Fenix*TX Rising

The boys of Fenix*TX are a reminder of the inconsistencies in life, how nothing is ever cast in shades of black or white. They conjure up images of a drunken young doofus who hangs up beer adverts in his room with all the reverence and devotion of a Tibetan lama. This is a band that embodies the party spirit, providing the perfect soundtrack for bong hits and slamming beers. Yet they are savvy businessmen, young men who slogged away in Houston clubs for years, but whose careers took off thanks to a fortunate romantic connection. Their media kit touts Fenix*TX's local roots, but the guys themselves have very few positive words for Houston's music scene.

Our story begins in 1995, when vocalist Willie Salazar, drummer Damon Delapaz (formerly of 30FootFALL and recent pinch-hitter for Blink 182) and bassist Adam Lewis formed a band out of sheer boredom. (Guitarist James Love is the group's most recent addition.) Originally named riverfenix -- borne of a discussion sparked by Keanu Reeves's band, Dogstar; the boys decided that if River Phoenix had a band, he'd draw way more chicks -- the group started gigging relentlessly around town.

"When we were riverfenix, we tried to play every weekend at Fitzgerald's or the Abyss, before it closed down. Just tried to play with everybody we possibly could in Houston," Lewis says. "But you can't really do shit from Houston." Realizing that sunny California was where the opportunities lay, the group started gigging in the Boob Job State on the weekends and then returned to Houston during the week. It proved to be a turning point for Fenix*TX. "It took us saying, 'We're not going to get what we want out of Houston, so we might as well go and get what we want elsewhere.' "

And that's when the boys got lucky. After years of enduring a scene that doesn't exactly instill Houston pride ("Every other band is trying to pull the other band down, trying to fuck them over, trying to steal their slot in a show"), what finally propelled Fenix*TX to modest fame was a girl -- more specifically, Delapaz's girlfriend, who also happens to be the sister of Blink 182's Mark Hoppus. She initially declined to play the band's music for Hoppus, or at least to do it intentionally. But one day when her brother was paying a visit, she had Fenix*TX's music in the player. He asked who it was, and when she told him it was her boyfriend's band, Fenix*TX's fortune was sealed.

Hoppus and Blink 182 invited the Texans (who by this time had been presented with a cease-and-desist order from River Phoenix's estate, forcing them to change their name to Fenix*TX) to tour with them during the summer of 2000. In Hoppus, the boys had a new mentor and champion -- someone to manage them, to set them up as a business, even someone to take local stations like the Buzz to task for not supporting a hometown success story. The guys learned to be good businessmen, refusing tour support money and instead paying for everything themselves. When Blink 182's success precluded Hoppus from continuing his mentor role, he handed his protégés over to Jerry Finn, who has also worked with Rancid and the Living End.

Which brings us to Lechuza, the new record due out on May 22. It's professional-sounding to the point of being slick, but it's also great fun. Produced by Finn and mixed by the venerable Andy Wallace (Nirvana, Limp Bizkit, Heather Nova), it is a testament not only to the professionalism Fenix*TX has cultivated over the past few years but also to the band's perfectionism. "We constantly redid all our songs. We totally tweaked every song until we thought it was perfect," explains Lewis.

That's not to say that Fenix*TX (the group's 1999 MCA debut, which was basically a remixed version of the record that riverfenix released on Drive Thru in 1997) is a bad effort, but it was already a few years old by the time it reached the shelves. The mere boys of that era have become men and have since gained some chops. Gone is the puerile, unvarying punk-lite sound that smacked of Green Day-envy. On Lechuza, there are shades of Weezer ("Katie W.") and mature Green Day ("Threesome"), and there's also a surprisingly good ballad, "Tearjerker," which is sweet without being cloying. Throw in a few solid punk-rock numbers and even a few tunes that exude the scent of '80s hair metal, and you've got a genre-melt that keeps listeners constantly, pleasantly surprised.

"Everybody in the band listens to different kinds of music. We're not going to make the same record over and over," explains Lewis, not a little defensively. So, given the plethora of influences (everything from Dave Matthews to System of a Down), how exactly does this mishmash come together?

"All the music is pretty much me and Damon," says Lewis. "We'll figure out a basis, like a net, and then Willie will come in with the lyrics." But it's not always that easy. Sometimes life gets in the way. "We didn't really get to write everything before we went into the studio; we were still working on it. Also, the whole time we were recording, every weekend, we were flying to the East Coast or Canada to do a show, and Jerry would have to go do something with Blink. It was never a set schedule. Next time, we're going to write everything, then go into the studio, and then go on tour."

Whether you can relate to Fenix*TX's music depends on a number of variables. It isn't necessarily for grown-ups or girls, but that doesn't mean it's not good for all that. There's also a little sociological gold mine in the lyrics. Take "Phoebe Cates," which speaks of "tossing off to her pool scene," a lyric that likely sails over feminine heads everywhere, if not repulsing them outright. "For guys, Fast Times at Ridgemont High was the first movie you got to see nudity in. Phoebe Cates has got her boobs out in the pool scene," giggles Lewis. "It's like, 'Oh, my God, that is so cool!' "

It's a given that Judge Reinhold agreed, at least until he got caught.

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Melanie Haupt