Houston Music

The Drafted Spew a 'Chemical Alley Discharge' From Outside the Beltway

Led by limber-fingered Craig Stanley for more than a decade, Baytown's The Drafted roil with modern hardcore brimming with an agile dollop of jazz that would make Dillinger Escape Plan and the Refused take notice. Politically infused but not militantly strident, their tirades against rednecks and multinationals alike are caustic and barbed. Also, by taking aim at mass-media pundits, environmental woe, Southern heritage, cock-rock reactionaries, and even the wanton destruction of the Astrodome, they prove to be local heroes and agitators, not simple protest clones.

This easily links them to earlier era agit-punkers like Really Red as well as superstars like Dead Kennedys, plus newer insurrectionists including Propaghandi. Currently The Drafted are celebrating not just the survival of their band in the tough, often-ignored outer perimeters of Houston, but a new studio album birthed from analog processes, Chemical Alley Discharge, that is potent, versatile, and steaming with power. David Ensminger was able to speak with singer/guitarist Stanley about being an outsider near a metropolis of punk aplenty.

Houston Press: The band has now plowed on for over a dozen years as reigning punk icons of Baytown, deep in chemical alley — a city often overlooked, even though it’s next door to Houston. Have you felt integrated with the Houston punk scene, or does outsider status still shape you — not unlike the Minutemen, from working-class San Pedro (Calif.), which provides a unique perspective?
Craig Stanley: There was a fleeting moment around 2007 when I thought we were being integrated into the Houston punk scene. Some bands popped up in the city around that time and a little before that, like Molotov Compromise, Snot Nosed Terrors, and Gutter Rats, who we played several shows with. It was around that time that a local promoter named Scott Gray saw us play at the White Swan and invited us to play his annual Hometown Hoedown. I think he also offered us a show at Meridian opening for the Mentors that I turned down because I was away at college in New Orleans.

Overall, I feel we are still pretty far outside the Houston punk scene, if only because we've been playing there so seldom in recent years. Also, to me, the Houston punk scene seems to be pretty heavily focused on the fashion of the genre, and we've never had that “punk look.” Just look at our new photos from this year! The other dudes look cool, but not like typical punk rockers, and I look like I should be in a Christian rock band from 2001 or something.

As far as perspective, we definitely don't identify as pure Houstonians. We're all very much far east-siders, if you can even call us that. Being outside the loop, or both loops in this case (610 and the Sam), may be what partly inspired me to write a song called “City Hipsters” (not on the new album), which I wrote after a show we played at Fitzgerald's back in probably 2010. We went upstairs after our set and came across a lot of apparent college students who definitely carried a “trust fundy” kind of vibe to me. My intention with this new record was to sort of represent the east side of town. Baytown, Channelview, and Highlands may technically be suburban areas, but they're not “the burbs” in the soccer-mom sense of the term — far from it. We grew up and still live around blue-collar, working people who make the downtown Houston businessmen rich, the guys who then go home to the real “burbs,” out of sight of the refineries (is any bitter resentment showing through at this point?).

This album represents the first official professional studio foray for the band – why now, and did it reveal new possibilities but also new limitations too, given time and money?
Backstory time. We played our tenth anniversary show in 2013, and I made the decision to put the band on indefinite hiatus, which lasted for most of 2014. Scott Gray, as mentioned, invited us to play at the Hometown Hoedown again that year, which always falls Thanksgiving weekend. We had to make a substitution, but we agreed to play. When the night finally came, and we played one of the last shows at Mango's, I realized how much I still wanted The Drafted to continue. It was all because of the response of the crowd. Mainly, they didn't leave mid-set! That's pretty cool to me, as mediocre as that sounds. The fact that a pretty damn good chunk of people, many of whom never saw us before, stuck around until the end of our set and seemed to really dig it; that's something I don't want to turn my back on. I also felt we played well together with our substitute, my lifelong friend John MacDonald, and kind of made the executive decision to make him a permanent member. Then we played at a coffee shop called Cork Grinders in Baytown in December, and I was further affirmed in my ambition.

A few weeks after that, I'm at home on winter vacation and end up watching two documentaries about two really good analogue studios, Sound City and Muscle Shoals. Any musician who has seen these has probably had a similar reaction to what I had. After learning about those magical places, with their wonderful Neve consoles and two-inch tape machines, there was no other option in my mind. The Drafted had never gotten its due diligence in a real studio, and now I'm an adult with a real job and can maybe afford to save up for it, so that's what I decided to do. It just felt like the right time to try to record some songs on tape and hopefully put out a CD and 7” record. I searched specifically for local studios who had the ability to record to two-inch tape, came across Sound Arts, and contacted Brian Baker in the first week of 2015. I met with Brian and booked the studio for two days in June, then immediately started writing new material and brushing up some ideas I had during the hiatus. What we ended up using was a well-informed blend of analogue tape and digital ProTools. I'm very pleased with how it turned out.

Though the band has always wielded razor-sharp political views, like Dead Kennedys and Propaghandi, the newest tunes, like micro-blast songs “Prochoiceprogay,” “Ted Nugent Is a Pussy,” and “Exxonerate,” seem even more sharply focused. Is this a response to forces within punk, locally or nationally?
I have to give credit to my friend Harrison Molder, who plays in a few different bands right now that I shouldn't mention because by the time this is published, all the names will be different, but he introduced me to Powerviolence. I was preemptively introduced by the band Battle Rifle, but I didn't know it was referred to as Powerviolence, and I didn't know of any other such bands. The Drafted had written the eight-second “Proboscis” instrumental segue many years ago, and I wanted to sort of expound on that by doing some short, “blasty” songs with very pointed political lyrics. So that's where “Exxonerate” and “Prochoice” came from.

“Ted Nugent Is a Pussy” was another one that just sort of ended at 58 seconds and didn't need anything else, and someone had to say it eventually! Interestingly, our engineer Brian Baker had actually run the soundboard for Ted Nugent at one of his recent Texas concerts, we found out after tracking the song. In the overall context of punk and hardcore right now, these songs are a reaction to Houston locals Battle Rifle, and the “queercore” band, Limp Wrist (thanks, Harrison!), but I also have to acknowledge the guys who were doing it earlier, like John Zorn with Naked City, Arizona skate-punkers JFA, Napalm Death, and one of my all-time favorites, Descendents.

“Starve” not only attacks ludicrous bureaucracy but has a punk-funk midsection straight out of No Means No, then taps 1960s soul stars the Isley Brothers' hit “Nobody But Me.” Likewise, “Blastrodome” uses similar methods as well, with a repurposed “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” tucked in the punk barrage. I don’t recall the band using such tight mixology/mash-ups in the past to this degree. How do these come about?
Both of those songs just materialized in my head, as they tend to do. I guess that's just the way I'm hearing the music now. When I get done writing a song, I can recognize what other songs I'm alluding to, so these new songs are just doing that in a very self-aware way by diving in to a quote or an arrangement. Another one on the record is “Burn the Confederate Flag,” which puts new words to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I'm hoping it's because I'm somehow maturing as a writer, and not just getting lazy...

Rather than laziness, I was thinking about cross-penetration, that is, how does the act of repurposing/juxtaposing brings new meaning to the fore: like "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" can end up being a protest song against the needless destruction of the dome, a landmark building...

The rearranging of those tunes like in “Blastrodome,” and almost every other song on the CD is really taking a page from Jello Biafra. I've always been inspired by Jello's uncanny way of playing devil's advocate through his lyrics (“Kill the Poor” being a perfect example) and I really wanted to do something more hard hitting than our previous stuff, kind of like when the Dead Kennedys recorded In God We Trust, Inc. “Moral Majority” on that record has a long introduction using the melody of an old church hymn, and then seamlessly parroting the Mickey Mouse Club song before launching into a brutally fast hardcore punk song. That's almost exactly what I'm doing with “Burn the Confederate Flag,” for example. I'm just using a model that worked for the band that single-handedly led me to start this one (“When Ya Get Drafted” gave us our name). But I can't really tell you how I decided to quote that motif from the Isley Brothers tune (as recorded by Human Beinz, and technically it's only a partial quote, for all you copyright lawyers out there).

The ironic neo-rock ballad “Pipeliner” reminds me of DOA’s ability to harness the muscular rock genre but inject it with irony and criticism of rampant macho attitudes and ideologies that support, in your case, fracking, etc. Yet, you do get to wield some heavy musical chops, even when mocking 17-foot trucks! Are you secretly a cock-rocker?

I have to admit, the first rock band I got way too heavily into as a pre-teen was Aerosmith. They were one of the first bands who gave me the bug to play music. Before I discovered punk rock, it was all about Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Metallica and Hendrix for me.

What was it like to revisit those genre, but convey new lyrical possibilities — did you enjoy inhabiting the working-class swagger, but also subverting it?
“Pipeliner” is a lot of fun to play. There are literally four chords in the whole song, which is ironic because that's what punk is stereotyped for, but '70s arena-rock bands and the adult-contemporary rock acts of the late 70s were just as guilty of employing very minimal chord structure (I'm looking at you, Fleetwood Mac), but that's because it forces you to play with a lot of conviction when you do more with less. Sometimes you just gotta rock the hell out! On the double-plus side, it's always good to write a moderate-tempo song to give Aaron a chance to rest his arms, and for me to catch a breather. I really enjoy singing the bridge, where I switch to a scratchy guttural tone a lot like the singer from Mighty Mighty Bosstones, whom I've always admired as a vocalist. My only worry about “Pipeliner” is that it's so different that it kind of disrupts the already admittedly weak continuity of sound on this album. We don't really pin down one characteristic style on this album; it's a tad all over place, which could be seen critically or positively. I'm a big fan of bands who really have a distinctive and consistent sound, but that's never been our thing!

Why did you pick Nancy Grace as the stand-out media representative to target — was it her sheen of middle-class respectability or hollow morality?

I wrote “Nancy Grace” some time in 2008 while I was in college studying jazz. The Casey Anthony trial was fresh on the collective mind, and the song came to me while walking across campus. That's why it sounds so much different than the others on this disc. It's from our “jazz-punk” repertoire. Back then I was just disgusted with how she used her show to make it really hard to have an impartial jury on a case. Anyone who sensationalizes murder and presents unfounded conclusions as fact, about people who haven't yet seen trial, is a c**t, and that's exactly what I think she does and is. I'm also very opposed to mass media outlets constantly distracting people with things that shouldn't truly matter to them in the grand scheme of things, like random, however tragic, familial murders in Florida. So, it's an old, previously unrecorded song that I always liked, so we put it on the new album. Our newest member, John, has a song about Rush Limbaugh that he used to play with his old band. Maybe we'll pull that one out some time.

Obviously, your tune “Burn the Confederate Flag” is timely; yet, you live and work in the South, which had, and still has, conflicts stemming from history like the Civil War, and tense race relations. Baytown, in fact, houses a high school and college named after General Lee. So, is this issue more immediate and heartfelt to you?
For the record, we recorded the song five days before the 2015 shootings in Charleston, S.C., and I wrote it in late 2013, but that's not really important. I know it comes off like a total bandwagon thing now, but it's something I've felt strongly about for a long time. I have at least one ancestor who fought for the South, and I don't see that as a rationale for flying or wearing the Confederate flag. It may be “mainstream” or “PC” now to say that, but the fact is that many people still display the original CSA flag and especially the battle flag as some sort of personal statement and deny that it's about race. I take issue with that and always have. “Burn the Confederate Flag” is a statement that needs to come from people like myself, who could make the “heritage not hate” argument, but understand how idiotic and frankly reprehensible that is.

“Dioxin Pit” seems to meld local politics, eco-concerns, business practices, and multinationals in an honest, backyard form. Other bands can study Earth First and Noam Chomsky, but few live next to chemical alleys like the area of extended Baytown, one of the largest in the world. Does this give the work extra gravitas or sense of witnessing?

I think it does, but a lot of folks may not realize how close they actually live to other similar dump sites, perhaps even worse ones. In January of this year I was driving over the I-10 San Jacinto River bridge back to Channelview where I live, and I looked out at the pit, and it just hit me that I should write a song about it. I mean, no one else had as far as I knew. So, I emailed someone from Texanstogether.org, who are associated with the San Jacinto River Coalition, and was able to get a DVD of a video that the SJRC recorded at a community forum in Highlands, Texas where representatives of the EPA spoke and answered questions (and took quite the disgruntled verbal beating from local citizens) about the waste pits. They've had multiple meetings like this and still do so periodically. I used that video to get ideas for the lyrics, so I hope that it lends some street cred behind what I'm saying, and I hope I represent the community well with this song.

The Drafted release Chemical Alley Discharge this Friday with special guests Kloanoa and Ron Reeder at Cork Grinders, 206 W. Texas Ave. in Baytown.
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David Ensminger