Reach for the Sky
So, who is the king of pop, these days? That's the question that comes up while watching the MTV Music Video Awards in the living room of the Hands Up house. The assembled members of Hands Up Houston are perplexed. It's not Michael Jackson, that's for sure. Bono? Nah. Dave Grohl? Don't think so. Justin Timberlake? Let's hope not. The best anyone can come up with, sadly, is Puff Daddy/P. Diddy, but that still doesn't sit quite right.
The five Hands Up guys present -- founding members Jason Colburn, Russell Etchen, Bucky Thuerwachter and Lance Walker, along with new recruit Bobby Lane -- look at the floor, concentrating. They don't come up with a winner, but the thought they're putting into the question is extremely telling. These guys take their music very seriously.
Hands Up Houston was born in March 2000. In the words of the group's Web site (www.handsuphouston.com), Hands Up is a "show collective," a handful of friends and music fanatics who've made it their mission to bring good music to Houston. So, what does Hands Up do? In a word, everything. They book bands and promote the shows with homemade flyers they staple to telephone poles. They give the bands a place to stay and make sure they get paid. Sometimes they show the bands around town. On the night of this interview, founding member Ryan Chavez is away entertaining the guys from Burning Airlines at an Astros game.
What began as a hobby has now become a second full-time job. In the process, it's made quite an impact, both on the scene and on the Hands Up members themselves.
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"For a while there," Etchen remembers, "we'd put on a show and I'd be there, and I wouldn't know anybody. I felt like an outcast at my own show. Over the past two or three months, though, I've finally gotten to put names to faces and meet a lot of people who come to the shows."
"I've made so many friends through Hands Up," Thuerwachter agrees. "There's this whole crew of kids out in Katy who I'd never met. And now they're coming to the shows, and it's a really cool group of people." Hands Up has also inspired some like-minded Lake Jackson imitators, who are planning a similar group in Brazoria County.
But the most important thing, the members of the group all stress, is the music. "We have to be passionate about the bands to do a show," Etchen asserts. "Sometimes we'll book a band because we know somebody else'll like it, but usually it's because we are passionate about the band ourselves."
Colburn says the motivation for Hands Up grew out of a dissatisfaction with bands not scheduling gigs in Houston. "I was tired of bands skipping us, or going to Austin instead," he says. "Really, it all started out of selfishness," Etchen says. "We wanted to see these bands, so that's why we booked them."
The hard work is slowly paying off. Some national bands are now skipping Austin completely in favor of Houston, believe it or not, and more good independent bands are coming to our fair city now than at any time since the early '90s. In just over a year and a half, Hands Up has managed to build a fan base that will go to just about any show the collective books. In essence, Hands Up has become a brand name and a focal point for the sprawling Houston music scene.
"It's gotten to the point now where people will see a show listed somewhere and go, 'Oh, it's a Hands Up show,' and they'll know that we've got this certain aesthetic, and these certain tastes, so they can kind of know what to expect," Etchen says.
That aesthetic can be hard to pin down. The group's members all have differing musical interests, which can make for some intriguingly diverse bills (like this past summer's Rainer Maria/Freedom Sold/ Swarming Hordes show). The musically closed-minded might want to think twice. So far, however, very few people have complained about the mix-and-match bills, and the Hands Up crew is spreading its efforts farther and farther afield.
"It could be a Choose Your Own Adventure!" Colburn says, talking about the group's first-ever attempt to stage two very different shows at two different venues on the same night. Then Thuerwachter jumps in, laughing: "Yeah! Like: 1) Swedish thrash, or 2) Christian indie rock?"
Both Thuerwachter and Walker play down Hands Up's efforts, pointing out that they're not in it for any kind of ego trip. "We could put on shows till the cows come home, but it wouldn't matter if nobody came," Walker asserts. Thuerwachter nods in agreement. "We're not in this to take shows away from anybody," he says, addressing a slightly different issue. "We don't care if a band does a show with us or with some other club in town, as long as they play [Houston]. Heck, that gives us a nice night off to go see the band, if we're not doing the show."
The members proudly point out that they have not yet dug into their own pockets to fund their efforts. What profits they make, they turn over to the bands or use to pay for bigger and better future events. With their scheduled Death Cab for Cutie/Deathray Davies/Prom show at Mary Jane's on November 9, Etchen figures, the Hands Up total is up to 93 shows in 20 months.
"We want people to know that while we are professional, and we are organized, we're in this because we love the music," Etchen says. Organized and professional? Hard to believe with such a DIY setup, but the group actually has weekly meetings to plan out every aspect of the shows and assign duties to various people. "We are a well-oiled punk rock machine," he insists, and given the group's success to date, it must be true. And with that, they all go back to watching the video awards. Nobody ever comes up with the identity of the true king of pop, but ah, who cares, anyway?
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