You don't need to turn over rocks to find musical gems in Houston. They sparkle across our landscape and reflect their brilliance back upon us.
But if you insist on mining for diamonds in the rough, Juan Olivo and his friends want to help you on your treasure hunt.
Olivo is founder and editor-in-chief of Unified Underground, an upstart magazine/Web site/initiative that plans to spotlight the Bayou City's unheralded creatives. The project formed in April, after a discussion about seeking out and interviewing Houston's stealth street artists.
"We really wanted to find that down-on-his-luck rapper, musician, writer or painter who would appreciate and deserve attention and bring them into the spotlight," says Olivo. "Honestly, it started off as a small project but it became something bigger than we could imagine."
One of the group's biggest projects to date is its summer 2014 music compilation. A gargantuan release that gathers 28 local acts and three out-of-towners, it serves as an early glimpse that Olivo and his staff have been hard at work since Day 1. True to their mission to include all forms of art, the album cover was designed by Houston artist Luis Aguilar.
The fall 2014 installment is only weeks away from release, due November 12. Cover art for that album was done by Xochitl Carpintero.
"I messaged tons of artists that we've previously featured or interviewed and a large majority sent tracks for the compilation," Olivo says. "I really wanted it to be a huge, diverse release, and I'm glad that it all worked out in the end."
Calling the release "diverse" is like calling marijuana a plant. There are some mind-blowing strains of music on the album, from spacey shoegaze (Cashus) to neo-soul (Alex Winkler) to "glitch-hop/post-dubstep" (Krayze Music). The album credits are so disparate they read like Grammy categories.
Olivo and his staff found these artists by finding the music, at Fitzgerald's, Super Happy Fun Land and other venues, he says.
"Honestly, when you're in the fourth-most populated city in America with a population of about six million, you're going to find a few musicians," he explains. "We're a huge city with tons of venues, bars [and] clubs, and we're filled to the brim with locations to go check out underground and more popular artists and musicians.
"If anything, having such a massive amount of extremely varied artists should be expected," Olivo adds. "It's part of what makes Houston, and any large city, for that matter, so amazing."
"Amazing" might describe "Erroneous Anacruis," the comp's third track, by Vox Vocis. Describing themselves as "progressive post-hardcore," the band answered as a collective and addressed what makes their music "underground."
"We consider it underground in the sense that we aren't sponsored or on some big-name label like Rise Records or even a middle-to-smaller-size label like Triple Crown who hosts bands that play 'indie insert-suffix' music," the band says. "We're indie in every sense of the word -- we sell our own tickets, no agency books for us and arranges shows, and we sought out places to record and master and mix, and later produce, CDs ourselves. We don't have some big budget or suits guiding us through these processes."
Prog-rockers Mosaic Dream contributed a track. Band member Cheetah Moses says the "underground" label might apply more to its musical sensibilities than its business ones.
"Our style has yet to hit the mainstream, but that's what we're aiming for," he explains. "We like to keep our fans on their toes with spontaneous structures, energetic guitar work, bass grooves and jazzy drumming, meanwhile keeping the vocals melodic," Moses says.
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"I'd consider anything that isn't known by a large majority of people to be underground," Olivo clarifies. "We focus on underground music and art in general because every writer, musician, rapper or artist out there that is just starting off not only deserves but needs a way to showcase what they create and get it to a larger audience. I would love for Unified Underground to be a sort of beacon of hope for the kid who's starting a band in his garage."
Olivo has been that kid before -- he plays bass and can be heard on an Aske track on the compilation. So has UU's chief graphic designer, Carlos Topete, an electronic-music producer. Other staffers include Raymundo Alamos, Mallory Guerra, Carlos Morales and Bryant Murgas.
"We try to make a show at least once every few weeks, but due to our hectic schedules, it's pretty difficult," says Olivo. "The magazine has lowered on our list of priorities mostly because we found out it was harder than we thought to create one and we wouldn't like to start releasing it until we can produce it on a consistent basis, both quality- and release-date-wise."
"But once our magazine and Web site are finally settled, I'd love to become a bigger name in Houston known for giving the underdog a chance in this city," he adds, "and if possible, I'd like to spread Unified Underground to different cities around Texas and even America!"
And according to the bands, every city could use a champion like Unified Underground. It's important not just to the bands but to the city itself.
"There's a lot of talented musicians in the area," Moses says. "Even with the Internet giving instant access to millions of people, it's still hard to reach out because of the traffic. We fully support UU, because bands will get the bonus promotion that they deserve. There's a tough struggle for us 'underground' bands."
"In the long run, a strong underground scene can end up being a type of tourist attraction and maybe bring some more big-time festivals and artists to Houston," Olivo offers. "But the real reason a strong underground scene is important is because of hope. Maybe somebody wants to make some strange music but doesn't see the point: 'Who's gonna notice my music? I'd be a black sheep and just be criticized.'
"Houston has an explosive, vibrant and very alive music scene," adds Vox Vocis. "People are so quick to bag on Houston for not being Austin, but with just a little effort, this hidden cornucopia of people pouring their hearts out over chords is incredibly accessible. The scene isn't just accessible, it's inviting and warm."
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