Mario Rodriguez, founder of Wonky Power Records, is worried he’s going to sound like he’s complaining or something.
He arrived at Satellite Bar on Saturday at 10 a.m. to begin setting up for his label’s all-day-long "Spring Social," showcasing a diverse lineup of Wonky’s artists. By the time he sat down to chat, he’d been running around the venue for going on ten hours and might as well have been out of breath.
“Hopefully this interview doesn’t come off like we’re tired as fuck,” he said. “Hopefully it doesn’t come off that way, but maybe it should.”
It probably should: Ever since launching Wonky Power less than two years ago, Rodriguez and his tiny staff at Wonky Power have barely come up for air in their pursuit to position themselves as key players in Houston’s music scene. Unlike most new start-up labels, Wonky has launched itself with 12 artists as opposed to a couple. It distributes across the country, and is even helping some of its artists, like GIO Chamba and George West, expand their reach beyond the U.S. with tours in Peru and Mexico, respectively.
“The No. 1 thing we have to say is that this label busts ass,” Rodriguez said. “We’re not sleeping on anything. We’re really busting ass.”
Saturday’s ten-hour showcase was a testament to that. It was the first time Satellite Bar set up a stage in its large backyard, scattered with fire pits and yard games, giving Wonky’s showcase the feel of a festival more than anything — and the diverse range of artists drove that home. The lineup ran the gamut from solo artist Rex Hudson’s sloomy, ethereal electronic melodies to Handsomebeast’s high-energy funk rock, complete with hip-hop accents and psychedelic undertones.
“We wanted to have the entire day filled with different styles and vibes,” said Wonky’s Elizabeth Salazar, who also plays in the band Bang Bangz with Rodriguez.
Handsomebeast is the latest addition to the label, climbing on board at the end of 2015, not long after self-recording and releasing a new EP, Sexy Face Reaction Time. And that decision had a lot to do with what they knew about Rodriguez’s work ethic. At the time, two of the members, Jacob Rodriguez and Pee Wee Ruiz, were running their own small recording studio. When they saw what Mario Rodriguez was doing, Jacob says, “we knew how hard it was, and we were like, ‘We’re exhausted — how the hell is that guy doing so much more?'”
“He was one of the main people we saw grinding every single day,” lead singer Nick Serena added.
Handsomebeast shared that workmanlike approach to making music, Serena said. Onstage the band looks loose and natural, emitting a carefree groove that ripples through the funky bass lines and bongo-drum beats. But Serena said there’s also a bit of calculation behind that — they’re trying to master a performance trifecta: getting the crowd dancing (plenty of that Saturday) and singing along, but also actually appreciating each individual player’s musicianship onstage. Which is where the workhorse rehearsing comes in. They want their music to feel familiar — late-‘90s Chili Peppers came to mind for Salazar and Rodriguez — but with their own distinct stamp of inventiveness to boot.
“We take our musicianship very seriously — it needs to be thorough,” Serena said. “In my mind, that workmanlike approach to music really weeds out the people who don’t absolutely love it with all their heart.”
Sharing that same approach, the guys said, was Gio Chamba, who was just getting started outside. By the end of his set, Gio Chamba would be drenched in sweat, constantly running from his DJ set to the bongos to flesh out his Latin-influenced electronica, never letting up on an extraordinarily vibrant stage presence.
“He’s not just playing DJ sets out there,” Serena said. “He’s playing some new cool-sounding music. He played for a long time and then eventually just said, 'I want to get my chops up.' And he basically disappeared for a year, didn’t play shows, and just worked in the lab on his guitar playing.”
“He just totally reinvented himself,” Ruiz continued, “and it worked. He decided for himself that he’s going to be Gio Chamba. He’s gonna have the hat. He’s gonna wear the poncho. He’s gonna be a Latin icon — that’s what he fucking is.”
That Wonky Power is home to some of the hardest-working musicians in Houston is likely no secret given the attitude that seems to permeate the artist roster. Which is why Rodriguez and Salazar said that events like Saturday’s are so important: They give some credit to the people who are trying to make a life out of this — which is every artist on the roster, they said.
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“There’s no sugar-coating. It takes a lot of work and dedication when it comes to music,” Salazar said. “It’s a very hard thing to do. You have to know the right avenue to take in order to get recognized. But thankfully, everyone has been very supportive of everything that [Rodriguez] has been doing and what he’s trying to create for this entire culture in Houston.”
By the time Rodriguez’s band, Tax The Wolf, took the stage to close out the night, it was almost 10 p.m. — going on 12 hours since Rodriguez set up shop. It was the first time the band had performed in three years (watch out: They have a surprise album coming out in the near future). After bringing out a crooning trumpet for a Latin-laced number that fluctuated between lullaby-like choruses and buoyant, double-time build-ups, the band closed on a song called “Eagle.” Before beginning, Rodriguez admitted they were dead tired (something their performance seemed to contradict), and said the song was about going after what you love, no matter the odds, and sticking with it for life.
It might as well have been written about Wonky Power Records.