Bagging Its Own

It was the kind of opportunity an indie musician dreams about: an invitation to play the SXSW music conference in Austin, where industry execs and media weasels can (theoretically) make or break an act. Matt Brownlie had one of those coveted invites in his very hand, thanks to a pair of tunes on a promotional compilation for MAN.not god Records, the Houston-based label that had just signed the young artist. There was only one hitch: Brownlie had no band.

The problem was that Brownlie had recorded his two MAN.not god tunes with studio musicians, apparently never realizing he might need a regular group to help him re-create the songs in a live setting. Brownlie's limited experience provided few leads for potential new bandmates: He was a product of 13 years of classical piano training, and his first band, McGillicutty, boasted an unusual lineup of acoustic guitars, cello and a violin. There was little hope of finding enough players within those circles for a full-on rock band.

Brownlie turned to Erik Bogle, a young guitarist who had played with him in McGillicutty. They were supplemented by a pair of ringers, including drummer Leesa Harrington-Squyres, who's now in Jimmy's Pawn Shop (see "Plymouth Rock," November 23). Thus was born Gandhi in Vegas, a band that The Austin Chronicle described (prior to its March 18, 1998, performance) as "hinging on soft/ loud tension, smart lyrics, and off-kilter drumming." "Singer/guitarist Matt Brownlie's twentysomething sneer adds an additional edge to the tongue-in-cheek formula followed by all graduates of the Pavement School of Not Taking Yourself So Seriously," it said.

Bogle doesn't recall much of the performance, other than that it was terrifying. Certainly little came from it. Gandhi in Vegas didn't last, but Brownlie and Bogle would go on to form one half of Groceries, a Houston-based band whose brief existence already has earned it one noticeable honor (well, to us at least): Best New Act in the 2000 Houston Press Music Awards. Former Press music editor Anthony Mariani wrote that Groceries "has become a super-likable local (for now) indie-pop act."

Although delighted with the award, drummer Thomas Clemmons admits, "We expected not to win." He's not being self-deprecating. Simply put, Houston is a hard market, and Groceries' music isn't country, rap or Top 40 fare. Which raises a valid question: What kind of music does Groceries produce? It's a question that even the band members can't answer.

"Tense-rock. Tension core," offers Brownlie.

As bassist Blake Powell explains, "A lot of bands say that they don't sound like anybody. This is the first band I've ever heard or ever been in that really does not sound like anybody."

A listen to Groceries' EP, Knuckleheads and Icons, only complicates things. The traditional components of pop, repeat verses or la-la choruses, are hard to find. Instead, time signatures and keys change regularly. It's like a crazy quilt with dissonance, volume and occasional screaming as patchwork. Yet in some fashion, it's pop verging on punk-tinged indie rock.

"I want to write songs based in the pop tradition," says Brownlie, "and kind of take that tradition and mangle it."

Although Brownlie is the chief songwriter, or the "conductor," as he prefers to call his role, composing has become much more collaborative since the current lineup crystallized in September 1998. Each member brings his own set of influences, from Possum Dixon to Pavement, and once processed collectively, the Groceries sound emerges.

Guitarist Bogle is responsible for the loud aggro parts, while Powell, who originally played in a metal band, likes more melodic bass lines. Brownlie, who used to run the open mike night at Instant Karma, found Clemmons among a Houston collective of up to 30 musicians who called themselves Invisible Robot Fish. Clemmons played congas. Each week, Invisible Robot Fish would improvise wild tunes; Brownlie thought it was the coolest thing he'd ever heard. Invisible Robot Fish served as the inspiration for a number of Texas bands, including the Free Radicals.

Writers grasping for comparisons liken Groceries to Polvo and Drive Like Jehu, weird underground bands with a lot of screaming. Yet these groups don't begin to cover as much ground as Groceries. Knuckleheads features its quieter moments, too -- apparently enough quiet moments for Book Your Own Fuckin' Life, a DIY Web site for punk/hardcore bands, to reject Groceries for inclusion. It's an interesting dilemma to be a band without a discernible genre.

Live, Groceries tries to incorporate fun details that mirror the quirky music. Bogle, for instance, has a fascination with Christmas lights and designed Groceries' signature electric pants. During one show, the guys had a computer announce each song while they remained mute. The complex music and set pieces aren't indicative of artistic pretense, the band insists, just harmless fun.

Roughly 75 percent of Groceries' repertory hasn't been recorded, but live bootlegs are circulating. The self-released EP, which reached No. 4 on KTRU's playlist, can be found at Soundwaves and Cactus Music & Video. The band's Web presence is virtually nil, with scattered songs at and on Napster.

Brownlie is adamant about avoiding record labels, and cites Fugazi as the ultimate example of DIY. Groceries has already built up an e-mail list of 500 folks, with 220 more on the snail-mail version. The band promotes tirelessly, gigs frequently and tries to hit Houston, Austin and Dallas each month. It has opened for Mike Watt, Bis, the Impossibles and the Mr. T Experience. Production on a new album is slow, but Groceries hopes a single will be released next spring.

To fans seeking more, Bogle offers this piece of advice: "Copyright infringement is your best entertainment value. Burn our CDs, give it to your friends, e-mail the MP3s to everybody. If you want a live track, you've got it."

Given their bent for nonconformity, all four members agree it's important that Groceries remains true to itself. The guys are striving for careers without compromises.

"Sure, we could write a really stupid matchbox twenty song, give it to Interscope and try our luck that way," says Bogle, "but why sell out when we're so satisfied with the music that we're creating for ourselves?"

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Sande Chen