It's Saturday night at Emo's, and the crowd is sectioned off into the typical competing segments. There's the regular rowdies around the bar; the underage, pasty-white socialites out front in the courtyard; and the 20 to 30 gawking souls huddled around the stage taking in something resembling music, but more often reaching its intended target as noise.
Standing near the stage, right ear perilously close to a speaker, is Rick Costello. His friends and family call him Ricky, but he looks more like a Rick: tall, dark and lanky, with a thick beard that covers most of his face and masks a pronounced overbite. Costello is the drummer for the relatively new Houston outfit Project Grimm. Before that, he logged five or so inebriated years with Bleachbath, a band so emotionally unpredictable that, week to week, its members never seemed to know whether to break up or make up. Finally, late in '95 (or maybe early in '96 -- it's hard to say), they opted for the latter, and Project Grimm came about almost immediately thereafter.
Costello has been around long enough to see plenty of Houston bands fail. Yet his love for playing music hasn't flagged one iota. At 27, he continues to spend half his week either on a stage or in front of one. The rest of time, he waits tables at Chuy's -- so he has money to, well, spend half his week either on a stage or in front of one.
"A couple of tips allows me to buy drumsticks," says Costello. "Music's the only thing I'm serious about."
Nearly as bright eyed, if perhaps a bit more pragmatic, are Project Grimm's John Cramer (vocals, guitar) and Drew Calhoun (bass), who have joined Costello for an interview on one of the last warm days before Houston's pre-holiday cold snap. They, too, are veterans of now-defunct local groups -- Calhoun of Smile 69, Cramer of the Mike Gunn. They've seen and experienced many of the same self-destructive trips as Costello and, like him, have come out the other side remarkably free of cynicism -- which isn't to say that experience hasn't caused the three to smarten up some. Now, more than ever, they know where their priorities lie.
"Music is the one thing that comes first over anything else," says Cramer. "If I couldn't play music with my hands, I'd figure out some way to do it with my feet."
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For such an upbeat threesome, Project Grimm is a rather downbeat name, and their sound isn't much perkier. Costello and Company are unstylish, fat-bottomed plod rockers in the heavy, heavy tradition of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Grand Funk Railroad. Without apology, Project Grimm rifles through the '70s, a period when the "roll" was removed from the "rock" for a fairly specific reason: The music didn't so much roll off your turntable as lumber off it.
"At the core, we're a rock band, as opposed to maybe experimental, or going for an indie kind of rock thing," says Cramer. "We listen to punk and all that stuff, but it's obvious we listen to more Sabbath than almost anything."
"Basically," adds Calhoun, "the idea with Project Grimm is: Don't put a label on it."
In collecting ideas for its debut CD, Lying Down, Project Grimm dusted off a few monster riffs and more than one grandly outdated gesture, while still managing to make most of the result seem freshly hatched. It's a pillaging process that implies Mudhoney on downers, or Dinosaur Jr. minus the eccentric aura, or Louder Than Love-era Soundgarden with a crisper sense of melody. Guiding the listener through Lying Down is Cramer, a knowing escort whose take-charge vocals bear a passing resemblance to those of Emerson, Lake and Palmer's Greg Lake, and whose lyrics present a feverish, mildly hallucinogenic collage of doubt-ridden self-examination.
"The lyrics are not meant to be grim, so to speak," says Cramer. "But I guess some of them are anyway. The song, 'Through the Day,' is about this psychotic guy I worked with at Bookstop. It's a joke about how he shoots me."
"Some joke," Costello chimes in.
The members of Project Grimm assembled in early 1996 by way of friendship. Besides, recalls Cramer, "All of our bands were kind of coming apart at the same time." As for the name, it was chosen as an inside dig at a former bandmate. "I was in the Mike Gunn, and our bass player's name was Scott Grimm," Cramer says. "The Mike Gunn was named after a guy that wasn't in that band, so as a joke we did the same thing."
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Adds Costello, "We knew it would bug the guy -- and it did."
It's also been the source of some confusion for the band, which in the beginning, couldn't decide on the wording. "We kind of went back and forth on which word should be first, and there are still clubs that think we're Grimm Project," says Cramer.
Most of the band's music is the product of jamming in a downtown rehearsal space. In performance, they don't mess around as much; in fact, Project Grimm can come off as rather graceless, like overgrown high-schoolers playing out "Smoke on the Water" fantasies in a nightclub rather than the cellar. Lying Down, however, is less creaky than the band's shows, thickening Grimm's instrumental runniness to a firmer and more agreeable consistency.
"The Mike Gunn was a jam band, and that has kind of carried over," says Cramer. "We jam a lot, and whatever we like, we filter out."
Project Grimm performs at 11 p.m. Saturday, January 4, at Rudyard's Pub, 2010 Waugh Drive, with Sasquatch 2000. Cover is $4. For info, call 521-0521.