When he arrives for his brown-bag lunch date with Racket, Tony Avitia of Broken Note Records apologizes for his clean-cut appearance. His huge, Juan Epstein-shaming Afro has been swept into a barber's trash, and he's clad in business casual. "I'm working for the man these days," he says, laughing. He peddles cell phones for AT&T.
Three years ago, Avitia's "slip-hop" ensemble, I-45, was tearing up Texas and touring nationally, and Avitia thought it was time to take his music career to the proverbial next level. He headed for L.A., leaving his bandmates Billy Kinnamon and Rudy Martinez to be based here in Houston. "I thought it was time to go out and see something else," Avitia says, as he nibbles on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. "I'd been here all my life and I just needed a new atmosphere -- new stuff to look at. It was time to pack up and go west and see what it was all about."
So what was it all about? "It's overrated," he says today. Not that I-45 didn't have any La-La Land-style fab fun out there among the glitterati. "We did a showcase for a few majors," Avitia says. "Capital, Columbia, Virgin, Interscope, the guy who signed No Doubt was there. I can't remember his name now -- they're all just a bunch of suits to me anyway. So we're doing this showcase, and we're hanging out with Nelly Furtado, and the Stone Temple Pilots were in the next room catty-corner to us, and we were like, 'Whoa, so this is what it is.' "
And then there was that star-packed night at a legendary club. "We actually once had the pleasure of having Linkin Park open up for us at the Roxy," Avitia remembers. "And Ron Jeremy, that pseudo-legend in his own time, actually introduced us. Jimmy Flynt was there also. He's Larry's brother, and I guess, the heir apparent."
Nothing much came of the showcases, and eventually homesickness, relentless touring, the birth of his daughter and September 11 all conspired to bring Avitia home. "I felt like I wanted to be closer to friends and family, and the wife wanted to as well," he says. "I pretty much accomplished what I went out there to do. I met a lot of people. We're hooked up if we ever need shows out there."
Some locals have called Avitia's Cali sojourn a sellout, but he's mystified by that notion. "I always got the opposite reaction to what I thought I would get," he says. "I really did go out there to promote a bunch of Houston bands, and all I got was, 'Fuck you, dude, you're a fucking sellout, going to California you fucking sell out.' That wasn't why I was there. I had a mission. I was promoting the band, promoting Houston music."
That's always been Avitia's driving force. Press archives chronicle eight years of Avitia's Bayou City music boosterism. In 1994, he was waxing a punk compilation for Justice Records. By 1996, his Avitiapalooza concert and other endeavors had earned him the sobriquet "Houston's underground Bill Graham." In 1998, I-45 emerged, and Avitia (the 30footFALL veteran and consummate punk) had been subsumed by Tech Ron B. (Avitia's hip-hop persona).
His punk past has harmed him some in the all-important hip-hop street cred stakes, as have the misconceptions that he is a) white, and b) suburban. Some in the rap game don't take him as seriously as he deserves. He's also just too damn funny for his own good.
"We've never been a mockery of hip-hop," he says. "We grew up listening to rap. Everybody thinks I'm white, but I'm a Mexican dude. We're not from the suburbs. We grew up on the north side amongst all sorts of riffraff. I used to go to all these seedy Mexican cantinas with my dad. We're working hard and trying to squash all the stereotypes, but we still get that 'This ain't white boy day' crap."
After a moment, Avitia digs out his wallet. "Look, here we go," he says. "This is how Mexican I am." He hands over his green card, and tells Racket he was born in Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas, Mexico.
In a way, he's in the same boat as a lot of more recent immigrants. He's come back to Houston cash-poor, but brimming with energy and ideas. "I'm not gonna lie," he says. "I'm broke. I'm living paycheck to paycheck, and it's hard to continue doing this. I'm hoping someone will come around some day and give us some money. If somebody's got an open checkbook, we're here."
If you open that checkbook wide enough, Avitia and his bandmates are all but ready to release three new I-45 albums. Avitia also envisions three solo records. One would be a solo album by Tech Ron B.; another is what he describes as "heavy, 180 degrees from I-45"; and the third would be a collection of "crazy folk tunes." "I thought about making the artwork so you'd have to buy all three to get the full picture," he says. "I could call them something pretentious like Heaven, Hell and Purgatory."
A little closer to fruition are the I-45 projects. "We have this really bad habit of finishing like 90 percent of something and then going and working on other things," he says. "So right now we probably have 50 or so songs lying around. We literally have enough for probably three quality CDs right now. Since we're rap artists, we may have to do that obligatory double album."
Maybe it will be a concept album about his impending divorce. As Avitia told the Houston music community in his Best Rap acceptance speech at the recent Press Music Awards, "There's nothing that creates better material than a temporary restraining order!"
"I kinda have fun with it, because talking about it is my therapy," he says. "As far as what's really going on, I'm trying to keep it a personal thing. She's a very understanding woman, and we're on pretty good terms right now. But the divorce is still going down." Later, Avitia's truck shows evidence that things haven't always been so amicable. He admits that his wife shattered his rearview mirror during a fight. Understanding? "She wasn't that week," Avitia replies with a laugh.
"This year's just been rough on me," Avitia says. "I've got the divorce going on. I had to get a new place, try to start over. We've been together ten years and married four out of those ten. I got my daughter, I got reality I've gotta worry about now. It was like, 'Oh shit, I've gotta get a job. I've gotta maintain some kind of stability.' "
He's struggling with accepting that load. "Every day I agonize about how I'd love being in the studio or on tour instead."
Not that his homecoming has been without its rewards. The win in the Music Awards caught Avitia off guard. "I was really shocked. For real, like totally completely shocked," he says. It was weird, when I was in California, I kept hearing that Lil' Troy song 'Wanna Be A Baller.' It was huge out there. For a year solid, there would be somebody cruising down the street playing that song. Bushwick's a legend, Lil Flip's all over the radio, Swishahouse All-Stars -- all those guys are bankrollin' it, dude. And I had to dig out 68 cents from my ashtray to buy the gas to get up there."
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And then there's Houston's A-list to mingle with. Avitia's far more impressed by them than the movers and shakers in LA. "Billy Gibbons came to one of our shows recently at Fitz's and stood right in front of the stage for the last three songs," he says, obviously cherishing the memory. "On 'Deep from the South' he was actually singing along with the chorus. Of all the stars that I've met, I've never been starstruck, but I was on that night. You know, he's got the beard, that little signature movement with the hand. I was just wondering when the chicks were gonna pop out."
It was enough to keep the resolute Avitia going. "Houston's a great town destined for great things," he insists. It's the same message he had back in '94 and it's likely the same one he'll take to the grave. And when he says it, you believe him.
Contrary to what you may have read in an advertisement in the August 1 edition of this paper, the Axiom is not closed. The ad in question was submitted -- with malicious forethought -- by a disgruntled former band booker bent on sabotaging the club's calendar and reputation. The Axiom and its partner Rudyard's -- which manages the bar -- are moving to an 18-and-up door policy, and booking is now being handled by Anthony Barilla. Bands and promoters who want to put on a show there should contact him at email@example.com By the time you read this, Pasadena rap-rockers Faceplant will have wrapped up a tour that took them to New York, Chicago and across the Midwest. The band's homecoming show is August 24 at Fitzgerald's Better catch the Suspects on August 23 at Fitzgerald's as well, because that will be the eight-year-old band's last show ever. These shows are part of a strong week at Fitz's, which also includes molten rap-rockers Simpleton's CD release on August 16 and Davey McEathron's Pop Fest on August 17. McEathron's band, the Westbury Squares, is on the latter bill with Groceries, the band they nosed out in the Press's Best Indie/Alt Rock category this year. Cruiserweight and All-American Rejects will also play Pop Fest Third Ward will get the Jug o' Lightnin' treatment on August 16 when the spooky roots-blues-bluegrass-country-whatever trio takes the stage at Miss Ann's Playpen.