The week of his 40th birthday, and just days away from tonight’s Heights Theater celebration in his honor, the Houston Press asked Mark C. Austin to answer some questions for us, please. As owner of The Convoy Group and manager of some of the city’s most notable music acts, we’re fully aware of how busy he always is. We can email questions, if he’d like, we told him.
“Can we not do this over tacos?” he asked.
So, we met Austin and begin to learn more about one of Houston’s most notable figures, in the music industry or otherwise. He invited us to West Alabama Ice House. It was the first day of spring in Houston, the skies were clear with an inviting breeze and we had some cold beers. Houston beers, of course, Saint Arnold Lawnmower on his side of the picnic bench and 8th Wonder Dome Faux’m on ours. The first thing we learned is he considers Tacos Tierra Caliente the city’s best. It’s right across the street, and the place he sends anyone looking for a good street taco in Houston. His go-to is the taco truck’s beef fajita taco. Going to Mexico City for the most authentic of street vendor tacos is on his soon-to-do list.
Austin admits he wasn’t always so hip on the chosen cuisine of the evening.
“I ordered barbacoa in a legit spot one time and the record skipped,” he said. “Everyone was like, ‘What? The white guy just ordered barbacoa?’ Everyone starts yelling and pointing at me. I just wanted the barbacoa because I thought it was barbecue. It came out and it had these big chunks of fat in it and I was like, ‘What in the fuck is this?’ That was a long time ago. The shop’s still in my neighborhood; I just don’t go there anymore. I’m scared."
He was joking, of course. If you ask some folks, Austin is fearless. Over a couple of hours, some beers and several fantastic tacos, we learned how he got that way and why he devotes his efforts to hoisting Houston music to greater heights.
Looking at him now, it’s evident he is a Houstonian. The usual ball cap perched atop his head is an 8th Wonder cap reminiscent of the Houston Astros' logo. He’s drinking the city’s flagship craft beer. He’s wearing a Tontons shirt. He’s Houston to the core, but didn’t arrive here until 1999. Before then, he was Louisianan, from a small town in the middle of Kisatchie National Forest called Winnfield. It’s the hometown of the notorious Louisiana politicians Huey and Earl Long.
Today, he manages a roster of acts with huge upside: The Suffers, The Tontons, Wrestlers, Walker Lukens, Say Girl Say, Matthew Logan Vasquez, -Us., Kay Weathers and Romina Von Mohr. Many of them will perform at his birthday show tonight. But peering back into Louisiana’s piney woods, Austin explained how he got involved with music in the first place.
“My brother was a radio deejay growing up, in Monroe, actually at KNOE, 101.9," he said. "My brother was the drive-time radio DJ. My brother brought home so much music. He and I shared a bedroom when he was still a DJ, so he would drive to Monroe and drive back after his set. Our parents were big music fans…Beach Boys, Elvis, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Four Tops, Dionne Warwick.”
Austin never picked up an instrument; he was into athletics and then focused on academics in high school. He graduated at the top of a class of 95 and, he says, "I can name pretty much every one of them.” But he was always into music and recalls making mixtapes from the radio and hosting “dubbing parties” at his house. As a kid, he bought Guns N' Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and II with money he made mowing lawns, then invited his friends to bring their blank cassettes over until everyone in the neighborhood had new music.
“My brother, he was instrumental in developing my desire for music. We have different tastes, for sure. When he was listening to Depeche Mode, I was like, ‘That’s terrible! It’s so sad!’” he recalled. “My brother got me started and got me eager to find the next new thing, which I think is my desire today. As a manager today, I’m always looking for the next great artist I think I can help.”
Probably no one was more developmental to Austin than his mother, Alice, whose zeal for people and giving nature were obviously passed down to her son. Ask plenty of local musicians and they’ll tell you how Austin has shared advice and good fortune with them. He says those traits were instilled by his mother, who passed away prematurely at the age of 52 while waiting on an organ donation. Because of that, he’s donating proceeds from tonight’s event to Donate Life Texas, the official organ and tissue donor registry of the State of Texas.
“The whole reason I did the whole Donate Life thing was my mom," he said. "I probably wouldn’t even have had a birthday party if I hadn’t gotten a charity involved." Donate Life Texas has been eager to work with him to further establish a Houston presence and grow awareness here, Austin added.
"My mom was lots of things but the main thing I got from her, she was a spicy personality. She was passionate," he said. "She would run through a brick wall if she cared about you. She was a very giving person. I don’t want to paint it as if we were poor; we just didn’t have a lot, you know, like most people. We never did without. She would do without for us to do with.”
His mother was key to his future musical endeavors, too. She’d drop him at the public library an hour at a time, he said. Instead of reading fiction, he gravitated to the periodicals section and chose issues of Sports Illustrated, Kung Fu Magazine and Rolling Stone. He spent so much time there the librarian one day told him that the branch was discarding its back catalog, seven years’ worth of magazines. Did he want them? Hours later, his mother was there in the family pickup, hauling boxes of magazines back home. He found himself cutting photos of Jimmy Page and Lennon and McCartney out of Rolling Stone as if they were trading cards.
“What I didn’t realize is I was studying photography,” he said. Austin has had a long and fruitful career as a music photographer, including for the Houston Press, which came full circle when he had a photo published in Rolling Stone for the first time.
He also had a successful career as an accountant. At one point, he managed a group of 30 in his firm; but he started asking Houston’s music folks questions, learning the business, volunteering to do this job or that just to learn the ropes. He left accounting in 2011 to start his artist-management company and hasn’t looked back.
While we dined, Austin's smartphone lit up with new alerts. We asked which superpowers he’d choose if he could. He said time travel, then traded it for teleportation, then super-speed like The Flash. He said he might want to be “The Postage Superhero,” because it’s so expensive to ship band merchandise anywhere you might need it to be.
He recalled being at the back of a massive Blues on the Green crowd in Austin, manning the Suffers' merch table, when "one rotten turd" threw a full beer at Suffers vocalist Kam Franklin. He sped across Zilker Park to get to her quickly; but, of course, after the fact. When we met, he still seemed bothered he wasn't there in that moment to protect his friend. He changed his answer.
“I wish I could be in multiple places at once; so, my superpower, I'm going to retract everything,...I think my superpower, I'd like it to be multiplicity."
Are there bands from Houston’s past he would like to have managed? He picks one of Geoffrey Muller’s many bands, Lower, because “I’m just a huge Geoffrey Muller fan and Geoffrey was in that band and I’ve begged him. I‘m like, ‘Dude, I will find a lot of money for this,’ and he’s like, ‘Absolutely not. We’ll never doing it, don’t even ask.’” Others on the list include Fatal Flying Guilloteens and his “great white buffalo,” The Judy’s.
“I’ve been trying to book The Judy’s for like ten years,” he said. “If you ever see me have a Judy’s show, you’ll know that’s it, it’s over. He emptied his bank account to have a Judy’s show and he’s not going to do this anymore.”
What do more people need to understand about the Houston music scene?
“The talent pool is so deep — it needs to be cultivated," Austin replies, adamant. “We're letting beautiful, amazing art pass us by and we're not supporting it. I'll probably say this till the end of days, there will never be too much attention paid to it. Instead of doing the Dave Matthews concert twice a year or spending all your money at one great big concert, try spreading it out; try to go discover. It's so much more fun to discover music than doing something everybody or their mama likes."
Because he is so supportive of others, we asked who he leans on. There are too many to count, he suggested. He starts with the owners of MKT Bar, who were some of the first to take a chance on him as a music professional.
"I’d take a knife for both of those people; they’re beautiful humans,” he said. He mentioned Josh Wilson (of Catch Fever) and Jocelyn Razo, who both work for him.
“Both of them are very educated, very smart, hard-working people,” Austin added. Of the members of The Suffers' core team, which includes Daniel Jackson and Melesa Martin, he went on, "They're of the mind-set of we're in it for the long haul, there's not a lot to be had right now except for the glory of success or whatever, but they're professionals and it's great to have them. It wouldn't be where it's at without them."
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Take a look at him and you’ll wonder if Austin's hiding behind his trademark beard and those ball caps a bit. Maybe he has been guarded in the past, but he’s learning to open up more. He knows sharing his story opens him up to the mean-spiritedness of social media’s haters and trolls. But, over 40 years, his skin has grown thicker. His confidence is heightened. He knows where he is from and believes he is doing the right thing by the artists he manages and in his promotion of the city through his work. He doesn’t believe others’ negativity can out-muscle the good he and his friends plan to do tonight for organ donorship, nor could they tarnish what he’s doing to elevate Houston music daily.
"I don't think there's any ancient wisdom to it, but I'm living proof that being honest and hard-working will get you where you want to go,” he said, reflecting on the main lesson he’s learned over 40 years. “It might not get you there that fast, but it'll keep you around a lot longer."
Long live Mark C. Austin. Happy birthday, sir.
Mark C. Austin's 40th Birthday Party and Charity Concert, with The Tontons and others, 6 p.m. tonight at The Heights Theater, 339 West 19th. Doors open at 7 p.m.