With due respect to the Hates, Really Red, Spunk and all the bands that have come before and since, for a certain generation of fans, 30footFALL is where Houston punk begins and ends. Thanks to years of nonstop touring, a string of uptempo albums, and high-profile compilation contributions, perhaps no one has done more to spread snotty Houston attitude from coast to coast.
Even those who missed out on the band's late-'90s heyday have heard tell of countless sweaty Christmas shows at Fitzgerald's, where 30footFALL has been holding court every December since the Clinton Administration. Next week, the band returns to its traditional holiday roost in the Heights to celebrate 20 years together. It's a major milestone that few groups reach, particularly in the weird and wooly world of Houston punk.
Naturally, founding a local institution was the last thing on their mind when Rubio Cisneros, Tony Avitia and Butch Klotz met while attending Sam Houston High School back in the day.
"I didn't really think we'd make it to five years, much less 20," says Cisneros, who would soon move from drums to bass. "When we first started out, we worked our butts off; we advertised a lot. We flyered everywhere we could and we put stickers all over everything. Any pay phone in Houston had a sticker on it, any drive-through window. We started building up a little following."
In less than two years, that little following grew to thousands, making the group one of the city's top draws. As the momentum swelled, 30footFALL shuffled its lineup a bit. Ativia left the group to concentrate on I-45 and guitarist Chris Laforge stepped in, lending a new edge to the band's sound. Their 1995 debut, Divided We Stand (Fuzzgun Records), would be a breakthrough for the group, leading to sold-out shows and choice touring opportunities.
"'Divided We Stand' was the first song we wrote as a band together with Chris, and that ended up being one of the songs," says Butch Klotz, the group's fearless front man. "That was really exciting, because things kind of really took off at that time. We were writing a lot and practicing a lot, and started to really care about what was happening."
Outsiders began to take notice, especially the touring acts that 30footFALL was outdrawing in their hometown. A mid-'90s gig with Strung Out led to another break when that band's bassist, Jim Cherry (who has since passed away), placed a call to Fearless Records.
"We played with Strung Out here in town, and he liked us," Cisneros says simply. "He called Bob Becker, who was the owner of Fearless Records, and pretty much forced Bob to sign us. Hearing other national acts tell us how good we were or what they thought about us, I think that was when we knew we really had something."
By 1997, 30footFALL found themselves at the top of a lively, tight-knit Houston rock scene highlighted by the band's unforgettable annual throwdowns at Fitz on Christmas Day. As much a local tradition as the Houston Ballet's Nutcracker Market, the Christmas shows have kept throngs of rowdy fans coming back year after year even as the demands of grownup life have slowed the band's activities considerably over the past decade.
"Originally, Spunk did Christmas at least two years in a row, and it was always a fun show," Klotz says. "I guess we'd been doing the band for about a year when we heard Spunk was not doing a Christmas show, and we said, 'Let's do it.' It turned out to be pretty good; now, it's ridiculous.
"For some reason, the Christmas show brings people out that haven't been out in a long time, or they'll bring their kids," he continued. "It's a good atmosphere. It's not your typical Friday-night show."
When the band wasn't on tour with bigger acts like the Vandals, Pennywise and the Offspring, Fitzgerald's served as home base for 30footFALL. The group has developed a special relationship with the club over the years, strong enough to survive a change in ownership when Free Press Summer Festival masterminds Omar Afra and Jagi Katial took over a couple of years back.
"When the new guys took over a few years ago, I think they were really skeptical at first, because they didn't know what to expect with us coming down on Christmas," Cisneros says. "A couple of people that worked there told them it would be OK, and after the first performance, they were a little more receptive to us. The night after the first Christmas show, they already had us down for the next Christmas."
Can Houston look forward to another 20 years of 30footFALL Christmas shows? Tough to say. The band is inactive for much of the year these days, with Klotz living and working as a nurse in far-flung Charlottesville, Va. As long as the hometown fans keep showing up year after year, though, it's tough to imagine 30footFALL ever disappearing completely -- especially for the band members themselves.
"Chris Laforge just sent me a new song via email, and a couple days later I had lyrics to it and we were both pretty excited about it," Klotz says. "So, you know, who knows what's happening! I'd like to have another album, and now that you don't really need a record label or a lot of money to record an album that you like, it feels likely that we could have one.
"I've got a few songs in my back pocket; Chris has some more," he said. "This one that we just wrote, we were really excited about it. If we can do some more, maybe we will."
In the meantime, fans can look forward to Christmas in July at Fitz next week, with 30footFALL headlining a bill rounded out by the long-dormant Bickley, local faves Skeleton Dick and Klotz's Virginia-based Smiths cover band, the Smiffs. Expect a familial atmosphere all night upstairs on White Oak.
"Especially in that last five or six years, there's just a lot of hugs and high-fives at all the shows," Klotz says. "It's really good to see everybody, and I think we've been really lucky. We've got a bunch of great people that come to see us over and over again, including a lot who have become close friends. We're all really grateful for that."
30FootFALL's 20th anniversary show, with special guests Bickley, the Smiffs and Skeleton Dick, is Saturday, July 20, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Doors open at 8 p.m.
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