In an industry littered with tragic stories of bad luck and poor decisions, the True Believers' tale ranks right at the top. The band's brief rise toward the heights of fame and fortune, coupled with their sudden demise, has gone down as one of the biggest what-might-have-been legends in recent Texas music history.
But the boisterous, hard-charging, über-intelligent three-guitar band is back. And this time they hope to make it work.
Founded by brothers Alejandro and Javier Escovedo in Austin in late 1982, with additional members Denny DeGorio (bass), Kevin Foley (drums) and Jon Dee Graham (guitar), the True Believers rapidly became their hometown's musical darlings. By 1984, they were touring with Los Lobos, Green on Red and other high-profile national headliners. People like Iggy Pop and Sterling Morrison would show up at their gigs, and they got invited to parties with Tina Turner. But, unable to find a major label that believed in them, the band eventually signed with tiny indie label Rounder Records in 1986 and recorded True Believers in a week, spending less than $10,000.
The True Believers play Saturday night with the Footnotes at Warehouse Live (Studio), 813 St. Emanuel, 713-225-5483, warehouselive.com. Doors open at 7 p.m.
That record was good enough for EMI to buy out their contract and send them into the studio with a big-name producer and a good-sized budget. But trouble came almost immediately with the EMI deal when the producer insisted a different rhythm section be used during the recording. Both DeGorio and Foley left the band shortly afterward.
After they recorded the second album and felt they were on the brink of a breakthrough, more bad news hit the band. In a corporate consolidation only two weeks before the release date, EMI decided not to issue the album, but did release the band. By late 1987, the True Believers were no more.
"Until then it seemed like we were on an upward trajectory — everything was just getting better and better," Javier Escovedo recalls. "We had a record finished, the artwork was done, it was ready to go. And then boom."
It took the passing of both 25 years and longtime SXSW executive Brent Grulke in August 2012 to get the original members back on a stage together. The occasion was a one-day festival held in Grulke's honor, and the True Believers were billed as the headliners. According to journalist Joe Nick Patoski, the performance was beyond all expectations.
"They just seized the crowd and held them," he recalls.
Patoski says he told the band afterwards that "they were crazy if they didn't give this another shot." The members mulled it over a bit and agreed on the condition that Patoski act as manager. A showcase at SXSW 2013 was quickly arranged, and the band was again well-received. The wheels were off the ground, and the True Believers made plans to begin recording and book both U.S. and European tours.
So is this a real deal or just a quick grab-the-money-and-run operation? According to DeGorio, Graham and Escovedo, it's the real deal.
"Nothing in any of my decisions is about money," Graham says. "If it were, I'd do something else."
DeGorio says it's about the music for him as well.
"I love playing with these guys, and the money is just the practical part of it," he says. "I have to pretty much give up my job to do this, so a little money will hopefully help pay the bills. But I wouldn't miss this for anything.
"I do this for the kind of feeling we had at the Grulke show," explains DeGorio. "I smiled so much my face hurt."
Javier Escovedo agrees.
"The feeling on the stage when we played Grulkefest is very addicting," he says. "I think that's what drives this. We all realized there was something very special that we missed and wanted to rediscover."
"It was undeniable," offers the always-philosophical Graham. "It was just impossible to walk away from it. We had the original lineup, and then Joe Nick was there. It's like if you have all the components of a rocket and you put them together in the right way under the right conditions...well, then you have a rocket."
As a byproduct of the process of putting the band back together, DeGorio and Graham both see positive psychological and spiritual aspects.
"So many poor choices were made at so many points, it's hard to say what destroyed the band," says Graham. "It was a very low moment, realizing it had fallen apart and we weren't likely to fix it. But it does feel like one of those rare moments where you get to go back and set something right. That's one reason this feels so redemptive to me."
Looking back on the earlier years, DeGorio admits he was very immature and didn't truly appreciate the band's success.
"I was busted in New York and wound up missing our big showcase gig," he says. "It was downhill for me after that, but mostly due to my own demons."
As for his bruised feelings and anger at the time he quit the band, DeGorio says all that is long gone.
"This experience has been extremely healing for me personally," he explains. "And I've just grown up a lot since those days. I took so much for granted back then. Being sober actually makes it better because I'm not so cut off from the experience. This time, I actually will remember what happened."
Part of the agreement for putting the True Believers' rocket back together was that each member would bring in a new song every week. According to all involved, new material has been coming at a furious pace and several tracks are already in the can.
While Javier Escovedo brought in an old song from a previous band, Graham has been writing strictly for True Believers.
"Different job, different tools," he shrugs. "Right now I think it's mostly about efficient use of time, what's ready to go and has the least moving parts."
"We function kind of like a family, kind of like we always have," says DeGorio. "The dynamics are pretty evenhanded. If an idea is good, it makes it all the way. I can't even think of an example of a song that never made it.
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"Most ideas are brought to the table by one of the main three songwriters — Jon Dee, Javier and Al — and if a song is less than complete, we finish it," he continues. "But believe me, there's no shortage of creativity in this bunch."
With a string of Texas gigs facing them, including Saturday's Warehouse Live show, it's put-up-or-shut-up time for these aging rockers. After the True Believers split up, there was a lot of commentary about their being ahead of their time or that no one at either the labels or in radio was quite sure where the band's sound fit in, given its three powerful, twangy, hard-rocking guitars and numerous nods to punk. Is it possible this second coming is actually the one that may be right for the times?
"Wouldn't that be nice?" Graham remarks. "All I know is there is a master plan that involves seeing what happens. Everyone is so busy, we have to play the long game.
"Patience is required here," he wraps up. "What's so key is that everyone wanted it in the same way — as a band, not as a nostalgic re-enactment."