Tex, Lies and Audiotape

How do you take your rock and roll: straight up or steeped in mythology? For some, part of the allure of rock and roll is the back story -- or at least the perceived back story. Does David Bowie really inhabit his various personae? Are the Glimmer Twins really as debauched as they seem? For Houston's relatively new Swarm of Angels, the legend is half the fun, even if it's never going to result in a Hammer of the Gods.

Swarm of Angels was born of countless other bands of greater or lesser importance. That much they will tell you. Ralph Armin, the most seasoned of the bunch, has been playing in Houston since the mid-'80s. He flirted with seminal punk act Really Red and the experimentalist Pain Teens and fronted his own band, Truth Decay. Nikki Texas is better known as Tex Kerschen, front man of Japanic, the band that cleaned up at the Houston Press music awards in 2000 and 2001. Erika Thrasher played with the Fever. Matt Frey drummed for Matty & Mossy and Deathro Skull. Domokos Benczedi, or Dom, as his friends call him, could name bands that he's been involved with for weeks: Bad NRG Band, Plumbers of Yanni…

But while the members of Swarm of Angels are glad to tell you about all the bands they've been in, they are not so forthcoming with other details. Ask them how they met and you'll get a semi-rehearsed and apocryphal story about coming together through the Internet chat board of the show collective HandsUpHouston. Says Kerschen, er, Texas, "Let the record state that they were playing as a four-piece…"

"Looking for a singer," Thrasher adds.

"So they put an ad up on the HandsUp chat board," continues Texas.

And then a free-for-all of wry comments…

"Hot up-and-coming local band looking for a singer with pizzazz," says Frey.

"Chops. Must have chops," adds Texas.

"I was in Rusted Shut, Japanix 2…" (That's Benczedi, still droning on about his pedigree.)

"Must have own vehicle," Armin tosses in.

"Must have own van," Frey corrects.

"No LSD," says Texas. "Lead Singer Disease."

"No attitude," says Thrasher.

"No flakes. No druggies. It was a long list of stipulations that I had to read," finishes Texas. "I was in Europe performing as Nikki Texas. I'd just come in from the Caucasus -- in Russia. Then I spent some time in Eastern Europe. I saw an ad on the Internet. I replied to it. I provided proof of my successful graduation from a 12-step program. And the rest is…They had a bunch of songs that they had culled from old Pain Teens B-sides." Wait a minute -- Pain Teens B-sides? Just how many chart singles did the Pain Teens release?

Ask the band about their music and you get equally dubious and misleading stories. Who writes the songs? "This is one of the few bands where the drummer writes every note," says Armin, as he dons his lamé space jacket and fuzzy hat.

"Yeah," continues Frey, "I think I wrote most of them. Ralph had some. [Laughs.] What did we write?" Armin shrugs, and Frey goes on, "I'm kind of running things behind the scenes…"

Okay, okay, so it's all Frey, except that at least one song predates Swarm of Angels. "Medea," a driving Love and Rockets sound-alike started its life on a Nikki Texas EP, where its sound was much more related to the electropop of Japanic. Aha. So it's not Frey. But they would never cop to that -- that would make things too easy.

"Afterparty, A Pink Cloud…I'll always be A Pink Cloud." Benczedi is still stuck on the first question.

If not the band's songwriter, Texas is its most obvious mythmaker. "I have the look," Texas explains, "they have the chops. We've all got the attitude. I'm working on becoming the voice." In Japanic, Texas (who was -- remember -- then using his given name, Tex Kerschen) embodied the unholy union of James Brown and Soft Cell's Mark Almond. It was Kerschen who made watching Japanic so compelling. He was frantic and cool at the same time, going through a range of high-energy dance moves but still maintaining a certain detachment. Not so with Swarm of Angels. Now Texas is all drunken swagger. He leans on the mike stand and bleats his lyrics while giving Fonzie-like thumbs-up/thumbs-down signals to the band, who pay little if any attention. Contrived? Yes. But still compelling.

"My first band was called Scrumptious Guts…"

Swarm of Angels' only release so far is the four-song Plessure EP, which in true indie-rock fashion comes not only as a CD but also as the venerable seven-inch record. "Medea" notwithstanding, the songs are reminiscent of '70s new wave -- that is to say, the new wave of bands like Television and Talking Heads, rather than the 1980s version of Duran Duran and Human League. They have a driving rhythm, punctuated by sharp guitar bursts, and are really held together by only Texas's vocals, without which they'd threaten to fall apart. Each song comes with a dare to Texas to stop it from collapsing. It's serious fun.

"Then Goth Socks. Then Falcon Leather Gift…"

Texas takes the chaos in stride; he may even prefer it. In a brief reflective moment, he confides that the breakup of Japanic was a painful one. "It's always the party bands who are the most serious," he says. Then his sarcasm sneaks back in. "The serious bands (like Swarm of Angels) are the most fun offstage."

So maybe the idea this time is just to have fun and not to take things so seriously -- as the band plainly did with this interview. And who could begrudge Swarm of Angels a little fun?

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Justin Crane