The Rocks Off 100: Pat Kelly, The Godfather of the Suffers
Welcome to the Rocks Off 100, our portrait gallery of the most compelling profiles and personalities in the far-flung Houston music community -- a lot more than just musicians, but of course they're in there too. See the entire Rocks Off 100 at this link.
Pat Kelly (L) plays keyboards with The Suffers at the 2012 Houston Press Music Awards Showcase
Photos by Marco Torres
Pat Kelly is a lifelong Houston musician and the driving force behind the Suffers, whose irresistible blend of R&B, ska, reggae and rocksteady has made them the reigning HPMA Best New Act. They're multiple nominees again this year in Best Reggae/Ska/Dub, Best Female Vocals for singer Kam Franklin, and himself for Best Keyboards.
Kelly, who started on piano at age 6, started in the local music scene at 17 and has spent time in Half Loaded, soundpatrol, Los Skarnales, the Igents, The Stingers ATX, and the The Handsomes. He still plays drums in the Theater Under the Stars Orchestra throughout the year at Hobby Center, but the Suffers is Kelly's first band where he's played keyboards.
"I decided that it was way easier to be creative in a band situation for me from a keyboard rather than be sort of stuck behind a kit," he says. "I'm lucky that I have a group of friends and musicians that let me do this seriously and not just at the end of band practice when everyone switches instruments to jack around. The Suffers have really become sort of a creative outlet that I've needed and wanted."
"Aside from being the primary songwriter and a major force in the creation of the band, Pat's our reality check," adds the Suffers' drummer Nick Zamora. "When things are intense, he stays cool. This really helps balance out the various personalities in the band. Don't take this to mean he won't get aggro when the situation calls for it though. He's like the godfather."
Kelly at Free Press Summer Fest 2013
Who? Kelly was a charter member of the Houston Children's Chorus, and says he was able to travel the world with that group before high school. With several uncles who were drummers along the way, today besides his Suffers and TUTS gigs he pays the bills as a percussion teacher.
"What really makes him a great songwriter and an incredible drummer, is that he has a deep, deep understanding of "feel," Zamora says. "He has a very complex sense of the little intricate details that are at the heart of a musical style; tempo, cadence, the instrumentation and how the instruments work together to form the gestalt -- or complete picture, so to speak."
"Some of the best shows I've played though are ones with the Stingers ATX on our European tours or Skarnales on Mexico tours," Kelly says. "I've played in theaters full of people as a sub with the Houston Symphony and with TUTS, but there's still nothing like thousands of people sweating dancing singing to that songs that YOU wrote. It's pretty sweet."
Why Do You Stay In Houston? "I've never left Houston since my family came here," says Kelly , who calls himself a proud HSPVA graduate and also attended Rice University's Sheperd School of Music as a classical percussion major. After a long gig consulting at PVA he now works After teaching as a consultant at PVA for some time, he now works at at the John Cooper School in The Woodlands and has recently relocated to Humble from his native Westbury area.
"I've always been very aware of working and how to work as a musician here," Kelly says. "It's a lot of making your own moves, and also being able to change to all different styles and comfort levels, being well-rounded. I stay here because we have one of the best scenes around.
"And I have a lot of opportunities constantly," he adds. "It doesn't happen overnight, and I'm grateful. There are a lot of guys I've know thou the years that are really really good at one thing... And don't care to do anything else.. That's not my style. I wanna do it all... Houston's my perfect place for that. I'd have a hard time living in Austin or NYC."
2012 Houston Press Music Awards Winners
Good War Story: "Several years ago Los Skarnales was flown out to L.A. to play an open-air international ska/reggae festival," remembers Kelly. "Even though there were some way bigger band on the bill, we were of course scheduled last."
We watched the show run slower and slower and slower. We were In a rodeo arena, basically, and the venue had huge Jumbotrons showing the bands. However, as the show went on, more and more fights broke out. The cameras would zoom in on the fights and play them huge on the screens. The crowd thinned and thinned as security started getting involved. The band before us took the stage around 1 a.m. and music was to stop at 2.
We flew all the way here for this? Sure enough, after an encore and us standing completely on ready, the band finished around 1:45. We hopped up and played all of one and a half songs and sure enough the power goes out. We said, "Screw it" and played still for another 15 minutes or so until the police finally forced us to stop.
Only the sound of drums percussion and horns and our "singing" was there as we went out into the crowd. We didn't come all the way out to not play! Things like that go a long way with fans. We could've hung our heads and turned, but we're from Houston and we don't know any better. Haha.
Pat Kelly (center) and The Suffers
Music Scene Pet Peeve: "Ugh," says Kelly. "Ten-band shows in a four-hour span. More doesn't always mean better... 'Can you guys play from 9:15-9:30? We can't pay you but it'll be awesome.'
"It's sort of the nature of certain genres, and I've been one of the first bands, and one of the last bands," he continues. "But in the end everyone sort of gets sold out a little. I say keep it simple and give the crowd more quality."
Five Records You Can't Live Without:
- Maurice Ravel, Daphnis et Chloe
- The Slackers, The Question
- Frank Zappa, Roxy and Elsewhere
- Operation Ivy, Energy
- King Tubby, Foundation Dub
Best Show Ever: Kelly remembers opening a 2001 show for Bronx-born rap legend KRS-One at Fitzgerald's while he was part of soundpatrol, "a one-off during the week."
"We played our set, and the club is sold out, at like 20 or 25 bucks a pop," he recalls. "His opening group was onstage and KRS runs onstage saying the show was cancelled cuz he didn't get paid... Pandemonium. He came backstage, broke off a broom handle and stormed the office. We all sort of followed..
"Needless to say, he got paid," Kelly continues. "He then proceeded to invite the whole club onstage for his set. It was electric and something I will never ever forget."
Next Show or Project? Kelly is excited about the Suffers' new 7-inch, which is already on iTunes and will be available this weekend at thesuffers.com and various local record stores: "It's finally here!"
"We are also starting to demo stuff for a full-length recording with Ryan Chavez of Grandfather Child," Kelly adds. "We are hoping to have some of that stuff out by year's end."
Not to let the cat out of the bag, but you can also see Kelly at the HPMA showcase August 4, and he will appear in TUTS' production of A Chorus Line from July 16-21 at Miller Outdoor Theatre. "That's always free and open to the public," he notes.
See who else has joined The Rocks Off 100 this year on the next page.
Get the Music Newsletter