A short drive down Washington Avenue, where condos are springing up like crabgrass and local trio Sharks and Sailors will release debut CD Builds Brand New at Walter's Friday night, is all it takes to get a taste of what Houston once was, what it is and what it may yet become.
Like many who have grown up in and around the city, Michael Rollin (guitar), Phillip Woodward (drums) and Melissa Lonchambon (bass) have watched Houston change over the years, and Builds Brand New chronicles their observations. After being away at school for several years, Rollin recalls coming home to an almost unfamiliar place.
"When I moved back to Houston — I was away for six years — this town was completely different," he says. "It was right after the Enron fallout, and that had a really profound effect on me. I saw the city in a completely different light."
Sharks and Sailors
The Sharks and Sailors CD release party is at8 p.m. Friday, August 1, at Walter's on Washington, 4215 Washington, 713-862-2513. With TheJonx and Ume. All ages.
One of the album's underlying themes is Houston itself, Rollin says. The title references the frenzied pace of new development around the Washington corridor and elsewhere. But while the lyrics may articulate the trio's feelings toward its surroundings, the music is a resounding representation of how far the group has come creatively.
Rollin and Woodward met in Corpus Christi, where the guitarist was attending college, almost a decade ago. The two shared a deep appreciation for bands like Shiner, Jawbox, Fugazi and Chavez — groups that dealt in both punk-rock volume and prog-rock complexity — and eventually started playing music together.
Unplugged guitar in tow, Rollin strums random chords as he recounts the past — specifically the first time he and Woodward met Lonchambon, then playing with well-remembered local band Panic in Detroit.
"After I graduated, I came back to Houston in 2002 and Phil eventually followed," he says. "Phil and I started Voltes in 2003; it was just an excuse to play really loud. In fact, [Melissa] came to see our first show, which was really cool."
As fate would have it, both Panic in Detroit and Voltes disbanded around the same time, and with the addition of a fourth member, guitarist Allen Hendrix, Sharks and Sailors was born. The early days were filled with jagged guitar riffs, sparse vocals and volume — lots and lots of volume.
A short, self-titled EP was released in January 2006, containing a few songs the Sailors' dedicated fans had grown to love from the band's live gigs. Soon after, Hendrix and the other Sharks parted ways, for reasons the remaining members would prefer to keep between themselves. Rollin, Woodward and Lonchambon had to reconnect creatively and didn't struggle when their music took a different turn.
"We have old stuff that we're thinking about busting out just because it's still credible, like 'Battle' or 'Topple,'" says Woodward. "We haven't played either of those songs in a long time. It's just [that] after we wrote 'Cliffs' and 'Rickshaw,' the band just kind of took off in another direction, and we're really happy with it."
Even while going through the lineup change, the group's instinct was to keep writing. "I think it's an unspoken, rhythmic capability that we all have," says Woodward.
"When we first started, it was all about volume and busy-ness and lots of notes — which is cool, but now it's kind of like that less-is-more type of approach," says Rollin. "We just wanted more space. Melissa's got really great vocals; they're very evident on the album. But if you don't leave space for them, they kind of get lost."
Now it's Lonchambon's turn.
"When we started the band, we didn't know if we were going to have vocals at all," she admits. "We had to experiment for a long time. But I think we have a better idea of what we're doing now, especially when we went to record. Over time, I figured out that I had to really sing — not fake-sing or half-sing or whatever. I feel a lot more comfortable with it now."
Builds Brand New finds Sharks and Sailors settling just fine into its new arrangement. They agree the changes they made, both musically and otherwise, are doing wonders for their sound.
"Melissa gave us that melodic balance that we needed," Rollin says. "Phil and I have a kind of real rhythmic, angular dissonant approach to writing, but she helped to complement the melodic part and just filled it out perfectly."
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Despite the fact that Sharks and Sailors' fans have been craving new material for years, the band opted not to leak any songs before the album was finished so each track got the attention it deserved. With Builds Brand New finally complete, their long-term preparation has yielded an album whose every song reflects the band's deep connection to its music. The care Sharks and Sailors invested in the material is readily apparent, as is the members' deep connection to their hometown.
"The whole concept behind [the album] is kind of loosely based on the things going on in Houston lately," says Rollin. "It's really about how things are being torn down just to build it all new again. Which sometimes is good, but Houston always seems to be struggling for its own authenticity and identity."
These days, when instant gratification seems to be society's default setting — whether in music, architecture or anything else — it's refreshing to see there are still some people willing to take the time to get things just right. Noting fans often tell him they still listen to that 2006 EP, Rollin says he hopes Builds Brand New meets a similar fate.
"It was important for us to make an album that you could put on in four or five years, or even in a couple of years from now, and it would still sound somewhat current," he says. "Shelf life and longevity are things we really strive for."