Seven Come Eleven

At some point between the last miserable day job and the first national tour, countless musicians have either chosen, or been forced, to take a new direction. Sometimes it's a crafty decision that pays off; sometimes you simply screw up and -- poof -- you're in the bargain bin. Sometimes it's just a matter of circumstance.

For Patrice Pike-Zain, a single event far beyond her control led to the breakup of her band, weeks of deep thinking while knocking back gallons of slippery elm tea, the adding of an appendix to her last name and, finally, the commencement of a rebellious trip down a new fast lane.

Vigorously piloting her five-speed Miata down Washington Avenue before a recent gig at the Satellite Lounge, Pike-Zain talks about shedding baggage. The 30-year-old former Sister Seven lead vocalist is recounting a visit to a friend's house in the woods near Austin, where she swam and read and cooked catfish. She also spontaneously dug a hole one night under the trees and buried several items from her backpack before pouring rose water over the shallow grave. She swears she was completely sober.

Among the items deep-sixed that night in late April were a cell-phone earpiece and a plane ticket -- tokens of flying four days a week for Sister Seven gigs and the tyranny of modern communications. Also entombed was a metal emblem bearing the likeness of an angel, representing the notion of placing faith in objects rather than oneself. Then she planted a copy of Fencing Under Fire, the first album of her new band, Patrice Pike and the Blackbox Rebellion. Perhaps she hoped the project would take root and blossom.

How big a deal was this ritual to Pike-Zain? Consider that the next night, she was late to a gig for the first time in ten years.

"I was in this strange mood, I guess, but I really was able get a handle on what space I was in at various times over the last couple of years," she says. "There were a lot of things going on before Sister Seven broke up. I was connected to so many people that it burned me out and was challenging my free will. It's one of those things where you could just say 'Fuck it' and not do it anymore because you're trapped."

Some musicians would sacrifice a delicate body part or two to be "trapped" like Pike was in early 2000. S7 was making a decent living with steady touring and had tight connections with some of the biggest names in the industry. After Pike mailed some demos for a new record to Arista Records founder Clive Davis, she was summoned to appear before the man himself. Davis, then basking in the megaplatinum glow of Carlos Santana's Supernatural, told her that he thought the album, Wrestling over Tiny Matters, was killer. With elements of heavy metal, catchy heartland hooks, hair-raising riffs by underrated guitarist Wayne Sutton and a Garbage-inspired lead-off track that had alt-rock radio hit written all over it, Tiny Matters, Davis told her, would be the one. He would see to it personally.

But Arista's parent company, BMG, had other plans, and thus Tiny Matters is the best damn album some folks will never hear. Three months after her meeting with Davis, the mogul was toppled. In spite of his recent success, the bigwigs at BMG thought the 66-year-old Davis was too old to run a label, and they chose to replace him with Antonio "L.A." Reid. (In one of those delicious ironies the music business delivers up so regularly, Arista's schmaltzy 25th-anniversary tribute to Davis aired on NBC two weeks after his shit-canning.)

Tiny Matters was left championless and in limbo; the band was now some fired guy's unfinished business. By December 2000 the band members knew it was over with Arista, and five months later they knew the band itself was "done."

Today, Pike wrestles with crates of Tiny Matters stacked in her garage. (Perhaps a front-end loader might have helped her really finish off that rite in the woods.) With an insistent wave of her hand, she says she doesn't want to discuss that album, thank you very much.

She does want to talk about the present and the future. Instead of calling it quits after the Arista fiasco, Pike and Sutton -- musical partners since 1986 -- got busy. They still had piles of unreleased S7 demos, and they decided that they would continue making music with a new band and their own label. Pike says today that she is transformed, free of the self-imposed confines of a band that had become a prison. But it seems that she kept a souvenir from Sister Seven: The new appendage to her last name, Zain, just happens to translate to "seven" in Aramaic, the extinct language that Jesus spoke.

At the Satellite later that night, it's evident that Pike likes the new space she's carved out for herself, but space is at a premium in front of the stage. In accord with Pike's bisexual preference, a group of men admire her from stage right and a group of lesbian women, their arms wrapped around each other, stand transfixed at stage left. When Pike stops partway through the set to shed her jacket, the women cheer lustily.

Her new music is dramatically different from the stuff on Tiny Matters -- more diverse, yet equally assured. The most obvious change is Pike's decision to write more storytelling songs rather than songs that express multiple layers of situational emotions. Though at times it seems that she's trying too hard to stretch her singing in new directions, Pike still oozes confidence. On "Ms. Ramona," she's all spit and snot, the Texan Chrissie Hynde, even unconsciously emulating Hynde's quirky trademark of piling a bucket of words in between lines.

Her band -- members both new and old -- sounds energized as well. Drummer Michael Hale breathes life into the live songs, especially with the syncopated rhythm he lays down for "Jackknife Girl," which has the feel of a song Guy Forsyth would write. And Sutton's guitar, is, thank goodness, still Sutton-like.

Pike is still Pike-like as well. She's always been one of Texas's most literary rockers. One day soon, she hopes to delegate more of the running of the band to outsiders to make room in her life for writing fiction -- short stories, at first. "I like to do a lot of different things. I'm not one to sit in a room five or six hours a day playing guitar, which I used to feel guilty about sometimes." Pausing, she pulls out her wallet and digs out a wrinkled strip of fortune-cookie paper. Sometimes to do two things at once is to do nothing at all, it says. "For a while I was getting several fortunes pointing to the idea of not spreading yourself too thin."

But back in the spotlight, Pike doesn't look like she's spread too thin as she spreads the word of her new Rebellion. The singer who nearly saw her fortunes fade to black after the bloody coup d'état at Arista, has quite literally buried her past so she can focus on the future.

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr