Ground-in Dirt

Taste of Garlic worked long and hard on its shady, do-nothing image, nursing it along with copious bong hits and an informal but effective propaganda campaign that was equal parts fact, rumor, hype and blunt blasts of a raw funk/rap hybrid. Now it appears that after all the effort it put forth to convince fans that going nowhere fast was cool, the Houston band wants to take it all back -- or certain parts of it, at least.

"We got labeled the Houston stoner band -- you know, people say we've been around five years and haven't done anything," says drummer Brian Holland. "We want to change that."

It won't be an easy task, given the damage that's already been done. A few random statements of renewed purpose won't do much to scrub away five years' worth of skanky residue. And Taste of Garlic's new CD, mydixiewrecked (it's probably not a good idea to say the title in polite company), isn't likely to aid in the cleanup effort. More often than not, the Garlic guys present themselves as an X-rated version of the Beastie Boys. Shamelessly uncensored, the quartet is led around by its collective libido on the nine-song work. Highlights (or lowlights, depending on your tolerance for unchecked testosterone) include the hard-boiled, white-boy funk exercise "All I Want," the here-and-now anthem "Life" and the stark-raving thermonuclear rap "Cum 'N Get Some," on which lead-shouter Brian Clements (a.k.a. Marky Ice) boasts between monster power chords, "I'm the Garlic Man / Come and get some. / I pull out my dick / You lick / And I come and get some."

One could argue that Taste of Garlic have essentially been stuck behind the wheel of the same Chili Pepper-ish funk-punk vehicle since the '90s began, keeping on in a decidedly uncommercial direction as Flea and company moved into more accessible waters. But while many a groove-happy wannabe act sank in the Peppers' wake, Taste of Garlic have always been proud of the fact that they never changed their tune for anyone.

Many of the songs on mydixiewrecked were written years ago -- back when, band members claim, Taste of Garlic was a less-sensible animal. Until eight months ago, the group would open its shows by hauling out a six-foot bong and blowing its smoke out into the audience. Yes, they admit with a degree of pride, it was "real pot" packed into the bowl of the vaporous monster, and yes, the band usually got very stoned on-stage.

Guitarist Brent Himes calls the ritual a "symbolic" gesture to the fans -- and the fans rarely hesitated to return the favor, squeezing into Fitzgerald's to see the band fly into its funked-out rage. Quite possibly, if a fan or two were close enough to the smoldering behemoth, they'd even cop a free hit. Amazingly, the band members claim they never ran into trouble with the police for their stunt.

"We were actually kind of famous for that around here," says Holland. "It became controversial, so we had to quit it." Holland and the rest of the band assert that those days -- fun as they were -- are over, and that they're weary of the sex-crazed stoner stigma. They want to be viewed as legitimate, if not completely clear-headed, musicians. Still, Taste of Garlic has thrived on its bad reputation, and such a reputation, as your mama no doubt told you, is hard to live down.

More than anything else, time has been good to Taste of Garlic. In a town where it often seems band longevity can be measured with an egg timer, and fan loyalty with a stopwatch, the group has managed to keep it together for a number of years. The group started young, so five years down the road, the oldest member (Himes) is only 26. Clements is 21; Holland is 20; and new bassist Jason Davis (the bass post is the group's persistent revolving door) is a still-impressionable 17.

Between bites of a well-stacked burger at 8.0, the goateed, heavyset Himes speaks of Taste of Garlic's founding in 1991 as if it were decades ago; it probably feels that way. Joining him on the Saturday lunch date are Clements and Holland, a big-talker who nurses a large glass of iced tea. Underground music in Houston was different in '91, Himes reflects; "different" as in "bad," "bad" as in "uncompromising."

"We were getting into a serious discussion about local music the other day," says Himes, "and this girl lumped us in with Sprawl, Bouffant Jellyfish and Billy Goat, bands that, to me, were the granddaddies of the scene. That really put a date on things for me. That was the heyday; that was really full-on."

Back then, the trio agrees, crowds were huge and enthusiastic, the clubs more accommodating and the vibe more positive. "Nowadays, it seems like everything is a carbon copy of what's considered cool," says Himes. "I just saw Atticus Finch the other day, and I asked them, 'Hey, man, how can we get on the radio like you guys?' And it was like, well, first you gotta write songs that aren't about pussy, and then you gotta ...." The three bandmates look at each other and laugh.

Before Taste of Garlic, Clements' life was up for grabs. After he ran away to Dallas with a girlfriend, his father shipped him off to Florida to live with his mother, where he was "ditching school, watching cartoons, doing drugs and surfing." By the time he was 16, Clements was back in Houston and looking for something to do.

Meanwhile, in the summer of '91, Himes was taking classes at the Art Institute of Houston, where he buddied up with Jason Koon, an aspiring singer. Koon was pals with Clements (who was also enrolled in the Institute) and Holland, whose house at the time was "party central." Holland's mother worked nights, and so he and his friends had the run of the place. One day after classes, Koon brought Himes over to the Hollands', and Taste of Garlic began to congeal.

"I think we jammed to a few Dead Kennedys tunes," says Holland. "I really didn't think [Himes] was that good at the time. It was just a little jam thing on the side, at first. It just evolved into what it is today."

Koon eventually left the group, along with a string of bass players (including Non-Stop Bombers' Jay Schneider, who played on mydixiewrecked). In the meantime, Taste of Garlic continued to play live as often as possible, building up a reliable pool of Garlic enthusiasts. They had already recorded a seven-inch single and a tape, 1995's Chunky Style, before they headed into a Dallas studio for the year-and-a-half headache that resulted in mydixiewrecked. Work on the disc began in February 1995, and the money ran out soon thereafter. By the time the group could scrape up the funds to finish the CD, it was May 1996. The CD was eventually completed in Houston at Uptown Recordings.

"Now that it's finally coming out, the songs are two years old," says Clements. "Everybody knows them."

All the more excuse, says Himes, for Taste of Garlic to hit the road, which they hope to do on a regional level in the coming months. "Out of town, this is still going to be a fresh project," he says.

But booking the tour -- a task Clements has unwisely taken upon himself -- has been a nightmare. At press time, the only show the group had firmed up was in Beaumont. So what are they doing in the meantime? Other than playing the occasional local gig, Himes and Clements work days as delivery men, Davis works at a Conroe book store and Holland sits at home unemployed.

So go ahead, question Taste of Garlic's organizational skills, their work ethic, the validity of their music, even their taste in lyrics and CD titles. Still, it's tough to doubt their creative sincerity.

"We try to be pure and original -- to get whatever the convention is at the moment out of the way, so we can be real," says Himes.

There is, however, the small matter of Taste of Garlic's sincerity when it comes to cleaning up its act. Their intentions seem genuine enough one minute, and in danger of being rolled into a fat joint and toked away the next. The mixed messages often resemble those of an alcoholic in denial, the sort of person who daily vows that the next drink will be his last. Case in point: Holland rises from the table at 8.0 after a small speech about the dangers of glorifying drugs, and as soon as he's in the men's room, the guffaws from the others start. Basically, Clements says, Holland is full of crap, and he proceeds to dump pepper into the drummer's tea.

"We used to have a motto: smoke first, then listen," says Clements. "Because we really do sound better when you're high."

Well. Maybe Houston hasn't seen the last of the six-foot bong after all.

Taste of Garlic opens for Aftershock Wednesday, October 9, at the Urban Art Bar, 112 Milam. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $1.07, 21 and up; $5, 18 to 20. For info, call 225-0500.

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Hobart Rowland