Kick Out the Jammies

It's 6:45 p.m. in the neatly kept Garden Oaks home of Sugar Shack guitarist Andy Wright and his wife, drummer Stefanie Paige Friedman. Their three-month-old baby, Baxter Bob, sits on Friedman's lap, content with a bottle. The living room TV is tuned to a later episode of The Andy Griffith Show where little Ronnie Howard is playing acoustic guitar with a kid band.

"Wow, Opie's really jamming!" says guitarist Kyle G. Otis, fresh off his day job at an energy company. "I haven't seen this one before."

In the box in front of them sits a lone slice of pizza, the rest devoured by the trio and a guest. Vocalist Mark Lochridge can't make the powwow because he has to work late, and bassist Johnny Gibson is MIA.

"Johnny has lost his pizza privileges. He's late!" Friedman says decisively. She then launches into a conversation with Otis about when his baby started eating solid food. Before too long, Baxter Bob's newly developed studio portraits are whipped out for all to see.

Turning to his visitor, Wright shakes his head slightly. "Not very punk rock, is it?"

No, perhaps not to the 19-year-old with mall-bought studded bracelets and ticket stubs from the past three editions of the Vans Warped Tour. But once Sugar Shack hits the stage in a wave of volume and fury, there's no room for doubt about the hard-earned street cred of Houston's venerable garage punkers, domestic life or not.

One rotation of their latest record, Spinning Wheels, should shut the kiddies up, too. Hands down their best effort yet, it's an extension of the band's philosophy: You have to grow up and become a part of the real world, but just because you're not out clubbing four nights a week doesn't mean you -- or your audience -- are ready to turn the radio dial to Sunny 99.1 and rip out the knob. Friedman was six months pregnant during the recording sessions.

"When I got pregnant, I was surprised at how many people said to me, 'Well, that's it, there goes the band,' and I just didn't understand that," says Friedman, wearing specs and looking every bit the elementary school teacher that she is. "I will always play, even if the logistics are harder and finding a baby-sitter is difficult. If worse comes to worst, we'll just set up in the garage to practice and put Baxter in the swing. There's no reason to quit!"

The others agree, noting that Baxter Bob is not the first band baby. All of them are refreshingly at peace with their band and their lives. Sugar Shack isn't out to be the next big thing, nor do they bemoan their career troubles to date. Despite the fact that their type of music is garnering interest nationally for the likes of the Strokes, the White Stripes and the Hives, Sugar Shack isn't anticipating a trickle-down effect.

"It's a hobby, but it's a very serious hobby. And we want to have fun," says Otis. "We've gotten to the level of success we want. We can choose when to play, and we've got a good cool label that puts out our records and treats us right…What's to complain about?"

"Really, we try to play as little as possible!" jokes Wright, and the band laughs knowingly.

But the Shack does plan to step up its gig schedule with the release of Spinning Wheels. With 14 tracks that rarely break the three-minute mark, it's a study in compact, combustible '60s-style garage rock. From the great anticonformity number "Form a Straight Line" to the romance-gone-south tracks "Three Long Years," "Bad Bad Scene" and "Can't Get Past It," Lochridge seethes, spits and howls his words along with a cacophonic sound wrapped in Wright and Otis's churning guitars. Though they worked again with producer Tim Kerr, the band says early reaction has called the album everything from "more varied" and "less crazed" than their usual efforts to "creepy and depressing…but in a good way!"

"We've worked with Tim since the beginning, so we know each other well," Wright says. "We pretty much just bang it out in the studio." And even if they play a number perfectly, Kerr might seek a flawed but more emotionally powerful take. Spinning Wheels is the band's fifth record, following Charmer, Shotgun for Two (an Australia-only release), Five Weeks Ahead of My Time and Get Out of My World.

The group -- now joined by Gibson, who has arrived with a Budweiser tall boy in a paper bag -- groans collectively when asked about Sugar Shack's recent performance at the 2002 Houston Press Music Awards Showcase, their first time on stage in eight months. "That wasn't really the gig to come back on," Wright laughs. "Five o'clock on a hot Sunday afternoon in this big arena." The band prefers playing club shows with other like-minded acts that they're friends with, like the Fatal Flying Guilloteens, the Jewws, Magnetic IV and Gun Crazy.

Wright and Lochridge formed Sugar Shack after the demise of their previous group, the Party Owls. Their first gig was at a New Year's Eve party straddling 1988 and 1989. Aside from a brief flirtation with arena-rock grunge, their sound has stayed essentially '60s-rooted garage punk.

"We're influenced by a lot of bands from the '60s, but we're not purists," says Wright, who pens the majority of the band's music and lyrics. "It's not like we have to use vintage equipment and have a certain haircut."

Otis joined in '91, Gibson in '94 and Friedman in '96. She was dating Wright at the time and had just left Austin and her previous group when Sugar Shack's drummer suddenly quit.

"She saw me crying about it," Wright says with mock emotion. "And she felt sorry for us. But she's the best drummer we could hope to have."

"Awwwww," Friedman says. "That's so sweet."

"Yeah, she really puts the sugar in Sugar Shack," Gibson adds.

"Besides Stefanie, none of us have any musical talent, as if you hadn't noticed," says Otis in one of several comments that firmly fixes him as the band's sardonic pessimist.

The band has received a strange modicum of national fame, as evidenced by last year's VH1 Bands on the Run. It seems that one of the harlots from Harlow, in an effort to demean the band Soulcracker, called them "that fucking Sugar Shack" in several episodes. Wright says that their phone would ring constantly after each mention. Friedman e-mailed the member, asking why she would make their beloved band name a derogatory epithet. The dark queen responded that she was not familiar with the band, but Friedman doesn't buy it.

"Hey," Otis chimes in. "That might be true. There are a lot of bars and strip clubs probably called Sugar Shack…"

Over the next few months, the quintet plans to play more often to support Spinning Wheels, including a high-profile gig at the three-day Gearfest in Austin. But on this night, these maturing punks are pondering something a bit more pressing: finding ear protection for baby Baxter to wear at the record release show.

"I went out and bought a pair of those big orange headphones they use at gun ranges," Friedman says. "I hope they'll be okay."

Protecting your newborn from your own ear-shattering decibels? Now that's punk rock.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero