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Playback: Cherubs Flit Back

The unlikely return of Nineties noisemakers Cherubs.

By Kevin Curtin, Fri., July 25, 2014

Back in the Nineties, even noiseniks like Cherubs had a promotional 8x10.
Back in the Nineties, even noiseniks like Cherubs had a promotional 8x10.

"Short-lived, but influential." Consider it a tired acknowledgment of unexplored potential from bands that developed quickly but burnt out too soon. That's the storyline of Cherubs, a brilliantly abrasive Austin noise rock trio who formed in 1992 and disbanded two years later with the release of their defining work, Heroin Man.

Guitarist/vocalist Kevin Whitley turns to drummer Brent Prager.

"We were in Eugene, Oregon, when I said to you guys, 'I can't do this anymore,'" recalls Whitley. "Then we drove down the 101 like zombies to San Diego where you and Owen [McMahon, bassist] had a massive brawl in front of the Casbah after playing."

"I remember a wrist and a sidewalk and a pin-down," says Prager.

Today, these Cherubs, both family men with respectable jobs who haven't played in steady bands since 1994, have assembled on the patio of Quickie Pickie to discuss their resurrection with McMahon. The trio enters the studio next week with producer Mike McCarthy to record a new album, set for release this winter on vinyl boutique Brutal Panda Records out of Philadelphia, also home to Austin prog wilding Boyfrndz.

"Kevin and I had been having this conversation for at least a decade: 'Should we?' 'No way.' 'Should we?' 'No fuckin' way!' 'Should we?' 'Hell no!'" laughs Prager.

"Cherubs is ugly noise music and, as an adult, it kinda doesn't make sense to do that," adds Whitley, who "somewhat against his will" turned 50 last year.

Actually, it kinda does make sense: All three live in Austin, their musical chemistry has improved due to less whiskey consumption, and, most importantly, they want to tour Europe, something Cherubs never accomplished on their initial run.

Before any dates are announced, local or abroad, the band will likely play some warmup shows under gag names.

"Look for listings that say 'Popcorn Sparks' or 'the Goodtimes,'" Prager hints.

Testament to the locals' enduring appeal, a Cherubs tribute, Everyone's Dead Before They Leave (see "Texas Platters," Feb. 14), came out last winter featuring groups from Italy, France, Croatia, and all over the States, including Austin's Solid Goat. Credit Detroit resident Shawn Grzyb, who says the Cherubs were already broken up by the time he discovered them in the mid-Nineties.

"They were this noisy mystery. The only thing anyone knew about them is that they were from Texas," relays Grzyb. "But I was blown away by their disgusting, brutal tones and how redline they were."

Whitley understands that Cherubs left a high bar to meet with any new material.

"I guaran-goddamn-tee you 80 percent of the people will be ready to go, 'Ah it's great for these old guys to get together and have their little Dairy Queen coffee moment – but play Heroin Man or get the fuck out of my face!' So we're going into the studio knowing that, and the shit's gotta be good."

Weekender

"Playback" highlights from last weekend:

Thursday: After reciting a Buddhist prayer, Austin folksinger Gary Graves issued an oath at the Cactus Cafe. "I promise to be a good person and not reveal any of the secret metaphysical stuff I see during the Gary Graves show." Backed by guitarist Ravner Salinas, the singer's liquid voice vibrated poetic lyrics inspired by muses ranging from painter Frida Kahlo to homewrecker Amy Fisher.

Friday: "Some of you know what you've stepped into, others, well ...," shrugged Chasca's flute-playing frontman J.T. Martin, who resembled a composite of Blue Man Group, King Diamond, a World War I GI, and a 19th century cross-dresser. The glammy San Marcos quintet's low-budget arena rock brought a Mohawk crowd to its knees with a call-and-response chant of "Dick Tease."

Saturday: Any one of the LNS Crew's charismatically blunted core MCs – Kydd Jones, Cory Kendrix, or Tank Washington – would've been a suitable solo pick for the Chronicle's annual hip-hop Cookout at Scoot Inn, but their powers combined made for a show-stopping sunset performance, which peaked with Jones starting a one-man mosh pit.

Sunday: Delivering a highlight of Austin City Limits' 40th season, Nick Cave catwalked amongst groping hands as his Bad Seeds pumped out hip-shaker "Red Right Hand" and the profanity-laced "Stagger Lee," which earned a standing ovation (full review at Earache! austinchronicle.com/music).

Blues Brothers: (l-r) John Belushi, Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, and Dan Aykroyd
Blues Brothers: (l-r) John Belushi, Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, and Dan Aykroyd

Johnny Winter 1944-2014

Less than two weeks after a Chronicle feature on Johnny Winter (that's "Down & Dirty," July 4), the grim reaper came knockin'. The blues virtuoso was found in his Switzerland hotel room on July 16, the cause of death still unknown. The tattooed albino, who used a thumb pick to generate speed on his Gibson Firebird six-string, logged serious stage time in Austin just before going national.

"Winter's trio was the tightest blues band in town, head and shoulders above the rest," remembers Don Hyde, co-owner of pioneering psychedelic venue the Vulcan Gas Company, where he estimates Winter, Tommy Shannon, and Uncle John Turner played every other week for about a year in 1968. "We'd either charge 50 or 75 cents, and Johnny was good for about a hundred people. After Look magazine wrote about him, he could play at the Austin Auditorium to 5,000 people and every one of them would claim they'd been seeing him at the Vulcan."

The Vulcan wasn't Winter's biggest stage, but it was there on a vacant Sunday that the trio recorded The Progressive Blues Experiment for Austin's Sonobeat Records (revisit "Sonobeat Records," Feb. 7) and within those walls Muddy Waters first heard Winter play. The elder blues statesman was so baffled, according to Hyde, that he placed a call to King Curtis, held the phone toward the stage, and exclaimed, "He's white. He's really white!" Winter ultimately produced three Grammy-winning albums for Waters, including the unbeatable Hard Again.

Local bassist Mark Epstein, who backed Winter throughout the Nineties, describes the guitarist as a musical cliff-jumper: "There was no net. He'd just go for it all the time without hesitation. Playing with him taught me fearlessness."

Winter's status prevails beyond his last breath. Upcoming LP Step Back, include collaborations with Billy Gibbons, Eric Clapton, and Dr. John, arrives Sept. 2.

Half Notes

› Monochromatic muscle man Glenn Danzig, whose musical persona intersects metal and creep-show culture, headlines Phil Anselmo's Housecore Horror Film Festival, Oct. 23-26 at Emo's. Danzig/Samhain, along with doom experts Neurosis, and Polish rippers Decapitated top the second wave of acts added to previous confirmations that include Satyricon, Portal, Eyehategod, and Lamb of God frontman Randy Blythe.

› In just six days, a live version of Shakey Graves' "Dearly Departed" garnered over 90,000 spins on Spotify. The track, taped during South by Southwest with collaborator Esmé Patterson, gives us a first glimpse at the material on the native Austinite's sophomore LP, And the War Came, which arrives Oct. 7 on Dualtone. Another commercially anticipated local release, the debut EP from Aaron Behrens & the Midnight Stroll, drops Sept. 16 on the Ghostland Observatory singer's own imprint, Skeleton Farm Records.

› Trumpeter Jeff Lofton leads his quartet through the tunes of Henry Mancini before a screening of The Pink Panther on Wednesday outside the Long Center. "Although Henry Mancini is most known as a film composer, his influence on jazz music is great," acknowledges Lofton. "He wrote many standards, such as 'Moon River' and 'Days of Wine and Roses.'"

› Recall the outrage at SXSW 2013 when Hoeks Death Metal Pizza's third annual minifest was shut down for operating without a special event permit. Here's the comeback. The evil pizza parlor teams up with Sixth Street's other heavy metal pillar, Dirty Dog Bar, for Hoeks Metal Fest 3.5, a four-day review of blistering Texas metal beginning tonight, Thursday, headlined by bearded blackened thrash warlords Widower; Brink of Disaster Friday; Beyond Gods and Empires Saturday; and Bury the Rod on Sunday. $5 per day.

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