Revels is and has always been a trio, but in some key ways it’s a quartet. When the band releases its first recorded music this weekend, you’ll hear its silent member on the tracks, in a sense. He won’t be onstage or in the crowd, but his presence will be felt by the band and its fans. And, when we meet the group at Neil’s Bahr to discuss the album and its release event this Sunday at BFE Rock Club, his energy is palpable.
We aren’t two minutes into our conversation with guitarist J.D. Grande, drummer Jamal Eldam and bassist Ronny Spera when the late Chris LaForge’s name surfaces. LaForge is a Houston punk legend who died nearly a year ago. He was known for years of work with numerous bands, but most notably as guitarist for Houston flagship punk act 30footFall. Moreover, LaForge was renowned for championing younger punk acts by unselfishly offering his support, advice and talent. Revels is one of the bands he took under his wing.
The band’s new album is titled The Irrevelant E.P. Although he doesn’t perform on the album, LaForge’s influence on its six original tracks and those who wrote and recorded them can’t be overstated.
“Interesting enough, I’d met Chris LaForge plenty of times prior to Revels, but (Neil’s) is where I first met him as just a friend, not really just as a fan at a 30foot show or whatever million bands he was in,” Grande said. “I met him here and this is where he told me straight up – I was just playing acoustic guitar music at the time - and I played him some stuff and he was like, ‘That’s garbage. We’re punk rockers, we need to play plugged-up music.”
“The line was, ‘Acoustic music is only for intros and breakdowns,’” chimes in Spera, repeating a known LaForge refrain.
One night at Neil’s nearly three years ago, LaForge and Grande talked music so diligently it encouraged Grande to contact Eldam about putting together a band. Eldam had been asking Grande about turning his solo music into an outfit for about a year.
“I had this nice drum set and I needed to play in a band. I hadn’t been onstage in like five or six years by that point and I was just like, I gotta get the ball rolling. So I just kept pestering J.D. over and over again,” Eldam said.
It was LaForge’s enthusiasm and excitement that tipped the scales. Grande called Eldam the very next day and Revels was in motion. Eldam recruited Spera, an old friend, for bass.
“We’ve done a lot of drinking 40-ounces and going to Rancid and Social Distortion shows,” Spera said of his history with Eldam, which stretches back years and includes a stint together in the band No Inbetween. Grande admits to some growing pains taking on band members. He shares a story of the first practice with Spera, who’d been sent the songs to learn. Those tunes were written by Grande.
“He showed up and knew them better than I did and it really upset me, like I really did not care for him at all,” Grande said. A smile stretches across Spera’s face as Grande tells the story. “We’re playing a converted version of one of the songs and he’s like, ‘You’re not playing it right.’ I’m like, ‘Who the hell are you? I’ve been playing this song for like five years!’”
“It almost didn’t happen, like right there from day one,” Spera laughed.
Grande learned to trust his bandmates. Now, Spera is not just a band confidante, but one of Grande’s closest friends. The trio makes important decisions together as a unit. For instance, when it was time to record their debut, there was no question who they wanted behind the boards.
“It’s so weird how much this band revolved around Chris for so long. We had done demos for 12 or 13 songs right before he went to Punk Rock Bowling in Vegas so that he could beatmap them,” Grande said. “He was supposed to start doing our record when he got back.”
LaForge was slated to turn those demos into polished tracks the week after PRB, but was felled by a stroke while at the Vegas music fest.
“I remember the last thing he said to me was, ‘You’re gonna get pissed off at me but I’m gonna tell you to do it over and over and over again until you get it right,” Eldam said.
“We had so many hopes and dreams that just disappeared all of a sudden,” Spera said. “It was a very difficult transition for us to realize you don’t have what you used to have.”
They waited months after LaForge’s death to return to the project. Grande asked Eldam where to turn next and he recommended Justin Liles, who would eventually engineer and mix the record at the band’s Rhythm Room practice space. Eldam and Liles knew one another from audio engineering school and had worked together at Guitar Center. There was an inherent level of trust that made Liles the right choice. The album was mastered by Alex Adamitis and features cover art by Thrashley Nicole.
Recording began last September, during the Houston Astros’ World Series run, which delayed things a bit since the band members are all native Houstonians (straight outta Fort Bend, more precisely) and avowed ‘Stros fans. They recorded the songs in the traditional sense – separately, track by track - and found “we just didn’t like them,” according to Grande. “They didn’t sound like our band, we felt.”
“It really wasn’t organic,” Spera explained. They worked four months that way, but there was something missing - the cohesiveness, the groove they get into when they’re playing live and as a whole unit. To his credit, Liles pointed this out.
“Finally, (Liles) came up and was like, ‘Listen – don’t release any of that. I think we need to re-record all of it live,’” Spera said. “It took us two days – it took us one day to put the instruments down and another day to put the vocals down and it was a completely different story when we did it that way. It really encompassed what we do in a live show, which is what people like. “
The band has staked its claim as a staunch supporter of Houston’s punk rock community, paying it forward as their mentor would have. They help visiting acts book shows here and are enthused about newer bands on the scene, rattling off names like Gen Why, All Gonna Die and El Jumbotron as some current favorites. They’ve tabbed old friends Bottom of the Food Chain and a newer act, Broke Off, for the release show. The band has now twice hosted ATX vs. HOU, a music fest which brings Austin’s best punk acts to Houston for a friendly, day-long throwdown. Because they’re taking a leading role in what’s happening here, they’re encouraged by what they see.
“Everybody gives a shit now,” Spera said. “There’s so many people being active and involved in this scene that everyone is coming out of the woodwork. There are new kids that I’ve met lately that are coming into it, all these new bands are coming up that are quality bands.”
“The scene is going to get bigger and bigger right now. And, I’ve noticed, just looking at the history of punk rock, when bands got bigger nationally there was a movement in their area,” Spera continued . “It wasn’t just one band coming out of their scene, it was four, five, six. I’m looking at our city right now and I’m thinking we have that movement.”
“I think it’s really beautiful right now,” Grande agrees, “and I hope it really continues.”
For their part, there’s the new music and they’re looking forward to ATX vs. HOU 3 in the fall. They plan to debut the “LaForge Texas Weight Championship,” a belt for the winner of the Austin-against-Houston event this August.
“We named it after Chris because who else are you gonna name it after?” Grande posited.
The band is also very into wrestling, which makes its tag-team with Midget Wrestling Entertainment for this weekend’s album release a no-brainer. Some bands wouldn’t choose to share a bill with an event that isn’t music-centric, but Grande, wearing his promoter cap, sees it as an opportunity for both brands to grow their audiences. He’s excited to share the night with the wrestling event and promises it won’t detract from the record’s celebration.
“If there’s one thing I can say about the record, above anything else, it’s that it’s definitely Revels. It’s our band and it’s exactly what our band sounds like,” Grande said.
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All three agree that in some ways it also sounds like Chris LaForge, the everlasting, unofficial member of Revels. In one track, “Sorry,” Grande says there’s a tip of the (backwards) cap to LaForge, “where I do a couple of bendy, wail-ey notes that are like, ‘Here ya go, Chris.”
“During the recording parts, I feel like I could feel him breathing down my neck like, ‘Hey, you better get this shit right, or you know, you’re gonna have to do it over and over and over again. So, every drum take I did, I was like, ‘Okay, it’s gotta be flawless,’” Eldam said.
“The guy believed in us so much – I know we’re not the only ones, by no means,” Grande concluded. “This is absolutely his album.”
Revels' album release, with Midget Wrestling Entertainment, Bottom of the Food Chain and Broke Off, 7 p.m. Sunday, April 8 at BFE Rock Club, 11528 Jones Road. $15.