Grabbing a trend by the cojones... A little more than an hour and a half into Sugar Hill Recording Studios' painstakingly planned rock en Espanol booster event, the rain was coming down in sheets. Studio staffers hurriedly disassembled the PA system on the outdoor stage, the barbecue pits were extinguished and the empty tables and chairs were left to drown in the downpour.
Meanwhile, revelers jammed the lobby and the hallways of the impressive facility, which abuts a broken-down southeast Houston neighborhood just off Old Spanish Trail. The music may have stopped, but mouths were in overdrive as the schmoozing, backslapping and handshaking continued unabated.
This was not the sort of narcissistic babbling I often walk into at these self-hyping fetes. Words of actual substance were being exchanged -- constructive criticism, genuine encouragement and whatnot. It was good-natured, well-intentioned schmoozing, if you will. Because when you get right down to it, the event wasn't about furthering individual agendas; it was about charging up the collective ego of an entire Spanish music scene. The folks at Sugar Hill feel they're on the cusp of a significant regional movement -- possibly even an explosion -- of Texas-based Latino talent. And this time, it has absolutely nothing to do with Tejano.
"I think it's going to be a big wave that's going to hit very hard fairly soon," says producer/engineer Andy Bradley, one of three partners in the Sugar Hill enterprise. "The way I look at it from a gringo's point of view, there are an awful lot of kids growing up who speak both Spanish and English who like Hispanic music but are not especially sold on Tejano music."
And Bradley and his partners, fellow studio wizards Dan Workman and Rodney Meyers, are betting that a whole new breed of Spanish rockeros are primed to fill that void. And while the audience for rock en Espanol is still somewhat unreliable, as the younger crop of bands grows, so, hopes Bradley, will their fan bases.
"In between the Tejano scene and the schlocky international pop scene is this new groundswell of Spanish rock, which is basically Anglo-American rock [sung] in Spanish with Mexican and South American influences," Bradley says.
Already, Sugar Hill has become a focal point for Houston's more talented and ambitious Latino rockers. Over the last year the studio has turned out releases from a number of the scene's heaviest hitters, among them Los Skarnales (Vatos Rudos), Seres Ocultos (Despierta), Desgracia de Inez (Neurosis) and Tribu de Ixchel (Entre Mundos). (Tribu de Ixchel is described by Sugar Hill staff as the Spanish U2. No lie.) Ironically, word of the studio's artist-friendliness and quality work got out among the Chicano music community via Tejano artists such as Little Joe, Elsa Garcia and the Hometown Boys, who have been recording there for years. One of Houston's few seminal Spanish rock outfits, the Basics, another Sugar Hill client, were also integral in setting the stage for the latest crop of acts.
"The Basics figured out that this was coming a long time ago," says Bradley, adding that now, unfortunately, they're in very real danger of being passed by.
Once a house surrounded by rice fields, Sugar Hill Studios has matured into a full-blown Houston institution over the last five decades -- though one that's admittedly been tarnished in recent years by the revelation of the sexual exploits of former proprietor Huey Meaux. Still, with Huey now languishing in a prison cell, Sugar Hill -- the property of Bradley, Workman and Meyers since 1996 -- is getting aggressive about mapping out its future and playing up its past.
And an impressive past it is. Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys were one of the first well-known acts to record there, back when the living room doubled as a recording studio and all the recordings were done direct to acetate. A short time later, the Big Bopper recorded his hit "Chantilly Lace" in the same room, and George Jones made use of it for a pair of full-length releases. In the early 1960s, Archie Bell and the Drells cut "Tighten Up" at Sugar Hill, then known as ACA-Goldstar. Other '60s highlights included visits from a host of blues luminaries, including Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Big Mama Thornton and Johnny Copeland, and hits from Roy Head and the Traits ("Treat Her Right") and the Sir Douglas Quintet ("She's About a Mover"). The studio was also headquarters for the Texas psychedelic rock movement that produced the 13th Floor Elevators.
Since then, as various renovations were made and the place changed names and hands, a small parade of legends and near-legends have dropped in to take advantage of the facility's assets. In the 1970s, studio geek Todd Rundgren came for the vintage Neotek recording console, while the Who and the Stones dug the facility's location near I-45, which made it a convenient stopover on the road to fun in Galveston.
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Today, of course, much of the old big-name glory is gone, but Bradley and the others are convinced they're in on a juicy secret with regard to this rock en Espanol trend -- and they believe it won't stay a secret for long.
"I'd say half the country will be getting into this stuff," says Bradley, "in all your major centers around the country -- plus south of the border."
Variety of Groovement... Anyone looking for proof that Houston really is the international hub census statistics indicate it is had to go no further than the first installment of Soular Productions' Groovement series, which was held at Fitzgerald's October 8. Very much in keeping with the global aspirations of the evening's neo-jazz headliner, Groove Collective, the racial makeup spanned at least four continents. Dreadlocked black teens rubbed booty with grungy white alterna-types, while at various vantage points, music freaks of all colors stood immobile to study the band's awesome celebration of philosophy and technique. And there's more where that came from: The next Groovement, featuring the James Taylor Quartet, is slated for October 25 at Rockefeller's.
-- Hobart Rowland