The Big Bang

The Fragmentation of Austin's Underground



illustration by Jason Stout

The lineup at Emo's recent fifth anniversary show speaks volumes about the evolution within underground music in Austin and beyond. Headlining act Mudhoney would represent the long-faded surge of excitement that preceded Nirvana's Nevermind in the salad days of Sub Pop, Austin's Lord High Fixers would embody the malt liquor-spraying chaos of the garage punk backlash, and current local faves the Prima Donnas symbolize the resurrection of British synth-pop minimalism. Even though the Prima Donnas ended up canceling and were replaced by the aurally disparate yet equally capable Zulu As Kono, the contrast between then and now is no less salient. Mudhoney and the Lord High Fixers fit the chronological flow quite nicely, but the stylistic diversity of Austin's new bumper crop of bands makes it impossible for the Prima Donnas or anyone else to embody a current dominating aesthetic. This swing toward musical diffusion is in lock step with a local scene that is itself increasingly fragmented.

In a sense, this fragmentation brings us full circle back to the days when local purveyors of what would become the "Emo's sound" began coalescing at the Cavity. Before the Cavity opened on Red River (right between the Blue Flamingo and the old Naked Grape) in October of 1991, the motley bunch of punks and weirdos that made up nascent bands like Stumpwater, Lather, Chaindrive, and Warthog 2000 (an early edition of the Fuckemos) were the ugly bastard children of Austin music -- cast out and largely ignored by the dominant venues in much the same way as bands like Ed Hall and the Pocket FishRmen had been during their mid-Eighties teeth-cutting days.

The Cavity gave fun, filth, and fury a home base just as the Vietnamese restaurant cum punk club Dong Huong had done in the mid-Eighties. It was a big, smelly, noisy barn that endeared itself to the faithful in a manic, love-hate fashion. You got to see everything and everyone from the late G.G. Allin throwing feces and tear gas to ancient Gong Show contestant Lucky Jewell and the atonal yodeling that got her gonged. Anything could happen. It might suck, but anything could happen.

~Emboldened by the prospect of a club that catered to the more abrasive, freakish, and experimental elements, a cadre of new bands adopted the Cavity as their safe harbor and used that freedom as a springboard to develop a singular, highly stylized take on punk rock that went way beyond two chords and an attitude. This non-traditional approach to punk -- best exemplified by Cavity grads such as Glorium, Gut, Crown Roast (then known as Rig), and the American Psycho Band -- would eventually be stuck with the dubious but vaguely accurate label of "prog-punk." Aligned with the growing Trance Syndicate stable of bands that included Ed Hall, Crust, Cherubs, and johnboy, the Cavity's stable of bands -- prog or otherwise -- eventually became too formidable to ignore.

Although the Cavity proved beyond a doubt that loud, obnoxious rock & roll replete with gratuitous references to Amy Carter and feces was viable in Austin, it was the opening of Emo's in 1992 that turned it into a cause celebre. Free admission, a prime Sixth Street location, and the fleeting image of punk as a pop culture juggernaut attracted many of the same people that probably would've crossed the street to avoid walking in front of the Cavity. The resulting bar revenue paid the guarantees of touring bands like L7, the Jesus Lizard, NoMeansNo, and the Didjits, whose fans in other cities had to pay $15 to see. Former Cavity bands opened these road shows and developed a bigger fan base. New avant-punk locals such as Big Horny Hustler, Enduro, and the Andromeda Strain only added to the sense of excitement surrounding Emo's in 1993 and 1994. To boot, Johnny Cash's South by Southwest set at Emo's in 1994 cemented the club's cachet on a level beyond that of mere evolutionary scene pillar.

Emo's success was a hard equation to argue with, but it was also hard not to wonder how many people were really there for the music. Part of the answer to that question became apparent when upstart bars like Casino El Camino and Lovejoy's began siphoning off Emo's patrons even though neither placed an emphasis on live music (if they had any at all). When Emo's finally started charging an entirely reasonable $2 cover, some patrons balked, but a lot of musicians were actually quite happy because it weeded out those who just came to see and be seen.

In 1995 and 1996 then, almost as if by clockwork, Ed Hall, Crown Roast, Big Horny Hustler, Andromeda Strain, Gut, and other crucial standard-bearers all called it a day or went on extended hiatus. For further evidence at how completely the original Emo's guard has been decimated, just look at the 1994 Live At Emo's compilation (Rise). The only local band still playing out regularly is, ironically, the Fuckemos. Imagine the odds....



illustration by Jason Stout

This larger-than-average spate of breakups combined with the gradual erosion of Emo's centrality to the scene resulted in a sort of "big bang" effect. As musicians from the old standard-bearers settled into new projects, it quickly became apparent that many were looking to make as complete a departure from their previous work as possible. Drummer Tony Nozero went from the eclectic punk of Polio and Big Horny Hustler to the even more avant groove trio of Drums & Tuba. Neil Busch, who helped take Andromeda Strain one step beyond bombastic Jesus Lizardisms into tape loops and sound collaging, delved even further by joining ...And They Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead (hereafter referred to for obvious reasons as "Trail of Dead"). And former Gut bassist Brandon Crowe took up the drums and the depraved but dancable new wavisms of the Hamicks.

At the same time, new, non-traditional music venues such as Manor Road Coffeehouse, Blondie's, and Oakland Red House significantly loosened up the bottleneck for new bands trying to get in front of an audience. The eclectic (some might say "erratic") booking philosophies of venues like the Atomic Cafe and Voodoo Lounge have also contributed to the rise of a loosely connected confederation of "mini-scenes" whose boundaries roughly approximate the vagaries and idiosyncratic notions that define punk's sub-genres.

"It's weird how all these factions have developed," notes long-time Sound Exchange employee and scene participant Lauren Robertson. "There's the Emo's crowd, there's the garage rock crowd, the arty-college crowd, the Peek-A-Boo crowd. That's something that's just sort of popped up. It wasn't going on four years ago."

Although it's hard to say for sure why this fragmentation has taken place, one explanation given by Drums and Tuba's Nozero is a collective terminal boredom. "A lot of those bands had great intentions, but nothing really came of it besides just playing and having fun," says Nozero. "That's great, but when you're spending all that time devising a band, you want good things to happen.

"When you're playing to the same 30 people for, like, two years, it just gets weird. You start to think, `What the hell am I doing?' Sure, it's fun, but come on."

Another compelling reason for this fragmentation is a lost sense of community and identity as a scene grows. Vocalist Kerthy Fix of Garnet (originally known as Olive until another band snatched the moniker) thinks the idea of scene-as-community is a vital, make-or-break element for continued musical growth. "I feel like there's more of a mercenary, let's-make-it vibe here than there used to be," says Fix. "In the last five years, the population of Austin has doubled, partly because musicians have come here to make it since Austin is seen as a place where you get discovered at South by Southwest or whatever.

"I think that has diluted a sense of community. There are a lot of people playing music who don't understand that there's a fragility to a music scene and it's based on respect and a sense of fun. When there was a smaller scene, you could be more in touch with that."

Guitarists Sarah Carlson and bassist Amanda Stein of Yellow Fledgling echo Fix's take on the value of intimacy and a sense community. Moreover, they point to their own fast-growing fragment of the scene as evidence that those two characteristics are held in increasingly high regard. "It's all about the people there and the people making the music," says Stein. "It's like this process-oriented music. It's more like living in the now."

Yellow Fledgling's soft, highly evocative tapestry almost demands a conscientious listener. At a Manor Road Coffeehouse show in June, the audience stood (and sat) in a state of near-reverence that could never be fully realized in your average bar or nightclub. Carlson, who is also in the Rock Hudsons and was in the New Girl Art Trend Band, calls it "experiential" music. "People are creating a feeling or an experience with their lyrics," she says. "They're making music that puts you through something and music that's strong enough to create a surrounding environment and to make you feel something."

One thing that hasn't changed is the members of Glorium (see accompanying story), who, collectively and individually, continue to go above and beyond the call of duty to help promote their fellow bands. Trail of Dead is just one of many beneficiaries of Glorium's zeal for integrating new bands and new sounds into the scene. Although they are now scheduled to release an album on Trance in January, Trail of Dead found their mix of lullabies, scorched earth, and smashed instruments a hard sell when founding members Conrad Keely and Jason Reece first arrived in town from Olympia, Washington. "We couldn't get a show in any club," remembers Reece, "so we basically had to invent a venue. We found this guy in a coffee shop on Sixth Street who let us set up a show, but he had no idea of what we were like. There were only about 10 or 12 people there, but one of those people happened to be Paul [Vodas] from Glorium.

"Glorium kind of took us under their wing. We started opening for them and they took us out of town with them. Then we started meeting other people who had similar feelings about music and art."

Glorium's investment in the scene is further exemplified by vocalist Paul Vodas' role in booking new acts into Manor Road Coffeehouse and putting out tapes on their cottage label, Golden Hour (htpp://www.wl.net/paulw/goldenhour/index.htm). To date, Golden Hour has released tapes by Trail of Dead, the Prima Donnas, the New Girl Art Trend Band, and Ponce JaJa, among others.

Although Glorium is not playing out as much these days (bassist Ernest Salaz recently left town for college), their new CD Eclipse (Golden Hour) finds the band exploring more fluid and intimate territories that are many miles away from the full-on sound of 1994's Cinema Peligrosa (Undone). "We used to be really noisy," says Vodas. "We had rock beats and dance beats, but our guitars were always super thick and noodley. Now, we're just more sparse. The notes last longer. If it was a sculpture, there would be a bunch of holes in it. It wouldn't be part-part-different part.

"It used to be all about this aesthetic of having this super-strong sound. But you know what? It's so easy to make music like that. It's so easy to get onstage, boys-with-their-toys, and make this super rock music where you yell your head off and no one hears what you're saying."

Vodas' boys-with-their-toys assessment assumes additional relevance during my conversation with the five women and one man of Garnet. When I relate to them the veneration in which the glory days of the Cavity are held by other underground veterans, Garnet does not second the motion. "It was just more boy," says guitarist Laura Creedle.

"Emo's is really boy," adds vocalist Carol Gilson. "It's more boy than most of the boys that go there."

By contrast, Garnet's musical approach takes lazy-day Anglo psych-pop on an experimental turn that also reigns in strong visual and performance art elements. A superb example of how these elements cleverly come together can be found in their Heyd Fontenot-directed video cum Glamour Shots ad for "Smile." Fix thinks such explorations can only be successful when the relationship between performer and audience is one of intimacy, trust, and mutual engagement. "Performing live is like a conscious trance state and that's a real intimate thing," she says. "In a club where that intimacy isn't respected, it becomes really hard."

For Vodas, the inherent vulnerability of such a strategy is what makes this music so vital. "I'd rather see something like Yellow Fledgling at Manor Road than Jesus Lizard," he says. "They have more to lose by getting up on that stage than Jesus Lizard does by getting in front of 10,000 people. For the Rock Hudsons or Yellow Fledgling, they have more at stake. They're giving it their all and a lot of the more traditional rock bands are just playing it by the book. They're not taking risks. Real artists are the ones who take risks and put themselves on the line."

Although Vodas' steadfast enthusiasm for the here-and-now is contagious, there are still those that don't quite feel that same sense of vibrant potential. Jeremy Reuter has been active as a local 'zine publisher, show list compiler, and now, guitarist for Union On Track, but has had his activism tempered in recent years. "Actually, I'm pretty bored with most of the bands around right now," he says. "That's not to say that there aren't a lot of bands doing stuff, but it seems like it was a lot more exciting a few years ago than it is now."

Reuter's recent decision to turn the Texas Show List (available online at http://www.soundexchange.com/austin) over to Mark Twistworthy was partially motivated by these sentiments. "I guess I kind of hit a wall kind of like bands do," he says. "I wasn't getting out of it what I was putting into it."

The Hamicks' Brandon Crowe also questions whether the confluence of art, punk, and intimacy might be diluting the medium of its essential irreverence. "Everything's more artsy-fartsy now," Crowe asserts. "The bands are just going in that direction now, at least the way it is around here. No one likes to have fun anymore.

"A lot of times, when I go to Trail of Dead shows, I wonder why people aren't jumping around and having fun. At some places, people just stand there and say, `Oh, this is great.' I like it when they play at Blue Flamingo and people get crazy."

And then, of course, there's the age thing. An overwhelming majority of the people I talked to say getting older was a major contributing factor in disenchantment with the notion of a scene. But the inevitability of aging makes this pat excuse too obvious and easy to accept without some degree of rectification. For that, we turn once again to Garnet's Creedle. "It just seems to ebb and flow if you've been around awhile," she says. "You find that there's a time when there are bands you really want to go see. I always think I'm too old. There was a time right before I turned 30 where I thought, `I'm never going out again,' but then things got better."

Whether your definition of community involves connecting with others or finding a personal sense of belonging, the concept is central to the health of an artistic enclave. When things get too big or impersonal, it makes sense that people began to withdraw into smaller enclaves where their investment feels more tangible. The balkanization of underground music has certainly diluted its power as a market force, but it's also allowed the loyal opposition to catch its breath and continue the revolt on different fronts too numerous to mention.

"It's strange how there's so much else going on," remarks Sound Exchange's Robertson. "There are bands that I've never heard of selling tons of CDs, like the Impossibles. I'd never heard of them, and people are just breaking down the door at Sound Exchange. There are a lot of bands that the kids are really into. It's way more expansive than most people imagine."

But even as these fragments develop into scenes in and of themselves, the smart bands and venues are the ones that continue to find new ways of combining disparate elements. "People are realizing that in order for it to be a good show, they can't have three hours of the same type of music," says Vodas. "We played with Fire Island at our last show, which is just like techno-keyboard-MIDI-synth, but we've also played with the Motards a few times. That's how things get mixed up. Given that, the best shows are the ones where the bands know each other, where it's a community happening."

Though some observers would like to use this fragmentation as an excuse to declare the scene "dead," such morbid naysaying is nothing short of a great big pile. There is simply too much going on in too many places for that to be the case. Maybe Johnny Cash won't be coming to Emo's this Christmas, but the rest of us are still here. Might as well make something of it.

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