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Punk, but Not Stupid

Houston's no easy town for aspiring musicians, and no town is easy when those musicians are holding down serf-wage day jobs and trying to a make a serious go of the music business at the same time. Unapologetic punk rockers playing in a town where punk rock has never really caught on (at least as far as drawing the crowds), and where attention from the sort of people who can further your career is rare, aren't exactly stacking the odds in their own favor. But when your band is your joy and your mission and your dream and your life all rolled up into one tightly guarded package, you find a way to do what you have to do, even if it means making some enemies along the way, and even if it means calling up a little help from your friends.

In one sense, Manhole's anger at the emotional and political state of the union paints the foursome as intimidating, standoffish punks with a humorless agenda. On the other hand, Manhole might be the most grateful group of angry women ever to simultaneously kiss and slap Houston's underground music scene. In the liner notes to Manhole, the group's eponymous debut scheduled for release this week, the band sends out "thank yous" to no less than 250 persons, bands and entities. I'm on the list just for putting their name in print a few times. And if you've got enough interest in a barely heralded all-woman punk band from Houston to have read this far, then you probably are, too.

The litany of gratitude is an appropriate, if unwieldy gesture; half the fun of grassroots punk may be the music's amateur glee and fuck-you attitude, but the other half is definitely communal. You buy a punk rock disc and check the notes to see if you're recognized, or if anyone you know is mentioned -- to see if you have a connection to the people making the music. And the music always sounds better when you do.

Making that connection is what Manhole is all about. Interviewing vocalist Allison Gibson, guitarist Eev Rodriguez, bassist Chris Nine and drummer Beth Shaffer, the band comes across as earnestly committed to an anti-sexist, anti-racist agenda and an almost touching belief that, yes, music can spread that message and just maybe even change your life for the better. It comes across as lines drawn in the sand, separating the bad guys (those who don't give a shit) from the good guys (who care a lot), and as fighting words aimed at any one or thing that operates from selfish or greedy motives. On Manhole, the connection makes itself felt through 18 grinding slices of guitar-driven rage, sprinkled with pointedly sampled news reports of senseless violence and racist venom.

Manhole is not a band out banging on its instruments for the free beer and cheap groupies; Manhole really thinks it matters.

The band traces distant origins all the way back to the summer of '91, when Rodriguez, who was then managing the Bayou Pigs, met a woman at the Pik-N-Pak who wanted to start an all-girl band. That meeting led to a few jam sessions with Rodriguez playing bass where, she says, "We didn't know what to do, so we were playing Scorpions' songs, or Danzig."

Gibson, 23, had recently moved to Houston from Florida, where she had fronted a hard-core band, and was looking for something new when she overhead talk about a band that needed a singer. One night while hanging out with friends at the Francisco Studios rehearsal space, she discovered that the early version of Manhole was practicing down the hall. She knocked on the door and asked if she could sing.

When Rodriguez's two original partners left the fold, mutual friends introduced Nine, who had been playing guitar and singing with bluegrass bands. Nine, 23, says she taught herself bass in a week by playing along to Soundgarden records. Rodriguez dropped the bass, borrowed her boyfriend's guitar and taught herself to play that instead, since, she says, "I didn't know any chicks who played guitar. And we had three weeks before we had to do our next gig."

A committed drummer, as usual, was the hardest element to pin down, and Manhole blazed through a roster of skin-pounders that would make Spinal Tap proud before finding Shaffer, a 21-year-old Austin transplant.

If pulling together a working band weren't hard enough under any circumstances, pulling together a working band comprised entirely of women turned out to be an especially difficult chore.

"I hate to put down women," says Rodriguez, at 31 the group's elder stateswoman and the mother of a 13-year-old son, "but women have so much to do. Playing music you kind of have to set aside your personal life a lot, even more so than men do. I guess maybe you're just expected to do all these other things, instead of being really dedicated to one. Or you've got to try to juggle them all, and it was really hard. Even with the women that we've played with, they've always had boyfriends, or something that was holding them back. We couldn't even find guys that were really serious."  

The band's original intention was to be all-female, says Gibson, "but after we started going through people, I think it mattered less and less. It just so happened that the people who fit in the best ended up being in it."

Over the course of the years, in fact, Manhole has played with more than a few men sitting behind the drum kit, which raises the obvious gender question: is it difficult to be a man in Manhole?

"Oh, yeah..." is the laughing chorus answer, followed by horror stories of synchronized periods and relentless bitching that serves as all the explanation anyone would ever need for the new disc's 15th cut, a glacial block of L7-ish sludge called "Cramps" (the singer's got 'em).

The continental drift pace that drives "Cramps" is not dissimilar to the progress of the band's recording career. In 1992, Manhole released a 7-inch single on Dallas' Direct Hit Records with three songs ("Final Blow," "Dismantle Me," and "Mouthful") that garnered an encouraging amount of press from national fanzines. But the two years that it's taken to get those three songs onto a full-length CD have been frustratingly, umm, educational. According to Rodriguez, "It's been a nightmare. Everything has taken twice as long and has cost twice as much and has stressed us out a hundred times more than we ever imagined."

One indicator of the frustration can be seen in the fact that Manhole -- staunch defenders of the vitality and viability of Houston's musical talent -- chose to return to Direct Hit to release Manhole.

Says Rodriguez: "We have the bands here, we have the music here, and more than anything, I would want everyone to know that we have great music coming out of Houston. But the people we have working within the labels ... Look at us having to go to a label that's in Dallas to help us out. We've had offers here in Houston, and we've even asked some labels for help. We ended up getting bad vibes from them and so we stepped away."

Like a lot of Houston bands, Manhole has a problem with the way Houston's music industry works, or doesn't. "We had this one guy," Rodriguez remembers, "walk in with a suit and a cigar and say, "Baby, I'm gonna make you a star." The reason why Houston gets slagged everywhere else is because these people don't know how to work professionally. I mean, we might be punk rockers, but we're not stupid." So Direct Hit got the nod because of the label's indie distribution network and honesty in not promising what it couldn't deliver.

Now that Manhole is finally on the verge of release, though, the concentration has shifted from recording to shopping the album to labels and touring to support it. Geffen is first on the band's wish list, for its reputation in promoting baby bands. An East Coast tour is being planned for the spring.

"It's pretty easy to slack off," says Rodriguez, "but I think once you invest that much money and time and energy into a CD, if you're serious about what you're doing you've got to just bust ass and promote it."

And promoting means getting the band's music "out of the Houston slum." Which raises another question: why, with this much dedication to the music, and to the music as career, does the band remain in Houston, when another, more established market might prove to be a friendlier launching pad?

Gibson's answer is simple: "I'd rather be a band that made it out of Houston than made it out of L.A."

"There are a lot of really cool Houston bands that help out the scene," Rodriguez says, but "here there's so much jealousy and people cutting each other down, competition. And the thing is -- and I'm sorry, this is a real shitty thing to say -- but there's no one here that has anything to offer. I feel like I've been slagging everyone, but it's not about making friends. It's not about kissing up. It's not about bending over and taking it up the ass. It's about working hard. If everyone out there could just look over all the bullshit that all these industry people talk about here, and could just come down and see for themselves the bands that are working hard here in this town, I bet you people would be signed left and right."  

Manhole celebrates the release of Manhole with a CD release party at 8 p.m. on Friday, November 25 at Fitzgerald's. Tickets cost $7. Call 862-3838 for info.


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