Barfly Revisited

Even if no one could ever agree on how to spell its name, and often couldn't quite remember what had gone on there the previous evening, the long-demolished Pik N Pak stands as one of Houston's most iconic music venues ever.

A parking lot today, the icehouse across Waugh from Rudyard's was originally built in the 1920s. When Ralph Ullrich bought it in the mid-1980s, Pik N Pak became a focal point of Houston's burgeoning alternative/punk/noise scene, hosting shows by local legends such as the Pain Teens, deadhorse, Sprawl, the Mike Gunn and Dry Nod.

"My primary memory of the PNP was the gigantic disconnect of walking past the tables of old, nicotine-wizened regulars — think Mickey Rourke in Barfly — in order to go see an awesome punk/experimental show just a few feet away," says SugarHill Studios partner Dan Workman, who played numerous Pik N Pak shows as drummer for art-leaning punk rockers Culturcide.

"It just felt right, but in a very naughty-wrong way," Workman adds. "David Lynch would have loved this scene."

Pik N Pak bands such as the Hates, Rusted Shut and Poor Dumb Bastards are still around today, and will join about two dozen of their fellow alumni at this weekend's three-day reunion organized by Jet Setta Booking.

Now as then a plumbing contractor, Ullrich became known as the "honorary mayor of Montrose" during his Pik N Pak days. In fact, he did run for mayor of Houston in 2009, and spoke with the Houston Press about the reunion last week.

Houston Press: How did you come to own the Pik N Pak?

Ralph Ullrich: I took it over from the previous owner, who owed a bunch of money, to pay off the debt. And then I rebuilt the place from the ground up.

HP: For the people who may not have been around back then, could you describe Pik N Pak a little bit?

RU: It was a bar where all kinds of people came. You had the old-timers who had been going there for 40 years in the morning, who had retired, and then a little lunch crowd, and then people getting off work would come by for happy hour, and the alternative-music crowd came at night when we started booking bands.

HP: Was it a big place? Physically, what did it look like inside and out?

RU: I think it was about 24,000 or 25,000 square feet, and plank-board construction on the outside. Inside was insulated for soundproofing and thermal, with sheetrock. Different artists would paint murals for beer. I had several artists that made some pretty cool artwork in there.

HP: Did you intend to have ­music there when you took it over?

RU: That was the original plan, because I was kind of bored with the music scene. I thought everybody was getting too polished. Garage bands were playing in clubs that had carpet and airbrushed murals. I wanted to get beyond that.

HP: How did it get to be such a hub for alternative, punk and indie bands?

RU: I just let people play. People would come in and I'd let them book a show, and if they sounded good then I'd book 'em again. But I had all kinds of bands; it was more than just punk. I had all kinds of alternative music and a weekly blues jam.

I had a coffeehouse night where they'd do folk music and poetry. I had metal and noise bands — I had all kinds of stuff. It opened my eyes up to what the younger generation was doing.

HP: What bands do you especially­ remember?

RU: We had so many good bands. Mike Gunn and Dry Nod were real good, and Skillit. T.C. & the Cannonballs, he was a blues guy. Culturcide was pretty incredible, Anarchitex, Naked Amerika. I can't remember 'em all. I had 300 or 400 different bands every year.

HP: Are there any great or memorable shows that stick out in your mind today?

RU: Yeah. deadhorse, Academy Black, all the Plug Ugly shows. They put together the first shows where I had ten bands a day playing. They introduced me to a lot of the local metalheads. If people wanted to break out with a new band, that's where they'd play.

The Axiom told them they could play the Pik N Pak and see how they'd do, and then they could possibly get a gig over there. I didn't even know that. I found that out later.

HP: How crazy would it get at some of these shows?

RU: Well...[long pause] If it got too crazy, I'd just pull the plug. I had a limit to how far I'd let things go.

HP: Did you have to do that a lot?

RU: No, not too often.

HP: What was the place like on a quiet night? Did you have many quiet nights?

RU: The coffeehouse nights were pretty quiet. Sometimes we wouldn't have bands and would just have the jukebox playing. It was fine all the time.

HP: What was going on at Rudz across the street at that time?

RU: They booked a lot of bands I did. A lot of bands that played over there would want to come over and play my place too, back and forth. We had a good relationship. It wasn't a competition to undercut or hurt each other; it was a friendly, good competition.

HP: When and why did Pik N Pak finally shut down?

RU: It was some kind of political BS. [Politicians and developers] were pushing zoning in Houston, and they wanted to eliminate anything that wasn't sterile. They wanted to appeal to a different market and have a corporate culture, a homogenized culture, to overrun Montrose and bring in townhouse buyers.

HP: When was this?

RU: 1993.

HP: What led to the reunion?

RU: They had the Axiom reunion, and a bunch of people said they wanted to have a Pik N Pak reunion. Last spring I had some people say they really wanted to have a Pik N Pak reunion, and they started talking to some other people, and finally it came together.

I was urged by people. If it weren't for their encouragement, I wouldn't have bothered, but a lot of people were interested in it.

See this weekend's reunion schedule and more Pik N Pak stories on our music blog at

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray