Houston Music

The Suffers Brace for Stardom as the World’s Most Dangerous Gulf Coast Soul Band

Every show, The Suffers launch their arms into the air.

The plus-size Houston band always begins a performance with their arms thrust toward a limitless sky and a roar to signal their arrival. It’s their way of cutting through the tension, knifing their way through any nervousness and anxiety. Only this time, something is different. A light hangs overhead like a heavenly body giving them instructions. That’s what it feels like for The Suffers on this night. It’s a Tuesday night; the band is days ahead of releasing their self-titled debut album. The stage is Comedy Central, and the moment is The Daily Show.

This moment is owned by The Suffers, as is almost every moment these days. When drummer Nick Zamora kicks off the opening notes, co-founder Pat Kelly chimes in with his keyboard, focused and yet free. It’s when Kam Franklin, the band’s boisterous lead singer, steps in front of the microphone that things amplify to higher degrees. A song about making up after a fight shouldn’t feel this spiritual and close, yet “Peanuts” does. Franklin, clad in an orange dress that looks like a Keith Haring painting, and Afro-picked almost to perfection, dances, twirls, engages and smiles. Trevor Noah, The Daily Show’s host, is impressed. Not as smitten as David Letterman was when the band torched his Late Show stage in March 2015, but warm nonetheless.

Besides their late-night hosting gigs, what Noah and Letterman shared was their first hit off Houston’s musical drug of the moment. Watching a band, loud and colorful, move with such precision completely knocked the two men back. It pushed Noah into complimentary awe, and forced Letterman to do something he rarely does — hug a guest (Franklin) and kiss her on the cheek. “If you can’t do this,” he said following their performance, “get out of the business.”

Afterward, The Suffers proclaim that they aren’t tired, but this is only Tuesday. Days later, they’ll conclude their week by playing four times in Houston, culminating with raucous back-to-back sold-out shows at the Continental Club. “Tired?” Zamora asks while walking through Cactus Music early Friday evening. “I wouldn’t even know about it.”

The origins of The Suffers date to June 2011, with Adam Castaneda and Kelly. Castaneda’s history with Los Skarnales, the popular local cumbia and ska outfit that first emerged in 1994, taught him a few things, among them how to blend multiple genres. At 32 years old, he doesn’t seem like a long-standing member of the Houston musicians’ guild when we meet at Cactus Music. Instead, he’s thumbing through vinyl records by Elvis Presley as he peers toward Nick Zamora, whose conversation veers into the band’s misadventures on the road and bad shows. The group’s manager, Mark Austin, lingers in the background, making sure cities like Austin don’t sell out of the group’s album before the store can restock.

“When we started this band, all of us had been in bands together in some way. In all different genres and stuff,” Castaneda says, his hair a bit messy, but his posture still as if he’s ready to pick up his bass. “[The Suffers] was originally supposed to be a reggae cover band doing Bobby Brown songs and New Order songs and David Bowie songs. Then we started naming people who we wanted in the band, started making phone calls, and had the roster set within the first couple of weeks. Nobody really left.”

The way Castaneda and Kelly chose musicians from across the city was almost identical to the way the perfect pickup-sports team is crafted. It’s how the duo managed to snag Nick Zamora, the group’s drummer and musical Swiss Army knife, and his guitarist brother Alex. The band continued picking up players — Jon Durbin on trumpet, Michael Razo on trombone and Jose “Chapy” Luna on percussion. Luna’s previous stint in a KISS cover band elicits plenty of laughs from Castaneda and Nick Zamora. Before long, The Suffers had swelled to a solid nine members before the group added Franklin as their voice, the signature ingredient in the gumbo that makes up their self-described Gulf Coast Soul.

While Castaneda’s demeanor is mostly subdued and calm until he hits the stage, Nick Zamora is much different. He jokes that he’s conserving energy, but he’s still running off the nervous energy of the band’s album finally being released. It was he who released the download links to the band’s Kickstarter followers during the week, making sure the diehards were fed. Those same hardcore fans are the ones who pack out a rather modest record shop like Cactus; they also showed up en masse at House of Blues for New Year’s Eve.

The selective process they used in forming The Suffers led to only one departure, Castaneda’s brother. The drummer’s chair was also briefly occupied by a guy they refer to simply as “Bob.” “We called Nick when we first started the band, and he didn’t call back in time,” Castaneda says. “The other guy did.”

Nick Zamora admits his early idea of the band, much like that of many other members of The Suffers, was that it was just another group. “Everybody was in a situation, other things going on,” he says. “I was playing in different bands, and I asked myself, ‘Could I do another thing?’’ It sounded good, but I wised up.”
For many of the band’s members, the side gigs were piling up. Castaneda already held firm with Los Skarnales, but also served as one of the main faces of Lower Life Form, a hip-hop soul band he was part of that had formed in 2000, as well as with Ryan Scroggins & the Trenchtown Texans, a country, reggae and ska band.

“We did border on a bit of Kentucky bluegrass,” he laughs.

“I know before I came to this band, I emceed for Gritsy, the dubstep collective here for about five years,” Franklin chimes in. “I also sat in with [Los] Skarnales whenever I could and mostly did hip-hop and R&B sit-ins whenever people would let me do stuff.“

Nick nods. “Pat was doing show tunes and stuff,” he says. “So we’ve pretty much got every genre in Houston covered. That’s probably why when we got together, everything felt comfortable. ’Cause we all knew each other.”

The familiarity between Nick Zamora and Castaneda extends far beyond The Suffers. The two of them held two practices for a rock band in the vein of Dinosaur Jr. before things, according to them, got “weird” in 2010. But the two at least knew there was chemistry. Franklin got hip to Zamora’s techniques, questioning if he was just an R&B drummer. Castaneda nudged her with “Well, he does some R&B.”

For Franklin, Nick Zamora and Castaneda, their “side-piece band,” as they originally referred to The Suffers, was starting to gel. Musically, they learned how not to step on one another’s toes. For Franklin, the constant morphing of her own sound has led her to become not just one of the more visible women on the national festival scene but one of the more prominent women in Houston period.

How Kamerra Franklin went from being just another R&B singer to Houston’s most recognizable female performer is a tale unto itself. Eight years ago, she had released an EP, Bam It’s Kam, and thought it would be ripped to shreds.

“It wasn’t mixed; it wasn’t mastered,” she reflects on the colorful 2008 project. “I was so young and so new to the game that I needed to have something. I wanted to go to SXSW and be anywhere, everywhere. I wish someone would have told me to mix and master it. But I’m glad it was as raw as it is.”

At the time Franklin was singing for numerous projects. As the voice of indie-rock/soul group Heptic Skeptic, she wore her hair almost in a slicked-down 1960s schoolgirl fashion. The end of that band led her to become a wanderer, singing with acts like Skarnales and Umbrella Man but with no group to claim as her own. When she broke her ankle before the 2009 Houston Press Music Awards, she pressed on and performed sitting down. In photos taken back then, Franklin looks almost unrecognizable.

Now Franklin has a dress named after her, the Bam It’s Kam! model; it’s solid red with a floral print. Her presence and gracious demeanor are just as noticeable as her voice, which channels bits of Aretha Franklin and could be compared with that of Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes. She gets stopped by fans, thanked and fawned over like a starlet, and still finds herself taken aback when complete strangers sing her words back to her as loud as possible.

“It keeps getting weirder,” Franklin says of the band’s ascent. “But we’re only getting stronger as a group.”

As Franklin’s stature in Houston has grown, so has the importance of her opinion and her defense of the band’s rise. In a series of tweets in January, Franklin indulged in a bit of catharsis, leveling everything out about The Suffers’ massive growth and how all the outside noise couldn’t burst the band’s bubble.

“So many people think that it’s other folk that need to change, when most of the time, it’s actually the other way around,” she says. “I truly believe in Houston and the artists that help make our scene what it is. It’s easy to blame lack of success on the lack of industry within the city, but you have to work on your product before you can try to sell it to anyone.”

Franklin remembers the initial criticisms of the band. Too big. Needed to subtract. Too close to being toe-tagged with a retro-soul label. The band heard all of it and instead continued pressing forward. Franklin curses and swears off all the outside distractions.

“Ten works for us,” she says. “Downsizing would only take away from the sound that drew people to us in the first place.” The only outsider they chose to truly listen to? Lionel Richie.

“It wasn’t like we were trying to go out of our way to be different; we just are different,” Franklin says. “Minus all of that, at the end of the day, our love for the music we create is way stronger than any label they could ever try to slap on us.”

When your eyes fall upon Mark Austin, the first thing you notice is his beard. It’s bright red, but not completely bushy. He wears a hat in most situations but is always locked in business mode, even when overseeing distribution, sales and other details for the city’s most popular band.

In December 2013, two years after The Suffers began making their bones, Austin came on as their manager. Besides being a freelance photographer (including for the Houston Press), he was a talent buyer at the time, putting together a holiday show at Warehouse Live. “I’ve known most of the band for years working around the scene, and knew that each player was highly respected for their skill set, so when they all ended up in one band, I knew it would likely be something special.” he says. “I had no idea we’d all end up here, though.”

The “here” Austin refers to is the spread-out set of press events and shows that The Suffers have to contend with during their album-release week. Two shows at the Continental Club sold out in a couple of hours. Another performance, this one at Cactus Music, was wristband-only. They also sat in on Great Day Houston. The only thing that seems to make Austin waver is when a fan presses up against the window at Cactus to show off his purchase of the band’s new album. Franklin laughs as Nick Zamora and Castaneda bow in gratitude.

Yesterday, The Suffers made its Billboard debut, at No. 2 on the Heatseekers Albums chart. Rhyme & Reason Records, the band’s home, comes with the tagline “music how it should be.” It was established in 2015 by Emmy Black, and she and operations officer Annmarie Scuderi have catered to the band’s need to be greater. The Suffers want that badly, just as badly as their manager wants more copies of the album sitting on store shelves in Austin and beyond.

Back at Cactus, Austin's eyes are droopy, down but straining a bit to show liveliness. He shrugs off any sense of fatigue, almost echoing Zamora’s sentiments about the band’s crazed week. “I’m not the only one putting in the work or losing the sleep in this situation,” Austin says with glee. “There’s a small army of ninjas that never sleep to help make this happen.”

He begins listing the band’s extra hands, the people behind the scenes who keep everything functioning while the group performs at sellout shows all over the city and festival dates across the country. “Their contributions are so vital to the successes here,” Austin adds.

With each name he mentions, the tone in his voice creates an idea of familiarity, of family. Franklin agrees, mentioning her grandmother’s telling all her casino friends about her baby’s band. Austin considers all the background players to be men and women who could claim the band as their own.

“It’s more important than money and it can’t be bought,” he says, lowering his voice. “You will lose all the sleep in the world if you are passionate. We aren’t to the ‘mountaintop’ yet, but the band and this team are just passionate enough that we aren’t gonna stop climbing till we get there. It’s going to take a lot of work, and we know and embrace that.”

With comparisons to other bands come old habits. With old habits come friction and attempts to play your way out of them. And when you’re dealing with musicians who play everything, their own ideas tend to spill over more often than not.

The original idea for The Suffers, as Castaneda explains, was to play cover songs, tinker with blending the sounds they grew up on and loved such as ska and cumbia, but they couldn’t necessarily force it. Otherwise they would fall into the trap that Franklin warned about.

“I remember certain people got snapped at during rehearsal if they said, ‘Hey, let’s add this ska riff’ or ‘Let’s play it more reggae,’ and we had to yell, ‘Stop it! Get your feet off that wah pedal,” Franklin says while surrounded by Castaneda and Nick Zamora. Even with the album itself, Zamora thought the trajectory was moving more toward that of a dance record. The Suffers leads off with the rousing “Make Some Room” and “Dutch,” two elements of the band’s fearless live show. Things take on a smoother, two-step vibe with “Slow It Down” before picking right back up with “Gwan.” Even if Zamora and company didn’t want to make a flat-out dance record, the bulk of The Suffers is composed of songs that have already made their stage show legendary.

As concerned as The Suffers were to make sure they didn’t overstep one another, there was no larger challenge than translating their live show into their studio sessions. As their New Year’s Eve, Late Show and Daily Show spots have proven, The Suffers rise as one into a kinetic force of energy and sound. The horns click off one another, the drums raise hairs on your neck, and Franklin, the conductor of all this madness, is the headliner. When fans come to see The Suffers, they expect her to smile and laugh in between songs before conveying the feeling of a preacher in front of a pulpit on a Sunday morning, sweating and losing control with every move because the spirit is within him. There’s no rigidness to The Suffers’ live show — they just go.

“For the shows, I don’t feel that pressure to go above and beyond. It’s just a part of who we are,” Franklin says. “It’s the one part of the day where we can just wild out and be who we are. But there’s no ‘You’re gonna do this or we need to do it like this.’ There’s this shared energy. You don’t want Adam upstaging you, so you better bring it. It’s helpful if you’ve got good lights, if you don’t look like shit. It’s all about performing that art you created.”

Castaneda agrees. “We’ve all been to shows,” he says. “We all just have that instinct of giving a good show.”

Their tour dates and shows have exploded over the past two years. Every single time Austin sees the band take the stage, he doesn’t shy away from being surprised and amazed at each turn. “I still get choked up routinely at shows because of the impact they have on me,” he says. “And it’s kind of mind-blowing that I’ve seen them this many times and worked with them so closely for so long that there hasn’t been a time that I thought, ‘Man, they had an off night tonight’ or ‘They’ve checked out on me.’

“If anything, it takes all I’ve got sometimes to keep up with them,” he adds. “When you are focused like that and prepare like they do, that’s the result you get every time. It’s inspiring to watch that level of dedication.”

It’s one thing for The Suffers to have monumental support in their native Houston. Individually, they’ve all taken plenty of time to familiarize themselves with the venues, the barkeeps, the production managers. That attention has nurtured a support system in which the moment they announced two shows at The Continental Club in honor of their album’s release, both sold out within minutes. When the band prepared for a release-week midday performance at Cactus, people lined up around the block to gain access, effectively turning the Upper Kirby home for vinyl into a temple where The Suffers were the only totems worthy of worship.

That crazed feeling has begun to creep over into other cities as well. As Nick Zamora and Castaneda pick each other’s brain about the group’s rare pitfalls in certain venues, Franklin breaks the conversation with a bit of star-struck remembrance.

“Louisville, that was probably the weirdest for me,” she recounts. “Seeing all those people sing along and not knowing anybody there. They were probably the most passionate, outside of Houston. It wasn’t a bad show the first time we came there; we had a low-attendance tour and we had to prepare ourselves for it. But it was the Letterman tour, and that place, it was the lowest turnout for our tour. Now we’re going back and playing a festival there.”

As The Suffers give their bows and kudos following the final release show at the Continental, labeled “The Suffers’ Valentine’s Day Booty Shake,” a calm settles over the band. The most hectic week in their history is finally done. They’ve kept a mental scrapbook of every performance, every bit of press coverage and every awkward moment on the road when they were more prone to getting lost than riding smoothly. Franklin remembers the very first night; it was her birthday.

“It was the Mink, upstairs. Two-dollar Tuesdays,” she says. “I remember being so excited because I knew there was a cake downstairs. Everybody liked it and was talking to us after we finished the show. And then…some guy went face-first into my cake.

“People get pushy at the shows. We love our fans; hopefully they’ll learn to love each other,” Franklin adds. “We’re lucky.”

Recalling that night at the Mink brings up bathroom doors getting holes punched in them, and fights at House of Blues before the band hit the stage. The ten-piece band belongs to several communities — punk rock and ska, hip-hop and R&B, cumbia and jazz. Their fans are fellow members of those communities, and will fight and bleed for what they love. In a way, that concept is what makes The Suffers so Houston — Houston is a community of fighters and multifaceted individuals who will argue, debate and rage until they can’t no more.

They’re so Houston that they’re defiant. The Suffers care not for preconceived notions of what a band should look or sound like. Visually, they’re a glimpse of what Houston has always been — black, white, Hispanic. Their attitude is stubborn, and even though it may be progressive, it’s still willing to punch you in the face when necessary. It’s cliché now to refer to them as festival darlings or anyone’s “next big thing.” They’ve arrived, already imagining a future that includes bigger venues and a sophomore album that’s been in the works for months.

“We are realizing that it is this level of ‘give a fuck’ that it takes to get to those next levels. And getting to them doesn’t make this group slack off or slow down a bit,” Mark Austin says. “It’s scary.”

Today The Suffers are the World’s Most Dangerous Gulf Coast Soul band — and they also have members with black belts in case shit gets hectic.
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Brandon Caldwell has been writing about music and news for the Houston Press since 2011. His work has also appeared in Complex, Noisey, the Village Voice & more.
Contact: Brandon Caldwell