Be Happy or Die

Now known as one of Houston's premier spots for eclectic, esoteric, eccentric and just downright insane music, in 2003 the original Super Happy Fun Land was slightly different.

"We had imagined that the place would host a lot more arts and crafts and even some children's events during the day," says owner Brian Arthur, who in the beginning simply wanted somewhere to stage his and partner Olivia Dvorak's "weird puppet shows."

Super Happy's name does evoke a childlike innocence, while at the same time paying homage to the Japanese culture that uses multiple glorifying adjectives for everything from soda pop to game shows. Originally located at Ashland and West 26th Street in the Heights, it became a music venue almost by accident.

"It turned out that we had a bunch of friends who were in bands and they all wanted to play at our place, and then more bands wanted to play, and more and more until we were hosting over 100 bands every month," says Arthur.

"We are open to almost anything as long as you are trying to be creative. Booking is practically on a first-come-first-serve basis, especially on weekdays," Arthur adds. "On weekends, I have been holding back a little on completely open booking because there is usually such a high demand for those nights, but pretty much anyone can get a weeknight show here."

About 50 percent of the club's acts are touring. SHFL has hosted Woodstock veterans Melanie and the Incredible String Band, as well as Kimya Dawson of Moldy Peaches (twice) and Wilco's Nels Cline. Other acts to grace the stage are Carla Bozulich (Geraldine Fibbers, Ethyl Meatplow), That One Guy and Eugene Chadbourne.

Arthur is also proud to have been the host of bands that later went on to break nationally, often through the pages of Spin magazine: Tapes and Tapes, Matt and Kim, Girl Talk and Dan Deacon. Perhaps attracted to the name, several Japanese bands have landed at SHFL, among them The Polysics, Green Milk from the Planet Orange and Electric Eel Shock.

Other "name" bands include Faun Fables and Quintron and Miss Pussycat — "one of [our] favorites," Arthur states.

A wide and varied assortment to say the least, but even Super Happy has its limits. For example, "death metal usually isn't super, happy, or fun, and we don't like it much so we don't usually book it," Arthur says before qualifying that a little.

"There are exceptions even to death metal, though, like the Toilet [from Sweden], who is one of our all-time favorites," he explains. Any band with songs like "Be Happy or Die" and "Demon Shit from Hell with Pink Clothes" has got to have some super happy fun qualities, right?

"It's always different," Arthur says. "We'll have indie-rock one night, acoustic street anarchists the next, R&B and hip-hop the next, experimental jazz the next, a crazy traveling circus the next and so on. It's always changing.

"Sometimes all these things happen in the same night," he adds. "That's when it really gets weird."

Music is just the tip of the oversized clown shoe at Super Happy Fun Land, however. Although the children's events never really panned out, the club is also a fully functional art space.

"We consider the whole place to be an 'art space,'" Arthur states. "The art gallery was part of the building, and we have had monthly art shows since we opened. When we were looking for a new space, one of the dealbreakers was that it had to have an art gallery at least as cool as the old one. As with bands, we almost never solicit artists; they almost always come to us."

Besides the monthly rotation of art, there are plenty of pieces permanently housed or on display at the club, some of which not everyone would necessarily consider art.

"Olivia and I are complete pack rats," Arthur laughs. "Right now we have about 100 Raggedy Ann dolls, and almost that many sock monkeys. There are tons of mini collections of odd similar objects — most of them handmade and really old."

Super Happy's current location at 3801 Polk opened in spring 2008. Arthur and Dvorak were already looking for a bigger space due to the Heights club's increasing popularity, but the move ultimately came about — as is often the case — at the impetus of the landlord. The venue's single bathroom — which, due to some invasive tree roots, overflowed when it rained — also factored in the decision.

Although their landlord made various offers to sell, cash flow was a problem and he finally decided to let go of the property. "He was really sick, so we don't blame him," Arthur says.

Until that happened, he admits, "moving seemed like such a daunting and monumental task, so we weren't that motivated to relocate. It was just kind of a daydream."

They still miss the old location, but Arthur says that being only ten blocks from downtown is a huge improvement: "We have more space, more amenities and really a more central location, so we kind of owe it to that shyster because we would undoubtedly be at the old location if not for him."

Besides SHFL's landlord woes, the Houston Fire Department shut down the club last spring.

At the old location, the only hassles were noise complaints easily addressed by further soundproofing, but after two months on Polk, SHFL was shuttered for not having an occupancy permit. Over 70 touring acts were canceled right before South by Southwest, and getting the building up to code took several months and a lot of money.

"We got extra jobs and did a bunch of benefits to raise money, but it still really put us in the hole not being able to generate any income for that long," Arthur says. "We are still recovering from it."

The club is officially in the red but still going strong. Opening (again) in the spring of this year, Super Happy Fun Land also acts as a lending library and studio in addition to the music and art space.

"Yeah, another crazy collection obsession of mine," laughs Arthur, hoarder of printed material on top of everything else.

The studio came about through a "sound guy" who was recording Arthur's band, Organ Failure, as well as other bands playing the venue. One of Organ Failure's crowning moments — a claymation banjo/fiddle-driven fugue called "Devil Why Must You Pursue Me?" — can be found on YouTube.

Running Super Happy Fun Land is a tremendous task, but Arthur, who has managed bars in Spring and New Orleans, is already looking to expand.

"We are now looking at opening a second location in Texas," he says. "We're considering Austin and Dallas now — who knows what the future will hold?"

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Trevor J. Wallace