Santa Fe, Texas, is not the most picturesque or bustling town in the Lone Star State. Petrochemical refineries and front yards decorated with rusted metal machinery line the hot asphalt of Highway 6 in an area where one local notes that "bingo, Lotto and canned beer are king." There was a recent vicious rumor that the local bar might have Murphy's Stout on draft (in what was surely seen as a cosmopolitan move), but it happily turned out to be false.
There is a Jack in the Box, though, and down the way a little bit in a patch of grass made brittle by the intense summer heat is a smallish building made of sturdy cedar and divided into sections where a sad-looking Dr Pepper machine sits. It's here that several local bands have rented a space to rehearse and store equipment. One of the bands is The Shivers, whose members actually hail from Galveston, South Houston and right on down the road here in Texas City ("The All American City," according to civic boosters). Sante Fe is a convenient meeting point, though the visitors are still careful to observe established local customs.
"Want a Lone Star?" asks guitarist Shirley (a.k.a. Chrystal Health), offering a cold 16-ounce tall boy just like the one she drinks. "We try and go all out here." Just then a sharp whistle indicates the passage of a train on the tracks right behind the building. "We used to wonder if Rafael Resendez-Ramirez was going to jump off and come in here," she says of the recently caught alleged railcar killer. "Now, we just have to worry about making too much noise for the old people in their trailers out back."
The band is getting ready to rehearse. The members start tuning up, plugging in and speaking to each other in their invented band names $egrave; la the Ramones: In addition to Chrystal Health, there's vocalist Foxy (Misty Cleveland), guitarist Sally (Margaret LeJeune), drummer Alicat (Allison Berry) and the sole specimen of testosterone in the lineup, bassist Mike Nuwave (Michael Cooper). All are in their early-to-mid-twenties.
The band begins by ripping through a hard-charging set list of all oddly titled original tunes whose sounds reflect the quintet's punk/new wave/hard rock leanings. There's "Cowbell," "Werepig Sweety," "Sphery Eyne," "Rock 'n' Roll Kitty Cat" and the two tracks on the band's recent Rocket Needle Records CD single, "Feather Craft" and the Yoda-speak inspired "Through with You Yet (I'm Not)."
The material is effortlessly catchy, yet substantive and played with enthusiasm. On the last two songs in particular, the band seems to channel the bouncy spirit of '80s femme fatales like the Go-Go's and The Waitresses. Otherwise, the punk rock songs come in short, full-on blasts anchored by Sally and Shirley's dual guitars and Alicat's evenhanded backbeat.
The question "Can girls rock?" is both tired and ludicrous in 1999, but the women of The Shivers are well aware that the gender makeup is both bait and millstone for the group, something they're prepared to discuss even if it means on top of one another.
Foxy: "People hear, 'Oh, it's chicks! Let's check it out!' "
Alicat: "It attracts people at first, but we're able to back it up with how we play."
Mike: "It's not like it's the Spice Girls or anything."
Shirley: "We can't help our gender. We just wanna rawk!" (She puts a fist in the air for emphasis, and the band dissolves into laughter.)
Foxy: "But we like having a guy in the group. We love Mike Nuwave."
Mike (unenthusiastically): "Yeah. I fix all the broken equipment. And load all the heavy shit."
The group gives and takes easily since the members have known each other so long and well. Foxy, Alicat and Mike attended high school in Texas City together and met Shirley shortly thereafter. Later, when Mike was playing with Foxy's significant other in a group called The Dragsters on the state circuit, all would crash at the Austin-located house shared by Alicat, Shirley and original Shiver bassist Skully (Nikki Emerson, currently with Zero Heros).
The girls acted as a kind of de facto Dragster support group, enthusiastically clapping at gigs, posting flyers and even dancing on stage or doing theatrics when called for (not surprising given that all of the Shivers are former high school cheerleaders). They called themselves "The Pink Rock Girls." Soon, other Gulf Coast-area bands like Fuck Emo's and Limp Johnson also made the house their unofficial base while in the capital city.
And it's the forgetfulness (or plain laziness) of the guys in Limp Johnson that unexpectedly gave birth to The Shivers. Having Limp Johnson's instruments in the house for six months in 1996, the trio of girls, none of whom had any prior musical training, soon began plunking, strumming and beating the objects at their disposal. They eventually taught themselves how to play. For a party on Labor Day weekend the next year, they asked Foxy to join them on the mike for a just-for-laughs performance featuring covers of Pat Benatar, The Damned, Go-Go's and Pixies numbers.
To their surprise, the show went amazingly well, and the girls began to practice even harder. They soon decided to form a group. Collaboration on original songs via cassette tapes in the mail and lots of telephone calls between Austin and Houston began in earnest.
The four-woman lineup of Shirley, Foxy, Alicat and Skully made their debut at three outdoor festivals during the summer of '98. Already the band members had quite a bit of their own material to draw from.
"We've always been around bands that played original music, and that's influenced us a lot. We never wanted to play just [covers]," Alicat explains. "Plus, it's easy to make up your own thing, because you don't have to compare it to anyone else."
"Pink Rock. That's what we play," Foxy adds succinctly. "Pink Rock."
The turning point for the band occurred when Ali graduated from UT and left for Houston to move in with Mike (the couple are a couple). So then everyone decided to move here in late '98 to try to make the band work. Deciding they needed another guitarist, they brought on Sally (whose husband conveniently also played guitar with The Dragsters) in December. But the band faced its first personnel crisis with the new year when Skully left, leaving a position open.
Mike, who had been filling in on various duties after The Dragsters disbanded and was originally going to fill in only temporarily, became the band's permanent bassist in February. The next month The Shivers played its first club date in Houston and currently has played about ten shows.
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But even before The Shivers can become a familiar sight in local club listings, the group plans to leave the Bayou City behind early next year when it moves en masse to Austin, which all members agreed to do some time ago. The band hopes for more opportunities to play and tour regionally from there, and the members are perfectly willing to give up on Houston and adapt their day jobs. "We're not going there saying, 'Oooh, we're gonna take over the city' or anything like that, but I know we've got the talent and [ambition] to make something of this," Alicat says, before barely suppressing a wide grin. "Plus, we won't break up."
Says Mike: "There is a Gulf Coast music scene, but you don't really know about it because bands die here from lack of hope or whatever. But there's been a lot of badass bands from around here." He easily rattles off the names of Drugs 'n' Death, Limp Johnson, The Love Pumps and the group considered the originator, Immortal Skin Headdress. Ironically none of these bands is so immortal in the minds of urbanites to the north, who have enough trouble keeping straight the acts already playing just inside the 610 Loop.
The Shivers plans on entering the studio next month to record its self-titled full-length debut, which will be released by the end of the year.
The Shivers plays on Saturday, August 21, at The Oven, 403 Westheimer, as part of a bill that also includes Japanic, London Girl and Entertainment System. Cover is $5. Call (713)874-1100.