Perhaps the most overlooked hiding place for the burgeoning essence of rock and roll is the rehearsal space. Here, a band's spirit is more easily discernible than on stage or on CD, and the reason is obvious: It's where a group feels most at home. The Drapes' practice den resembles a mix between a dive bar and a dorm room. Empty beer cans, pizza boxes and the persistent musty stink of sweat, cigarette smoke and stale booze attack the senses. Despite the mess -- and the daunting mishmash of guitar cables, electrical cords and broken guitar strings, the Drapes' headquarters is a sociomusical nexus of sorts; some might even call it an underground hot spot. Dubbed Club Safe Parking, the onetime neighborhood watering hole plays host to semi-regular live shows from local and out-of-town acts. It's also a reasonably well-equipped recording studio, in addition to providing a home for Drapes drummer/guitarist Gram LeBron, fellow local musician Trey Pool and a pair of dogs.
Buoyed by previous stints in other locally well-regarded bands, the Drapes have a decided advantage over most other Houston acts: the "hip by association" factor. Their roster is made up of ex-members of local indie-rock anti-heroes de Schmog and Schrasj. So, while their immediate goals are relatively modest -- to record their own music, tour the region, essentially make a living playing music full time -- expectations on the outside are higher, given the band's reputable lineage. Thus, when the Drapes' Christian Sweeney utters the ultimate aspiring-rocker cliche -- something about wanting to quit his day job -- the reality of just how difficult a proposition that is truly sinks in.
Formed at the beginning of 1998 after their respective bands went on indefinite hiatus (the result of key members of both de Schmog and Schrasj leaving town), the Drapes are adamant that this is not merely a way to kill time until their other groups inevitably re-form. A union of diverse talent and divergent tastes, the Drapes are led by the Sweeney brothers, drummer/guitarist Christian and guitarist/banjo player Kilian. They're joined by LeBron and bassist Jonathan Sage. All members except Sage sing lead vocals at some point, though Kilian handles a majority of the vocals.
Over an impromptu meal of (what else?) beer and pizza, the foursome candidly assesses beginning anew, the murky state of the music scene in Houston, and how getting out can sometimes mean moving up (and sometimes not). They confess that starting fresh gave them pause at first. Where their previous bands had established fan bases, now the crowds are smaller, and audiences aren't sure what to expect as the group struggles to get used to the new songs and to each other. Yet, the Drapes keep things in perspective with a healthy sense of humor. And no, they don't consider themselves a supergroup.
"We're super guys, if that's what you mean," says Gram, the group's designated smart-ass.
On a more serious note, Christian Sweeney adds, "With de Schmog, we had people who liked us, had a lot of people at shows and it's weird to start over not knowing any of the songs, playing in front of nobody."
Like most local bands, the Drapes have their own opinions about how to make the Houston scene a more productive environment. They're honest enough not to play cheerleaders in public, yet they're savvy enough not to diss it outright, but rather, offer tips on how more experienced musicians can make things better for up-and-comers based on their disproportionate amount of time in the trenches. Straight-up, they suggest that artists become more critical of each other so that everyone grows.
"It seems like a couple of bands will get together, and they all really encourage each other. But I don't think they encourage each other in any way other than letting them play shows with each other or going to see each other's shows," LeBron says. "I don't think that there is anything wrong with telling someone why you don't like their band. I don't like the idea of supporting local music just because it's local."
Adds Kilian Sweeney, "I think the problem is that everybody is patting each other on the back and not being competitive enough to say: 'Really work on that song' or 'You're not quite there.' You see less of that where it's needed than you see: 'We just got to keep sticking up for each other.' I think Houston has a lot to offer; I don't think that it has to have this united front."
Then, there's the necessity of getting off one's ass and hitting the pavement -- or, in some cases, the lack thereof. "With my old band [Schrasj], [touring was] how we were able to sell as many records and put out all that stuff, because not many people in Houston liked us. But outside of it, there was a lot of interest," LeBron admits. "It's just so silly for a band to go on tour that no one has ever heard of; it's just the dumbest thing. I always see these little bands who are just like, 'We're just going to go, we're just going to go [on tour].' And it's just like, 'You'll just be sad when you get back.' "
Nothing warms a cynical heart more than a local band's blind desire to make it big, and the Drapes are just such believers -- both in themselves and in the power of rock and roll. Although they don't especially crave superstardom, they do believe that with the right songs and enough effort, they might just rule the world, or at least a nice hunk of it.
Quirkier than Schrasj and more intensely melodic than de Schmog, the Drapes is a band in search of its bearings -- and its sound. It's a identity-recovery mission that at once suggests the Meat Puppets' busy guitar-pop psychedelia, the Talking Heads' rhythmic and lyrical eccentricity, and power-pop, indie-rock style. The inclusion of lap steel and banjo don't add a country underpinning so much as texture, and when Christian steps up to the mike the band takes on a raw, bluesy feel.
Happy with those results so far, the group is set to start recording this month. Their plan is to have something to give booking agents, club owners and radio stations. Realizing that putting songs to tape is just one of the first tentative steps to "making it," the band is undecided on the specifics of how they are going to stand out in the particularly brutal world of today's music industry.
"I'd like to see us push recording," says Sage.
"I think we should play more in Austin, because not a lot of people get big from Houston," Christian Sweeney interjects.
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The other Sweeney chimes in: "Our short-term goal is to record. We're going to drop tracks, and then after that it's to tour, at least regionally. Just constantly play regionally -- that would be a mid-term goal. Long term: Cut loose, keep traveling and playing, become a pro band."
Truth is, it takes a lot of hard work and more than a little luck to navigate those inroads. And though they may joke about what they could really use ("We're looking for financial backers," Jonathan quips. Adds LeBron, "We can take care of everything; we just need the money."), they remain optimistic about their chances. Knowing that commercial radio doesn't care much about anything that doesn't have a major label and a five-figure expense account behind it, the band plans to target college radio for airplay.
"One thing that de Schmog did was send out a single to a bunch of radio stations, and we got great responses," says Schmog alum Kilian Sweeney. "But we couldn't travel, so we couldn't take advantage of it. When the Drapes put [an album] out, we want to send it to radio stations and then go to those places. If you are clever enough, you can do a lot, if you don't think beyond your means. But if you put something out, send it to radio stations -- send it to the right places in the area [where] you're trying to grow and be heard -- it works really well. It worked for de Schmog, it worked for Schrasj, even bands like No Doubt started like that. I hate to affiliate myself with them, but I know because we played with them."
The Drapes open for Blue October on Saturday, September 12, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8. For info, call 869-