Bayou City

A Look at Houston's Label Landscape, or Lack Thereof

“Tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
— Mel Brooks

I’m not ready to talk about the elephant in the room. Obviously, there's a general feeling of dread settling down on almost anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear and a brain to think and a heart to feel, in the wake of recent electoral doings. So let’s talk about very small things instead. As Donald Barthelme said, “The self cannot be escaped, but it can be, with ingenuity and hard work, distracted.”

Feat. How I Quit Crack, Alex Tu, Electric Sleep, Cash Slave Clique, and Secret Sands DJs, November 18
Here’s a little glimmer of black light and Day-Glo paint. One of Houston’s most beloved expatriate divas, the entrancing Tina Forbis dba How I Quit Crack, returns home tonight, early in the evening, to inaugurate the reopened and re-christened Civic TV Laboratories in their new digs. Civic TV, you may or may not remember, acted as an incubator and salon for many of our more outré local artists and musicians, like PLXTX, AK’Chamel, Millennial Grave, Distant Worker and Kairos, as well as a way station for underground artists and musicians possessed of a certain je ne sais quoi, like ESP TV, MSHR, Pod Blotz and Marie Davidson, who might otherwise skip Houston. So a lot of folks have a lot of love for the place. And when I say underground, understand it to mean nice and savvy, with at least a touch of epistemological self-awareness and desperation. Simply put, the scansion and meter of the phrase like ‘nice...artists and musicians’ lacks charm. (And when I say love, you best believe I mean L-U-V.
(Civic TV Laboratories, 2010 Commerce, Unit B)

Feat. Andy V., Luz, Kenny Evans, Miguel Flaco, and special guest DJ TTYL, November 19
Morrissey is a lot like Godot in that he derives from prickly Irish origins and he’s also not coming around to help you feel better anytime soon. But that’s no reason to abstain from deep-dipping into the pomade tub or dousing yourself in body spray, since the elite crew of smooths behind Love Tempo are celebrating a one-year anniversary of everything electro, freestyle and intimate in the way of music and socializing, precisely calibrated for maximum pheromone delivery in the tight confines of the upstairs ballroom at Grand Prize (1010 Banks).

Feat. Hedersleben, Frog Hair, Cosmic Bug Loaf, November 21
His last time through Houston with backing band and opening act Hedersleben, Nik Turner blew the roof off Fitzgerald’s with a roiling and rumbling concoction of Hawkwind’s greatest hits that placed him and his magic flute in the front and center of the vast rat army that extends from Hugo Ball to Public Image Ltd. There were smatterings of Sun Ra worship, a lovely lack of hippie juju, a swat of freakbeat, and more than a jolt of juicy, juicy, juice. That said, Frog Hair will be in good company. (White Oak Music Hall)

I was not raised by a herd of feral gets like Pablo Escobar’s pet hippos, to run amok in rivers and riparian ways thousands of miles away from home. I am from here, for better or worse, and I’ve got a stake in the place. Just the same, it’s never a good time to talk about Houston. As far as the city may extend physically, culturally, we’re still trapped somewhere between Mayberry and Dogville.

Artists, bands, rappers, stay-at-home-producers, whatever you're doing, however you're doing, putting in those extra hours after long shifts slinging uppers and downers, as far as I can tell you're doing it right. It's like the famous poster of the kitten clinging for dear life to a tree limb in high wind, that reads: "This is the best of all possible worlds."

Now, for the rest of you hang-arounders, phone users, Internet beasts, natural-born interns, accounts payables, accounts receivables, and money-havers, a quick word. Let's allow that you're involved with a successful cult — sci-fi, luddite, old-school, color-wheel-based, it doesn't matter. Your ears quicken to the flip-flap sounds of sandals on the ground, surrounded as you are by mad monks and their inexplicable life changes, their person-to-person transmission of an ethos predicated on the suspension of rational life choices and the abdication of comfort or private property.  So far, so good, but let me ask you this. What's the point of attaching yourself to a working cult if you're not going to back it up with a publishing division and at least part-time crew of call-center solicitors and door-knockers? ’Cause everybody knows that music at its best is a cult thing. At its worst it's churchy, sectarian, fractious, inspired by dark events and darker forces. It helps straight people feel good to know that creative people are out there suffering somewhere.

But you wouldn't know about any of that happening around here once you leave the 6-1-0. Where are the labels? Music is a great way to lose money on paper. Drug Dealers! Real Estate Frauds! Moneyed Wastrels! Music is a good way to make money you don't need disappear.

Enthusiasts prone to certain liberties have taken to calling Houston a food city. To be sure, food-eaters abound. Years ago I asked Jana Hunter in these same pages if she was ever going to move back to Houston. Her answer was simple: “When I want to get fat again.” Jana bailed for Baltimore, started a band there called Lower Dens, got picked up by some label or another with enough cash to push her music into wider circulation, and got herself a smart haircut for all the magazines in which she’d now be mugging. So, yeah, we’re food-havers. Every five minutes the square footage occupied by eateries, crossfit boot camps and dialysis service providers expands another three inches in every possible direction.

There are those also who have taken to calling this an art city, on account of all the money hidden in art around here. There's bad money hidden in good art. There’s also a lot of bad money hidden in bad art. Look around, the place is stinking with art, crawling with museums, galleries, curators and bloggers. Who knows what they do after hours...has anyone seen them at the club?

There’s a lot of skin in the music game, but no money, no infrastructure, just skin, attached to hunks of embarrassing human flesh. By and large, we’re still just the human armature over which is draped a soul-eating black hole. I have seen the future in dreams, and it looks like a depopulated Guitar Center parking lot.

Once there was Don Robey's Peacock Records, home to Big Mama Thornton, Marie Adams, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and, somewhat contentiously, Little Richard. A little later there was the International Artists label, the distribution and narcotics arm housing the Red Krayola, the Golden Dawn, Bubble Puppy, Lost and Found, and the Thirteenth Floor Elevators. In addition to their own early output, Really Red’s in-house label, C.I.A. Records, provided a vehicle to local punks, including the MyDolls and Culturcide. There was the relatively short-lived '80s funk and disco label Houston Connection Recording Corporation, which put out records by X-25, Videeo, Anne LeSear, Glass and Margie Joseph. They were followed by the much-storied and even more successful Rap-A-Lot records, who put this city on the rap-map for life with the success of the Geto Boys. But throughout, there are gaps, huge gaps. Part of that may be my pea-brain and its inability to recognize the zen value of nothingness. Another part may the absence of committed, functioning, resource-laden labels.

Them Houston artists without connections to Corwood, Swisha House or the Screwed Up Click have usually had to take their business elsewhere. Austin has always had a firmer grasp on the subject, whether with Trance Syndicate, who put out local stars like the Pain Teens, or Emperor Jones, who helped make a Rusted Shut a household curse in other parts of the world, or, more recently, the artist-run Holodeck, who’re putting a big mark around the neck of the news with S U R V I V E, Troller, Smokey Emery and BOAN.

Tourette Records has probably filled out the most customs forms of any local label. Since around 2008 they’ve released or reissued more than 50 records from international experimentalists and outer-orbiters such as Edward Ka-Spel, Nurse With Wound, Merzbow, German Army, GX Jupitter-Larsen, Muslimgauze, Andrew Liles, Naevus and MC Tracheotomy.

For a few years, Dull Knife Records was Houston’s busiest boutique label, with a dedicated cult of collectors and an ambitious and sought-after string of short-run releases by local, national and international recording artists, including Richard Youngs, Dan Melchior, Future Blondes, Rusted Shut, Circuit Des Yeux, Balaclavas, Hearts of Animals, Daughn Gibson and Hamamatsu Tom, but after releasing the Subsonic Voices record in 2014, Dull Knife closed up shop.

Currently, Chase DeMaster's Very Jazzed label is putting up its crew — Children of Pop, Deep Cuts, Jerk, and co., like a boss, with national distribution from French Kiss, itself the last known address of one of Houston's all-time best rock bands, the Fatal Flying Guillotines.

And there are a few others, mostly one- or two-off boutiques, dedicated to self-releases or limited distribution titles. Which is precisely in keeping with the promise of the Internet, everything live and direct. Young Mammals are sneaking into the news cycle with their latest hot one, Jaguar, on their own Odd Hours label. The Suffers and the Tontons seem to be doing all right without apparent label help.

First, what artist wants to dedicate his living room to boxes of CDs, LPs, download cards, cassettes, DVDs, stickers, 8x10 glossies, sheet music, wax cylinders and mailing supplies? An artist's living room is a hallowed place, best suited to showcasing posters of Tupac or Biggie or, ideally, both.

If you're of a paranoid bent, and you discern the workings of secret cabals, hidden courts and wheels within wheels in ordinary events, you are not entirely wrong. For those on the other side of the gatekeepers, there's swag on the line — free shoes, catered tents, designer sunglasses, a slightly bigger font size and more prominent placement on festival poster listings, and more free records and T-shirts than one could ever want to wear or to hear. And that's just for the sponsors, the label factotums, the publicists, the middlemen. On the other side of the rainbow, artists stand to be rewarded in energy bars, cases of Dos Equis and warm bottled water, and ultimately shame, as they see their best years reduced to the florid micro-biography of a sales one-sheet, and their personal visions flensed of all mystique. Sounds good, so... where are the labels?