Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow

Buzz. Some bands have it, most bands don't. There are bands that have played Houston for a decade or more and still cross our minds only as mere names in cold print, eliciting the same sort of yawn with which one might greet another hot and humid August morning.

But one local band has broken free of that ghetto. When the John Sparrow plays, people talk about it for days afterward; friends call their friends and gush, "You've got to see this band!" According to Rockpile Records manager Robert Garcia, no fewer than three customers raved unbidden about the John Sparrow after a recent show. It's downright weird, he says. In his experience, "More people come in the store and run down bands after seeing them perform than speak good of them."

Still, even though they've been around for three years, the John Sparrow remains fairly low-profile in its hometown. "We live here, but I don't want to ever be considered a local band, because that's what you stay: a local band," says singer-guitarist Kevin Richardson. "We don't worry about our shows here so much. I think too many bands here try to make their show the big event. It's not gonna happen, and even if you get 100 people out to your show, what does that amount to?"

Music geeks, especially in the UK, have found them, though, and often compare their sound to early punk and mod bands. Critics' shorthand descriptions most often read, "sounds like the Clash, the Jam and early Who with Southern rock mixed in."

Richardson doesn't necessarily agree with that classification. His prefers his own designation: "AC/DC playing Stax," referring to the legendary Memphis soul label. "We started R&B here in the South, and that comes through in our music. How could we come from here and not reflect that in our music?" he wonders. "I don't know how many Arhoolie blues records I have that were recorded here, then there's Gold Star [label] and all the other [musical] history here.

"I think our songs are pretty pop, too," he adds. "We tend to blast through them because that's just the background we come from. That's just what we learned to do growing up on Ramones and good punk rock bands, but they're definitely pop songs."

"We're working in the pop structure but trying to bring different things to it," chips in bassist Steve Longoria. "I think we have more in common with bands that have been doing it awhile but that aren't getting the big nod -- like the Brian Jonestown Massacre. [Maybe] they don't dress in matching clothes or have the right haircut or shoes."

Public perception and media opinion are "more based on style," agrees drummer Michael DeLeon, a former Westbury Square. "But we don't want to wear costumes and get stuck in that."

And since the John Sparrow signed with L.A. garage/punk/psych label Bomp! Records -- and have thus become labelmates of the Brian Jonestown Massacre -- they won't have to. The band is recording an album, with Massacre front man Anton Alfred Newcombe producing.

You can tell by the way the members jump into the conversation so freely that this is a collaborative band. Richardson is the chief lyric writer and often lays out the bare bones of the song, and then the group dynamic takes over. "Michael has fallen into the arranger role really well. He sits back and hears the parts -- like he'll suggest to play this part, build it up here…," says guitarist Trey Barnette.

"If everybody can't add input on a song, then it's not a good song and it's not usually worth having," says Richardson. "I think that's the problem with most bands: They let one person write the song and you get all this overindulgence."

"If you have your feelings hurt every time someone comes up with a criticism, then you should stay in your room and record by yourself," DeLeon adds.

This craftsmanship and teamwork show in their three-minute pop masterpieces, the type that stick after one or two listens. They've taken their influences and crafted their own sound, and instead of gimmicks, they specialize in content. The John Sparrow's latest five-song demo -- the one that got them the Bomp! deal -- includes the gem "Penelope, Please!," a tune that handily demonstrates their talent for writing songs that sound instantly familiar. Another cut, the catchy "Air Raid Siren," harks back to mod roots with a dash of Britpop.

Being able to make the music sound classic and simultaneously new marks them for bigger things. But they insist that hitting the big time isn't the point. "Music is about having fun, whether people on a wide scale appreciate it or not," DeLeon says. "If a small circle of people are really loyal to you, that's more rewarding than playing a big show where people are just waiting for you to get off the stage."

So far their recorded output is two cuts on a split seven-inch single with Nevada band Crushstory and a self-titled EP, both on the Chicago independent label Arms Reach Recordings.

Their next recording was to be the full-length CD Get Up for the Get Down, which they cut for Galactic Pop. That album will never come out, but they did learn a lesson from the experience: Foot-dragging indie labels can screw you over just like the big boys.

"It ended up taking a year to get it done, and by the time it was ready to come out, our old drummer quit," says Richardson. The disc no longer reflected the band's new form, and rather than getting DeLeon to learn the old stuff, they decided to plow ahead with new material. "Some copies are out there floating around, but whenever a member quits, we come up with new material and trash the old."

Also, each time a member leaves the John Sparrow, he anoints his own successor. "That's been kind of weird," says Richardson. "Our old bass player left and recommended Steve; our old guitar player got Trey in before he left. The same with our old drummer Donnie Rejas…"

That series of departures robbed them of momentum, but they're rolling now. "We seem to have pretty good word of mouth," Richardson says. "We run into other bands that have heard of us. I've met national bands that tell me stuff like, 'We hear you guys are pretty good.' It's all live-show word of mouth."

He's right. To crack the Buzzes of this world, you've got to manufacture a little hum of your own, and the John Sparrow has already kicked over a few hives. And now that they've stopped replacing themselves long enough to start recording a full-length CD and tour awhile, the word of mouth could turn into MTV quicker than you can say, "I remember seeing them at The Axiom."

The John Sparrow plays Thursday, May 22, at Stuka, 202 Tuam. For more information, call 713-529-5296.

The band also plays Friday, May 23, at The Axiom, 2425 McKinney. The Slurpees and Dune*TX are also on the bill. For more information on that gig, call 713-522-8443.

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Timothy J. O'Brien