photograph by Todd V. Wolfson
Although he still has no trouble speaking his mind, the past several years have unveiled a kinder, gentler Bruce Hughes. Not that his detractors have noticed; for them, the most offensive thing about Hughes is probably the output of his bands, particularly the Scabs. Nevertheless, Hughes no longer evinces the potential for personal trainwrecks he did a few years back. Like Bob Schneider, Hughes is now sober and more focused on the next song or show than where the next drink is coming from.
Whether this has to do with his user-friendly makeover or just the test of time, after four decades in Austin, Hughes has grown into the role of music scene elder statesman. Not only is he regarded as a bassist's bassist, Hughes has also illustrated how it's possible to stay both continually working and constantly challenged in this town with only moderate commercial successes. Clearly, he's a survivor, becoming more than just Poi Dog Pondering's original bassist.
Yet because Hughes has so often joined up with notoriously erratic and tempestuous frontman like Poi Dog's Frank Orrall, Cracker's David Lowery, and Schneider, it's easy to view Hughes' career as a long rap sheet of abusive relationships. Furthermore, despite his participation in literally dozens of bands over the years, and the fact that right now he's involved in nearly a half-dozen "projects," Hughes strongly denies the popular theory that he suffers from a fear of commitment.
"You have to remember that my mindset is pretty different than that of a lot of people," says Hughes. "Even if I apply myself and commit myself to making a band happen, I tend to view everything as a project. And other projects can go on at the same time. I think it's my ability to commit to several things, rather than a lack or fear of them. It's like you can't get all your needs from one single human being on the planet, so it's very unlikely you'll be able to achieve that in one artistic medium. My happiness comes from being able to do what I want and not having to work a day job."
Luckily, what Hughes believes is his most satisfying long-term project, the Ugly Americans/Scabs collective, is also the gig that's most likely to keep him away from the traditional job market. Although Hughes regrets that the bands haven't done an extensive tour in nearly two years, that both are currently supporting new albums and drawing substantial live crowds locally is not a source of complaint. After all, it's no secret that what keeps the bands interesting both internally and to local crowds is the dynamics of Schneider and Hughes. To watch them onstage, or to imagine the studio and songwriting battles they've had, it's obvious they're both the best of friends and worst of enemies.
"We have a lot of things in common, but we don't hang out that much," says Hughes. "Both of us are really driven, so it's a constant competition to create - to bring songs, to outperform.... And I find that highly intriguing. Plus, throughout the years, I've always liked a diverse range of music and if I can find that in the same band, then joy. Having found a bandmate with the same broad interests is totally exiting. [Schneider's] got a voracious appetite for creation and a dynamically large view of styles. Of all the people in the band, he's the one most often to bring in stuff creatively challenging."
That said, Hughes is quick to add that the rest of the band (the Ugly Americans and Scabs are man-for-man the same band) aren't just sidemen. They are all songwriters and collaborators.
"This band has always been a situation where every single person was a leader and had their own ideas of how it was all going to work out," says Hughes. "But we've also realized that being a collaborator and being a leader aren't exclusive to each other. I've worked with people that led with an iron fist, but it wasn't nearly as enjoyable for anybody.
"And I've found that if everybody is involved, everybody gives more. The fact is that if you're trying to do any kind of organized activity with a group of five or more men, there has to be some give or take or you're going to get your ass kicked. You'd have to be one big, firm backboned, quick-running motherfucker. Then again, I'm everything but the big part, and sometimes in my mind that's been covered, too."
As far as Hughes can tell, he was conceived in Austin, but born in Waco. When his father finished graduate school in Waco, he moved the family to North Austin. In the late Sixties, there was no organized music scene in the suburbs per se, but Hughes says there were dozens of garage bands and plenty of ways to find out about new music.
"My mom's sisters were all 10-15 years younger than her, so they introduced me to all kinds of music," says Hughes. "And later, because this was already such a huge hippie town, there were all these places on the Drag that I could take the intramural bus down to and find old records. There was Pig Records, where I checked out the bootlegs. Then I could go to all the head shops and You Scream I Scream, an ice cream shop with black lighting. It was like living in the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers cartoon strip."
Hughes was also attracted to the battle-of-the-bands in Bartholomew Park, where three or four bands from other neighborhoods would meet every summer weekend. Inspired by all the competition, and looking for his own gang/band, Hughes got serious about the guitar lying around his house. By the sixth grade, he was already an accomplished guitar and piano player, but really wanted to sing. And yet, the talent show band Hughes thought he'd be singing for hired another kid, someone Hughes admits was more athletic and popular with the girls. The only open slot in the band was for a bassist, and Hughes neither knew how to play bass nor owned one.
"My grandmother came through by financing a cheap Fender bass and practice amp about a week and a half before the show," recalls Hughes. "And I found it came really naturally to me. I'd been playing guitar long enough to have a base understanding of theory and chord structure. It made the bass simple for me, and that gig was my first lesson that there's always a need for bass players."
Throughout junior high and high school, Hughes learned another lesson about the supply and demand end of bass playing.
"I was a smart-ass growing up, and there were a lot of times that I got myself in situations where I could get my ass kicked, except for the fact that I played bass and was somewhat accomplished at it. Luckily, I was respected by some of the other players and they'd say, `Don't mess with Bruce, he plays bass and we need him.' It kept me from getting my fingers broke more than once."
In 1978, after moving to Alaska and then Houston, Hughes joined a metal band whose specialty was playing Pat Travers and Rush covers in country & western joints on the outskirts of Houston. "Hard-schooling is being in high school and having shotglasses thrown at you," he laughs.
Hughes blames 10 months of rehearsal for a rock opera that they performed only once as being the reason his freshman year at the University of Texas at Austin was also his last. Unlike the Austin of his youth, however, there was now not only a vibrant club scene in the capitol city, but he was old enough to fit in. And although he says he always found punk too simplistic, his relative success in Stick Figures, a Raul's-era band with Melissa Cobb, drew him towards the burgeoning New Wave scene.
Yet it was the transition of another of the city's seminal punk bands, the Shades into Dark Motive, that most intrigued Hughes. "It was more gloomy and European-driven than anything else going on," says Hughes of the band that included Buddy Womack, O.T. Loflin, and Lisa Franklin. It was Dark Motive that also earned Hughes his first review. Ed Ward, in a classic two-word summation, called the band "Headache Music."
After Dark Motive's breakup (from internal conflict, not the review), Hughes began a period of mercenary work in the early-mid Eighties during which he'd play bass, guitar, or synthesizer for anybody that asked. It was around this time that Hughes started working with an experimental funk band called Shank, who went on to record an album for Rounder and then reunite every few years. By 1986, Hughes met Arthur Brown, the British performance artist famous for "Fire." When Brown invited Hughes to play a couple of shows in a backing band that included Glover Gill, Susan Voelz, and Rock Savage, Hughes got his first shot at national television - on Solid Gold, alongside Cameo and El DeBarge.
"We flew out to Los Angeles for this Solid Gold retrospective where all I had to do was mime playing bass," he says. "But it was outrageous money, $526.37, to play on television and be scared to death."
Brown's comeback and association with Hughes was short-lived, although Hughes did play on three songs from Brown, Black and Blue, a concept album pairing Brown with Zappa-alumnus Jimmy Carl Black. At the same time, Black and Hughes did some house painting together, on crews where Hughes had met several of the True Believers, who were already popular locally, but between albums and without a bass player for an upcoming tour.
At the time, Hughes already had a reputation for being interested in experimental funk, soul, and jazz, and didn't really like the True Believers, but auditioned and got the job anyway. For Hughes, the gig was a way to get out on his first real tour and see life east of the Mississippi.
"I didn't start off as a fan, but once they told me they'd pay me and I'd actually get to play out of town, I knew they liked me and I began to like them more and more," explains Hughes. "And in truth, once I immersed myself in the music, my appreciation for it grew. I loved a lot of it and just didn't know it, because I wasn't involved in that scene."
Although Hughes admits he would have liked to have stayed a True Believer, he wasn't included in plans for the next album, so he joined Minus Grace instead, an eclectic folk project featuring Pam Peltz and Wammo. Balancing this project with a myriad of others, Hughes' interest in folk music was in full swing when he caught an opening set at the Continental Club by a band from Hawaii: Poi Dog Pondering. Poi Dog leader Frank Orrall's interest in Hughes and his eclectic tastes was just as immediate, and the two soon became fast friends. When Orrall and Abra Moore decided San Francisco might be a better place to start a band, the pair mailed Hughes tapes and invited him out to play and record.
Eventually Hughes accepted the invitation and drove to San Francisco with Joe DeLago and Hundredth Monkey's Patrice Sullivan. In a warehouse close to Berkeley, Hughes, Moore, and Orrall recorded parts of their first EP for Texas Hotel Records and began busking ambitiously.
"It was a blast," says Hughes. "I liked the music, because it was different than anything I'd done before. At first, I thought some of it was too simplistic, but I started finding beauty in simplicity. Whereas I had only found beauty in complexity before, this was a project actually capable of having me reevaluate what I found important about music."
With a wife and daughter back in Austin, Hughes returned in January 1987, and was followed closely by the rest of Poi Dog Pondering. In town, the band added members and began gigging locally to larger and larger crowds. Yet while the band and crowds were growing, Poi Dog's simple skiffle-band concept allowed them to travel lightly, so they took to the road. Based on their live shows and the press that the band's two Texas Hotel releases received ('88's Poi Dog Pondering and '89's Circle Around the Sun), Poi Dog soon found themselves at the center of a bidding war. In the end, the band decided Columbia had the best gameplan.
"We had gone to dinner and heard them talk about a new approach," remembers Hughes. "They said they were interested in capturing things going on around the country, what they called `Alternative Music.' It was us, Camper Van Beethoven, and Toad the Wet Sprocket. They said we should tell them what to do, because we'd built the fanbase on our own, and that they'd then help support it. In theory, it was a beautiful idea. Of course it never worked out that way. After dinner, it was back to the boardroom and business as usual."
Although they were a few years too early to cash in on the neo-hippie phenomena, Poi Dog continued their business-as-usual approach and toured constantly. For their part, Columbia repackaged the Texas Hotel albums as one album, and released four more recordings: 1990's Wishing Like a Mountain and Thinking Like the Sea and the Fruitless EP, the Jack Ass Ginger EP in 1991, and 1992's Volo Volo. When Columbia dropped the band shortly after Volo Volo's release, Orrall decided to move to Chicago for a fresh start - without Hughes.
"I wasn't asked to go," says Hughes. "At first, I had the empty, hollow feeling you get when you hear a piece of news that is devastating and life-changing. Then I sat with it for a minute and thought, `Whew, man. This is great. What a huge relief.' We were hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to Columbia. The records never sold and the only way to make money and continue to support the mechanism that was set up was to continue the high-endurance touring. And even then we weren't making more than $300 a week."
Aside from recording with Teratoma, an ongoing avant-garde noise project with guitarist Howard Harrison, Hughes took much of 1992 and 1993 off. For fun, he occasionally sang with the Atlantic Soul Revue, bassist Sean McCarthy's cover outfit. McCarthy also invited Hughes to sing with the Ugly Americans, a Soul Revue offshoot that rehearsed daily at Antone's and had just started playing live. In truth, it was a low-key project mostly because the rest of the players had other primary gigs and considered the band a side-project. For that reason, Hughes didn't hesitate in taking David Lowery up on an offer to play bass for Cracker.
Hughes knew Lowery from several Poi Dog/ Camper Van Beethoven tours and was actually asked to be in the original Cracker lineup, which would have meant Hughes leaving Poi Dog just before recording Volo Volo, an album he sang and placed songs on. Given this second chance, Hughes signed on for a lengthy tour.
It was while Hughes was on the road that the rest of the Ugly Americans signed on full-time and quit their other projects. And not only did the band hire a guitarist while Hughes was gone, it was this guitarist, Max Evans, who also picked up many of Hughes' harmony vocal parts. "I came back to a different beast," Hughes says.
"On the surface, my new role looked like part-time songwriter and harmony singer," says Hughes. "But I stuck around, because I was part of the music and with Cracker it was their music. And given the choice of playing somebody else's music for a lot of money or my music for a little money, I made a fairly easy decision to stick with my stuff and make less. It was much more fulfilling and although the chemistry was different now, it was actually more vibrant."
Initially, Hughes admits that what he liked most about the Ugly Americans' chemistry and energy was exactly what made them critically disdained - they were a party band.
"It was entertainment at a base level," Hughes says. "I'd been through the days of punk angst and all the self-important New Wave and New Sincerity stuff that followed. Then I went through the touching, poignant stage with Poi Dog, and unlike that band, this wasn't supposed to be personally enlightening. The Ugly Americans were about people going to shows and getting laid. It was about primal sexual energy, which was and is still fun for me."
Within months of Hughes' return, the Ugly Americans were not only the most popular band in Austin, they'd already accepted invitations to tour with H.O.R.D.E. and record for Giant Records. But things weren't as rosy as they seemed. The H.O.R.D.E. gig meant an early afternoon slot that had them playing for more vendors than fans, and when the Giant album wound up coming out on Capricorn more than a year later, it received little promotion and went basically unheard. In the midst of discussions about a breakup, in October of 1996, McCarthy followed organ player Corey Mauser's lead and left the band.
When guitarist Evans then decided he didn't find Schneider's emerging vision for a Scabs/Ugly Americans collective either challenging or interesting, he too left the outfit - the third player to do so in less than a year. It was at this point that Schneider began to fill the gaps with members of the Scabs, thus blurring the lines between the two bands - his plan all along. Hughes was the only hold-out.
"I was always vehemently opposed to the Scabs," says Hughes. "Musically, I wasn't that interested, and lyrically I thought it was a joke-band. And a one-joke band at that. But eventually, I thought it had developed a bit and the Ugly Americans weren't playing as much, so it was partially a financial decision. But once again, when I got on the inside and started rehearsing with them, I realized there was some very interesting music that I felt was both complex and something I could add to. And I found Bob excited again, which got me excited and made it feel like the early days of the Ugly Americans."
Last year, Hughes was also excited about getting a chance to record with the Scabs/Ugly Americans collective for the latter band's second Capricorn record. While the label balked at having Hughes produce the album outright, he not only has a co-production credit with T-Ray, he also oversaw Jack Joseph Puig's expensive overhaul/remix of the album. Perhaps it's the combination of Scabs/Ugly Americans material or an admittedly troubled marriage between the band and T-Ray, but the prevailing analysis of the album, Boom Boom Baby, is that it's even more unfocused than the band's first set. Not surprisingly, Hughes not only disagrees, he actually thinks Boom Boom Baby is too safe.
"Like any album, there are things I would do differently now from when we recorded it," says Hughes. "I wish we had pushed the envelope a little more and been a bit more no-holds-barred adventurous. I feel like we restrained ourselves a little bit."
And although Boom Boom Baby features Hughes singing the band's most mellow ballad to date, "One & a Rainbow," Hughes denies that the Ugly Americans' concept has been cheapened by the album's string of foul-mouthed, sex-oriented tunes. Have the lines between them and the Scabs blurred too far?
"Both bands are about exciting sexual energy," stresses Hughes. "And sometimes it's disgusting and sometimes it's not. I think the way the lines have blurred is totally bizarre and totally cool. It's along the same lines as Parliament-Funkadelic - two bands with virtually the same players. One was psychedelic funk-oriented and the other was much more guitar-oriented. Eventually those lines became blurred and brought us P-Funk or the P-Funk All-Stars.
"In a similar division, that's where I see us. The Scabs are kind of open-book where anything goes and the Ugly Americans are like the best of the best - the material that works most effectively either onstage or on record. That's the way we look at it now, and the whole fact that there's a different audience for the different names still amazes me. It's baffling. There are still people that will only come to see one band or the other and tell me they only like one or the other. It's as if they believe I was two different people in two different bands. I guess some nights it's true."
Either way, Hughes says he's happier with both the Ugly Americans and Scabs than he's ever been with any other project. At this point, after a career with so many disasters, near-misses, and minor hits, Hughes says that Boom Boom Baby and an upcoming tour being successful isn't really the point anymore.
"There's a point with record deals and record sales where you realize it's all just figures in the air and it depends on how much work you want to put into a project as to whether it's successful personally," concludes Hughes. "I've always viewed myself as somewhat successful anyway, because I've gotten a lot of chances to play in projects I've wanted to do. I've gotten to play a lot of challenging music with a lot of great musicians. So, okay, commercial success eludes me, but like the rock star or asshole trip, I'm pretty sure it's not so important to me anymore."