Attack of the Surf Punks

The Magnetic IV all love 1950s and early-'60s B movies. The seamy underbelly of the "I Like Ike" years as chronicled in films like B movie titan Roger Corman's Bucket of Blood -- in which a nerdy waiter at a beatnik coffeehouse murders his clientele and turns their corpses into statues -- really turns them on.

Over beers upstairs at Rudyard's, singer Gina Rodriguez, guitarist Charlie Esparza and bassist Barry Sabayrac talk about the genre at length. The atomically enhanced ants saga Them! is a fave. So is The Choppers, which Esparza says is one of those juvenile delinquent movies. "There's this scene where this guy picks up a guitar and plays some rock and roll," says the Magnetic guitarist. "Then they dismantle this car, and there's some rock and roll going on in the background, and then the cops bust 'em, and they see the error of their ways. They just say, 'We were just kids. We didn't know what we were doing.' "

"Why doesn't that fly today?" wonders Rodriguez. "Why can't kids still say, 'Hey, we're just kids'?"

The Magnetic IV's music sounds like the soundtrack to any one of these movies. Their debut CD, Teenage Zombie Riot, even has a title that wouldn't look out of place next to such flicks as Stakeout on Dope Street and The Brain Eaters.

But if Roger Corman is one of the band's pillars of inspiration, the other has to be surf guitar god Dick Dale. Teenage Zombie Riot is hoodlum surf-punk music made by the secretly sweet-natured kids who hung out in the smoking lounge at your high school. Esparza calls this Ramones-ish hard-on-the-outside/soft-on-the-inside style the band's "bubblegum monster effect."

Almost every critic who has reviewed the band, including this one, describes the petite Rodriguez (who is also Esparza's fiancée) as having a "snotty" style. One wonders if it's gone to her head.

"You know, it just seems that any girl that's in a punk-type band is gonna be labeled snotty," she says. "In some ways I'm okay with it, and in other ways I think that if we played other songs then I could not be snotty. But that's just not our kind of music; that's not what we do. I love Aretha Franklin, I love Patsy Cline, but I can't sing like them. But I sure can try. I sure sound like them in the shower. I'm 50-50 on that."

"I don't know," picks up Esparza. "You're not Tina Turner."

"Hey, what's love got to do with it," Rodriguez fires back.

"It's hard to sing soulful when you're playing rock and roll," Esparza explains.

"All I want to know is, did they call Janis Joplin snotty?" asks Rodriguez.

No, this writer interjects. She was sometimes called ballsy, but never snotty.

"If I can go from snotty to ballsy, then I'll be happy," Rodriguez declares.

Snotty or ballsy, she's always been something of a punk. Back in her childhood hometown of Victoria, her grandfather had a shed that Rodriguez saw as the perfect clubhouse for her and her delinquent chums. Being, at the time, a tremendous fan of disco diva Donna Summer, Rodriguez busted out a can of spray paint and scrawled "Hot Stuff Club" on Granddad's workshop.

Esparza doesn't have any pleasant memories of his youth, which was misspent in Deer Park. Esparza remembers being one of about two punks in the tough-and-rumble refinery town. "Life began for me after high school," he says.

One thing that did rub off on Esparza and Rodriguez from their childhoods was a work ethic. Or perhaps it came from Roger Corman again, who was famous for his ability to crank out a movie on a pittance in less than a week. Esparza, who works at Reliant Energy, bankrolled Teenage Zombie Riot with his income tax refund check and released it on his own Reform School label.

They're a blue-collar band typical of Houston's day-job-required music scene. Rodriguez works at a nonprofit, placing low-income families into starter homes. Drummer Claudio Depujedas has a job in Shell's mail room and plays with several bands. Sabayrac has been known to show up for a gig straight from a 24-hour shift as a fire sprinkler system inspector.

Rodriguez and Esparza knew that Sabayrac was the right man for the job at his audition. "It's hard enough to find an audience for our music," Esparza says. "But to try to find another person in the world that's into our sound that can also play bass guitar and can stay out all night long, and to try to find a drummer that's into the same thing, then you're talking about that needle in a haystack."

"Barry was about to sell all his equipment and get out of music completely," Rodriguez adds.

"Finally he came and practiced with us a couple of times," says Esparza. "And we were like, 'Okay, you're in the band, right?' "

Sabayrac wasn't so sure. But with Esparza, as with a skilled insurance salesman or Scientology recruiter, Sabayrac had crossed the point of no return. He had no choice. What are the Magnetic IV, anyway, a band or a cult?

A cult, according to Rodriguez. "Yes, we want your blooood!" she roars.

"Yeah, with Barry, even Gina was like, 'Hey, you gotta back off. Let him decide for himself,' " Esparza remembers. "I was like, 'No! No! I gotta know now!' "

Their next gig will be something of a departure for the Magnetic IV. "We don't usually do all-ages shows," says Esparza. "But we heard these were good gigs and they're over by ten o'clock and the guy told us we could sell lots of merch."

"But that's not the real reason we're going," Rodriguez declares. "The real reason we're going is to take the rock and roll revolution to Old Town Spring."

One wonders if the parents of the far north side know what their kids are in for.

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