Houston music is a rich tapestry of genres dominated by hip-hop, indie rock and country music, but a couple of local musicians have made their way to the loom to ensure songs with titles like “Hellbound Jew” and “Slice of Ass” get woven into the mix.
These artists are Josh Bass and Alby J. Vara, collectively known as Buster Whilaby & The Gimp. They’re longtime friends with a deep backlog of songs that are finally seeing the light of day, and are filling a void here by presenting comedy-rock to Houston music crowds. If you’ve been yearning for an act that takes on subjects like “the universal obnoxiousness of cyclists” with Tenacious D-like riffs and comedic insight, these are your guys. You can catch them live as soon as tonight at 19th Hole Grill & Bar.
“A Buster Whilaby & The Gimp show is a lot of all-original, rockin’ music, possibly mixed with country and/or rap and other genres, depending on the set list, and some theater," explains Bass, a.k.a. “Basshole.” "Each song has some type of ‘shtick’ or setup, where we talk about what the song is about, how it came to be, sometimes as different characters.
"Sometimes there are props and costumes, and when we can, we have a multimedia element, some video pieces and slides with all the lyrics," he continues. "We interact with the audience sometimes and just generally try to act like asses and make the whole thing as entertaining as possible. So it’s not just music; it really is a show.”
Vara puts it this way: “I always stress that we are a comedy-rock band. Comedy is first. That is what makes us different from any other band in town. We are a comedy act that happens to play good music.”
The band recently released Wasting Your Evening, its first official album, and just debuted the video for one of the tracks, “Hellbound Jew.” The song’s theme, as Bass sees it, “is pride in being terrible at practicing your religion.” Lines like “I don’t celebrate the major holidays/ Passover ain’t real big, last night I ate a whole pig,” bring the theme home. On the Springsteen-esque “Living In the Ghetto,” the band laments the perils of running out of gas “on the wrong side of the railroad tracks” and being chased by “some woman’s baby’s daddy.”
It’s 2017, so comedy fans demand cutting-edge commentary and comedians have to be savvy about taking on sensitive subjects. The band discussed its approach to songwriting with these elements in mind.
“I am a Houstonian. Born and bred. I came from a rough side of town, so know of where I speak when I sing songs like ‘Living in the Ghetto,’” Vara explains. “It’s funny how people from the ghetto love that song, and the few people who have been offended by it are young, upper-class, suburban white kids.
“Love and relationships are always great for writing about because everybody can relate. Boys, girls, blacks, whites, straights and gays can all relate to love and relationships,” he continues. “As long as you are an equal-opportunity offender, I think you can get away with a lot. Some people take offense to a few of our songs, but if you listen to the lyrics, they are all based in truth. I’m from the ghetto. Basshole is Jewish. We are just telling you the truth.”
“I don’t think there are sacred cows, but most folks believe, and I am generally with them, that the extremes of humor need justification. In other words, if you’re gonna say some messed-up stuff, you have to come at it from a pretty clever angle, and the more messed up it is, the cleverer you have to be to not piss people off,” Bass adds. “Do we play the song as a character? Maybe. Is it from the point of view of someone who thinks these awful things but outs himself early on as unintelligent (or) deeply flawed? Maybe. Something has to make the awful things you say ‘okay.’ Or maybe not. Sometimes you just write your awful song and pray folks like it.”
Bass says he took up guitar as a teen who quit music lessons at Rockin’ Robin and learned mostly by playing along to Nirvana and Alice in Chains. He formed his first comedy band, The Gimps, at 18. Vara learned piano as a youth (“Mom had this vision in her head of a Norman Rockwell Christmas singing songs by the fire, so she bought a piano knowing none of us knew how to play it”), and was also essentially self-taught. The duo met in college and created a movie project “about this little-person rap group’s history...how they started as a rock band and were forced to become rappers because of a copyright lawsuit,” Bass shares.
The fictional band was called MWA: Midgets With Attitude. They wrote 18 songs for the work.
“The movie was a comedy, so the songs were comedic,” Bass said. “We talked about how awesome it would be after the project was done to actually form a band and play those songs. Then we kept talking about it for the next 14 years...”
They’ve worked as independent filmmakers for much of the time they’ve known each other, but Bass says, “In 2014, we both just happened to be annoyed and frustrated with the complete lack of progress doing the film thing. I was itching to play music with someone, anyone, any music, just to be doing something, and Alby said, ‘Let’s do it, for real this time,’ and we played our first open-mike a few months later.”
Since then, they’ve played AvantGarden, Rudyard’s, Dan Electro’s and Secret Group. A second-place showing in the 2015 Clear Lake Battle of the Bands, hosted by Union Tavern, helped them get gigs at other traditional music venues such as BFE Rock Club and Acadia.
“We have not had a terrible time getting booked, but it hasn’t been super-easy, either," notes Bass. "I think that has more to do with being a bottom-of-the-barrel local band than our weird genre. Part of the problem is figuring out where we belong and will thrive. That has been more the challenge than simply getting the bookings. The places where it seems like they cater to weirder stuff haven’t generally been as receptive, surprisingly, as hard-rock clubs, in terms of the crowds appreciating us.”
There are new songs in the works, like the self-explanatory, still-under-construction “Fart, Don’t Poop.” But Bass says the new album is a step toward growing the brand. Vara clarifies, “We have recorded several albums/demos for ourselves over the years, but Wasting Your Evening was the first time we recorded with the intention of asking people to pay for it.”
How much of Houston creeps into these songs?
“Songs like ‘Fuck You, I’m On a Bike’ could probably be about the cyclists in any large city, but I can tell you for sure the ones in Hyde Park are particularly annoying,” Bass confides.
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Vara admits some audiences don't know they'll appreciate what the band offers until it's being offered.
"We know we are not sex symbols," he says. "We know we don’t have long hair and tattoos. We know we don’t have 'the look,' but we play all of that to our advantage. I like to compare us to Droopy Dog, who always gets underestimated and pushed around in the cartoons, but in the end he grabs the bad guy by the collar and says, 'You know what? That makes me mad.' Then Droopy just whales on them. That's BWG. Sound guys look at us like 'Are you kidding?' when we first walk into a new venue. Everyone expects so little from us and that just makes it easier to kick their ass because their guard is down."
"If you come to a Buster Whilaby & The Gimp show, you won’t soon forget it. I ain’t sayin’ you’ll like it, but I think it’ll stick with you," Bass says. "Even as you’re sitting in a fog of dementia 60 years from now, you’ll have a vague memory of two dorky bald guys acting like fools, one wearing a bright red shirt and blue track pants that his dong shows through if he doesn’t wear his second pair of shorts underneath."
Buster Whilaby & The Gimp invade 19th Hole Bar & Grill (202 Sawdust, Spring) tonight with special guests Malibu Ru, PukeBox, Punk Rock Project and 2Cold. Doors open at 8 p.m.; tickets are $10 to $15.