Trading Groceries for Guns
A little over two years ago, we put forth the theory that winning a Houston Press Music Award brought down a curse upon your band. We had plenty of evidence in hand even then -- most prominent among it the cases of Japanic and South Park Mexican. Those two acts took home six awards between them in 2001, and before a year had elapsed Japanic had broken up and South Park Mexican had gone to prison for 45 years.
The spooky trend has continued -- one of 2002's big winners was bluesman Little Joe Washington. Less than a month after winning an armful of trophies, the pint-sized guitar shredder was hauled off to the pokey for nonpayment of traffic tickets. This manifestation of the HPMA jinx wasn't content to bite just one winner in the ass -- later that day, Washington's $450 bail was paid by Pete Gordon, a suddenly poorer member of the El Orbits, another of that year's winners.
Last year's awards have proved to be no exception. For some, the jinx has been nastier than ever. Opie Hendrix and the Texas Tallboys won their first trophy ever in 2003, and since then, not one but two bass players in that band have died.
And then there's the indie rock/post-punk band once known as Groceries. First, before we get to how the curse of the HPMAs caused them their weirdest year ever, a little digression is required. Regular readers of this column will remember last year's feud, which pitted yours truly on one side and Groceries front man Matt Brownlie on the other, and which arose out of our perceived mutual disrespect. Brownlie and I drove each other insane and took a little bit of the city's music scene with us. I called Brownlie a bunch of names, he called me a bunch of names, an anonymous poster on the Hands Up Houston message board, evidently quite the Groceries fan, muttered something about burning my house down. We had a nasty public pissing match on the Engine Room stage at the awards ceremony, where I presented them with their award for Best Indie Rock. (I thought about pulling a Charlie Rich. In 1975, the Silver Fox was called upon to present the Country Music Association's award for Entertainer of the Year. On opening the envelope, Rich scowled, read out the words "And the winner is my good friend John Denver," took out his Zippo, set the card on fire and stalked off the stage.)
We were both nuts, bug-eyed insane. I can well imagine it was the same for Brownlie -- for me, for a while there, the mere utterance of his name in my presence was like Larry or Curly saying "Niagara Falls" in the presence of Moe. My eyes would glaze with hatred. The knuckles on my balled fists would turn white. My blood pressure would go through the roof. Cloudlets of steam would escape my red ears and flared nostrils. Slowly I would turn, step by step, inch by inch
But believe it or not, all that's in the past. We avoided settling our differences with pistols at ten paces and just shook hands on it. We've thought about continuing the feud Andy Kaufman-style for your continued amusement, but neither of us is the comedic genius that Kaufman was, so sorry, folks, it's over.
Which is why I am able to sit with him over drinks at Under the Volcano and have a pleasant conversation about some unpleasant recent events, calamities that have contributed to the band's decision to jettison six or seven years of history and change their name from Groceries to Bring Back the Guns. Whether they were caused by the HPMA jinx is up to you.
Brownlie says the weirdness started when bassist Blake Powell -- burned out after ten years in the trenches -- left the group. Powell's replacement, who won't be named here, looked good at first. "We thought he was gonna be the perfect fit," Brownlie says. "He liked a lot of the same kind of music we did. I had played with him, and he was a natural musician." (Insert chilling horror music here.) "But three or four months after we put him in the band, we realized that--" Brownlie pauses a full five seconds -- "he was close to being fucking nuts. And he had two parents that were fucking nuts," he continues at last. "And even though the lad was 25 years old, they were bound and determined to monitor his every move, to the point of calling him 20 times a day, just to give him shit about being in a rock band. When we went on our first tour, he had to lie to them about what he was doing. It was abusive, but by the same token he wouldn't do anything about it. I mean, they would drive here all the way from DFW when he wasn't here and break into his apartment."
Whew. Some enterprising youngster out there ought to open a service that does background checks on indie rock musicians. "We all tried to have sympathy for this guy," Brownlie continues. "But he wouldn't do anything about it, and he got crazier and crazier, and it was emotionally sabotaging the band."
Junking all that negativity was one factor -- albeit a small one -- that contributed to the decision to change the name. Brownlie says a bigger reason was the addition of new bassist Ryan "Shaggy" Hull. "Once we got Ryan in the band, it started to take on a new dynamic, and it seemed like the time was right to do what we had been wanting to do for a few years, which is change the name," he says. "Groceries seemed even to us to have kind of a silly edge to it."
A third factor was more personal. "We'd never had an emotional connection to the word 'groceries,' but we do have one to 'bring back the guns,' with it being a Matty and Mossy tune, and those are my best friends in the world, by and large," Brownlie says.
Groceries was also a tricky name to Google -- you had to put in Brownlie's name to find the band's Web site amid millions of shopping sites. Typing in "bring back the guns" also has some strange results. You'd think you'd get the National Rifle Association or something, but Brownlie says the result is weirder than that. "What pops up is E.T. When Spielberg put out E.T. on DVD, he had specialists go in and digitally remove every gun from the movie. So when you type 'bring back the guns' into Google, what you get is angry E.T. fanboys demanding to have the guns put back in."
Brownlie admits that fan reaction to the name change has not been positive -- in fact, most of the group's followers have been saying, "Bring back the Groceries." But Brownlie is undeterred, and the band has a snazzy-looking new Web site, www.bringbacktheguns.com, though nothing is up there now except an itinerary of their recent Texas and Southeastern states tour and three MP3s, which, with all their sudden tempo changes and start-stop play punctuated by Brownlie's impassioned wailing and/or enraged yelling, neatly encapsulate the agonizing manner in which they were recorded.
You see, for Bring Back the Guns/Groceries, the curse extends beyond nomenclature. Brownlie says the recording of their debut full-length CD (at a studio that will, like the troubled bass player, remain nameless) has proved to be perhaps the most frustrating experience of his life so far.
Brownlie says the sessions started well. "We went right at it," he says. "Got almost everything except for my vocals done. Then we had to take a break for two weeks because a band was flying in from Norway to record. So we took a couple of weeks off, and they recorded the Norwegians, and over the course of that, some new mikes were purchased. So when they were finished with them, these guys came to us and told us they could get a 200 percent better drum sound with the new mikes, and they said they wanted to redo it all on their dime. Which was kind of a tough decision, because we'd made some progress, but in the end we were like, 'Fuck it, we're not going anywhere. Let's go ahead and get the sound better.' We kept almost nothing, started over, did all the drums and most of the bass. And at that point, the hard drive that we were recorded on died. Forever."
The band called some data recovery places and were told that reclaiming the music would cost anywhere from $300 to $1,200. Brownlie and the rest of the band seethed for a couple of weeks, and then decided to cut their losses and re-rerecord the tracks. Once again, things went well at first. Then another artist was given priority over them, and after that things got really weird. "The studio owners had to change all the locks and add a security system because they were real nervous because the IRS was in town," Brownlie says. "Two days after that, our buddies and the actual physical owners are the only people with the keys. In order for us to record there, we had to sneak in, in the dead of night, park our cars down the street, and once we're in, we're in. No going to get food. No going for a walk."
Furtive sessions like that seem a little like trying to have sex in a house with a toddler around. "Yesterday was our first session under these circumstances, and twice we had to stop because I was like, 'Hey! I hear a car outside!' " Brownlie says. "That's where we're at now. I think the record's gonna get done. I don't know if it's all gonna happen at this studio or not, but it's gonna get done."
Once again, it's time to cue a trench coat-clad Robert Stack. Jinx or coincidence? You decide.
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