What is it about Beaumont that gets those creative carbines churning? Maybe it's the stinking petrol sediment forever fouling the humid Gulf air, or the cultural blight that resides comfortably on its bleak streets. Whatever. The talent that has emerged from within and around its borders is startling, to say the least: everyone from rock's Janis Joplin (a native of twin city Port Arthur) and the Winter brothers to country crooners George Jones, Mark Chestnutt, Clay Walker and, most recently, Jesse Dayton. Hell, even the Big Bopper managed to milk inspiration from Beaumont's toxic, blue-collar aesthetic as a DJ there in the 1950s.
"There is not a thing to do in Beaumont except huffin' fumes," cracks Train in Vain singer Stephen Hellweg with a twisted grin.
Adds guitarist Richie Haynes, "There's this saying that you have to hate where you come from to play great rock and roll."
Which is exactly the sort of greatness to which the members of Train in Vain aspire -- and more often than not, they damn near pull it off. Longtime Beaumont overachievers (if only by necessity), Train in Vain have an ear for radio-made choruses, and plant their feet firmly in the cerebral, guitar-heavy tradition of bands like Soul Asylum, Sugar and Dallas's Buck Pets. Steered by chief songwriters Hellweg and Haynes, the quintet is a virtual hook refinery, spewing gallon drums of raw, high-test melodies faster than its Houston-based label, Fuzzgun, can package and release them.
"We have hundreds of songs," Haynes says.
Of the material that has seen the light of day, Train in Vain has made four full-length albums, an eight-song EP, a seven-inch single and a three-song cassette -- hardly a wimpy tally, even for a group that's been together ten years. Even so, Train has just recently come to the fore of the Houston music scene, only 80 miles from its home. TIV's latest Fuzzgun effort, Nothing Comes to Mind, was one of 1997's finest local releases. It's also the best-produced encapsulation yet of the group's instinctive fusion of simple pop formulas, cleverly posed lyrics ("You'll find me where I left you / Standing by myself") and a tooled-up, twin-guitar attack that frequently approaches cock-metal proportions in its efforts to lay the listener flat.
Train in Vain has its origins in Beaumont's Lamar University, where students Hellweg, Haynes and bassist/multi-instrumentalist Scott Peebles founded the group, naming it after the well-known hidden track that caps off the Clash's London Calling, an album that put the foundering punk movement in its place for good. Aside from their obvious love for Mick Jones and Company, TIV were also inspired by the arty garage output of seminal '80s acts such as Sonic Youth, HYsker DY and the Replacements.
The group honed its chops performing the requisite campus parties and events. And since Beaumont wasn't exactly spilling over with other venues for them to perform, they went about inventing their own place to play, enlisting help from their friend Marc Reed, a budding entrepreneur and silk-screen designer. The result was Fuzzgun nightclub, a rowdy, often racy live-music experiment that had parents and police reeling for 18 months before its unceremonious closure by local authorities in 1994.
"Parents got together and got the police to probe around, because the kids were coming home with tapes with violent language and obscene T-shirts," says Reed, who has since relocated to Houston and opened Fuzzgun Records, home to the entire TIV catalog, albums by 30footFALL, riverfenix and Rubbur, and the excellent Texas music compilation Nothing Is Cool (which, alas, is out of print).
After the Fuzzgun debacle, Train in Vain struggled, taking whatever gigs they could get around Beaumont and Houston, and trying to maintain a consistent lineup. "We've gone through six drummers in ten years -- a few of them in only a few days," Haynes says.
Needless to say, music has never been a full-time gig for the band's members. (Their current roster also includes guitarist Ben Jordan and drummer Mark Mooneyham.) All have wives and day jobs, and a few even have kids. Perhaps most interesting, Haynes spends his days teaching junior high school English.
"We've worked really hard for ten years to be a good band," says Hellweg, who pays the bills with his illustrative work under the pseudonym Pez. (His space-age guitar-slinger was the graphic mascot for last year's Press Music Awards.) "And that's pretty sad when you think about it."
But things are beginning to look up for Train in Vain. Buzz (KTBZ/107.5 FM) music director David Sadof recently took a shine to "Cellophane," one of several worthy tracks on Nothing Comes to Mind ("Luckier," "Boomerang" and the title track among them). Sadof dug the tune enough to give it a spin on his Lunar Rotation program, allotting TIV the Houston exposure they've sought for years. Saturday, the band headlines the second stage at BuzzFestival '98 with local acts riverfenix, Face Plant and Los Skarnales. If possible, they'd like to build on that momentum.
"It would be nice to go out on the road and make a living -- maybe even send some money home," Hellweg says.
And that hardly sounds like a lot to ask, especially for a good band with as much patience as Train in Vain.
Train in Vain performs Saturday, April 25, on the second stage at BuzzFestival '98, Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands. Gates open at 11 a.m. Sold out. For info, call 629-3700.
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