Dozens of albums came out in the U.S. Tuesday, few (if any) with a more difficult and protracted gestation than Bring Back the Guns' Dry Futures. Officially, the record — released on guitarist/singer Matt Brownlie's brand-new local label Feow! Records — is the Houston indie-rock quartet's first, but as they began recording it shortly after changing their name from Groceries in 2004, it sure doesn't feel like it.
"We collided head-on with every force of nature that keeps a record from coming out," sighs guitarist Erik Bogle, seated around an upstairs table at Rudyard's with Brownlie, bassist Ryan "Shaggy" Hull and drummer Thomas Clemmons. (Both Bogle and Clemmons tend bar at the Montrose mainstay.)
Dry Futures' genesis was fraught with personnel issues; BBTG burned through two bassists before Hull came aboard. The first, Bogle says, "we kind-of-sort-of kicked out for his own good." He wanted to be a professional pilot, and now gives Bogle flying lessons. The next, Bogle's childhood friend, didn't work out either. "Let's just say he wasn't on the level with where we wanted to be going with music," the guitarist hedges. "He was more interested in getting a job; that's the nicest way to put it. After a couple of years of not talking, we're actually friends again."
There were scheduling problems. BBTG's engineers cut them an "amazing" deal, Brownlie says, but the condition was they had to record piecemeal, often late at night, and be ready to clear out of the studio at any time. "We were recording at Rap-a-Lot Studios, because our engineer friends were working there," says Bogle. "We were there at the same time Devin the Dude was making To the Extreme, Slim Thug was making a record there and people were up there making beats, so the little indie-rock guys were kind of on the back burner."
As might be expected, they have a couple of good stories about their time at Rap-a-Lot. "Devin is the coolest dude," Bogle says. "I was tracking a part on 'Radio Song' and the door to the room opens. I'm like, 'Recording here, man,' and it's Devin standing there with a can of Bud Light. I'm sitting maybe 30 feet from the door, but it's all hardwood floors. He rolls the beer on the floor and it slides right up to my feet. I was playing an open E chord, so I let go, kept strumming, reached down, popped the can open, took a sip, put it down and Devin was like, 'Later.'"
But worst of all, after all the work they put in, the hard drive containing what would become Dry Futures crashed. Twice. "We lost the whole record [the first time]," moans Bogle. "We were so close to being done." The second time wasn't quite as catastrophic — they had only tracked Futures' bass and drum parts when the hard drive crashed.
When they finally did finish, things didn't get any easier. The band spent months at a time trying to stir up label interest. Their efforts were in vain, although they came close a couple of times. Slim Moon, founder of famous Northwest indie Kill Rock Stars (Bikini Kill, Elliot Smith, Decemberists, Gossip), came to see them a few times onthe West Coast and liked what he heard, but ultimately decided his plate was too full. "He said, 'I'm putting out 48 records this year, sorry,'" sighs Brownlie. "He did refer us to a couple of other people, but that was like six months where we didn't know what we were going to do."
Afterwards, BBTG began talking with Chicago's Lucid Records, home to fellow Houstonians Spain Colored Orange, and considered a few other labels, but by this point Brownlie realized there was nothing a small indie could offer the band that he couldn't do himself.
From the band's previous tours and negotiations, he had connections with distributors and publicity firms — but more than that, a very personal stake in the album's fate. He partnered up with good friend/former bandmate Jana Hunter and Arthur Bates, alter ego of local electro crooner Wicked Poseur, and Feow! signed on last month with Rhode Island singer-songwriter Deer Tick's War Elephant. Dry Futures is only the label's second release.
"There's no chance any of those outside entities are going to be as interested in making the record a success as I am," Brownlie says. "It seemed like the right thing to do."
Now that the album is finally out, all Bring Back the Guns can do is hope people pay attention, and hailing from Houston doesn't help their cause any. In national indie-rock circles, Houston might as well be Baytown. Although things have gotten somewhat easier for the band — they've been written up on Pitchfork and are able to book shows fairly easily in places like St. Louis and Omaha, a good thing since they're without a booking agent at the moment —they know changing that longstanding perception isn't going to be easy.
"There's not a lot of people here who are active who have made connections to people in Chicago, people in New York, people in Lawrence and so on and so forth," explains Brownlie. "It's harder to find people to go to who can get talking to somebody somewhere else. That's why every tour you can possibly do, even if it's a tour where 90 percent of the time you're playing to five people, is the most valuable time you can possibly spend as a band."
Still, Houston being so far off the national indie-rock radar does have certain benefits. "I think there's probably a lot of inspiration from not being watched all the time," says drummer Thomas Clemmons, another Groceries holdover. When Clemmons, Bogle and Brownlie started that group — once part of a close-knit scene that included the Westbury Squares, Japanic, Lucky Motors and Matty & Mossy — in spring 1998, they vowed to stick with it for ten years and see where they wound up. "Hear that, Houston?" jokes Brownlie. "You've got six more months. Spend it wisely."
"All the bands here just do exactly what comes to mind," says Bogle. "We're not thinking like, 'Where does this fit into the bigger picture?' I think that's why our record is so hard to define." By his reckoning, Dry Futures is a hybrid of the Pixies, Les Savy Fav, Pavement, Drive Like Jehu and Fugazi: "Think of how those bands might collide."
"Our [Groceries] recordings are significantly more pop than we've been the past few years," Brownlie says. "But I think we're slowly starting to get poppier again."
Though they haven't even thought about when they might head back into the studio, BBTG figures they have between 75 and 90 percent of their next record written right now. After what happened with Dry Futures, though, they're allowing themselves a very generous timetable. And who can blame them?
"If we start recording next April or May," Brownlie figures, "it should be out in October 2012."