Houston Music

Cactus Flowers Turns a Dream Deferred Into Dreamy Rock

L-R: Matt Black, Jessica Murillo and Mark Carcamo are Cactus Flowers
L-R: Matt Black, Jessica Murillo and Mark Carcamo are Cactus Flowers Photo by Andrew Murillo, courtesy of Cactus Flowers

Jessica Murillo grew up in a creative household where family members were encouraged to pursue their artistic passions. Early on, it was clear hers was music. She learned violin as a kid and worked her way to guitar as a teenager. In college, she put her first plugged-up band together, while studying music management and entertainment law as the focus of her business degree.

Then, a weird thing happened. She got a job in her field of choice, just three days after graduation. She moved from home in Houston to Los Angeles to work for Daisy Rock Girl Guitars. She learned a lot, she said, but a couple of years into the gig she realized something was missing.

"I kinda really missed being an artist. I really felt unfulfilled. I wanted to explore that and it was really hard to do that in L.A., so I moved back to Houston and fast forward to here we are now."

Where we are now is Catbirds, the cozy little dive in Montrose, sharing a couple of beers while she shares her story. The story’s become a lot more exciting since her band, Cactus Flowers, has gained some momentum. The three-piece psych-rock act, fronted by Murillo on guitar and vocals, has a busy weekend ahead of it, starting with an EP release show Friday at the Iron Castle. That event is followed by a special day gig on Saturday at re:HAB Bar on the Bayou and an evening set at Satellite Bar.

The EP is titled Cactus Flowers (Live at Steamboat Ampworks) and was recorded at the custom amp shop last May. Murillo and drummer Mark Carcamo recorded the tracks in a single day at those sessions.

"I'm friends with Jake from Steamboat Amps and I always wanted to record something there just because I really love the transformation of the space over the years and what he's been doing over there. So, I saw that he had built a studio and I was like, 'Please, can we record here?'" Murillo said.

The result was three tracks laid down over four hours of studio time, done live to give listeners in-the-moment stuff that captures the raw essence of the songs.  Since then, the band added bassist Matt Black to the mix. With a full trio, Murillo was able to start booking live shows. Since this April they’ve played spots like Rudyard’s and Spruce Goose to good reception. They put the music on all the major music platforms to help build their audience. Facebook, Instagram and Bandcamp pages went up.

click to enlarge The band rocks Rudz - PHOTO BY ABRAHAN GARZA, COURTESY OF CACTUS FLOWERS
The band rocks Rudz
Photo by Abrahan Garza, courtesy of Cactus Flowers

If Murillo looks familiar, it could be because she’s your favorite bartender from this place or that. She’s friendly and humble. I remind her that I’d camp at a table at Little Dipper and she’d serve up Lone Stars while I finished writing stories just like this one. She knew I was a music writer but never mentioned her own band. I complemented her on the Dipper’s taste in music. She still never mentioned being a musician. I told her about my son’s own band. Still nothing. Since things are moving faster with Cactus Flowers, she’s tried on her music business hat again.

"I always used to tell artists that wanted to get somewhere it's all about content and connecting with your fans and so I find I need to do that more," she says with a winning laugh. "Even little things like posting videos on Instagram or doing photo shoots, doing little things like that."

Though the EP’s songs were already on music sites, she felt a proper album release was in order. Friday’s release show is so much more than that, thanks to the band's affinity for the Houston art community. Only 100 copies of the CD will be available for sale, featuring cover artwork by Lauren Klich, who also designed the event poster. Timothy Dorsey designed the band logo. Another friend, Adam Scott, designed some merch that will be on sale Friday night.

“I'm really excited to get to promote their artwork because I've been a fan of their artwork for a while,” Murillo said. "They all asked me 'What do you want me to do?' and I told them just listen to the music and whatever you feel inspired to draw, just do it. And then, they each individually gave me something different and I think that that's so rad."

The release show is at the Iron Castle, not a music venue but an art space run by artists Noah Edmundson and Donald Tucker.

"I met them because they were my regulars when I was a bartender over at re:HAB Bar on the Bayou and they're both artists and they've kind of been like my artist mentors since I've been doing this music thing," Murillo said. "So, they have this warehouse space that they share and they know that I was looking for a space to do my EP release and they were like, "I know you haven't found a space, why don't we use this one?'" It's this amazing warehouse space with all their art."

Mockingbird Brother opens the show and Bayou Saints will lead into Cactus Flowers, Murillo said.

"A couple of the guys from Bayou Saints are the guys behind Steamboat Ampworks so for me it was really special to have them on the bill because they've done so much for us and have always been welcoming of us and our art as a band."

The release show will end around 11 p.m. since the space is essentially surrounded by residential neighbors, Murillo noted. If you're more of a day drinker or a night owl, you'll have two chances to catch Cactus Flowers on Saturday. They’ll be on Satellite Bar's evening bill with Austin's Free Kittens & Bread. During the day the band is playing a daytime set at re:HAB Bar.

"So that gig is really special because I used to work over there and they have this lovely regular couple, Will, and his wife, Lori, great regulars. At re:HAB Bar on the Bayou they have live music every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and they would always come and see the music, take videos - really sweet," Murillo said. “So, after I played (Will) told me, ‘I didn't even know that you played music and thank you so much for sharing because it was really great and you should share your art more with people because people will really enjoy it and I enjoyed it.’ And it was really lovely to hear that for the first time, it was really sweet."

Will passed away recently, Murillo said, and the bar is staging a show celebrating his life and memory on Saturday, with Mitch Jacobs Band, Texas Johnny Boy and Milton Hopkins. Cactus Flowers is opening.

We’re joined by Murillo’s brother, Andrew, also a musician and a professional photographer/videographer. He’s shot some video for the band, including the work for the song “Choke” you see here in this article. They talk about the music they listened to growing up and I tease that they were “doomed” to an artistic lifestyle.

"I guess we always were inspired to do art because my mother was a rock and roll photographer in the '60s and she did like freelance photography for Creem Magazine and Rolling Stone, so I was always around hearing these stories," Jessica says. She said her mother, Alexis, retired once she had kids, but the artistic spark was embedded in them.

click to enlarge Murillo tells her story at Catbirds - PHOTO BY ANDREW MURILLO, COURTESY OF CACTUS FLOWERS
Murillo tells her story at Catbirds
Photo by Andrew Murillo, courtesy of Cactus Flowers

"Hearing that my mom took photo classes with Ansel Adams and was in classes with Annie Liebovitz, you know, and she lived like three doors down from Janis Joplin — she's got photos of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in their kitchen when she cooked them eggplant parmesan — it always inspired me to think, 'Wow, you can do whatever you want and you can be an artist, in your own right,'" Jessica said.

It’s a lesson she’s taken fully to heart after some sidetracking. But now that Cactus Flowers has bloomed, she and her bandmates are planning to record a full-length. She says her bandmates and their proficiency are allowing the music to branch into more diverse sounds. Some tracks are heavy and doomy, thanks to Black's influence, others are bright and poppy. They want to do some collaborations, like their song “Relapse,” which features local rapper King Rob. Murillo wants to take the act on the road and try SXSW. Now that she’s fully following this dream, she wants to see where it takes her and her bandmates.

Here at Catbirds, it seems she’s intoxicated with the thrill of the moment. This unassuming, humble bartender speaks of striking rock star poses worthy of those music mags her mom used to shoot for.

"We've played a bunch of gigs now and I still have not gotten to experience the feeling where someone's standing this close listening to me, rocking out in my face and I'm excited for that, but I was getting kind of nervous for awhile - like, what do I need to do? So I bought a 25-foot fucking guitar cable and I was like, "I'm gonna fucking jump offstage and start getting in people's faces now,” she laughs. "It's great because at the warehouse I'm gonna be around everyone — and I will have that 25-foot guitar cable. So you'll know what's gonna happen. Don't tempt me with a good time."

Cactus Flowers' EP release, 7 p.m. Friday July 13 at The Iron Castle, 3300 Jensen. Free beer from 11 Below Brewing. $5.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.