Egg Cartons and Foam-Rubber Wallpaper

Finding Rehearsal Space in Austin

illustration by Jason Stout

It's dead easy, getting a band going in Austin. At least that's what trickled down the grapevine the whole time I was growing up in South Texas. Old houses were as plentiful as empty Shiner bottles and could be had just as cheap. Once situated here, you needed only an egg-carton-and-foam-rubber wallpaper job and a cheap P.A. (and of course, a few instruments, another human or three, and a six-pack), and you'd be on your way to thrilling three drunks at the Hole in the Wall on a Tuesday night like several hundred other similarly minded Austin citizens.

Soon after relocating here and becoming intimate with many of the city's finer couches, it became apparent just how fallacious those beliefs were. The likelihood of contracting an ideal rehearsal space situation became equal to that of making a living by playing to those three drunks at the Hole in the Wall. Think it's tough trying to rent a house or apartment in Austin? Try getting a rehearsal space.

"It's gotten ridiculous," snorts Mick Buck, veteran raunch guitarist for bands like Blind Willie's Johnson and Texacala Jones & Her T.J. Hookers. "I don't know how it is for other bands, but I know that in the bands that I play in, we've run out of free places to rehearse, like garages or bedrooms or whatever. That resource seems to have dried up: too many hostile neighbors, too many police, and that sorta thing."

Derailers guitarist Brian Hofeldt concurs. "The city slaps a sound ordinance on neighborhoods so people can't rehearse at their homes." Thus, the Derailers work out vocal parts and arrangement details that don't require much volume in their homes, moving to the Austin Rehearsal Complex when it comes time to work on the twang.

In spite of the inherent difficulties, some Austin musicians still manage to maintain garage or bedroom practices. Local boots-n-braces punk heroes Lower Class Brats have rehearsed virtually their entire lifespan in a South Austin garage that also once hosted the Reclusives. Brats bellower "Bones" notes they've been visited by cops "a couple of times, when we've practiced too late, but we try to keep rehearsals pretty short, and only do it twice a week so we don't bother the neighbors too much."

Even if you're not a thrash-n-burn punk outfit, but rather trance-inducing mood operators like the American Analog Set, it doesn't matter what you do: The neighbors are gonna get annoyed. Just ask Lee Gillespie, the band's bassist, who, along with two other bandmates, rented a house for the express purpose of having a built-in practice space.

"Right when we moved in, the people on the right side of us had just moved out," recounts Gillespie. "So, we we're just kinda playing in the living room, and we're really not that loud at all. We're considerably quieter than most of the bands I go see. But right after our new neighbors moved in, we started getting calls and letters from our landlord. They've never come over and talked with us or anything -- they don't have the guts to confront us. So, we retreated to Ken's bedroom, because it's pretty sizeable. But the complaints still kept coming. We try to go over there and talk with them, and they absolutely refuse to have anything to do with us. They won't answer the door for us, and they won't talk with us. So, we insulate the bedroom the best we can, and we haven't had too much trouble. We don't practice after 5pm. We used to play 'til 7 and 8pm, but still, that's not very late."

"Isn't there a law -- live music 'til 10pm at a certain decibel level?" asks Bones. "Well, that obviously doesn't always work. My band knows that firsthand from practicing. Neighbors have complained, and cops have come by. Most of the time, in the neighborhood we practice, the neighbors will come over first. They'll tell us to stop practicing, and we'll just turn down. Then the cops will show up and tell us to knock it off. And what else are you gonna do? Say, `Fuck You! We're a rock & roll band!' No, you stop playing!"

It likely depends on which neighborhood you're inhabiting, as well. South Austin neighbors, say, are likely to have lived in Austin awhile and understand the city's live music tradition, leading them to be perhaps more tolerant. Try practicing in a neighborhood heavy with the population imported to work in our recently booming high-tech industry, and sympathy will probably be at a premium. Occasionally, a musician might even lose sympathy.

"Sad to say, I actually called the cops on a band across the street," says Walter Daniels, with regret. The distorto-harmonica demon whose sick feedback and Hendrix-meets-Little Walterisms has ripped plenty of pleasant ruptures across the sonic clothwork of bands from Jack O'Fire to Big Foot Chester. Daniels explains: "I think it was a punk band that plays the Back Room," he says. "I can't think of their name now. But it was every night of the week, and I'm sorry, I couldn't define it as rehearsal, because they weren't going over their songs or working on different parts or making up something new. It was just hearing the set over and over -- I dunno, eight nights in a row? It just got to be a bit much."

This unfortunate anecdote lends credence to another Bonesian observation: "I think a lot of people are getting older, too, and starting to settle down," he laughs, "and they don't want a band rehearsing in their living room on Wednesday night." Or down the street. "When you're 21 years old, it's no big deal. But when you get close to 30, it's like, `Fuuuck, man! I wanna go home for some peace and quiet, now.'"

illustration by Jason Stout

When there are no accommodating bedrooms or garages to be found, the budding rocker has no choice but to retreat to the five or six professionally run rehearsal studios in Austin. And the range is vast, anywhere from the centrally located ACME Arts on San Jacinto, offering a room and little else for a reasonable monthly rate, to the Cadillac of local spaces, the Austin Rehearsal Complex.

A musician-run facility in operation since the beginning of the decade, the ARC offers 10 climate-controlled, professionally soundproofed rooms with good P.A.s, equipment storage lockers, a full-service music supply shop, and a
24-track demo facility. ("It is good enough to cut an album there," notes Don Harvey, co-owner of the ARC alongside Wayne Nagle. "But it's ADAT, and most producers prefer to cut on analog.") And while Harvey boasts that the ARC is accessible to everyone from "the Natalie Merchants and the Joe Elys" to what he calls "baby bands" -- to whom the ARC offers an off-time special whereby you can purchase five three-hour rehearsal slots for $75 -- a number of "baby" musicians don't find the offer so accommodating.

Mick Buck: "I've had to rehearse with Texacala Jones at the ARC. And I don't want to knock it. They do a great job down there, and they do have the best space in town. But it seemed like we'd spend all the money we made from the gig to rehearse for the gig! It's basically paying to play." Tim Storm, whose teenage testosterone punk outfit the Reclusives rehearsed at the ARC once or twice before moving first into a garage, then into their current home at ACME Arts, agrees. "If you're a working band, it's not worth it -- unless you tour six months a year. Then an hourly rehearsal rate might be reasonable. Otherwise, it's a hassle."

Harvey, still a working drummer whose resumé lists names from Martha Davis to Storyville to Charlie Sexton, understands. "I've been in bands that didn't make much when we first started out, and didn't make much after we'd been going awhile," he laughs. "But if you need to rehearse for the gig, you're going to pay for it. If there's three of you in the band, you can afford $5 apiece for rehearsal. That's less than you pay for a movie."

Nevertheless, the ARC is still beyond the means of many, and options in Austin aren't exactly plentiful. Competing spaces find the ARC stiff competition, with rival rehearsal hall operators acknowledging the ARC's quality. Troy Dillinger says he modeled the main room at South Austin Rehearsal Studios to compete with room two of the ARC. "It sounds a little better and has a slightly better P.A. for a little less than what the ARC charges." Still, after a little over a year in operation, mustering a full booking schedule has proven difficult, forcing Dillinger to scale back on hourly slots and focus on monthly rentals. Admittedly, Dillinger hasn't done much in the way of advertising, either. "We used to do something in Texas Beat, but we've relied more on word of mouth lately."

Hill Country Rehearsals, a 10-room, air-conditioned facility offering monthlies in South Austin, relied like many (including the ARC for several years) on Chronicle classifieds to spread the word. Still, business wasn't enough to "feed two families," notes Jim Younger, who was forced to give the business over to partner Tim Mullen recently. "It was just too much," explains Younger. "You're a babysitter, bill collector, and janitor. I respect what Wayne Nagle and Don Harvey did the best, and Music Lab [an ARC-like facility in South Austin]. But it was rough. I just wanted to go back to doing sound, it's what I do best. And I'm itching to play again. I rehearse at the ARC, now!" he laughs.

Adding to the nightmare of searching out pro-run rehearsal options in Austin is the fact that Southwestern Bell doesn't see fit to give rehearsal businesses a Yellow Pages category. "I talked to Wayne Nagle about that a year ago," says Dillinger. "He said Southwestern Bell will not do it unless they have at least 10 businesses in Austin that would pay for a Yellow Pages space." Harvey claims to have compiled a list of 10 businesses two years ago when petitioning for a Yellow Pages slot. At press time, only six readily presented themselves: ACME Arts, ARC, Band Co-Op, Hill Country, Music Lab, South Austin Rehearsals, plus varying informal co-ops who don't advertise. Some, like the ARC, get listed under "Recording Studios" (?!!) in the Yellow Pages. Otherwise, you have to know the name of the business you need to call and look them up in the Business White Pages.

Unhealthy as the circumstances sound, spastic Reclusives frontman Storm believes it could be worse. "Let's put it this way," he explains. "In San Francisco, for a decent rehearsal space, with five band members, we were paying $35 each per month. And that was sharing a space with two other bands. Here, we're sharing a space with one other band, and it's $80 per month -- total. So, it's basically the same concept, only cheaper."

The Derailers' Hofeldt remembers a place he and fellow band member Tony Villanueva used to rehearse at in Portland, Oregon: "It was a place called the Palace. It was an old warehouse building with seven floors they'd taken and just kinda plywooded up. It was total firetrap. Some of the rooms had P.A.s, some didn't. There was one elevator to get your equipment up, just a rickety old elevator, and the stairs were steep and dangerous. It was a really funky situation. Compared to the ARC... the ARC is a real palace!"

What Austin needs, feels Jim Younger, are "more monthly spaces in different locations and at affordable prices." Sean MacGowan, the Chumps' growling, menacing frontman, often hears people talk of banding together and getting a warehouse -- setting up an alternative rehearsal space. "Of course, no one ever does anything about it except talk," he concedes.

"When people talk about high prices, I don't blame them," says Storm. "Compared to where I come from, though, things are still a lot cheaper here. I guess the message is: It could be worse, and it probably will be in the future. I don't know what the answer is....

"Somebody has to take an interest and set up a rehearsal space, but you don't meet a lot of people walking down the street saying, `Hey! I've always wanted to set up a rehearsal space!' People do it, but it's just not something everybody wants to do. You really have to have investment money. The more people who want to do that, the better things will be. But I don't know anybody who wants to do it. I certainly don't! Why don't you do it?"

Er, what was it somebody said about baby-sitting, bill collecting, and taking out the trash...?

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