If someone ever makes a movie based on Michael Azerrad's 2001 book Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, the venues onscreen will no doubt look a lot like the Axiom. The former liquor warehouse at 2524 McKinney (just east of Dowling) wasn't much to look at inside or out, but from 1987 to 1992 it was the home base of a thriving music scene encompassing rock, punk, funk, metal, hardcore, thrash, industrial, psychedelia and a few styles people still haven't figured out how to label.
"There was a lot of good underground music, and it was just this really raw environment that allowed for that to be," says former dead horse singer Michael Haaga. "It was a place we all kind of grew up around."
The Axiom hosted dozens of notable touring bands — Nirvana, Dead Milkmen, Dinosaur Jr., Flaming Lips, Fugazi, Melvins, Social Distortion, Mudhoney, Uncle Tupelo and Yo La Tengo, to name a handful — but its heartbeat was always the local bands. Besides dead horse, Sprawl, de Schmog, Toho Eiho, Pain Teens, Sugar Shack, Fleshmop, Three Day Stubble, Dresden 45, Sad Pygmy, Bayou Pigs, Culturecide, Cave Reverend and many more played there in all sorts of combinations. Many participated in memorable special events like all-day "Sabbathons" and an original production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The Axiom also offered Houston artists, both the visual and performance varieties, a space to display their works.
"I always welcomed every band and the local arts," says former owner J.R. Delgado. "I wasn't expecting such a large number of patrons. It was going to be just a warehouse space, and it just grew."
Delgado, a draftsman by trade who played in local "drunk rock" group the Party Owls (who later became Sugar Shack), opened the Axiom after he was laid off and spent a couple of years traveling. He wanted to open a place that reminded him of the clubs he had seen in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, places where artists, musicians and other assorted misfits could feel at home.
"When I got back, Cabaret Voltaire had closed down, and there wasn't any place for bands to play, including mine," he says. "So I thought, 'Why not open a club?'"
Although Delgado actually took over Cabaret Voltaire's former space, at that point it was basically an empty warehouse. In August 1987, Verbal Abuse, the now-legendary hardcore band who relocated from Houston to the Bay Area along with D.R.I. and M.D.C. in the early '80s, was looking for a place to play in town, and Delgado offered up his new venue, although it didn't have a bar or any of the necessary permits. The Axiom was off to an auspicious start.
"The night of the show, there were over 300 people hanging out outside blocking the streets waiting for us to open the door," he says. "It was total chaos. Vampyros Lesbos opened up for Verbal Abuse — I think they played about three or four songs, and before we knew it the cops were outside."
The Axiom would continue butting heads with authority throughout its run. Though it was open almost five calendar years, Delgado says the actual number is closer to four "if you count all the times I was shut down." The fire marshal was a regular visitor, skinhead-instigated brawls were not uncommon and staff members sometimes had to barricade themselves in the club from roving bands of neighborhood crackheads. All these things helped the Axiom's regulars form a strong sense of community.
"I think people did feel really comfortable there," says Julie Grob, the club's former booking agent and publicist. "I don't think people walked in and thought, 'I shouldn't be here because I don't have enough tattoos' or 'I'm not wearing the right T-shirt.' But at the same time it was a real edgy place — it was in this deserted warehouse neighborhood, and there'd be packs of stray dogs running around. It was edgy without being exclusive."
This spring, when Delgado realized it was creeping up on 20 years since he opened the Axiom, he contacted Grob and a few other ex-staffers to see if they had any interest in staging, as he puts it, a "high school reunion." Unfortunately, the building itself — longtime home to avant-garde theater company Infernal Bridegroom Productions until financial difficulties forced them to shut down earlier this year — wasn't available, but people are flying in from as far away as Brazil for this weekend's festivities at Fitzgerald's.
"It was a club that was run by someone who was part of the scene," says Grob. "People would go there regularly and they could do whatever they wanted as musicians there."
"The beauty of it all was we were so naive," offers Haaga. "It was all sort of off the cuff. We didn't necessarily have a clue what we were doing — it just sort of happened, and there was certainly a magic to it."Where are they now?
What some members of this weekend's bands are up to these days; all live in Houston unless otherwise specified. Thanks to Julie Grob for her help.Axiom
J.R. Delgado, owner: editorial/graphic artist, Penton Media, Inc. (industrial and trade publications).
Julie Grob, publicist/booking agent: Digital Projects and Instruction Librarian for Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries
Rebekah Johnson, publicist/art director: owner, Bergner and Johnson Design florist/event-decorating business
Mark Kamburis, business partner/bar manager: owner, Flipnotics Coffeespace Café (Austin)
Joe Claytor, metal booking agent: passed away in July 2005 car accident (R.I.P.)
Doug Jones (singer): senior vice president/director of sales, HarperCollins Publishers
Shaun Kelly (guitar/vocals/tapes): member of local experimental duo Rotten Piece
Carol Sandin Kelly (bass/vocals): member of Rotten Piece; photographer
Bob Lederer (drums): drummer, Poor Dumb Bastards
Phil Krieg (theremin): performs, records as Infant Mortality Rate
Lyman Hardy (drums): drummer, Pong (Austin)
Mark Fagan (bass): owner, Bunkhaus Records; sports editor/proofreader, Austin Chronicle
David Yammer (vocals): singer, the Spoilers (College Station)
Johnathan Sage (bass): bassist, Bright Men of Learning; owner, Johnathan Andrew Sage, Inc. florist
Diane Kostinen (vocals): singer, New Town Drunks (North Carolina); owner, Beehive Salon
Kilian Sweeney (vocals/guitar): singer, Churchbus (Chicago)
Jamie McGee (bass): metal fabricator and welder
Ruben Dominguez (guitar): guitarist, Lull; assignments editor/music correspondent, Fox 26 News
Sean Feeley (drums): drummer, Lull and Dolly Rockers
The Awful Truth
David von Ohlerking: manager, Austin Figurative Gallery; receptionist, A.G. Edwards & Sons/Wachovia stockbrokers
Matt Kelly (singer/organ): keyboards/vocals, Lick Lick; high school English teacher (Austin)
Clay Embry (saxophone): saxophonist, Brown Whornet (Austin)
Dave Dove (trombone): director, Nameless Sound
Nick Cooper (drums): drummer, Free Radicals; artist; writer; graphic designer
Damon Gill (vocals): plays in several Austin bands, including Squat Thrust and Remains of Something Human; owner, the Parlor.
Jeff Mikel (guitar): vintage guitar specialist, Burst Brothers (Hollywood)
Steve Heatherington (drums): hosts Monday "JamCircle" at Double Dave's on Ella; software teacher