Four years ago, when a coterie of then-teenagers named themselves Hands Up Houston and starting booking indie-rock, emo and punk concerts, this city's music scene was much, much less vibrant and hip than it is today -- at least in the sense of being in the mainstream of national culture.
Back in the last century, to indie bands, at least, our sprawling metropolis was a provincial backwater. Bands approaching Texas from the northeast would play Dallas and Austin and then head west; bands coming from the east would hit New Orleans and head straight through here to Austin. The Press archives are peppered with complaints about these scenarios from music editors gone by. Messrs. Tyer, Rowland and Mariani made the "Why are all these bands skipping Houston?" complaint as much a leitmotif of Press pop criticism as our old reliable "Why won't South By Southwest book more Houston bands?" staple.
While I've written a couple of stories in the latter category, I've never had to worry about the former. Hands Up took care of that. Beginning in January 2000, the booking collective/ Internet community/group of friends/ traveling venue starting cementing H-town's rep as a viable tour spot. Looking back through their annals is nostalgic fun. Before they settled on Pamland Central as their hot spot, the group booked shows wherever it could, which made for some interesting bills. Alkaline Trio at the Urban Underground Death Cab For Cutie at No tsu oH The Blood Brothers at a UH ballroom Har Mar Superstar at the Mausoleum New Found Glory and Dashboard Confessional on the same bill at the Oven Ted Leo at someone's house on Binz The list goes on and on.
Founding member Ryan Chavez is proud of his part in all of those shows -- hell, even the Dashboard Confessional gig. But now he wants to move on. With cohort Andrew Morgan, he's founded a new booking outfit called Super Unison. Next month comes the launch -- Super Unison's first month of shows will include gigs by Spoon and Cub Country, Isis and These Arms Are Snakes, and in a coup, an exclusive U.S. date from deranged Canucks the Unicorns. In January they're bringing Cex and Aloha to the Engine Room. (Hands Up Houston will continue booking shows, with only Bucky Thuerwachter remaining of the original founders.)
It's all part and parcel of Super Unison's stated aim: "to help you see your favorite bands in the most badass environment possible." Last week I met with Chavez and Morgan on the patio at Poison Girl and asked them to elaborate on this claim as well as why they chose to leave Hands Up.
"I wanted to leave Hands Up and start something new mainly because I was 18 when I started Hands Up with the other members," says Chavez, who has sprouted a hefty 'fro since the last time I talked with him in person. (That's not all he's sporting: He's also developed a taste for strong drink -- the famously teetotaling Chavez also had a rum and Coke in front of him.) "Back then I had certain views -- like the mission to bring the bands here that had been going from Kansas to Dallas to Austin and skipping us and heading west. We've accomplished that -- now bands do Houston as well as Dallas and Austin. We're a viable market now. That's what we set out to do, and I feel like we accomplished it. And also, when Hands Up started it was oriented towards something that was for the kids, by the kids, run by the kids, whatever, and we set out to do that, but things get to a point where -- I hate to use the word 'stagnant' -- but honestly, I feel like Hands Up accomplished what I wanted it to do. You know when you're 18--"
Suddenly, legendary scenester and KPFT DJ Rad Rich, who had been talking with us mere minutes before, staggers through the patio door laughing and holding a paper towel to his bleeding nose. "I get nosebleeds all the time for no reason," he explains, and heads back in the bar.
"Oh, my God," Chavez says under his breath. "Rad Rich is just an alien. Anyway, the point of view of an 18-year-old is different from a 23-year-old. You just grow in all sorts of ways, and one of those is the fact that you're constantly busting you own ass to make sure these shows go off all right, making sure there's people there, putting what is potentially your own money and your reputation as a 'businessperson,' for lack of a left-wing term, on the line. Basically you work at it every day -- you're talking to agents, getting chewed out by agents, bullshitted at by agents, whatever, working your ass off to get these bands in to town, and then going to your day job. And then working that 30 to 40 hours a week. And getting off from that, then you talk to the agents and book stuff, and then after that you have to go to the club that you're doing the show at."
Hands Up -- as befits a DIY show collective with an anti-establishment streak -- always had strict guidelines regarding their profits. All went either to the bands they booked or back into the group's kitty. By design, nobody could make a living as a Hands Up employee. Chavez is tired of these strictures because he truly loves what his Hands Up duties entail. Now, he wants to be a full-time band booker.
"We're spreading our career-oriented wings," Chavez says. "It's not about us buying a Mercedes--"
"We're not Clear Channel," Morgan puts in.
"--or a BMW," Chavez continues. "We're not trying to buy a mansion, but it would be nice to have this be the only thing we do, at some point. Not today, not tomorrow, not two months from now, but someday. Even now, six or seven years after I started doing shows, I still enjoy it even though I haven't been paid for it."
But what of your punk ethics, gentlemen? Will filthy lucre corrupt you into cynically booking complete shite?
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"We can book bands we don't like," Morgan answers flatly. "Large shows featuring bands we're not too stoked about will make us the money we need to book the cool stuff."
"We did that kind of stuff with Hands Up anyway," Chavez says. "Trust me, we're keeping our eyes out for name bands on the way down that we can book. If Dashboard Confessional sinks a little, we'll book 'em. We'll do a show of that nature so we can later book one of our friends who is amazing but unknown, and we can kick him a few hundred bucks."
The Internet's a wonderful thing. Because all my reviews are archived on there, I get letters from time to time about reviews I'd pretty much forgotten I'd written. This doozy is in response to my trashing of Sleep's Dopesmoker, which was originally published in the October 2, 2003, issue of the Press: "I read your piss-ass review of Dopesmoker today and it pissed me off enough to waste time writing to your faggot ass. Given it's not an album for everyone, bitchy pussies that listen to the Beatles should keep their fruity ass in the closet. I wish Dopesmoker had caused you to stop listening to music, at least then you wouldn't be writing bad reviews about good albums because your taste sucks. If you don't like Sludge, you should not be reviewing a Sludge album. Nuff said. You're a sissy bitch and you should curl up and suck your own dick. Btw, you might want to listen to the album again, your clocking of the solo's etc was way off, and wtf were you talking about ripping off 'Iron Man' get your ears cleaned you fucking moron." Paris didn't agree with Willie D. According to Damage Control DJ Matt Sonzala, the Fifth Ward rapper had ensconced his family in a hotel while he awaited the completion of renovations on a rental property. Then things got weird. The concierge warned him to get his kids out of the hotel pool by 10 p.m. because, she said, people were allowed to skinny-dip after that. Matters took a turn for the worse when D. got back to his room and clicked on the TV. "They were showin' fuck movies," he exclaimed to Sonzala. "I called the desk and told 'em I didn't order no fuck movies! The lady told me that's just what's on TV here." Sonzala thought this puritanism a little rich from the man who wrote, among other cuss-laden ditties, "Let a Ho Be a Ho" and told him so. D.'s reply: "Yeah, and you gotta let a kid be a kid, too." Now, D. splits his time between Houston and, of all places, Baku, Azerbaijan, where he is dabbling in the real estate market.