Houston is not especially known for its music industry. Great bands start up and break up here, sometimes without ever being heard outside the city limits. But sometimes this lack of structure and history gives a chance for something new to happen.
Shaun Brennan and Craig Kinsey founded Splice Records after a night of drinking and sharing music. The name of the label came from home movies Brennan made with his brother as a kid under the moniker “Splice of Life Films." In college, Brennan started a production company and kept the name after he began working with local musicians. After The Artery, a longstanding Houston arts venue where Brennan had been working, closed because of gentrification, Brennan was left without a creative outlet and decided to found Splice over a bottle of Johnny Walker with local singer-songwriter Craig Kinsey, after the former Sideshow Tramps leader played Brennan a copy of his solo album American Roots and Machines, which became Splice's first official release.
"I asked how he was planning to release it," recalls Brennan. "Expecting more than what came out of his mouth, I said, 'That’s it? I can do better than that!' and it all started from there. Since then it’s been a labor of love and a great friendship.“
Since its start, Splice has also put out records by other regional acts such as Arthur Yoria, John Evans and Pecos Hank. “We take on projects that we want to be proud of ten years from now,” Brennan says. “I’ve been a collector for a while of tickets, posters, vinyl. This to me is a collection of something I don’t know how long it’ll go but if anyone would go back to it, I want it to look good and have some staying power.
So far Splice has been drawn to what Brennan calls “confused genre musicians,” which he says is "a very Houston thing."
"I want to lend myself to the nature of the business while remaining true to what brought me there in the first place — making albums that are like pieces of artwork you can lay down and listen to," he adds. "They might not have that radio appeal, but make up for it in that passion.”
The record label isn’t the only thing occupying Brennan’s time, though. Every September, on the last weekend of the month, he puts together River Revival, a music festival on the Guadalupe River where he showcases the label’s acts as well as others he thinks fit in with the setting. “It’s a camping/music fest that integrates everything personal to me into one festival," Brennan says. "I grew up in Houston but my dad was a big canoer and I spent a lot of time on the river, patch tubes and dropping people off.
"I’ve been camping my entire life and I love music," he continues. "I just tried to find the most beautiful spot I could on the river and bring in this collection of people while not being this, like, festival that gouges people’s pockets and takes a bunch of money from them. Everything there is all-inclusive. We try to book artists who sound good in nature. If it’s music that doesn’t mix with outside sounds, or sounds poppy or meant to be in a club, I’m not sure it’s gonna fit there. We book from blues to bluegrass, folk to rock and roll and soul and everything in between. [It's] trying to enjoy music in a serene setting that makes you want to get up and dance and feel alive.”
At the last River Revival, Brennan discovered Splice’s most recent signing, Ancient Cat Society, almost by accident. “I saw they had a huge presence on YouTube, and I was shocked that these musicians I had been following in other bands [Buxton, Dollie Barnes] had a side project that I didn’t know a whole lot about."
According to Brennan, he invited the above two acts and just happened to have an open spot on the bill. Since "they were already gonna be there," he says, he asked Ancient Cat Society to play in the morning (a River Revival first) so campers could wake to music on the river.
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"That was the first time I'd ever seen them live," he says. "They are all very kind and dynamic people who are very talented and make great songs, and songs are important to me. Sergio told me about the album and sent it to me that same week, and it was the easiest yes I could ever come up with.”
Moving forward, past Ancient Cat Society's self-titled debut album, whose release party is scheduled for May 27 at the Heights Theater (the record will be out the day before), the label is looking to expand its festival presence, the source of funding for other projects. Brennan says Splice is planning a family-friendly festival in 2018 that will be Splice's third signature event alongside River Revival and BowieElvis Fest every January, which will be entering its ninth year.
"We will be working with the city of Houston, and it will be free," Brennan says. "It’ll be downtown and family-oriented. It gives us a third option. Those events will help us raise funds we can invest back into the projects for the label. The future for us is these festivals, and seeing how far we can take it. I think the whole concept of Splice records, or reason for doing it, for me, [is] I don’t want to give up on the good times!”
Splice recording artist the John Evans Band opens Opie Hendrix's CD-release show 9 p.m. Friday, May 5, at Rudyard's Pub, 2010 Waugh. Learn more about Splice and their roster, as well as festival dates, at splicerecordstx.com.