Houston's Born Again Virgins Can't Sit Still
James Red can't stand still.
The tall, bespectacled Born Again Virgins singer, whose hair matches his (assumed) last name, is pacing the upstairs landing of Rudyard's back stairway, waiting to be the best Perry Farrell or Billy Idol he can be. Red's eagerness to get down to the business of rocking is practically coming off of him in waves.
"Sometimes you just know you've got a good band," he says.
Red's three fellow Virgins — guitarist Adria LeCrone, bassist Brian Wayne and drummer Ryan Ottea — are also gathered in the stairwell, mentally psyching themselves up a little less visibly. Their chemistry is obvious in their easy banter and enthusiastic discussions of the bands that have inspired them, a list that ranges from '90s grunge icons Nirvana and Mudhoney to grizzled lifers Motörhead and Houston's own ZZ Top (of course). Most rock and roll these days comes in two self-serious varieties, twee or ponderous, but the Virgins are neither. They've tapped with relative ease into the same primal life force that made the Stooges or Supersuckers so great.
"We all listen to each other, too," says LeCrone. "It's not one person overpowering the others."
Indeed, it takes all four, but live the Virgins are pretty damn overpowering. Right now the four-piece is getting ready to play a sleepy Wednesday night at the Montrose pub famous for its delicious burgers and pristine PA system. There's probably not even 50 people in the room at the moment, waiting around to see the Virgins open for Houston hardcore outfit Bury the Crown and Austin stoner-metal crew Eagle Claw. But when they hit the stage a little after 10 p.m., they could easily be back at Free Press Summer Fest (which they've played twice), or headlining an even bigger festival in their heads, in front of thousands of fans.
After the usual amp-checking, the Virgins don't so much start playing as jolt to life, as if a nearby police officer has just zapped the lot of them — save Ottea, who instead works over his drum kit so feverishly he seems to levitate — with a powerful taser. Wayne, LeCrone and especially Red immediately start careening about Rudz's small "stage" area as if someone had yelled "Scatter!" in some kids' playground game. Their eyes get far away, and it seems more like their instruments are playing them. Red mounts the monitors more than once to deliver lines like "If you want to make it in this business, you gotta be a weird motherfucker."
"We bump into each other quite a bit, but I try to stay real mindful of that," the singer admits over the phone a week later. "Over the years, I've learned my lesson. I have mashed my head on the ends of cymbals, all kind of stuff.
"But not in this band," he adds. "We haven't had any accidents yet. But if we do, I think it's just a battle scar. But we're winning the war."
By the way, this here is only the Virgins' sixth show, sort of. Born Again Virgins are themselves born again.
About three years ago, LeCrone (the youngest Virgin at 29), a Nirvana lover who played piano and trombone as a kid but opted for guitar after seeing Stevie Ray Vaughan on PBS, was looking to start a band. She found her fellow Virgins the way most bands do, through a combination of friends, roommates and day jobs. Red, who as the manager of a local Brown Bag Deli (at the time) had actually hired LeCrone, wound up auditioning for her band. He was a few years removed from singing in a few other Houston-area bands, such as Constant Buzz (whose omission from the recent When We Ruled H-Town documentary still smarts, he says) and popular jam-funk rockers Plump, and looking to rock again. Red had also overcome a heroin addiction, but says his drinking is what did in the Virgins the first time.
"I was pretty much drunk all the time," he says. "Not on drugs, but I think I did the same thing with beers. It ended up being a volatile combination for me and Adria, because we butted heads quite a bit and got into a lot of funky fights. And that was it."
Eventually a mutual friend, American Fangs singer Gabe Cavazos, convinced Red and LeCrone to lay down their arms. ("We get along great now," says Red, once again sober.) Since their original drummer was long gone, they hooked up with Ottea, who knew Cavazos from their time in bygone local band Civillain. It took a few months, but the reborn Virgins got back on track last summer with a show at Big Star Bar, with American Fangs opening.
"It was a tough act to follow for sure, man," says Red. "That was an awesome show."
Thus far the Virgins have completed about eight songs, which, with the help of producer Christopher Goodwin, are now in various stages in the recording process. They're hoping to have a release out in the fall, perhaps in time to open for Mudhoney at Fitzgerald's in late September (a booking that isn't 100 percent confirmed, but would be poetic). Although they've already written their share of odes to pure rock, other Virgins songs touch on sensitive topics like Red's struggles with addiction. He calls those "therapy."
"The songs we just pull out of the air," explains Red of a typical Virgins practice session. "We just start playing and jam for 15-20 minutes, and I just sing about anything and everything I can, whatever's on my mind, and we just do it."
Back at Rudz, in the stairwell, Ottea nails what fuels the Virgins' relentless hunger to rock.
This band, the drummer says, "is everything I've been waiting my musical life for."
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