Graduation Day

In local underground circles, Junior Varsity is as well known for its stage antics as for its music. The band incorporates cheerleader uniforms, kazoos, even a dancing mascot named Bippy the Beaver. Their sound leans toward the quirky, the all-too-brief and the downright sloppy, irreverent fragments of retro garage-rock blather.

"We realized we weren't going to be good enough to get any attention without a gimmick," admits Junior Varsity's Matt Murillo, that rarest of drummers who is also official band spokesman. "We wanted to entertain, not just get up there and stare at our shoes."

In effect, Junior Varsity -- with their flighty attention spans and incessant clowning -- may be the least self-conscious group in Houston. During interviews, Murillo can be easily distracted into a discussion about, say, the death of the cassette, projecting a not-so-distant future when there won't be any tapes left to be devoured by car seats. Guitarist Sean McManus (a.k.a. Preying Mantis and/or Sean McVarsity) has been known to perform at odd moments simply because he's focused on an imaginary heap of mashed potatoes. For her part, vocalist Kim Hammond (or Kimbot, as she's lovingly referred to in the robot-friendly JV jingle "Twist Like This") is semi-obsessed with sorting out the Spice Girls' inexplicable popularity.

Seriously, though, Junior Varsity is all about having fun -- probably the most fun this city's music scene has known since the demise of the Judy's in the early '90s. As it turns out, the Judy's were a big influence on JV's kitsched-out repertoire, along with oldies and oddities from the likes of Chuck Berry, the Collins Kids, the Revillos and the Trashmen. The JV gem "One x One," for instance, finds Hammond crooning "Leader of the Pack"-style about finding her boyfriend at the drive-in with another girl. On "Two Scoops," she twists her tongue around the nonsensical phrase "eenie, beanie jack a meanie" while McManus bounces around a "Barbara Ann"-ish Beach Boys progression of notes. Also fascinating in its vintage novelty appeal is "Hot Rod," on which McManus's desperate licks cling precariously to the song's zig-zaggy frame, lucky to have negotiated its deadly hairpin turns.

Still, Murillo downplays the innocent nostalgia angle, referring to a now-infamous JV gig at Amy's Ice Cream last year. The band's cursing and lewd jokes didn't go over well with youngsters or their parents. "We're like a wolf in sheep's clothing," he quips. "We're trying to get to the kids as demonically as we can."

"Take over their souls," adds Hammond.

Junior Varsity captains Murillo and Hammond met in Nacogdoches, soon after Murillo graduated from Stephen F. Austin University. "I always wanted a drum set, so I bought one," he recalls. "Then a little bit later Kim bought a bass, and we just started making up goofy little songs."

Finding a suitable -- and permanent -- guitarist was more of an ordeal. But after moving to Houston in 1995, the couple met McManus, who could "sorta" play guitar. Before long, the trio was donning the first of its many snappy cheerleader uniforms, playing for some 400 people at a Halloween frat party at Murillo's old alma mater -- which, he says, "was kind of neat, because the next two years [we played] for, like, five people."

Junior Varsity has since shared local stages with the likes of Pansy Division and Servotron and the Groovie Ghoulies. But perhaps the band's crowning achievement has been entertaining a packed house at the Peek-a-Boo Records showcase at this year's South by Southwest Music Conference. Though no lucrative recording deals were struck, the band still dug the rush.

"We do this strictly for fun -- bottom line," says McManus.
Here in Houston, Hammond and Murillo continue to run their own label, Twist Like This, which has released singles from the Vancouver band Maow, Austin's 1-4-5s and, of course, Junior Varsity. "All that in four years," Murillo says. "You'd think I'd pressed them myself."

Hobby or no, the Twist Like This corporate machine grinds on. Next up is the project all the kiddies have been clamoring for: the solo debut of JV's hardest-working member, Bippy the Beaver. (There'll be guest appearances by Merle the Rockabilly Squirrel and Stinky Possum.) Junior Varsity, meanwhile, has a track on the soon-to-be released O Canaduh 2 compilation, which features covers of obscure Canadian punk tunes. Closer to home, the Spring-based Remedial Records has included Junior Varsity's "Party Tonight" on its recent Girl Crazy compilation; the label will also release a new JV single later this summer called "Juvenile" ("Because, hey, we are," Murillo concedes.)

Following a July appearance at an indie pop festival hosted by Athens, Georgia's Kindercore Records, the band will snake through the western United States, hitting as many cities between Houston and Vancouver as possible. And don't be fool enough to wait for a full-length CD from the band.

"We like to keep it short," Hammond says.
"Short and sweet," adds McManus. "In and out, and nobody gets hurt."

Junior Varsity performs Saturday, June 13, at Mary Jane's, 4216 Washington Avenue. Doors open at 9 p.m. Cover is $4 (21 and up); $6 (18 to 20). The 1-4-5s, Fatal Flying Guillotines and Panther open. For info, call 869-5263.

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Stephen Gershon