Joint Chiefs' music has been described many ways in the nearly three-and-a-half years since the band first formed here in Houston. Fans and critics who latch first onto Jay Maulsby's vocals can easily mistake the Chiefs for a bad heavy metal band (wrong clothes and long, fractured songs), and Maulsby's testosterone wail has caused a few otherwise unwarranted cries of grunge over the years. Notice the rhythm wall of Lisa Harrington's drum kit and Scott Beliveau's percussion, and you might think you were hearing a groove band stuck within a band that won't stick with a groove. Focus your ears on Brett Needham and his rumbling Chapman Stick bass and you start to hear a bent toward embryonic prog rock, a tendency further embellished by Doren Bernard's jazzy guitar noodles and squawking sax contributions. Pat Stallings's guitar weaves all over the map, a trouble-shooting utility instrument that adds heft to whatever multi-hyphenated stylings the Chiefs happen to be pursuing at the moment. To further confuse the issue, Joint Chiefs began life as a progressive funk band, taking advantage of a groundswell of underage fans back in that genre's Sprawl- and Billy Goat-dominated heyday.
Joint Chiefs sound a little bit like Rush one moment, a little like Black Sabbath the next, a lot like King Crimson in sporadic bursts, and, in inspired flashes of dissonance, like a flock of screaming geese being sucked into a jet turbine. Guitarist/sax player Bernard describes the Chiefs' songs -- mostly constructed of a democratic hodgepodge of ideas in the rehearsal room -- as "weird or silly riffs, something rhythmically strange but not mechanical." "We don't want to be a techno band, which I'm sure would be easy to do," he says. "A nice degree of sloppiness thrown in to keep it fun. We're real interested in textural layering, like putting a lot of sounds together and seeing what it comes out like." Maulsby's lyrics alternate between mood paintings and social commentary, but unless you read a lyrics sheet, you're more likely to be impressed by the visceral punch of the vocals than by their content.
As far as relative positioning within the realm of Houston's rock product goes, the Chiefs share more common musical ground with prog-rock implants King's X and Galactic Cowboys than with the blues derivatives or punk-rock deconstructions that surround them -- probably more than anyone in the King's X, Galactic Cowboys or Joint Chiefs camps might like to admit -- and it's easy to think that if the shaggy quintet would shape up its act (just flash a few tattoos, maybe, or at least stop showing up on stage wearing those crappy shorts their mothers gave them three Christmases ago), they might find themselves signing on the dotted line for some deep-pocketed employer with a tour bus and a friend doing video in L.A.
It's been close. Ron Goudie, at the time an A&R scout from Los Angeles-based Restless Records and now with the Houston-based Sector II label, showed up at an Emo's gig in the summer of '92 with pen in hand. His assessment? "He liked us," says drummer Harrington, "but he said we were too fat and too busy."
So "fat" is a A&R rep's metaphor for a really heavy sound?
"No, he said Jay was too fat. Brett was still a little overweight then too, and I'm overweight, and he said it just didn't look good with these fat people all over the stage. And he thought the music was too busy with Brett's Stick."
The band's response?
"We were just like, "Fuck you. We like the belly." I mean, we thanked him for the criticism, you know, thanks for flying out from L.A. and everything, but he wanted to work with the band's sound, and it wasn't what we were looking for."
Joint Chiefs may not have gotten a record deal out of the exchange, but they did get a name for their second recording (and first CD) -- in stores for the past three weeks and officially celebrated with a record release this Friday night. Fat and Busy is the title of the self-produced disk, and it's both.
Tactless gauging of personal appearance aside, Goudie's assessment is understandable. Sometimes, usually at a live show, in one of those moments of sparkling clarity when all the divergent tangents of the Joint Chiefs' music cross paths, you want to jump up on the stage and shake the nearest Chief cross-eyed until he or she acquiesces to pursue some single idea -- any single idea -- to its conclusion. Be a groove band, dammit. Or be a jazz band. Or wail your grunge lungs out. Or play that outdated funk, fer Chrissake. Do something with a tag so you can sell this slab of plastic and move out of this dumpy burg and into some rented mansion in the Hollywood Hills with Rick Rubin holding your hand and your family hired to count the cash. You can do it.
Yeah, well, fat chance.
Joint Chiefs are stricken with that peculiar affliction of the musical underground -- some call it integrity, some call it sheer stubbornness
-- that manifests itself in a little voice between the temples saying, as Harrington puts it, "Hey, we wrote this, and we wrote it the way we wanted to write it. It's just a matter of what's ours is ours. We don't want you to take it away from us."
That kind of death grip on identity reads more like necessity than willfulness when you look at the band's fractured history. Harrington and original guitarist Joey Salinas started the band as an informal two-musician jam session in Salinas's living room, constantly auditioning bassists and singers. Mutual friends introduced the pair to Stick player Needham, who was welcomed into the fold after an impromptu workout on his ten-stringed instrument. An original percussionist Harrington calls "Fishboy" was dropped in favor of Beliveau, who had never played in a band before. Former Public News music editor Elliot Meacham covered vocals for the Chiefs' first show at the Axiom, before Matt Kelly -- then and now of Sprawl -- took over vocal duties. Kelly sang for about six months, up until the time of the Axiom production of Jesus Christ Superstar, during which the Chiefs were introduced to Maulsby. Shortly afterwards, with Kelly leaving to tour with Sprawl, Maulsby stepped in as full-time singer. When Sprawl guitarist Dan Robinson quit his band, Sprawl auditioned Salinas, who joined -- "band slut that he is," Harrington says affectionately. The same night of Salinas's Sprawl tryout, the Chiefs auditioned new guitarist Pat Stallings, who immediately became a member of the group. When original Joint Chiefs sax player Kirk Heydt left, Doren Bernard was asked to join -- for the millionth time, Harrington says -- and he finally did.
Shortly before Salinas and Kelly left the Chiefs, the band self-produced a five-song funk-oriented tape called Riding the Highway of Crime. It almost immediately became worthless. With the tape's lead guitarist and singer no longer involved with the project, the Chiefs couldn't very well use the tape to promote themselves or shop the songs to labels, clubs, or anyone else.
The present lineup, says Harrington, is super-steady, and the new CD a truer reflection of what the band is trying to do. "Fat and Busy has a lot more balls. I just think we spent more time finding ourselves and writing our own music and not trying to be like anybody else. It's more to the meaning of the Joint Chiefs, all the way down to the title. We are fat and busy, and I like that. At least we're not a bunch of egotistical maniacs who just want to make money and look good. For a first project from this bunch of people, I think it turned out really well."
Which, aside from gobs of money, is all you can reasonably ask from a labor of love. But still, you've got to wonder, where is the project headed? Maulsby's virtuosic hard-rock singing should be friendly to some radio somewhere, and the rhythm section ought to be able to connect with at least a stadium full of headbangers. Stallings's guitar is flexible enough, and Bernard's sax weird enough, to satisfy any reasonably experimental college crowd. Now that the Chiefs finally have a full-scale product under their belts and in the mails, where do they take it from here?
Joint Chiefs played the Arizona Music Conference in '92 to noticeable acclaim, but haven't had the funds to return since. They've appeared at Austin's South by Southwest music conference two years running, and have an application in for this year's shindig. Out-of-town touring has been minimal, though, and hard to procure without a disk to send out in advance. Harrington is hoping the new CD will change all that. "It's for shopping to anybody and everybody -- consumer market, record labels. Anyone who wants one can have one. I'd like to make a career out of it.
"Ideally, we'd like to hook up with a nice independent with major big-time distribution. Like Trance [in Austin]. They don't have a lot of bands, but they pay really close attention to the bands they have."
ernard thinks the audience might come from the college market, but he'd like to see some sort of international distribution, "so we could go to Japan and play with the Boredoms. We don't want to putt around Houston and be one of those bands, oh, we're from Houston, we never got out of Houston. I mean Houston's great, but to be able to get out of town and tour would be the best."
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Fat and Busy might be the best shot the band's had so far. It's a messy jumble of styles and tangents on first listen, but if you're willing to meet it half-way, standout cuts and missed-it-the-first-time intricacies emerge into slow relief. "Rubber Things" and "Feel This" both have potential as singles, and there's enough disjointed energy spread over the rest of the album to satisfy most any headphone freak. College radio -- in itself almost as fragmented as the Chiefs' music -- is an obvious market (though "Feel This" has been getting regular play on KLOL's local radio show), but the Chiefs have a lead-heavy tinge to their sound that just might draw an unexpected audience from the ranks of the heavy-metal market, provided that market ever gets a chance to hear them. Both Helmet and the Butthole Surfers -- neither of which think of themselves as a "metal" band -- tapped into increasingly diversified heavy-metal crowds without really trying, and the same phenomenon could float Joint Chiefs to the next stage.
"I don't know," says Bernard. "I don't think we're pretty enough for them. We don't have enough of the screamy lead things, we don't jump around and spread our legs enough for them. I know Jay will crawl on the floor for them, though."
And hell, Jay's at least as pretty as Butthole Gibby.
Joint Chiefs celebrate the release of Fat and Busy 9 p.m., Friday, January 21, at the grand opening of Harvey's Club Deluxe (formerly Catal Huyuk), 2524 McKinney. Tickets cost $5. Call 523-9828 for more information.