Imagine you're a new band all but starting from scratch: struggling to book gigs, pay for studio time, and get your music out to potential fans. Now imagine you're middle-aged, and there are dozens of bands in town jockeying for those same things, except with the advantage of being about ten to 20 years younger than you are.
In a nutshell, that's the dilemma facing the Dead Links, the striking and relatively recent musical partnership between Ken Sheppard and Scott Ayers. Working in their favor are a pedigree that includes some of Houston's best-remembered alternative bands (those who do remember them, that is), a mysterious modern-rock sound quite unlike any other group in town, and an album Sheppard believes is good enough to win over any skeptics, if only he could figure out the best way for people to hear it.
The Links may have the longest gestation time in recent local-music memory. Sheppard and Ayers met a few years ago when a mutual friend introduced them at a party. Sheppard played Ayers a song from his old band, the INXS-ish Twenty Mondays, "and he thought it didn't suck," he reflects. Eventually Ayers sent over about ten musical sketches he thought might suit Sheppard's style; Sheppard turned that into a five-song demo, adding melodies, harmony, lyrics, everything but Ayers' rough guitar parts.
Ayers was satisfied with what Sheppard sent him, and the duo set about making their eponymous debut LP they self-released this past summer (featuring bassist Brett Needham and drummer Steve Bundrick), and now here they are. When they open for rebooted L.A. New Wave band Berlin of "The Metro" and "Take My Breath Away" fame tonight at Numbers (with an early start time of 7:30 p.m.; doors at 7), it will be the Dead Links' sixth proper gig.
"I'm writing hundreds of songs all the time," chuckles Ayers. "But they were really kind of crude and unfinished. They're just ideas. I'd give him a tape, and a few of those ideas were good. Some of those songs are on the album."
The guitarist is arguably best-known for his stint in industrial/punk group the Pain Teens, one of Houston's most popular underground bands of the '90s, but his credits extend to other groups like Anarchitex, Exterminating Angels, the Walking Time Bombs, and his solo project Geltab and collaborations with the Catastrophic Theatre company. Ayers says was raised on blues guitar closer to Jimi Hendrix, an element that definitely creeps into the album here and there.
Within The Dead Links, uptempo songs like "It's Not Safe," "High as It Goes" and "That Makes It Easy" swim in electronic effects and have the same kind of early-90s industrial drive of Stabbing Westward or the Jesus and Mary Chain. The ballads, meanwhile, are more varied but almost uniformly excellent: "Silver" is a hair away from being a country song (perhaps as played by Alice In Chains), "Not Good Times" resembles Nine Inch Nails without all the screaming, and "Missing & Repeating" is a not-too-distant cousin to Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." Unifying the album is a maturity that includes at times a palpable feeling that time may be running out.
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"I just realized that when I was younger and I was writing songs, I had all these opportunities," says Sheppard. "I would sometimes try to make up imaginary stories in my head, fiction. I enjoyed that. But I think it kind of held me back as a songwriter, as far as a lyricist goes. So know I've taken the advice over the years of just being dead honest.
Sheppard says he has battled depression in the past, and that he was out of music altogether for more than ten years. (He works as a graphic designer.) Until he met Ayers, he was worried that it might be permanent.
"Like whatever I'm feeling, whatever I've been going through, that's what my songs are about," he says. "Some of it was like, would music ever happen for me again? Five years ago that was a fear of mine: would I ever get to do something I'm proud of again, and record it? I don't have kids, so these are my kids. I want three generations from now to be hearing these things. If I don't have a kid, I want them to hear this."
The Dead Links are still taking baby steps, most recently a record-release in-store at Heights Vinyl three weeks ago. (Their album is also available at Cactus.) When we met at Rudyard's in September, Sheppard said he thought he was close to finding an Austin club that would book them. He'd also really like to find a way to get the album in front of European ears, because "I've had friends from Europe tell me it would probably work,"
Other than that, Sheppard says, "I would just like to play some shows and have people walk away and think, 'Wow, that's something that I haven't seen in a while' or 'Wow, that's really good.' I would just like to play quality shows, even if it was just one a month.
"I would like to start building a following," he says.
The Dead Links open for Terri Nunn's Berlin tonight at Numbers, 300 Westheimer. Doors open at 7 p.m., and the Links go on at 7:30.
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