Commercial Potential

Someone left the door open, and Butch, bassist Steve Wesson's pug, whose eyes look the size of half-dollars, is missing. He's cruising around somewhere in the southeast Houston neighborhood where Wesson's band practices -- small houses lining the dark streets a stone's throw from the 610 Loop. It's an iffy adventure for a little dog with a sweet disposition who's never been outside on his own before. After combing the local vicinity without success, the members of Secret Sunday sit down to answer some questions, but they're worried about the dog.

Butch's departure seems vaguely emblematic in light of former Press Music Editor Hobart Rowland's last missive in these pages, the one in which he lamented the tough road for a good band in Houston. Secret Sunday has serious commercial potential, with its polished sound somewhere between straight-ahead, end-of-the-millennium rock and '80s British alternative of the noisy, pensive variety. It has great songs and a legendary live show. The band has opened for national acts, including Frank Black, Juliana Hatfield, Sister Hazel, Superdrag and Nada Surf, and is halfway through recording its second CD. The group is obviously on the right road, but other bands have been there, only to lose their way.

Guitarist Joe Wesson explains, "A lot of the [local] bands I've liked have already broken up. They're great bands, but I guess they get frustrated and just kind of give up, or one of the members moves off. It takes a lot of stamina in Houston for a band to stay together for years and years. Other bands have broken up in two years, good bands that you thought were going to make it, that maybe in another three or four years would have made it and would have been one of the most kick-ass bands around."

With one major change, Secret Sunday's lineup has remained constant since the band began in 1995. Brothers Steve and Joe Wesson are on bass and guitars respectively, Rick Wiggington is on drums, and jack-of-all-trades Chris Hungate is the specialist in vocals, keyboards and goofing the occasional Black Sabbath bass riff during practice. But it wasn't until after Secret Sunday's eponymous debut in 1997, when guitarist Paul Lapuyade split and longtime friend Robb Moore joined the lineup, that things really started to feel right. Moore recalls, "I came up to Joe one day at a bar, oddly enough, and asked how the band was going. [I knew] they had just done some shows on the East Coast. He said, 'Not too well, really.' So I started hounding him for an audition. I got the phone call after ... a disco New Year's Eve party where I dressed in maroon velvet bell-bottoms, a long-sleeved butterfly collar velvet shirt, big old five-inch platform boots. The Velvet Pimp. The next day I got a job."

It wasn't entirely Moore's fashion sense that got him the gig. Lapuyade's departure was a welcome excuse for Secret Sunday to try another direction, and Moore's playing and outlook fit the band's idea of where they wanted to go. As Joe Wesson remembers, "We ran an ad, but Rob was the best one. It's worked out real well. It would have been nice if it had started that way."

The new Secret Sunday is all about collective effort. Its members even talk like a family, interrupting each other to give praise or share credit. "Sometimes," Joe Wesson says, "Chris will come in with a complete song and we'll [just] tinker with it." Hungate nods but says, "I may come up with chords and a melody, but it takes them to flesh it out." And Moore adds, "Other times, Joe will have a chord progression and Steve and Rick just kind of lay a groove down, [Hungate] starts ad-libbing lyrics. Other times it starts with those two guys [Steve Wesson and Wiggington], and they start grooving something, and me and Joe try to put something on top of it. It's pretty much a group effort."

It's not just the way things get done, it's the way they believe in doing things. "Any band that's successful," Moore explains, "and I don't care what town you come from ... any band that's successful stays in there for years and years and years. The reason they're polished [on their first record] is because they've been playing together for eight or ten years. The music business takes that kind of dedication, commitment, drive, perseverance, whatever you want to call it, in order to get that good. It doesn't matter how good of a musician you are; it's going to take four or five people years to gel."

Each of the five brings different influences, different favorite bands to the music. Joe Wesson likes everything "from metal to Patsy Cline, Verve, Afghan Whigs." Wiggington has a Police mirror behind his drum kit when he practices, and Moore, when asked, says, "Beatles, anything the Stones ever did." One band they can all agree on is U2, or at least U2 before it became, as Moore describes, "just a regular band where they turned out three or four good tunes on an album." The band can't entirely agree on which album this happened on -- not many people can -- but the point is Secret Sunday isn't interested in making a regular record. While the group doesn't sound much like the old U2, its new songs have the same kind of hooks and thoughtful lyrics that made those early albums such standouts, and if the four-song demo is any indication, Secret Sunday has already exceeded the quota for regular bandhood.

Its members don't necessarily want to be rock stars, they just want to "make enough money to live while [we're] not on the road, make a record, release it and go back out and come home and do it again," Moore says. "Even if I only had 500 bucks in the bank at one time, just enough to pay the rent, and an hour and a half, an hour and 45 every night up on stage."

And as the tape runs out, Butch returns no worse for wear. He makes a quick circuit around the practice space, happy to be back among his Secret Sunday friends, who breathe a collective sigh of relief. Anything, even making a life as a Houston rock band, seems possible.

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Seth Hurwitz