Band of Brothers

With much of America on edge amid daily reports of Al Qaeda sleeper cells, rampaging snipers and Iraqi chemical bombs, there's a premium on watching what you say in public places -- just ask those Muslim medical students down in Florida. We must be all the more vigilant when our tongues are tripped up by cheap beer -- in this case Thursday-night $6 pitchers of Shiner Bock at Texadelphia on Westheimer.

"So if I've got to say one thing about us it's this," says singer-guitarist Steve Duarte, leaning into his inquisitor's tape recorder. "Be sure to check out the Talibans!"

Actually, what Duarte is trying to say is "the Tie that Binds," the name of his band, most of which is assembled at the table. But it's perhaps a testament to the efficiency of the Spoetzl Brewery that his words come out sounding like a wholly different organization.

"Don't let the name discourage you! We're a rock band, not terrorists. We love you all!" Duarte's brother and drummer Rudy jumps in, seizing the machine. "And just because we want more people to come to the shows does not mean we're recruiting!" Ostensibly, that also goes for the rest of the band: bassist-vocalist Jesse Garcia and guitarist Aaron Richardson.

Consisting of equal parts metal, punk, emo, rock and blues (though they refer to themselves as emocore), the Tie that Binds has created a sound that defies easy classification, as last year's release, Half Past Heroes, testifies. The lyrics dwell on tear-inducing subjects such as longing, wanting, waiting and bad breakups, often seeming at odds with the harder-hitting music.

"The lyrics came from my personal situation, something that happened to me…," Steve says, with hazy allusions to the demise of a once promising romance. And though they collectively claim bands such as Samiam, Seaweed, Green Day, Fugazi, Jawbreaker and even Iron Maiden as influences (Rudy owns up to having once sported a mullet), they embrace the sometimes divisive "emo" tag.

"I didn't even know what emo was when we first started. I thought it was just people screaming a lot, ugh!" Steve says. "But it's kind of changed over the years."

"Yeah," Richardson chimes in. "Now people think Staind is emo. People just go to their concerts now to cry."

Nonetheless, the band is finishing a new record, one that it promises will be "more aggressive, more rocking." As with Half Past Heroes, it's being recorded in stages at Austin's Affordable Sound Studios. That is, when the band can afford session time. The last record took more than a year to put together, and now the band might have a more pressing need for their dough: Their traveling companion, a 1989 Ford van named Big Bertha, is about to die at the ripe old age of 170,000 miles.

"That means we've got to sell a lot of merchandise at shows!" Richardson laughs. "Stickers, buttons, CDs…We make more money on those things than our fee."

The Tie that Binds formed back in 1993, when Big Bertha was still under the original manufacturer's warranty. The lineup included Steve Duarte, Jesse Garcia, Aaron Richardson, his brother Kevin (who did most of the singing) and Alex Arizpe on drums. All in their mid-teens, most of them went to either Scarborough or Reagan High School.

The band was also originally called Badger. "Not the cute, furry creature," according to Aaron, "but like the punk rock 'we're going to annoy you' badger." It wasn't until they found out the name had also belonged to a '70s prog-rock band that they became the Tie that Binds.

"It's descriptive of the musical tastes that we all share, and also the fact that we had two sets of brothers in the group," Aaron Richardson says. In 1997 the band recorded its debut, Slowly Sinking Under. Shortly after its release, however, Kevin Richardson and Alex Arizpe left the lineup. Rudy Duarte snatched the drum seat, but Kevin's departure was a harder burden, both emotionally and musically. It ultimately inspired the title track of Half Past Heroes, one of the few songs on the record not open to lyrical interpretation.

"We never thought we'd go our separate ways / I still can't believe it," Steve Duarte sings. "I always wondered what went wrong / We were family, blood brothers till the end / It's sad we couldn't settle our differences."

None of the members will articulate the reasons for Kevin's departure, and Aaron says that while their relationship hasn't changed much, they now see each other only on holidays since Kevin is busy with his own group, mod/garage rockers the John Sparrow. Looks are exchanged at the Texadelphia table amid cautioning words; it's clearly still a sensitive subject.

While other standout tracks on Heroes, including "Indecision," "Complete the Puzzle," "All Out of Luck" and "The Bluest One You Know," continue in this gloomy vein, "Skipping Louise" offers a rare moment of levity. It's about the childhood tragedy of hearing the ice cream truck on your block and scuttling inside to get money, only to just miss it as it turns away from your street.

"It's one of those memories, you want to rush out and go, 'Hey, come back here now!' " Steve Duarte offers.

The band surprised many, including themselves, by becoming one of the three finalists in the citywide battle of the bands contest sponsored lavishly by Lucky Strikes a couple of years back. After besting Simpleton and Faceplant in the semifinals, they took on Moses Guest and the Fondue Monks for the major cash and recording prizes, which eventually went to the Monks.

"We had a great time, but I guess people were just in the mood for funk that night," Richardson laughs.

The Tie that Binds has opened for national acts like Samiam, Rocket from the Crypt and Jimmy Eat World. And the guys from Samiam even crashed at Rudy's pad after the gig. "They had a great south-by-southwest breakfast the next morning," the host remembers. "It was pretty cool."

For their upcoming Halloween show supporting Eyeagainst, the bandmates announced somewhat cryptically on their Web site that they will be dressed up and that they expect their audience to do the same. In a slip of the tongue between the first and second pitchers of Shiner, they say their costumes will be a tribute to a 1980s band, but immediately shoot down the Huey Lewis and the News guess that comes their way. A second theory put to the group causes them to emit surprised groans of recognition -- let's just say that audience members wearing yellow jumpsuits and carrying potatoes will not feel out of place.

"Hey, you know those red hats?" Richardson asks. "Um, you know where we can get them?"

No. But it's a good thing they didn't decide to wear white turbans.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero