some shoestring operation that can get their stuff into only about three record stores. Or maybe they keep their school friends in the band whether or not they can play a lick, or they write "challenging" material (not to say "songs") designed to appeal to 50 freaks in every major city and then wonder why they don't get rich and famous.
It's not all the musicians' fault. There are some external factors holding down the scene as well. There's the well-known sprawl of the city and the lack of a centralized entertainment district. Also, for a city of its size, Houston lacks the hordes of traditional, hedonistic college students who fuel the music scenes of places like Austin and, to a lesser extent, Dallas-Fort Worth.
And then there's the local media, specifically the Buzz and the Houston Chronicle. Although Haaga had been the leader of dead horse, Houston's foremost rock band of the early '90s, and had later put in stints in the Demonseeds (which opened for Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top) and Superjoint Ritual, which also included Phil Anselmo of Pantera infamy, he garnered almost no attention from either of those vital local sources. Outside of the wee-hours local-music ghetto on Sunday nights, the Buzz played his record only once, and that was when Haaga's brother ponied up a few hundred dollars during a Katrina relief promotion. As for the Chronicle, not one of that paper's four music reviewers printed an opinion on the CD.
Local clubs also drop the ball in many cases, at least in the opinion of keyboardist Ian Varley of the multiple Press Music Award-winning jazz/funk/rock band Drop Trio. He says shoddy show production often turns even the most accomplished groups into apparent dilettantes. Varley believes that most local shows are train wrecks: They run too late, the sound is bad, there are technical glitches, musicians are running around the club trying to get their gear right. "We seem amateurish, therefore fans lose interest," he says. And they seem that way, he says, because of a classic catch-22: Since few people come see them, they can't afford to hire a manager, a roadie or a soundman, and since they can't afford those services, they look like amateurs.
Not that Varley wants to claim this as an excuse. "To be honest, my overarching philosophy is that the only thing really worth focusing on is making your music better," he says. "If you do that, and you aren't a total moron when it comes to the business side, the wind will eventually blow the right way for you to break out and be known by people everywhere. John Vanderslice once told me that there's one thing all the agents and managers and labels in the world can't do for you: They can't create demand. Only you can do that, by making your music awesome."
Tom Bunch would likely agree wholeheartedly. From 1976 to 1997, Bunch saw all the bands on Houston's rock scene. By the time he was 13, he was already going to club shows and clerking in a record store. Before he had reached his twenties, he was videotaping most of the now-legendary punk rock bands that passed through, and soon after that he opened the TAB Concerts promotion company, which also operated regionally, and then he graduated to owner-operator of local venues the International Club, the Unicorn and the Vatican. And last but not least, for much of the '90s he managed the Butthole Surfers and the Toadies.
In a town crawling with music business pretenders, Bunch is that rarest of rarities: the real deal, a guy who was deeply involved with two of the most important rock bands ever to come from Texas. And when he got back to town after a few years of living in L.A., he was impressed with how much Houston's rock scene had developed.
Bunch says that from 1976 to 1997 he saw "hundreds and hundreds" of local bands, all but a couple of which were mediocre. "The Houston A-bands were all C- and D-bands in other cities," he says. "But when I moved back here about 18 months ago, I was pleasantly stunned and amazed. Before I left for L.A., there were lots of people going to shows to see bands like Sprawl, who were just okay. Now there's all these great bands, but nobody goes out to see them. In the 1990s, there was a scene with no bands, and now there's bands with no scene."
Encouraged, Bunch started to dream big. He spent the next two months putting together a business plan for an entertainment company that would combine a record label, a publishing concern, event promotion and artist management. He thought to himself: All of these guys have made their own records and they're touring -- why have them sign to little labels all over the country? Why shouldn't he raise some cash and start a company that could create a stir in Houston at every level of the music scene?
He cooked up a 40-page business plan and then spent the next six months or so trying to stock his company's roster, all to no avail. "Every one of them had some major quirk that made them unable to be involved in it," he says. "Not one of them would bite. So far nothing's come of it. About five months ago I just finally said, 'Man, I'm beating my head against the wall.' "
Bands frequently whine that Houston lacks business infrastructure and that they wish they could find an experienced, well-connected manager to take them to that proverbial next level. Bunch would seem to be that guy -- after all, among other things, he did help shepherd the Butthole Surfers and the Toadies to gold and platinum success, each with their artistic credibility still intact. Why wouldn't these struggling but talented locals want to have a guy like that working for them?
Bunch sighs. "Fear of success. Fear of failure. Fear of the unknown. Fear of turning over what little business they have to someone else. How many of the music business stories that go around are about a record label or a manager screwing a band? So with the outside chance of that happening, they would rather not do anything and be the guy who never got the shot as opposed to the guy who got screwed or the guy who got the shot and blew it."
Michael Haaga didn't want to be the guy who never got the shot. He knows how rarely they come around. He'd come close to hitting it big before with dead horse, one band Bunch excepts from his comments about Houston's mediocre talent in the '80s and '90s. (He managed them for the last five months of their existence.) "They were the first local band that I saw that I 'got' and I saw that the audience completely got and that I thought really had a chance of making it on a national basis," he says. "They just made a series of bad business decisions and had personnel problems."
Bunch saw the same promise in The Plus and Minus Show -- or at least he saw potential in the album. Like Haaga, Bunch was underwhelmed by the live shows, and he wasn't willing to take Haaga on based on just the fact that he had made a truly great record. "It doesn't matter how good your record is," Bunch says. "You've got to get people behind it to make sure it's seen and heard. There are tens of thousands of records that come out every year, a sea of them. To get your nose above the water is a hell of a lot of work and time."
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.
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."
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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.
Maybe it's just sour grapes on the part of Haaga and Medina. Or maybe our scene really is purer than most. In Los Angeles, Bunch saw plenty of rock musicians with MTV dreams, and expounding on them is one of his pet rants. "From the '60s through the '80s, rock stars were rock stars, sports stars were sports stars, movie stars were movie stars, and models were models. They didn't mingle. Every now and then you would see Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper hanging out with Bob Dylan, but there wasn't this nonstop Dennis Rodman/supermodel/televised superparty," he says. "A lot of musicians just want to know, 'What's the quickest way I can get invited to that big party? Am I gonna spend ten or 12 years in my bedroom with my guitar and my pen, writing and writing until I get great? Or am I gonna take 18 months' worth of guitar lessons, get a cool haircut and then talk a major label into giving me a couple of million dollars so I can jump around and look cute?' "
Virtually no Houston musicians are in that category, and at first that aspect of the local scene charmed Bunch. "All the bands that I've seen here have this real thirst, fire and passion to create," he says. Ultimately, though, he has gotten a little frustrated with it. "The trick is this: How can you get those people who play for the sake of it to get some of the motivation and the business understanding of the shallow people?"
Well, if Medina's right and if records as good as Haaga's can still stiff here, we will probably never know the answer to that question. After all, it seems that most of the Houston-born musicians with any brains or business acumen or driving ambition head out for Austin or Los Angeles or New York or San Francisco as soon as they can, which leaves us with only the (take your pick) dumbest, craziest or most apathetic players. Luckily, neither calculating intelligence nor sanity nor drive is directly related to musical talent. You can hear the proof of that in a dozen bars and clubs in every corner of this city every weekend night. Perhaps the best thing to do is just to live in those moments. After all, we are destroyed only when we expect there to be more than there is.