We were at Houston Undrgrnd for a show recently when the venue’s sound engineer, Eric Christian, asked whether we’d ever seen the band that was onstage killing it for an enthralled audience. I told him we hadn’t. We consulted the event page and learned the band was El Jumbotron.
Christian, who is a Houston music veteran with his own projects, most notably Gold Cherry, thoroughly approved of the sound (guitar-driven anarcho punk) and the energy (manic and inspired). Since then, we’ve talked with others who’ve caught the fledgling act and they’ve echoed approval. Critics can have their opinions, but the best way to know whether a new band has something solid happening is to ask other musicians their opinions on a first listen. Whether you’re a musician or not, you can hear what El Jumbotron is delivering this Friday at Darwin’s Pub. They’re sharing a set with Bernie Pink, in what should be one of the wildest 4/20 shows in town.
The band formed with roommates Jeffer Thomason (guitar and vocals) and bassist Johnny Schaefer writing songs in January 2017. It took them eight months to find the right drummer, Gabriel Jamster. The trio recently released Hello Ubermensch, an EP with nods to influences like The Clash, Pixies, Tripping Daisy and Franz Ferdinand.
“It’s all about trying to make simple, colorful, catchy songs with lots of energy to them to get people moving,” Thomason said.
Mission accomplished. The album’s five tracks sizzle and crack like a live wire. When you start to get comfortable riding each song’s musical current, you’re shocked back into alertness by provocative lyrics.
“Jeffer has been playing some of these songs for years and when we moved in together I heard him play a few on his acoustic guitar and we ended up jamming using all my guitars, amps and drum kit,” Schaefer said. “Jeffer had about a dozen songs with the guitar parts written and I filled in the blanks on the bass. One of the first songs we had ready for the EP was ‘Border Patrol’ and it came from a bassline I wrote back in March that Jeffer riffed off.”
“Johnny and I had multiple altercations with the border patrol on our way to Big Bend in the summer. After being locked up for a few hours after the fourth checkpoint I was exhausted, sitting in the car listening to a really rough recording of the song I had on my phone,” Thomason recalled. “It really stood out to me in that moment because the drop I wrote for it had this bull fight/matador vibe to it and I was thinking about all these families affected by the border issue here in the U.S. and the refugees washing up on the shores back home in Europe.
“The rest of the EP is similarly themed,” he continued, “whether it’s about that age-old tale of people falling for the strongman politician who promises to fix everything but just speeds up collapse through war in ‘Nature’s Revenge’ or ‘One for The Money’ being about the growing political divide between the left and right, particularly among kids on college campuses and the threat of what grows out of that divide.”
None of the band’s members are native Houstonians. Thomason was born and raised in Scotland. Jamster hails from El Salvador. Schaefer grew up in Indiana and Ohio. Their perspectives, formed in different parts of the globe, snap together tightly for Hello Ubermensch.
“The EP is called Hello Ubermensch because I like to think of the system we’re born into as being this big robot —Jumbo-tron — or a Frankenstein’s monster running amok, threatening to make humans obsolete. It keeps spreading, getting smarter, more efficient, learning our habits whilst absorbing and trying to neuter any forms of rebellion that young people throw at it so that it can keep growing,” Thomason explained. “The idea for the song takes place during the somewhat-inevitable clash between this transhuman, all-consuming machine and the individual – ubermensch - who has the discipline to completely reject it and instead tries to build the world in a different image in balance with nature.”
Like any band, El Jumbotron has overcome some challenges and gotten better for them. Schaefer said the search for a drummer was exhaustive and frustrating until “Gabe met me in the mosh pit of a Metanoia show at Avant Garden. Gabe saw me going hard and offered me a drink and we exchanged info. I hit him up the next day to jam, he came over, despite the fact he didn’t actually remember who I was. When we heard Gabe hit the drums hard as fuck Jeffer knew immediately that was the sound he was looking for.”
The band also attempted to record the EP twice before “getting it down the third time with Gabe’s friend Ed Drano at his Insanity Star home studio in November,” Thomason said. “By the third attempt of the EP we were a bit tighter and got everything but the vocals down live. The first single, ‘Hello Ubermensch,’ was done in one take and the rest of the EP recorded in about four hours.”
We ask about the live show, since it’s what first caught our attention. The band has polished its act with a monthly gig at Avant Garden and is ever adding shows to its calendar. They’ll be at Austin’s punk haven, Kick Butt Café, this Saturday and were recently added to Houston Punkfest, April 28-29 at Continental Club.
“Our live shows are everything to this band! We are trying to fully embody the spirit of rock and roll that I feel has been missing in recent generations. I personally just want to go nuts and put on a show for the people coming out,” Schaefer said. “The reactions of our Houston audiences have ranged from people leaving the venue complaining that we play too loud to people bouncing off the walls, dancing and moshing.”
“Yeah, our shows lately have been getting more intense. The monthly Avant Garden shows have been great because the room upstairs fills up pretty quick and we’re right there crammed up against the audience,” Thomason said. “Last show, we had about 40 stay and check it out. The show before that, we had people moshing so hard during ‘Border Patrol’ a bunch of them crashed into the PA system and we had to start the song all over again.
“We’ve got some bigger shows lined up with established local bands in the coming months so I’m excited to see how the energy transfers in front of those audiences,” he continued. “We’ve got nine or ten songs down now so it’s almost time to start thinking about recording our first album.”
We reminded Schaefer of that night at Houston Undrgrnd and he’s happy to report the positive reaction is becoming more commonplace for the band.
“We have had a very good response to all of our songs! A lot of people have told us they enjoy listening to the EP front to back and a bunch of musicians in other local bands have hit us up to say they’re digging it too,” he said. “Separating myself from my own bias, I would have to say our songs are attractive because they pack a punch. They have hooks and drops at the verses and choruses that hit you right in the gut like a wave of energy”
El Jumbotron joins Bernie Pink 9 p.m. Friday, April 20 for Damn Good Fridays at Darwin’s Pub, 33 Waugh. Free.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.