Watching the Detectives

"Yeah, they're a pretty cool band! There's this guy down front who breathes fire."

That succinct review, delivered by a wowed patron into his cell phone as he left the Continental Club, is right on the mark. The ten-piece collective known as Clouseaux is one of the most vibrant new bands in town. Let's face it, just having the nerve to play what they play -- lounge exotica, a percussive Afro-Latin-inflected spin-off of old-school jazz, with a bona fide fire-breather/percussionist to boot -- looks good in a city where the rodeo is the most popular musical attraction. What the hell were they thinking?

Outside the bun, as the Taco Bell ad writer might say. "I knew this music wasn't the kind of music that hundreds of screaming teenagers are going to like and then go buy the T-shirts," says Clouseaux bassist Jay Brooks. "I don't want to come off as elitist, but I'm just really bored with what today has to offer musically."

Pinning down exactly what it is that Clouseaux has to offer -- and there is plenty -- is no easy task. While some of Clouseaux's songs are what you might find on a 1960s sci-fi TV soundtrack (set bongos on stun, Mr. Spock); others are much closer to a jazz standard that states the head, moves into a swing passage and then layers on the hyped-up Latin treatment.

In a way, the approach is similar to the relationship Brooks and fellow Clouseaux founding member and keyboardist David Cummings had to punk in their quasi-dormant band Middlefinger: more a springboard than an anchor. "Middlefinger was really so many different styles of music too, but rooted in punk, but I don't think the average listener got it," Brooks says. "I wanted [Clouseaux] to be easily understood but be very different than other stuff that's out there."

Still, the band admits that its music might be something of an acquired taste for the average listener. They plan to give the public a chance to learn to love them with their brand-new self-titled CD. "If we just tried to play out live to develop a following, I think it would take forever for this band to break," says Cummings. "Doing the CD will hopefully move things along."

At least that's what co-vocalist Tomas Escalante, the former Suspects singer who has a thing for Mancini-style soundtrack compositions, gambled on when he bankrolled the platter despite being between jobs. "Pop and rock music has basically run its course," he claims. "This music is fun. I felt like being with the Suspects for so long we were saddled by the whole [ska] thing, so it's a breath of fresh air for me. And I didn't want Clouseaux to be one of those bands that a few people think is cool, so you get a gig once in a while and break up before you put a CD out."

At the Continental, it's apparent that Clouseaux could benefit from a larger stage. With a drummer and two percussionists plus a keyboard player, the other six members have a place to stand and that's about it. When the horn section is wailing or the percussionists are in full Ricky Ricardo mode, co-vocalist Steffy Johnston sits on her haunches, waiting for her chance to pop up and rejoin the fray as a fourth percussionist, drumming out the beat on her hips with her hands.

Yet somehow they make room for former circus performer John Daniels. The customers are delighted whenever Daniels does his Puff the Magic Dragon act (just inches past the head of a percussionist) or ignites some pyro at the front of the stage. To say that the group's quirky, skitterish music all but screams for a fire-breather isn't that much of a stretch, considering some of it would be right at home accompanying Cirque du Soleil. Soon Clouseaux shows will become even more circuslike -- belly dancer auditions are under way. Brooks has taken up the arduous duty of scouting out pelvis-wiggling talent.

Brooks and Cummings hatched the Clouseaux concept in 2000, and though the two began writing material that year, it wasn't until 2001 that they enlisted guitarist Kelly Doyle and found the time to get the band on the beat. During one rehearsal that summer, drummer Claudio Depujadas brought the Suspects horn section in, and today, five members of Clouseaux are former Suspects, including Depujadas, Brooks, Escalante, trombonist Ryan Gabbart and trumpeter Steve Ruth. (Escalante -- a huge Peter Sellers fan -- furnished the band name. It wasn't his first choice from among the Sellers/Blake Edwards oeuvre. "Actually, my favorite Blake Edwards movie is The Party, but I didn't think using Hrundi Bakshi [the bumbling Indian film star portrayed by Sellers] would work as a band name.")

Percussionist Andy, a high school music teacher who goes by only that name onstage, occasionally worked the decks at now-defunct dance club Hyperia. And drummer Depujadas has another side project, surf-rockers Magnetic IV. Not to be outdone, Johnston, a University of Houston music grad, has several of her own gigs on the go, including the all-girl band Sugar Buzz.

But Clouseaux sounds nothing like the collective musical pedigree of its members. Nor is it a band full of hired hands going through the motions while they dream about success elsewhere. They are obviously passionate about Clouseaux. In fact, it's just what Brooks had in mind when he got hooked on exotica music pioneers Martin Denny and Les Baxter. "I guess we all have different visions, but in my opinion, I wanted to put together this kind of exotica-type tiki spy eclectic lounge thing," he says.

So far, it's working. In addition to upcoming shows at Rudyard's and the Axiom, Clouseaux will be getting its tiki on in a series of Wednesday-night gigs at the Houston Continental and will soon be playing its sister club in Austin. Can mega merch sales and hundreds of screaming teens be far behind?

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr