Starved for Respect

The drive from downtown Houston to the Hunger's office-park rehearsal facility is only about 15 minutes. But as far as the Inner Loop's hipster set is concerned, the place might as well be on the other side of the earth. And in a way, it is.

Hunger headquarters is located off I-45 near Hobby Airport, just a few exits beyond the southernmost curve of 610. On a weeknight after rush hour, getting there makes for an eerie, soulless excursion into the city's nether regions. Once off the highway, you pass a hyper-illuminated go-cart track, the weirdly antiseptic Southeast Church of Christ and an ominous string of darkened, half-empty rental car lots. You also should see the Drury Inn, temporary home to Beau Hill, producer of Cinematic Superthug, the Hunger's upcoming major-label release. On it, the band plays surprisingly affable techno-metal; think Metallica with a beat box and a weakness for sunny pop choruses.

Though the full album is due in stores on March 24, Superthug's first single, the catchy anti-booze diatribe "Moderation," was shipped to radio last week. Already it has been picked up by more than 25 stations nationwide.

It's a good omen for an outfit that learned early to work for everything and expect nothing. Certainly, the Hunger -- whose members all grew up in and around Houston -- have held firmly to that philosophy when it comes to their hometown. Their connection to the local music scene has always been, well, tenuous.

"We did things a little differently," says the Hunger's Jeff Wilson. "A lot of the Inner Loop bands just despised us."

Wilson founded the Hunger in 1989 with his older brother Thomas and childhood pal Brian Albritton. The band was strictly an electronic ensemble, with the two siblings on keyboards and vocals and Albritton on bass. Since then, the group has evolved into a more organic, riff-reliant heavy-rock act, with dwindling high-tech trappings. Last year's Devil Thumbs a Ride, the Hunger's debut on Universal/MCA, offered the first incontrovertible proof that the group wasn't merely an animated, longhaired version of Front 242 with a live drummer. That album's minor hit, "Vanishing Cream," had many listeners confusing the group with Alice in Chains, and much of the remainder of the release confirmed the Hunger's excursion into guitar-driven territory.

During that transformation, the Hunger gained two members -- producer/guitarist Stephen Bogle and drummer Max Schuldberg -- and lost not a one. Such consistency goes against the grain of the Houston scene, where groups seem to lose members, break up or reconfigure overnight. But then, the Hunger was never really welcome in that clique to begin with.

"This kind of sums up the situation: We played Milwaukee seven times one year; we played Houston twice in the same year," Thomas Wilson explains. "We just took another route."

Adds Schuldberg, "We've always thought large-scale. If Houston doesn't like us, fuck it. We've got ten other cities, and we move on."

The Hunger's tidy home office on the city's outskirts is as indicative of the band's detachment from the Houston scene as it is symbolic of their tenacity and work ethic. The cramped but well-organized sanctuary is a constant reminder of the day in 1992 when the Hunger decided it was time to get off their duffs and get serious. The front area serves as the band's business office, and it's stocked with all the necessities: a telephone, phone books, music industry directories, a computer, a fax machine. The elder Wilson recalls a day when his brother Jeff practically "dated that fax machine."

"We got rejection letters from a lot of labels back then," Thomas remembers. "We weren't ready to be signed."

Just beyond that first room is a larger practice space, which is jammed with equipment. When all that hardware is put to use, the volume generated easily drowns out the jets overhead making their descent into Hobby.

The Hunger's universe is remarkably controlled and self-contained. Even the trailer that carries the group's equipment when they're on the road is parked just outside, and they continue to crisscross the country in a van. Despite the success of Devil Thumbs a Ride -- which was due, in large part, to the group's incessant touring -- there are no chartered Trailways buses in their immediate future.

It's in the front office that the members of the Hunger assemble for this, their first major interview with the Press. The dearth of local media attention afforded the band over the years should come as a shock, considering the band is Houston's lone modern-rock success story. As if to underscore that point, three large plaques the group received as repeat winners in the Press Music Awards hang on the wall above a couch where three Hunger members sit. Obviously, someone is listening.  

Somehow, the Hunger's five members maintain an aura of rock semi-stardom without ever having to try too hard. Yet they're also extremely personable and easygoing. Each seems comfortable in his own skin. Three look like baristas at your local Starbucks: Thomas with his blond, close-cropped coif and surf-punk attire; Jeff with his bleached-blond dreadlocks, tiny goatee and penetrating stare; and the soft-spoken Albritton, in conservative wire-rimmed glasses, a more substantial goatee, and hair gelled and teased to stand at attention. The remaining two members provide a startling contrast: Schuldberg, with hoop earrings and wavy, long dark hair streaked various colors, looks a little like a holdover from '80s hair-metal days. And Bogle -- who strikes the most menacing profile in the group's publicity stills -- could pass as a sideman for creepy, techno-Goth rockers Ministry, his head shaved clean except for a long, braided tail that dangles just above the area where his spine meets his skull.

The Hunger are a mixed lot, to say the least, and their musical tastes are as varied as their fashion sense. Nowhere is that disparity more evident than on the new Cinematic Superthug, which leapfrogs from pounding, plod-metal dirges ("Free," "Going Down") to more lively, technologically enhanced mosh-pit fare ("Cinematic Superthug," "Ray," "Sunk So Low") to dense, ear-tweaking numbers nailed down by frenetic dance-floor beats ("Phoenix," "Whore"). Jeff Wilson's James Hetfieldian snarl dominates Cinematic Superthug, supplying the intense emotional heat needed to solder the sundry human- and machine-generated shards into a comprehensible whole.

"Sometimes 'out there' is good," says Bogle. "We do like a lot of different stuff."

At times, though, all that diversity only serves to weaken Cinematic Superthug, which -- despite some compelling moments -- often suffers from the band's reluctance to hold to a singular vision, be it techno, industrial or metal. The result can sound watered-down, contrived and generally lacking in conviction.

But things click on those infrequent occasions when the Hunger cozy up to the idea that they don't necessarily have to make concessions to the fringe elements to be a good band. Cinematic Superthug's most compelling moments are those least fraught with extremes -- for example, the easy, pseudo-reggae backbeat that adds flair to the formulaic "Moderation," or the bubbly, unforgettable hook that anchors the verses on "One Constant." Or better yet, "Hey God," as unabashed a radio ballad as the Hunger has ever produced. Written by Jeff Wilson, "Hey God" was partially inspired by the memory of his younger brother Bill, who was murdered in a random shooting off Richmond Avenue four years ago.

"Hey God, where've you been / I've been hoping everything is all right," sings Jeff in the tune's surging chorus. "Hey God, why the grin / Is my brother laughing, waiting on a reunion?"

Unquestionably Superthug's most moving track, "Hey God" is the Hunger at its wimpiest. And they wear it well.

Like the rest of the Hunger, the Wilsons are the product of a lower-middle-class upbringing. "My family's never made any money," Jeff freely admits.

And while a few of the members sampled college, no one made it to graduation; music was already dominating their lives by the time they finished high school. Back in 1991, when the Hunger was still a trio, the self-produced single "Never Again" caught the attention of local radio station KRBE. At the time, the Wilsons and Albritton mostly steered clear of the live music venues in and near downtown. Their techno/industrial experiments, after all, came at the height of the grunge explosion, so the group essentially found itself banished to dance clubs outside the Loop.

Already a veteran of the local scene, Stephen Bogle was scratching out a living remixing dance, rap and metal singles when he first heard "Never Again" on the radio. He was so taken aback that he contacted the Hunger and offered to remix the song, which eventually led to his joining the band.

"For an all-electronic band, they really blew me away," recalls Bogle, a self-confessed techno freak and devotee of the recent electronica wave. "It was cool, because I really didn't know them when I went into the studio with them. I just started weaseling my way into the band."

Not long after Bogle was hired as an in-house producer and guitarist, Schuldberg -- the founding drummer for the well-known Houston act Twenty Mondays -- caught a Hunger performance at the now-defunct Tower Theater. "They fuckin' rocked," says Schuldberg. "We talked after the show and found out that we had more things in common than we realized."

By the end of '91, the Hunger's lineup was solidified, and the group had recorded its full-length debut, Leave Me Alone. The disc was promptly picked up by the independent Alpha International label in Philadelphia and sold a respectable 15,000 copies. But when Alpha went bankrupt the following year, the Hunger was suddenly on its own.  

"For the first few years of our existence, we waited for things to happen," says Thomas. "The deal from Alpha kind of fell into our laps; then it just went away. One day, it was like a light bulb turning on: This is not going to happen unless we make it happen. From then on, we never looked back."

As a result of that swift kick in the rear, the Hunger decided to get serious: They leased the office/rehearsal space near Hobby, formed their own label, Gut Records, hired an attorney and otherwise pretty much handled their own affairs, from album production and promotion to booking gigs and setting up tour itineraries. In the spring of 1993, they recorded Grip, releasing it on Gut. Before long, the Grip tracks "Communication Breakdown" and "If" had caught on big in parts of Texas (Beaumont, especially) and Louisiana. With that, the Hunger started playing live throughout the region. The guys were so busy milking Grip's success, in fact, that they didn't get around to recording a follow-up until 1995. Thanks to a local record-store owner, that self-produced CD, Devil Thumbs a Ride, found its way onto the desk of a Universal A&R rep. Four months later, the Hunger had a major-label deal.

Once the contracts were signed, Universal rereleased Devil Thumbs a Ride largely in its original indie form, and the band left Houston in early '96 for a lengthy string of live shows, during which time the single "Vanishing Cream" landed in regular rotation on radio stations all over the country, including Houston. All told, Devil has sold more than 100,000 copies to date -- not bad for an album recorded for a measly $5,000 in Bogle's living room.

Naturally, now that the Hunger have proven themselves, things get a little more complicated. Universal allotted the band a six-figure advance to record Cinematic Superthug with Beau Hill (Bad Brains, Ratt), who worked with the band both in Houston and in Los Angeles. For the most part, it sounds like money well spent: Superthug has a fatter, more unrelenting feel than anything the group has done on its own.

About the commercial performance of Cinematic Superthug, the Hunger remains guarded but optimistic. The band will head out on tour in April well aware of the "here today, gone tomorrow" pall hanging over the music business of late. Certainly, they've gotten wind of the many promising acts kicked to the curb by labels in the blink of an eye. Such turns of events might be mind-boggling to some. But for Schuldberg, the explanation is simple:

"[Labels are] not building careers right now. They just want a hit.

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