No Mo' Pogo

In the very same night Racket sat down with the Suspects at the Garden Oaks home of vocalist Thomas Escalante to talk about their last show ever, Press writer Bob Ruggiero was a mere two houses away, confabbing with Sugar Shack about their newfound resolve. The members of Sugar Shack and most of the Suspects are about the same age, and several members of each band are now married with children. So why is Sugar Shack talking like they'll go on forever while the Suspects are calling it quits?

As befits the melancholy occasion, Escalante's home stereo is playing some soft and sad piano music, which sounds very much like the stuff you might hear in the background on Behind the Music as Angus Young reminisces on the death by vomit of Bon Scott. Living up to their reputations as beer snobs, each member has brought a six-pack of imported and microbrewed beer, and when Racket helps himself to a Shiner Summer Stock, one Suspect expresses surprise that such a humble brand has been brought to the chat.

Escalante switches off the stereo as Suspects Claudio Depujedas (drums), Bill Grady (guitar), Alan Hernandez (guitar) and Steve Ruth file in. Bandmate Joe Cote (keyboards) is dialed up in Atlanta on the speakerphone, and chimes in Charlie's Angels-style from time to time. Trombonist Ryan Gabbart comes in later.

"Man, we've been so over for at least five years," says Grady. Of course, he's speaking less of his band specifically than of his beloved ska. Grady is the ska champion in the band, the historian who can tell you all about the Kingston scene circa 1972, when ska's tight grooves were loosening into reggae. He bemoans the fact that not one ska band was invited to last year's South by Southwest. But he also cites aging, time constraints, family pressures and internal disinterest among the reasons that the almost nine-year-old band is shutting down.

Mainly, though, it's just that nobody on earth (except for Grady) likes ska anymore. "I like ska still," he says. "That makes me unique in this band."

His bandmates laugh, but it's true. Most of them aren't ska fanatics by any means -- indeed, many of them never were. Various band members come from funk, acid jazz, lounge and punk pedigrees. "I've always said that when you're a musician, you are what you eat. And the Suspects are a big-ass buffet," adds Grady.

Looking back on the smorgasbord of memories, the band remembers its first and second CD release shows as highlights. Out-of-town gigs also provide a source of merriment. The Suspects remember the small towns they played with the most fondness; small-town crowds aren't as jaded as those in the big cities, they explain. Escalante says that the teenybopper pandemonium in Wausau, Wisconsin, was like cheesehead-style Beatlemania.

Closer to home, there was Lufkin.

"Lufkin," says Grady, pausing to swill some Fat Tire. "One of the all-time best and worst shows ever."

"The best because it was the worst," says Hernandez.

"Before the show, we were looking at this heavy metal homage on the wall, all these pictures of some awful-looking spandex metal band," Hernandez continues. "It looked like they did the pictures at Glamour Shots. And Joe was like, 'God, this is just horrible. Look at those idiots.' And then the owner of the club comes up behind us and says, 'That was my band.' "

"There was all that fog and that crazy guy on the front row who looked like the banjo player out of Deliverance," remembers the disembodied voice of Cote.

"It was this heavy metal club," says Ruth. "There were all these mirrors on the walls, all that cheesy metal crap. Heavy metal bars always have the best sound systems, though. The best sound and the worst clientele."

"The sound man got on stage with us and played a soprano saxophone, a Kenny G. sax," Escalante says. "And he had the Kenny G. look and everything. He had the long, curly hair on one side, all that."

Before the night was over, Grady had drunkenly and good-naturedly pile-drived a female Lufkinite. "That was the funniest thing I've ever seen," says Escalante. "It was better than Andy Kaufman."

The rest of the band's relations with women were not always so violent. There was the time that a Suspect (who shall remain anonymous) was approached by a gorgeous groupie at Fitz's with an offer his bandmates would not let him refuse. "My friend and I flipped a coin over who gets to spend the night with you," she purred. "And I won."

"I was like, 'Dude, you're having a rock star moment. There's no way you can't go home with her,' " says Escalante.

"And that was the only time in eight years that any Suspect ever got some action," Grady notes dryly.

Not that Grady doesn't have his own libidinous stories of rock stardom to tell. But as with the Piney Woods woman he suplexed, his tend to end in mayhem. "I broke up with my long-term girlfriend and got together with a short-term girlfriend," he says. "We broke up, and I got back with the long-term girl again, and then the short-term girl made a comeback. I ended up sleeping with both of them on the same day."

Unfortunately for Grady, his Penthouse Forum tale has a First Wives Club ending. "They suddenly became friends. One night they were out late eating at Champ's breakfast bar. One of 'em says, 'What did you do last Friday?' She says, 'Oh, I slept with Bill.' And she was like, 'I did too! That bastard!' So they come over to my house at three in the morning and my ex-long-term girlfriend took everything she ever gave me out of my apartment and smashed it all in the street."

Grady, now married with a son, wonders how he would be able to write songs now. "All my good songs were about my screwed-up relationships, so it's good that we've broken up now, because I've run out of ex-girlfriends."

But the various Suspects haven't run out of music. Bass player Jay Brooks will be continuing to play with Middlefinger, Escalante is fronting Clouseau, and founding bassist Charlie Esparza and current drummer Depujedas are in Magnetic IV.

Then there's Joe Cote. Cote's post-Suspects dream has nothing to do with music. "You know how you're at a movie theater and they have those giant jars of pickles at the concession stand?" he asks over the speakerphone. "If I ever win the lottery, I want to buy the whole jar and walk up and down the aisle handing pickles out to everybody. Charlie Esparza also likes the idea, and he wants to be my sidekick. So I'm gonna rename him Sweet Gherkin, and we're gonna buy one of those old-timey motorcycles with a sidecar, and get pickle suits and leather helmets and goggles and travel the country delivering pickles to everybody."

This proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the keyboardists are always the weirdest guys in the band.

Meanwhile, the Suspects still have a finale to perform. They're planning on going out in style. "We're gonna do everything at our last show," says Grady. "We haven't decided if we're gonna burn our old band uniforms, give 'em away to the winners of a dance contest, or just throw them out to the crowd."

And don't think that Grady isn't already dreaming of a reunion. After all, this music has more lives than a litter of kittens. "I heard that ska is making a comeback in the UK," he says.

Scuttlebutt Caboose

It's Racket's sad duty to report that the HP Music Awards jinx has struck again, and with alarming swiftness. According to David Beebe, 2002 double winner Little Joe Washington was recently apprehended by the police, a mere two weeks after collecting his first ever HPMA awards. Washington was riding one of his tiny bicycles and carrying some spare parts to another that he had found in a Dumpster when he was stopped. After determining that Marion (his real first name) Washington was not the bike thief they had taken him for, the HPD officers ran a warrant check on him and came up with a couple of computer screens full of class C misdemeanors from the bluesman's two-day driving career in 1994. Over the course of 48 hours, Washington had racked up tickets for things like nonworking headlights and not owning liability insurance. Washington told Beebe that he had spent a night in jail, quit driving and thought the whole mess was behind him until this fateful night three weeks ago. At Washington's hearing, his luck changed. The presiding judge recognized him and dismissed three of the tickets, which reduced his total fine from $1,180 to $450. Later that day, one of his friends came and paid his fine for him, and now Washington is free and warrant-less. But the jinx wasn't done yet, for the friend who had to plunk down four and a half C-notes to bail him out was none other than Pete Gray, one of only two other multiple Music Award winners this year. Pretty scary, huh?

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