Believe it or not, Keanu Reeves actually helped jump-start the career of four Houston musicians. Who would have thought he could do anything other than look good? But he did, and true to form, he never even knew it. About three and a half years ago a couple of guys from a local band were driving down Westheimer and saw a mass of starry-eyed fans stretching from the door of Numbers, an established dance club that moonlights as a venue for midsize national acts, to a corner four blocks away. The lined-up kiddies were waiting to see Reeves's "band," Dogstar.
"These people were just standing outside waiting for them to get there, actually just waiting to see Keanu Reeves," says Will Salazar, who wasn't in the no-name local band at the time, but who hung out with its members and is now its lead singer. "They didn't care about the band; the band sucked." Cruising past, guitarist Damon Delapaz and Carl Lockstedt, the original lead singer of that yet-to-be-named group, were thinking if Keanu Reeves was in their band, there would be so many groupies. So much play. But imagine if their band had an even cooler actor. Someone like River Phoenix.
So somewhere between concept and reality the band decided on riverfenix as its name, becoming an act that would climb to the top of the Houston scene and then join the national race. But not without controversy.
Some changes were made in the lineup. Most noticeable, Salazar had taken Lockstedt's place. Then came the record company lessons, the kind you learn only when you hand over control of everything to some rich guy in a suit. The band, which now comprised Salazar, Delapaz, bassist Adam Lewis and drummer Donnie Reyes, cut demos and began a mass mailing project. The group targeted all its favorite intermediate labels, and one of its first bites came from Mojo Records, which was a great prospect for a young band like riverfenix. But the marriage was short-lived. Mojo cut riverfenix, according to Salazar, after about six months.
Whatever made the record company sever ties with riverfenix didn't reflect the consensus of the company. When Richard Rains left Mojo for Drive Through Records, all it took was a phone call to rekindle the business and artistic connection between him and the band. "[Drive Through] just called us up one day and said, 'Hey, you guys want to play a show for us?' " says Salazar. " 'We just started a new label.' "
At this point, it seemed riverfenix was getting hotter and hotter. MCA started poking around, but Drive Through had the band with a two-record contract and with two options floating over the horizon, which could all in all turn into a four-record stint. That's way past the money-making years of most bands and solid marketing time. So MCA did what any huge company might do when the law stands in the way and the clock is ticking. It pulled out its wallets and bought Drive Through.
"[MCA] told us when we went to visit them, 'We want you guys on our label,' " says Salazar, " 'so what we're gonna do is pretty much take it over.' They bought the whole label and gave it major-label backing. Now anyone who is on Drive Through has the opportunity to get their music out all over the world because of MCA's universal backing."
riverfenix hit the studio -- a West Coast studio -- to work on its national debut. And here was this Houston band, now relocated to California, that built its reputation on the name of a famous actor who had, according to fans, embodied all the elements of the band's audience. But he was also an actor who died from abusing substances and who, in doing so, was a reflection of a hopeless generation, a generation that idolized him.
"We knew River Phoenix was an actor everyone likes, and [the band's name] was like a tribute to him. We wanted to keep his name going, keep it alive," says Salazar.
Not everyone saw the reverence. The brass at MCA got an e-mail from River Phoenix's mother, giving choreographed instructions to stop using the name, saying its use was disrespectful. "We never meant it that way at all," says Salazar. "It was always a cool tribute, a good thing. We thought it was one of the coolest names an actor ever had.
"After that, [MCA] said we would have to think about something to do, but they were always wishy-washy about it. We really weren't sure if the name change was going to happen."
And for a while the band members also forgot about it. They had the album to worry about. Then there was the Warp Tour, the biggest collection of pop-punk bands ever to hit the road together. It was a great chance for riverfenix to play alongside marquee acts such as Blink 182 and Ice-T. Salazar had just returned to Houston from a promotions session for the Warp Tour in L.A. when orders from headquarters arrived. "They called and told us the new album would be coming out July 14, and before it came out, we would have to make sure we had a new name," says Salazar. "That was it."
But it wasn't just a name change MCA wanted from the band. The company wanted it to lose any and all connection to the actor. "We had so many different ideas. Fiver Renix, River Phonix, our favorite, River Fetiche. We had all sorts of 'river' names," says guitarist Delapaz. "None of them were good enough for MCA, and time was short. That's why our name sucks. We didn't have time to think of anything good."
Says Salazar in agreement: "I think our name was really the coolest thing we had going for us."
Whenever challenged legally there's always the option to fight, but it's usually a very expensive choice. "We all wanted to take the chance and fight it, except for the powers that be," says Salazar. "They said it would be a way-bad idea, and we just have to think they know what the fuck they're talking about."
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Says Delapaz: "We have a really good lawyer. He's Michael Jackson's lawyer, and he's not afraid of anybody, and he told us to change the name."
Since MCA wasn't going to give the band money to fight, FENIXtx gave in. "We don't have any money," says Salazar. "We have lots of guts, but no money. [MCA has] a little bit more pussy attitude than we do."
Nevertheless, across the front of the band's new CD, in bold yellow and purple lettering, is the name "FENIXtx." It could be a potshot at Houston's renowned hot temperatures, or it could be a desperate attempt to associate the bland new name with the dead old one.
Doesn't matter. FENIXtx is still the same band and is as playful and mesmerizing as ever. The album is blatant fun and refreshingly devoid of all the big-business concerns that plagued the band beforehand. Now these young yokels just have a silly new name and one hell of a contract to brag about.