They are Houston's own spin on the Rage/Soundgarden/ Audioslave story. Lead singer from a popular band splits off to pursue a solo career, remaining members recruit equally known lead singer from another band and create a new group with a new name and sound. But given the comments from members of Slop Jar Junior, their new effort is anything but sloppy seconds.
"This is the first band I've ever been in where everybody's head is in the same place," vocalist Chad Strader says during a "business meeting" during happy hour at Ruchi's on Westheimer. "Everyone has paid their dues and is open-minded. Whereas in other bands, you're just doing what the main singer/songwriter wants to do."
"Everyone in this band is an equal member," guitarist David Wolfe adds. "It just doesn't work any other way."
And so Slop Jar Junior is free to pursue a musical direction in a way that wouldn't have been possible with their previous bands: Strader from worldbeaters Global Village, and Wolfe, bassist Mike Meade, keyboardist James Bourdier and drummer Greg Benavides from funky dance band Soular Slide (the latter of which dissolved last year when lead singer Shawn Pander left to pursue a pop/ folk direction).
In an interview with the Press earlier this year to promote his record Soundtrack to Life, Pander called the split inevitable due to the band's infighting and personnel conflicts. "We just weren't productive anymore...and we just didn't want to be with each other," he said, while suggesting that the rest of the group wasn't evolving enough for his taste.
Today, Wolfe is diplomatic when discussing the past. "I honestly have no ill will toward [Shawn] at all. At first, I did because the way things went down, but it doesn't matter now. I just hung out with him recently," he reflects. "We were not a band. It was four guys and a lead singer and we were trying to play music together, and we had different ideas how to present ourselves. Nobody was happy for the last eight months. And I just didn't want to go in that musical direction."
The man who had the type of direction Wolfe was looking for, ironically, was right there in his car CD player. During a trip to Dallas, he was listening to a CD by Global Village and thought that their singer would work well with the new material he had in mind.
"He was the only one we talked about joining [us]. We wanted someone who had...I shouldn't say this...a better stage presence, and someone who could really sing," Wolfe says. "Chad had the whole package." After throwing out a series of names (and one gig as "the Uprights"), the band settled on the moniker Slop Jar Junior, after Strader's childhood CB handle.
"My dad was Slop Jar, so I was Slop Jar Junior," he says, before launching into a short history lesson on the container utilized by households before the advent of indoor plumbing. "It's just a bunch of disgusting stuff in a bucket that needs to be discarded."
Wolfe and Benavides also say that they knew Strader was the voice for their new band immediately after the first rehearsal. A powerful wailer who's a combination of Ronnie James Dio, Zack de la Rocha, and Ted Neely in Jesus Christ Superstar, Strader also brings a manic stage presence which finds him literally bouncing off the walls -- and sometimes into other band members.
"People get bored when they're not stimulated all around. I try to make my antics just an extension of the passion that I feel for the music," Strader says. "We're excited as hell about this band. I'm getting a little bit older, but I still have a lot of youthful aggression to get out." And if that means dancing and hopping around, that's it. "We try and exhaust ourselves. Greg always tells us 'play as it if were your last time on stage,' and that's what we do."
That ferocity extends to the tracks on the band's debut CD, Anti-Everything. The hard funk of tracks like "Living Proof," "Broken Shell," and "Salt" co-exist with more hard-rock numbers like "Hey Say," "For My Life," and "Bordertown." The record was re-recorded mostly live in three days at Mark Shannon's Bungalow Recording Studio after an earlier version didn't meet with the band's approval.
"Instead of saying that it was [recorded quickly] because we ran out of money, we like to say we wanted to keep it on a more humanistic level," Strader laughs.
The record's overriding theme -- not surprisingly -- is about starting over, with a dash of self-revelation, though Strader downplays his actual wordsmithing. "I don't think I'm a great lyricist. They're just stabs at trying to be profound," he suggests. "A song will mean a certain thing to me, and something completely different to David. It's ridiculous, really."
But Anti-Everything, according to the band, is really more an elaborate calling card to get more live gigs (and more outside of Houston) than something they expect to go flying off the shelves. On stage is where all agree they feel the most comfortable, regardless of a venue's prestige or the size of the crowd. Strader notes that a Monday night gig at Humble blues club Cactus Moon and a tiny watering hole in Clear Lake proved to be two of their most memorable shows.
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Just don't expect to see them play again at Griff's St. Patrick's Day band extravaganza. During the band's 2001 gig there on the holiday, a small riot of unknown origin broke out during SJJ's set. Wolfe was the target of a projectile beer can, and Strader punched out a crowd member after his girlfriend was knocked over in a drunken melee. "We almost threw it in right there. I'll never puke green beer again," Strader moans.
Booze of another sort won't be a factor in Wolfe's life any more after a particularly wild birthday gig for the guitarist, whose stage show culminated in a gainer off a riser on the stage into a table full of empty shot glasses. "I gave up hard liquor after that night. Seriously," he says. And a visit the next day to a Chinese restaurant, which he thought would be a good hangover cure, certainly didn't start well. "As soon as I walked in and smelled the food, I got sick and headed straight for the bathroom," he recalls with sheer horror, remembering what an ex-girlfriend had once told him. "She said 'Southern Comfort almost killed Janis Joplin, and she was a lot more of a man than you are!'"
Now that Anti-Everything is out, Slop Jar Junior hopes it might help them to branch out more to Dallas and Austin, if not further. Surprisingly, they have no use for those they view as whiners in the local scene, constantly bemoaning Houston's perceived limitations. "Too many bands give up after they hit their first wall, they just quit," Strader says. "There's opportunities all over the place here, but you've got to seek them out and be persistent. You can practice all you want, but you've also got to pay attention to the business side. I'm tired of musicians bitching about it."
Gotcha on that, Slop Jar Junior. Ten-four, good buddies. Just watch out for the smokies after your shows.