The Austin Curse

It's a Texas rock and roll cliché: Young music buffs move to Austin to attend the University of Texas, start a band, graduate (or not) and stick around town to make a go of the group. Some acts, from the Reivers through Fastball and on down to Vallejo, have gone on to earn a name beyond the mislabeled "Live Music Capital of the World," but the real cliché may be all those bands that haven't. After all, in Austin one can hardly sneeze (from the year-round allergens in the air) without spraying a bevy of Texas exes with rock and roll fantasies. But for all of Austin's self-proclaimed eminence, such accomplishments as sustained success and -- God forbid! -- genuine stardom are the surprisingly rare exception.

The five Houston transplants in Zykos hope to win a measure of immunity to the slacker rule. So far, the signs certainly augur well for them. In little more than a year on the circuit, they have become a regular attraction at some of the better Austin clubs, signed with a (small local indie) label, recorded a CD and showcased during South By Southwest.

It doesn't hurt that they enjoy close connections to Spoon, one of the few bands to make it out of Austin alive in recent years. Spoon's rise to national viability and respect serves as a model for Zykos, whose debut CD, Comedy Horn, was mixed by Spoon drummer Jim Eno and will be released May 6 on Post-Parlo Records, which is run by Spoon tour manager Ben Dickey.

So they've got the "who you know" part down pat. Now just who are they and what is it that they do?

First, who they are. Zykos is two guys named Mike, two guys named Jared and Jarod, and a woman named Catherine. They grew up on and around a street called Pebble Springs in the Champions area and have hung out and/or played music together in various permutations since their high school years. Once they all graduated from college, Zykos got serious when drummer Jarod Cykoski moved to Austin from College Station. The band name came from the most "ridiculously misspelled" junk mail Cykoski ever received, and also perhaps to guarantee that they will always be the second-to-last entry in the "Texas bands" section of your local music store.

And now, what they do. Comedy Horn boasts being quite likable as its greatest asset. Like many acts in these times of pervasive influences, the Zykos bunch shies away from tagging itself with fairly obvious comparisons. However, the fact is that it's obvious that these kids were musically weaned on the moody musicality of bands like Bowie, R.E.M., New Order and Nirvana, and this writer isn't the first one to hear the Psychedelic Furs' Richard Butler's snarl in singer-guitarist Mike Booher's voice. In short, Zykos feels like a known quantity before they've become known, and all they need to do is put their distinctive spin on the sound and pen some songs that walk away with the listener. Otherwise, as manager Sally Clark notes, "all the elements are in place."

Spend any time with them and you can feel the closeness of their shared history. That familiarity is a mixed blessing. "Being in a band with people you've known for ten, 12 years isn't all that easy," notes guitarist Jared Harmeier. "There can be a lot of tiptoeing around because you know how they're going to react to something you could say about what they're doing."

"At the same time, we're really good at getting mad at each other and getting over it quickly," insists pianist Catherine Davis.

Their first interview for a publication outside of Austin finds them, auspiciously, on the eve of buying their first tour van. They gather to talk with the interviewer at a local pub, and like the rest of their contemporaries, they're throwing down a few Friday-evening shots and beers. But as the downtown weekend party starts to really get hearty, Zykos will go back to work and rehearse.

That work ethic is one thing that the members of Zykos believe they have going for themselves, even though it's ironically expressed by Booher's announcement: "We're all ready to let our jobs go by the wayside and see what happens."

Of course, he's talking about their day jobs as waitstaff and sales reps. Davis sees ditching them as the solution to what one local wag likes to call the Austin Curse. "I think a lot of bands don't tour," he says. "A lot of bands get stuck here in Austin. And I think that's what happens. We're all willing to make the sacrifice of losing our jobs -- maybe that's a sacrifice -- to go on the road."

And it's not like they're expecting to be the next Eminem or anything like that. Davis defines success as "not [necessarily] being famous but being able to live and be happy doing it." Bassist Mike Roeder notes how "somehow certain bands seem to be able to do it right," to balance commercial success with integrity, and the band cites Spoon, Radiohead and the Flaming Lips as groups they would like to emulate in that regard. And so far, at least, they're well on their way. Roeder marvels at how, up to now, Zykos has been "pretty spoiled" in landing good gigs and winning a record deal rather quickly.

The band members say that their friends rave about the band, and Zykos believes it's not just because they're friends. Maybe those pals are merely a little overserved. "We have a lot of friends and they come out to see us and drink a lot of booze," Davis explains. It's working out for everybody involved. The club owners are happy, the friends are soused, the band members get their egos stroked, and hell, it could be the first wellspring of the elusive buzz that signals talent on the rise.

Is Zykos just another in a million postcollege bands? Or can it be one of the handful that can make the rock music game work for them? Only time will tell, but until then, the folks in Zykos are having fun trying. And that's what it's all about.Zykos appears Friday, April 25, at Fat Cat's, 4216 Washington Avenue. The New Year and Silkworm are also on the bill. For more information, call 713-869-5263.

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Rob Patterson