Subterranean Radio Brings Houston Music to Chicagoland

It started like most things do, when your humble narrator was obsessively Googling himself to see who on the Internet might be talking about us. That's when we came across Subterranean Radio, hosted every Thursday from 10 p.m.-1 a.m. on WRLR 98.3 FM in Round Lake Heights, Ill. Turns out they'd played the Black Math Experiment's "You Cannot Kill David Arquette" as part of a segment called "Songs my Friend Jason Will Hate."

Hosts Mick Cullen, Carl Cutler, and Rae Helene gave us some good-natured ribbing about the song when they featured it, and because we never, ever turn our noses up at any mention good or bad, we sent Cullen a thank you note. Over the months since then, we've come to the conclusion that Subterranean Radio is, bar none, the best place to hear up and coming indie-rock in the entire world.

The selection of tunes they choose run the gamut from highly experimental to more typical indie bands. We discovered Chromeo and O'Death from them, as well as Erland and the Carnival.

Rocks Off listens to Subterranean's podcast replay of the show every Monday morning as we do inventory on the day job, and it has become the litmus test for new bands with us. If they were any good, they'd be on Subterranean.

Cullen and Rocks Off have forged an ongoing partnership based on a mutual love of great music in a time when the industry seems to be actively suppressing new and original work. Periodically, he sends us stellar music videos to fuel our column on what we consider an endangered art form in desperate need of aid to survive. In return, we started sending him the best of the local bands we review.

Over the course of this exchange, Houston has grown to have a pretty significant presence on Subterranean Radio. The Midwest has always seemed to us to warmly embrace the Houston rock sound; in fact, we just cashed a royalty check from having an album played in an Ohio Hot Topic (Don't ask, we have no idea how that happened).

Just this past week we heard songs by Houston heavyweights like the Tontons, Something Fierce, and the Mathletes. Previously, the Folk Family Revival's Unfolding made it into the playlist on our suggestion, and Alyssa Rubich's C'est La Vie as well after we told Cullen that it was our favorite local release of all time and he agreed about its worth.

Rubich actually made Subterranean Radio history as the first solo female performer to grace the show's studio when she traveled to Illinois - Round Lake Heights is about halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee - to sing and play live on the show.

So just how did the cream of the crop in Houston come to be featured halfway across the country? What appeal do we have that has earned us our place there? Rocks Off got Cullen to tell us. Continue to Page 2 for our interview.

Rocks Off: This whole thing seems to have started when you played "You Cannot Kill David Arquette." How on Earth did you hear about the song way up in Illinois?

Mick Cullen: I was browsing on eMusic, as I do every week when I'm trolling for new tunes. That promise we make to play ten artists each week that we've never played before forces me to continually expand my library. eMusic has a "recommended for you" tab like so many other vendors.

One time I visited, The Black Math Experiment appeared on my recommendations list and I checked you guys out. I was immediately drawn to the title "You Cannot Kill David Arquette" for obvious reasons, and after hearing it, I decided it was perfect for my segment "This Week's Song My Friend Jason Will Hate," which is not an insult.

That segment usually features a song I like, but which my pal Jason (he of narrow musical tastes) would abhor, usually due to unusual instrumentation, synth, atypical vocal delivery, repetition, and/or oddball topics. Your song fit the bill on multiple fronts.

RO: What do you think of the Houston artists so far, both the ones we've sent you and the one's you've found on your own?

MC: I have enjoyed the Houston artists quite a bit, and always appreciate a helping hand from a fellow audiophile. As I often say, there's just no way we can hear all the great music being released, especially since we all have non-radio jobs. (Rae's in retail, Carl's a librarian, and I'm a professor/psychotherapist.)

As you know, Austin has the big reputation around the country for being one of the best music scenes America has to offer, but Houston can certainly hold its own based on what I've heard. We've given airplay to Young Mammals, The Tontons, listenlisten, Something Fierce, The Western Civilization, Black Math Experiment, and others, and we will continue to do so.

I specifically learned of Rubich and Folk Family Revival directly from you, and the others I have all discovered one way or another on my own.

Alyssa Rubich, just last week, became the first female solo artist to do a live interview and performance on Subterranean, and it was honestly one of the best shows we've ever had, and one of the best interviews in WRLR's history. We will definitely hook up with her again next time she comes to Chicago.

RO: Is there any kind of unifying Houston sound you hear? Other than the fact that a lot of what we send you is produced by Jeffery Armstreet...

MC: This is a question that always flummoxes me, no matter what city or scene it's about. I guess I don't really want there to be a unifying sound for any city's artists. Subterranean is all about playing as wide a range of artists as we can, as long as we enjoy the music and think it deserves a wider audience.

I think what's appealing about the Houston musicians we play is similar to what I'd say about the local acts in Chicago-- there is a wide range of styles, works that display echoes of a bevy of beloved influences while striving to be original and striking, and a desire to stay true to their art. I think the place where one grows up, and the place where one lies as an adult, can't help but influence one's music.

However, even those of us who grow up in the same place experience that place very differently on a micro level. I think that's what prevents a larger scale unifying sound in most cities. We love cities because of their diversity, and the music scene should reflect the same.

RO: What would you like to have more of? What do you look for in music that Subterranean plays?

MC: I have been known to say that I'm a minor chord junkie, so alt-country and darker folk tunes often appeal to me, hence our love at Subterranean for songs like Blitzen Trapper's "Black River Killer" and The Rural Alberta Advantage's "The Deathbridge in Lethbridge," or bands like The Handsome Family. However, I am also aware of the need to balance the show out, so we don't restrict ourselves that way at all. I am just as hooked by a great na-na-na chorus or a synth line that makes me dance while I'm driving.

On the vocal side, a singer doesn't have to be note-perfect. I rarely like them when they are, in fact. It's far more important to me as both a disc jockey and a fan that I know the singer is feeling something, that he/she is invested in the song. I always cite Okkervil River as my favorite example of that - Will Sheff doesn't have perfect pitch.

The imperfections, the abandon in his voice at times, they're what make the band speak to me, and I'd say my listeners as well. I value musicianship, but if your music doesn't make me want to move, act, think, or breathe differently, it gets lost in the white noise.

RO: If a Houston artist wanted to submit some tracks to you, could they and how?

MC: We love when artists submit to us. Our whole goal at Subterranean is to give exposure to the talented people that mainstream commercial radio ignores or stonewalls. If you want airplay, your best bet is to shoot some FCC-friendly mp3s over to me at subterraneanradio@gmail.com. I personally select 85% of the music on the show, with Rae and Carl filling in the rest, so there's no one else to impress but us.

If we like what you have to offer, we'll put it on the air. It's that simple! If we really like you, and you find your way to the Chicago area with some free time on a Thursday night, you could end up in our studio for an interview and live performance.

Our live audience may not on the scale of those mainstream stations, but our Web site gets thousands of hits from all over the world, and our podcast subscriber base is significant as well. It's a really great way to get your songs to people who are inclined to support underground music!

Follow Rocks Off on Facebook and on Twitter at @HPRocksOff.

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