Screw SXSW

The proverbial two roads are diverging in that yellow wood for For close to two years, M. Martin's delectably underground Montrose studio/ Webcasting station has been the one spot in Houston where rappers jammed with cowpunks, Mexican rockers partied with their indie counterparts, and Montrosians and denizens of the wards met, mingled and made music. In a city where the various scenelets are often much too insular, Earthwire is a tonic.

While NIMBY neighbors and poor cash flow have Martin in defense mode, for Earthwire the best defense has always been a strong attack. And that's exactly what they have planned for March 14 through 16 at the ramshackle studio at the corner of Fairview and Waugh.

A few weeks ago, Martin wondered what would happen if the music industry gave a party every year in our state and didn't invite us. So he said let there be South By Due East: a Houston showcase of bands that were passed over for the Big Schmooze. As of press time, Los Skarnales, Dubtex, Counter Intelligenz, K'Mante, Giancarlo's Big Stick, Gloria Edwards, Rebecca Torellas, Conscious CoCreation, Opie Hendrix, Sound Patrol, New Jack Hippies, de Sangre and Chango Jackson had signed on to the bill.

While a live broadcast of the event on Houston Media Source and a taped rebroadcast on Austin Public Access fell through, the concerts will be streamed live via Earthwire. And tapes of the events are going to run on a loop at an H-town-friendly spot in the Capital City: Earthwire associates Marlo Blue and DJ Woo are turning Trophy's Sports Bar on South Congress into a Houston hospitality center.

Martin views the hospitality center as a sort of missionary outpost peddling the gospel of Houston music. "What South By Southwest came up with to represent Houston does not represent Houston, and it ignores not just a lot of really meaningful critical trends in music and entertainment here, but in Austin and on the entire planet. They've just gotten too damn insular. The idea with the hospitality center is to try to fill in some of the blanks, to try to show that there is a little more to Houston than Rusted Shut and half a dozen country acts or whatever."

The event is also planned as a benefit for the financially ailing Earthwire. Martin is going to charge a cover and suspend the studio's BYOB policy by getting Rudyard's to cater the event. The SXDE show almost fell through late last week when Houston Media Source pulled out and Martin thought there was a lack of commitment from his cohorts. He even told Racket the show was off, but he changed his mind after gauging that there was sufficient enthusiasm for the showcase -- TV or no.

"After I said I wanted to pull the plug, everybody said, 'We can't do that! We wanna have a show!' " he says. "Well, we're gonna see what happens."

The success or failure of SXDE could have drastic consequences for the future of Earthwire. Will it continue to exist, and if so, what form will it take? "This is kind of a test of what Earthwire is supposed to be about," says Martin. "It's supposed to be a community, a collaborative project -- not there's Martin and sometimes everybody else."

Martin confesses to a certain level of burnout. The past year has seen the retirements of two key lieutenants -- DJ Scout and Kingfish Keith -- and more and more of the workload falling on Martin's shoulders. "If Earthwire is going to survive, I'm going to have to be able to delegate more. I swear to God, if it's just me, we're not going to be around. I'll just find myself another fat corporate IT job and a pretty girlfriend and just be a citizen for a while. But if everybody else wants to go in with me, then it can go forward."

On Racket's last visit to the Earthwire studios, he was greeted by an ominous sight: Martin in a business suit. His worst suspicions were confirmed when the shaven-headed original punker revealed that he had been at an interview with Halliburton that day. After two years of creative unemployment, Martin is now actively seeking a job in the IT sector. Should his efforts succeed, the nonstop warehouse party at Earthwire will be ending a lot earlier each night.

As if that weren't bad enough news, someone -- Martin suspects a new neighbor -- has been phoning in noise complaints regularly to HPD. According to Martin, the complaints have little to do with noise. After all, he hasn't been hosting many live shows lately, and the noise that is generating the complaints is only that of a home stereo turned low enough to not interfere with conversation inside the studio.

"The thing that astonishes me is that we've been making less noise than ever," he says. "A while back we had people on mike, people on turntables, we were using a full PA, and we had less soundproofing, and I have gotten more police calls in the last month than I got total in the six months preceding that. I think whoever is making these calls is just waiting until there's X-number of cars in the parking lot and then they make the call."

Martin has noted that the calls always come in on nights when there are a lot of blacks or Hispanics at his studio. "HPD has showed up every Tuesday for three weeks now, no matter how much or little noise we're making. I'm beginning to wonder if there's some racism implicit in the fact that I only get the police here on Tuesdays and Wednesdays -- in other words, hip-hop and rock en español night. It's amazing that you would encounter that sort of thing in Montrose, but Montrose isn't what it used to be."

That's part of what makes Earthwire so vital. Emo's, the Westheimer Street Fest, the Oven and numerous other cool institutions have fallen in recent years under the onslaught of overpriced jerry-built condos and the overall pseudo- gentrification that has blighted what once was Houston's most creative neighborhood. "I've lived in this neighborhood off and on for over 25 years, and my neighborhood has been taken over by a bunch of yuppie scum that don't like rock and roll," says Martin. "And if they don't like rock and roll, then they sure as hell won't like hip-hop."

So he has two choices: completely soundproof the club or kiss what former KLOL DJ Moby used to call "the crime-free Montrose" good-bye. "I gotta spend money soundproofing this place," he vows. "I love this building -- this is one of the coolest buildings I've ever had, and I don't want to give it up and move to the Warehouse District. I like having Rudyard's up the street, I like having a funky little grocery store up the street, I like having trees. I've lived in an industrial wasteland, and I don't want to have to do it again."

But Martin's mission goes far beyond sticking it out in the Brave New Montrose. He wants Earthwire to help build "an effective musical infrastructure" that will turn heads in Austin and other power centers in the music world.

Without events like South By Due East, Martin contends, Houston's scene will remain as compartmentalized as ever, as insular in its own way as the people who assemble the SXSW roster. "If this kind of thing doesn't start happening, what are you gonna have? Not very much. Hands Up Houston has been doing their little alternaweenie 'we're too cool to include anything that doesn't appeal to white college kids' thing for several years now, and they have not done anything to effectively market Houston as a scene. I'm glad that they've done the things that they've done, but their focus is so narrow. What we're trying to do is more inclusive."

And should SXDE get off the ground, who knows? Maybe one day, some music writer in Austin will pen an angry screed about why more Austin acts don't get invited to the big dance in Houston.The Houston Hospitality Center at South By Southwest will be open Thursday through Saturday, March 13 through 15, at Trophy's Sports Bar, 2008 South Congress, Austin. For more information, call Marlo Blue at 832-439-9517. For more information on the local showcases, call Martin at 713-527-8453.


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