In the mustily florid confines of Felix's on Westheimer, over cheese enchiladas, various Special Dinners and that one-of-a-kind chili con queso, Mitcham and his bandmate Doug O'Brien told the story of this most unusual band. Contrary to their early-'80s punk-style name and vintage (they formed in 1983), Death By Injection is not a punk band. It's a rock band that revolves in the orbit of the Harris County Criminal Courthouse, that hulking building on Franklin Street that should have a sign over the doors reading "Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here."
The DBI name was not so much selected as bestowed upon them. After seeing them at the D.A.'s Christmas party in 1983, attorney Dick Bax said that listening to them was "the ultimate penalty under law death by injection." The name stuck, even though at one point they tried to change it to the much bulkier if clever handle of True Bill and the Falsely Accused.
Singer-guitarist-principal songwriter Mitcham and lead guitarist O'Brien -- who together constitute the self-described "left wing" of the band -- are prosecutors-turned-defense lawyers. On the other side of the courthouse (and the political divide), guitarist-singer Glenn Gotschall is a prosecutor, keyboardist Scott Durfee is general counsel to District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, and bassist Bill Delmore is chief of the appellate division of the Harris County D.A.'s Office. (Should the Harris County sodomy case go before the U.S. Supreme Court, Delmore will be going to Washington to argue the issues before the high court.) "Blue-collar" drummer Hal Kennedy -- the band's token non-lawyer -- is an HPD homicide detective.
Death By Injection follows that creative writing injunction about writing what they know. "We consider our material to be 'urban folk songs,' " says Mitcham. A boyish-looking 41-year-old who could be cast as Atticus Finch, Mitcham is the band folkie. He remembers hanging around and playing in the long-gone Montrose coffeehouse Sand Mountain, and today his office is located in the former Congress Street digs of another Houston folk landmark: the original Old Quarter. "Just like West Virginia miners used to write songs about working in a coal mine, and cowboys used to sing 'O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,' we're singing about what we do in our day-to-day life. Four of us in the band have over 100 years' experience in the Harris County Courthouse. Right now, there's 44 courts going every day. That's a lot of stories."
On their self-titled new release, those stories come spilling out. There's Mitcham's defense attorney's lament about the seven words every career criminal should know by heart, but that very few remember once the cuffs get slipped on: "Don't Say Nothing 'til the Lawyer Come." On the other side of the fence, Durfee takes on perjurious defendants with his "Witness Stand": "It wasn't me / it was another / it was my brother / I was in Tennessee / Don't look at me / I'm not the one / It's not my gun / Fingerprints / they do lie / DNA? / I've got an alibi "
Another of Mitcham's tunes, "Little Hijack," is about a couple of louts who knock over a liquor store on the north side. "Eddie was a peckerwood / it was his middle name / his brother who was no damn good / was known as Wayne DeWayne / they went before the Hanging Judge / so he could hear their plea / but the facts of the case are without controversy "
"Your middle name's not Wayne, is it?" asks O'Brien.
"Or Peckerwood We don't want to be sued," Mitcham puts in.
"Yeah, my daughter wanted to know what a peckerwood was. I said, 'Well, just don't call anybody one,' " O'Brien says. Peals of laughter come from the next table, where an elderly couple has stopped pretending they aren't listening in on our conversation.
Clearly these legal eagles have noticed that more than a few American criminals have something in common. The name Wayne, for instance (John Wayne Gacy, Elmer Wayne Henley, Wayne Williams). A guy named Wayne DeWayne would have to be a bad dude. For that matter, why is that we use all three names for the really depraved criminals? O'Brien theorizes that it's a case of the specific becoming more general. "Whenever parents were mad at their kids they would always use their full name," he says. Society does the same. Mark David Chapman. Lee Harvey Oswald. James Earl Ray. It's like society has become the angry mother of these men: Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, you go to your room right now! You're grounded, Mister John Wilkes Booth! Karla Faye Tucker, you lay right down on that gurney. Just wait for the doctor to come in! Then you're in for it!
O'Brien, a stocky, goateed fellow, learned guitar on Telephone Road from a teacher who would accept only one form of currency in exchange for his expertise: beer. "When the six-pack was done, so was the lesson," O'Brien remembers. His bandmates say he's the "real musician" of the group. In 1967, O'Brien's group the Wildcats opened for the Who in Beaumont. (The Who in Beaumont?) His songwriting contributions to the album are more terse than those of Mitcham, with the catchy surf-rock tune, "Lock'em Up, Lock'em Up, Throw Away the Key," being fairly typical of his punchy style.
In conversation he's much more verbose, as when he speaks about a famous former client: "Years ago I helped represent David Crosby. It was a matter concerning revoking his bond up in Dallas. Stephen Stills had kinda talked me and some other lawyers into helping out. Crosby was just sort of dozing out. My job was to keep him awake -- entertain him and talk to him and everything. And then Crosby looks over at me and says, 'Is this what you do every day?' And I said yeah. And he looked over at me and he goes, 'You know what? This is fucking boring.' "
Meanwhile, the unruly citizenry of Houston continues to provide new material for the band. "We've been thinking of doing a song about that gal who ran over her husband three times," Mitcham announces. "You know, forgot he was under the wheel "
"We already have the working title of it," O'Brien adds. "'It Ain't Over 'til I Say It's Over (And I Just Said It's Over).' "
The old couple at the next table is practically in tears.
Jaime Hellcat will be bringing his "vato-billy" Flamin' Hellcats out of their year-plus hiatus on November 28 at Mary Jane's. Gasoline Alley and the Sleeping Rubys, a band that features Jaime's brother-in-law, are also on the bill. The Hellcats haven't purred together since the closing of Emo's Labor Day weekend 2001. As for the cause of the band's lengthy spell apart, one of many breaks the band has taken over the years, Jaime says that the Hellcats need breathing room from time to time. "We're like brothers," he says. "When we're together too much we fight all the time." Lately, Jaime has been leading his other band (the much more diverse-sounding Los Fantastics), getting divorced and making threats like this one: "We've earned our bad reputation. Don't bring your kids to the Hellcats show unless you want Child Protective Services to take them away from you." Waiting for Her is also reuniting this week for a November 29 gig at Rudyard's. This will be the neo-folk/alternative rock band's first show since April 2001 and their last under the Waiting for Her name, as they will be unveiling their new handle at this gig Clandestine piper E.J. Jones has released an album called The Willow with his side project the Willow Band. Guitarist Gerry O'Beirne and fiddler Rosie Shipley back him on most of the tracks, and Wolf Loescher, Paul English, Jen Hamel, Gregory McQueen, Randy Miller and Walter Cross make guest appearances In addition to the Allen Oldies Band, the Del Toros and the El Orbits, one-man music scene Allen Hill has added yet another affiliation: Feighl and the Fumigators. This band plays in Orkin shirts and hard hats, and if their show at the Continental Club's Swap-n-Bop a couple of Sundays ago was any indication, their fascination with pest control might also extend to an affinity for the drinking of pesticides. A hush of anticipation fell over the Continental's regulars as the band took the stage, and "fumigated" would be a pretty accurate way to describe the band's demeanor as they proceeded to maneuver their merry way from one train wreck to the next.