One of Houston’s newest, most promising video music series isn’t shot on a fancy soundstage in a TV studio. It’s not filmed in a chic arts gallery or a funky warehouse space. The series is called Long River Sessions and its episodes, featuring jam sessions by bands hand-selected to boast the city’s musical diversity, are created in an unassuming residential home in southwest Houston.
Thomas Meeks owns that house as well as the sofas, coffee tables and ottomans that are replaced by studio lights and mike stands to make the magic happen.
“This is a house that I live in too, so after I get off of church on Sundays we meet here and we completely move my entire living room and everything out of the living room,” Meeks said. “We launched the channel in January. We kind of started with one of our friends shooting these videos here because the house that I live in is basically a recording studio. We thought we could do something for fun and it just kind of picked up to the next friend and the next friend and it just never stopped.”
Since the first installment, which featured singer/songwriter Tom Foti, Meeks and his production partner Masaya Tamegai have showcased the quality and variety Houston’s music community has to offer. From rapper Allyn Coleman to the trumpet and organ duo Deux Voix to Spanish rock act Milicia Rock Band and others, Long River Sessions aims to create a local version of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts series, or Seattle’s KEXP performance series, which has over 2.5 million YouTube subscribers.
Long River Sessions is an upstart. It just added its hundredth subscriber and 12th episode, a performance by hip hop/funk artist Blacknintendo. But, Meeks said, it didn’t take long for local musicians to inquire about the series.
“So far, as soon as we put out a couple of them, we actually had a lot of people submitting that wanted to be a part of it. A lot of people saw the first couple of videos and thought, ‘Oh, I want to be a part of this.’ We don’t accept a lot of the submissions because we’re trying to keep it to a certain bar so that we can keep people interested in the channel. We really want to showcase that Houston has a lot of really amazing talent.
“A lot of it has just been word of mouth from band to band. We go out to shows sometimes, we went out to Avant Garden on Friday and booked a group called the Houston Ensemble. They’re like a cool progressive jazz type group, so we’re really trying to keep it diverse. That’s another thing we try to keep in mind. We’re a little rock heavy but we’re trying really hard to encompass everybody in Houston, the Houston music scene as a whole.”
“Diversity’s always in the back of my mind for sure,” said Tamegai, who handles the video duties for the series while Meeks focuses on audio engineering. “The contrast in what we show off is always a good idea. I’m the new guy here in Houston coming from California so I’m not really too familiar with any of the Houston scenes as far as music is concerned. Now that things are opening up and we’re going to shows more often it’s gonna be much more exciting to see what stuff is out there.”
Tamegai hails from Oakland, California, where he got his start in the business shooting rap videos for artists like Aesop Rock. He arrived to Houston six years ago and was introduced to the area's music scene by Opie Hendrix. He spent 2020 getting better acquainted with local artists.
“I actually got laid off at the beginning and during the entire pandemic I probably shot the most videos I’ve ever shot the entire time. Up until I started doing this with Tom, I probably got nine videos out during the pandemic,” Tamegai said. “Some of them took longer than others, some of them were like quick one-takes in a garage or something but yeah, all those are out there in the world somewhere.”
“I didn’t miss a day of work, I had to work at my day job at DataVox,” Meeks said of the lockdown, adding that he took on an “amazing” audio gig with Grace Presbyterian Church last year and does mixing and mastering work at home in the evenings. “I didn’t get to slow down much. And then doing this, we’ve been doing this almost every weekend. It’s been fun.”
Meeks said they try to create a relaxed but professional environment for artists they feature.
“Sometimes people are a little stiff when they get here at first. We might know one member of the band at most but I think as soon as they load in and push through my garage — because everybody pushes their gear through the garage and the garage has a bunch of graffiti on the wall and music has been here for a long time — they come in and I think it works pretty good. Usually we get a pretty nice, relaxed vibey recording,” he said.
“We usually fire up the smoker pit and do a bunch of barbecue or last time we did chili dogs, or wings or fajitas and we have a bunch of beer for them,” Meeks continued. “We really try to make it a fun experience for them. We’re trying for a family vibe with it, we try to make it feel like a home setting.
“A lot of times they walk in and they think they’re just playing in somebody’s house and all of the lights are set up and stuff and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m suddenly nervous,’ and we’re like ‘No, don’t be nervous, man, we’ve got beer, we’ve got barbecue. Just jam.”
Does it work? We asked Roger Medina, bassist for the prog-metal thrash act The Virulent. Their segment debuted on Long River Sessions about a month ago.
“Tom and Masaya made us feel right at home with a cooler full of White Claw and ribs on the grill,” Medina said. “We had a great hang with the Long River kings and continue to spread the word with our friends and music peeps. The content that was shot that day does an excellent job at showcasing The Virulent live and we are definitely using it when it comes to booking bigger shows.”
It sounds like fun, but Meeks and Tamegai are serious about the work they’re doing.
“Once they get warmed up we go through the set to get levels and get a practice run through and after that, you know, we hit record. And sometimes they do it in one play through, usually it takes two or three,” Meeks noted. “We usually try to tear down pretty quickly too because once you start having barbecue and drinking beers, all of a sudden the sun starts setting and it’s like, ‘Oh crap, we didn’t tear down anything,’ and you really don’t wanna be there. We try to get all of the business out of the way and then spend the rest of the day just hanging out.”
Getting to hang with the bands is a big payoff, especially after a socially distant year. Tamegai said coming together like that was a boost for the series.
“I think it was perfect timing, really. Everyone was stuck at home wanting to do stuff and a lot of them, it was their first time back doing anything, playing in front of anyone. I think that excitement has carried on until now. I mean, granted, when they perform it’s only me out there doing silly yoga poses trying to capture different angles and stuff, but you know, they’re playing the show to someone. I think that was a great kickoff for us because everyone was hungry and wanted to play,” he said.
The process after filming day is a little more mundane but no less important. Tamegai said he’ll view the footage the day after shooting. Meeks will send unedited audio for Tamegai’s rough cut of the video. His partner mixes and masters the audio for a second edit. Titles are added and upload dates are scheduled. They take time to get it right, though Meeks said “If we had to, we could do it in a day.”
It’s important to get it right, not just for bands like Trashkat and Quinn the Brain, which have gotten strong reception from the channel’s viewers. It’s key to Long River Sessions’ future plans.
“We have to start getting in front of the camera to actually probably start to interact with the viewers, just to give them updates and stuff and be a little more social,” Tamegai said of what’s coming next.
“We thought about getting a host but we couldn’t find the right fit that a: wanted to join our team and work like we do for free,” laughed Meeks, “and, b: we just couldn’t settle on somebody that had not only the right camera personality but knowledge of enough music to keep up a conversation with how diverse we’re trying to be. It has to be somebody fluent in everything from New York subway singer songwriters to thrash metal to classical music, so far.”
And, Meeks said, they’re on the lookout for house outside of his neighborhood to film in as the series grows.
“We definitely want to expand into other stuff, like acts that are touring through, and we’ve thought of maybe the idea, once things pick up a little further, just renting an Airbnb or a house or something so we can book a week of bands in another state and have a whole season where we feature New York or somewhere else,” Meeks added.
“One of the reasons we started doing this is because everybody, especially during the pandemic, everybody’s trying to find a way of doing what they love doing instead of going back to work or going to jobs,” he continued.
“We were thinking we have everything we need to do what we love to do, let’s just do it. We’ve kind of just buckled down, we’re going to just do it and take it as far as we fucking can.”
We wondered whether any of the bands have helped return furniture to Meeks’ living room at the end of a productive, fun afternoon performing for Long River Sessions.
“No, man, as soon as they have their amps loaded up they’re ready to hit the road,” Meeks laughed. “We try to make that kind of invisible to the bands if we can. Don’t mind the couch guys, we’ve got the couch, don’t worry.”