Blue Notes

Catching Up With Ian Varley Before Drop Trio's Last Show

Self-proclaimed "spaceship jazz" group Drop Trio hit the Houston music scene with a bang in 2002. After a trio of well-received albums and a slew of live shows, the band's members - keyboardist Ian Varley, bassist Patrick Flanagan, and drummer Mike "Nuje" Blattel - drifted to different cities while attempting to maintain the band and playing the occasional gig. However, Varley announced last week that Drop Trio will pack it in after tonight's show in Austin and Friday at AvantGarden.

We recently caught up with Varley and asked him some questions about the group's decision to disband, his future in music, and his thoughts on Drop Trio's legacy.

Rocks Off: First off, Chris Gray said, "Ask him who the hell 'Black Joe Lewis & the Relatives' are as opposed to the Honeybears."

[Ed. Note: We don't remember saying "hell," but Black Joe & the Relatives play the Continental Club Friday, August 27.]

Ian Varley: Sure thing. So, for Chris's question: The Relatives are a sort of obscure gospel-funk group. Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears did a show with them at the Continental Club during South By Southwest this year, and will probably do more stuff together in the future. Not a replacement band, just a collaboration.

RO: So these are the band's final two shows - is this a case of "real life" getting in the way of the music? What are you guys up to these days?

IV: Yeah, this is definitely a "real life gets in the way" thing. It's been coming for a while, with all three of us living in different cities, but now Patrick just took a job in New York City, so we can't hope for much beyond the occasional reunion. All three of us have moved forward in our careers in other ways, or started families, or whatever, and while we'll still get together when we can, it didn't seem right to continue referring to Drop Trio as an active thing.

RO: So you've all been separated pretty far away from each other?

IV: Yeah, Patrick has been up in Seattle for the last year, I'm in Austin, and Mike is in The Woodlands. And now I've started a new job, Patrick is about to, and Mike just started his own business, Pro Music Instruction, teaching music lessons in The Woodlands. And Patrick has a newborn son, Gavin. So all of us have a little less flexibility than we did back in the day.

RO: Drop Trio had a great run, and some good recognition in the press, and was able to tour a bit. Are you satisfied with the legacy of music the band leaves behind?

IV: Definitely. It's not really a "legacy", as that sounds sort of profound and important. But we made some fun music and melted some faces, and what more can you ask for? Our tours were an exercise in futility, commercially speaking, but they're some of my favorite memories in my life. And I know there have been people - in Houston and elsewhere - who were in some way touched by the music we made. I'm grateful for that, and I hope they continue to enjoy the albums we made.

RO: Any plans to release any new or unreleased material in the future?

IV: I wish we could have finished our fourth album, we got a really good start on it but it wasn't in the cards. We've got really extensive live recordings, though--hundreds of hours--and we may make those available at some point in the future, if anybody seems remotely interested.

RO: What's your favorite memory of local music from the days you spent playing in Houston?

IV: Well, the Houston Press Music Awards were always the coolest shows -playing for hundreds of people who were out as real listeners and were truly into what we were doing. Brasil was our original home base, and we've had a million awesome nights there.

But I think my favorite was the time we were playing an art opening at the MFAH and this little five-year-old girl came up in front of the band and sat down, with her hands over her ears. Then she started writhing on the ground like she was in pain and saying, "No! Make it stop!" I don't think it gets much better than that.

RO: What was your favorite Houston venue to play? Is it safe to assume Cezanne, since you did the live album there?

IV: Cezanne is a great place, for sure, but it's definitely on the more traditional end of the spectrum. That worked great for an album, but I don't think it would have worked super well for us in an ongoing way. We used to do Last Concert Cafe a lot, but our music took a bit of a weirder, more avant-garde, less jammy turn, so that didn't end up being exactly right either.

Our latest favorite spot is AvantGarden (used to be Helios, used to be the Mausoleum, etc.), where we're doing the last show. We always just get really great audiences there, and our creativity and energy seems to flow well.

RO: Any chance for an Ian Varley solo "keytar" album? Seriously though, you're not stopping making music - right?

IV: No, not stopping at all. My latest endeavor is learning Pedal Steel Guitar, which is a hell of a difficult instrument to learn. But it's also really fun -it's like playing three-dimensional chess in musical form. I played a few shows during SXSW this year, and by accounts I was not completely horrible. I'm also doing some solo composition work, though I don't know if any of that will ever see the light of day.

RO: Will you be playing any more shows with Black Joe Lewis? I know he has a Houston date coming up soon...

IV: No, I'm not actively touring with Joe anymore. It was an amicable parting, I just couldn't keep up with the tour schedule and they got tired of jetting me around to just play in the big shows. It was a really cool experience and they're an amazing band, I know they'll continue to burn it up. They're opening for Dave Matthews in Houston soon.

RO: What's your take on playing live music in Austin compared with Houston?

IV: Well, I'd say there are probably more dedicated music listeners per capita in Austin, which in turn supports there being a lot of live music all the time. But with a few exceptions, I haven't found the Austin scene to be as friendly as Houston; people are a little more competitive, I guess because they have to be. A lot of players I know think of themselves much more as individuals than as "band members," especially among the set that play really actively in town.

There's a little of that in Houston, but not much; people tend to be more loyal to a single band. Maybe it's the chimera of commercial success that looms over people in Austin--they think, "I've got to make it", and they are really serious about it. Sometimes that translates to good stuff, but there is definitely such a thing as taking yourself too seriously in this business. Fortunately, though, most of those types live in L.A.

Rocks Off: Finally, any words of advice for musicians just getting started playing live or trying to get gigs in Houston?

Varley: Exactly one: Practice. Don't give a shit about the music business until people are banging down your door because of how awesome you are. Your playing, your band, your voice, your songs, your stage show--make them better than anybody else's. Gigging out is part of that, of course, so don't just stay in your bedroom or rehearsal space, you've got to get out and get reactions from people.

But pay attention to those reactions and always strive to make what you do so amazing that no club booker in their right mind would turn you down. Make yourself so awesome that when people hear it, they're hooked instantly. If you keep yourself focused on that, the good gigs will come naturally, in time.

Drop Trio plays its last show in Houston this Friday, August 13th, at AvantGarden. Visit the band at

David A. Cobb is the proprietor of Houston Calling.

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David A. Cobb
Contact: David A. Cobb