But expectation and reality rarely jibe in the music industry, and at the end of the year Unloco's members found themselves back in Austin -- broke, disappointed and practically homeless. Staring at them from the latest cover of Spin or Pit was not them.
"Being green in the industry, we were told a lot of stories, and we expected a lot of things. They [obviously] didn't happen that way," Duenas says on the first day of rehearsals for the band's upcoming mini-tour opening for Papa Roach. "We expected to be this huge band out of our hometown, but came back and had not much to show for it. We did the best we could, but it was a big slap in the face, and puts you in a really bad place emotionally."
Add to that Duenas's unraveling romantic relationship and the shocking departure of his band's founding guitarist, and you've got one messed-up mind writing the band's next record, Becoming I (slated for a March release). The dozen aggressive, hard-rocking and surprisingly melodic songs feature some of the most self-hating and depressed lyrics in recent memory.
Even Saturday Night Live self-help guru Stuart Smalley might flee in panic from couplets like "I feel so empty inside / 'Cause I'm a freak in your eyes" ("Hands and Knees") and "There's nothing right / There's nothing great about this life" ("Drowning in It"), not to mention the upbeat proclamations "Everything I know just falls apart" ("Watching Me Slip") and "I feel like I don't exist" ("Fold"). The closer, "Texas," brings the pity party to a fatalistic end. Even the band's own press release calls 2001 the worst year of Duenas's life.
"But I wasn't suicidal or anything!" he laughs. "It was more like, 'Ugh, what else could go wrong?' We just didn't know what we were going to do with the rest of our lives!" But with a new management/A&R team, a strong record and several high-profile opening gigs, 2003 is looking better for the quartet.
Before forming Unloco in 1998, Duenas lived in Sharpstown for almost three years and tried to start up or join a number of bands, none of which amounted to anything. "Houston was not the city for me to be in," he says. "I couldn't find a band I really liked to play with." He had a day job at an engineering firm and asked for a transfer to the company's Austin office, hoping the change would help his musical ambitions.
In Austin, Duenas auditioned for a band that split up during the audition. Both fragments liked him, so he had to choose between signing up with the drummer or the bass player. Duenas went with the drummer, Pedro Navarrete. After they added Bryan Arthur on guitar and Duenas's old high school friend Victor Escareno on bass, the original Unloco was born. Soon, they had a steady gig at Austin's hard rock haven the Back Room.
"We learned how to work really hard in Austin. I learned a lot about getting people to your show," Duenas remembers. "We were out there with 1,000 flyers the night before a gig."
Austin also allowed Unloco to mingle with other acts. Duenas remembers catching a $3 pre-fame package of Incubus, System of a Down and Dial 7 at La Zona Rosa on a Tuesday night. But it was the ska-punkers in Goldfinger who provided Unloco with its biggest opportunity. After a show, Duenas got his CDs autographed by the band, and slipped Finger guitarist Charlie Paulson a demo. A week later, vocalist John Feldmann, who moonlighted as an A&R scout for Maverick, called a stunned Duenas to express Maverick's interest. Only four days later, the members of Unloco were signing a genuine record contract. Soon after that they were whisked away to record a song for the soundtrack to the Adam Sandler movie Little Nicky. Ultimately, they worked with producer Johnny K (Disturbed) on what would become Healing.
Ironically, Arthur would later leave the band to take the lead guitar slot in Goldfinger, a defection that still seems to peeve Duenas despite his hosannas about new ax man Mark Serrano. "It was like, 'Hey, what the hell happened?' " he says. "But Mark is a much better guitar player, and he knows his stuff. He's brought a lot of musicianship back to the band." As for Arthur, Duenas says he ran into him recently, and the former musical partners talked "for about two seconds" before continuing on in opposite directions.
Unloco also worked with a new producer for Becoming I: the single-monikered Mudrock (Godsmack, Powerman 5000). Duenas says that his involvement, as well as an increase in studio time, did wonders for the group.
Mudrock "took us to a different level; he didn't want us to be just a heavy band, but good songwriters, too," Duenas says. "He made us work really hard to achieve." The first-time presence of drum doctors, guitar techs and vocal coaches also proved a boon. Still, Duenas hopes that fans of the new record will go back to the first one, much like he did after discovering the Deftones via one of their late albums.
Despite his healthy desire to break big, Duenas says that Unloco is happy to spend 2003 as an opening act. After a previous jaunt supporting Kittie and the current mini-tour with Papa Roach, the band will hit the road again as the opener for a package tour that includes Disturbed, Taproot and Chevelle. "When you're the opening act, you have to push yourself beyond the limit, because you're gonna be under a microscope," Duenas offers. "And we're ready for it."
Of course, the former Houstonian is also excited about fulfilling a long-held fantasy with Unloco's Bayou City stop.
"I've always wanted to play Numbers!" Duenas laughs. "I used to go there on Friday nights and get loaded and just hang out and see bands. It's a cool place."