The Truth Is Out There
A short history of Patrice Pike
"First of all, it's always assumed that I am gay. I am bisexual. I have always had wonderful, very satisfying relationships with men. But when I started dating a woman, I discovered that nobody wants you if you're bisexual."
There. Patrice Pike has just addressed the million-dollar question without batting a mascara-free lash. That she speaks so candidly is testament to her own strength of character. To any fan of Little Sister, Sister 7, or her newest band Black Box Rebellion, her candor is no surprise. Almost 32, Patrice Pike is a very confident woman.
"No one ever asked me if I was gay until a Chicago Tribune journalist did. Although I'm a really open person, it was shocking because no one ever asked. People just assumed and it wasn't important to me to clear it up. But when the journalist, who was lesbian, asked me, I was feeling pressured, just because it was a big paper. I was really excited about the interview and then out of the blue she asked me about my sexuality.
"It was one of those moments where I could give the easy answer and bond with her. I was dating a woman at the time and getting a lot of support from the gay community. But it was important to me at that moment to be clear and accurate about where I'm coming from.
"So I told her I was bisexual, and I could tell she was disappointed. It took some of the wind out of her sails, but I was happy. I don't want people to support me based on an image that's not real. For me, it's about the truth."
The truth. That's the phrase that keeps cropping up throughout the life of Patrice Pike. Her mother recognized it when she enrolled her 15-year-old daughter in Dallas' Booker T. Washington High School for Performing and Visual Arts. Visiting speaker Wynton Marsalis recognized it when he told the aspiring singer, "It's really just about being soulful, Patrice. Just do what you love." Her fans have always recognized it in her music. And it's been the preeminent characteristic of Pike's journey as a musician. The truth, as they say, is out there.
During the month of May, Tuesday at the Saxon Pub belonged to Patrice Pike, much as Thursdays are traditionally Rusty Wier's, a definite contrast in age, gender, and genre. Performers such as Pike and Bob Schneider represent the decidedly younger singer-songwriters supported by the club, and Pike's shows routinely pulled good audience numbers for her 8pm time slot. It's also the opportunity to hear Pike's vocals, soaring from a sensual growl and scat singing to powerhouse rock.
Are You Ready for the Country
Solo shows are also Pike's way of keeping herself in tune, so to speak. She likes coming off the road and expressing herself there. "I don't have three people behind me waiting to play the next song," she explains. "I can talk about where the song came from, an experience I had during the day. There's no A&R guy in the audience, and I can tell stories if I want to."
That makes Wayne Sutton, her partner in groove, laugh. "She knows I hate it when she talks between songs." He should know: The two have been musical partners for 12 years.
Sutton and his guitar are often part of those solo shows, as is BBR percussionist John Bush. By appearances, it's Black Box Rebellion unplugged, without bassist Danny Beltran and drummer Mike Hale, but spiritually it's Pike at her most soulful and free. Sutton notes that she does play by herself, "but I think it makes her more comfortable when I play with her."
Sutton grew up in the Metroplex suburb of Plano and learned to play saxophone in the school marching band before taking up guitar. While playing a chance gig at a street festival in Dallas in the late Eighties, he met another Metroplex teenager also singing in a band. Her name was Patrice Pike.
"I was about 17 and she was about 16. We kept in touch when I moved here to Austin; she'd come stay with me for South by Southwest. When I moved back to Plano, we started writing together. The two of us played for a couple months and decided we wanted to start a band. In '91, we formed Little Sister."
But 1991 and Little Sister were still a long way from the young girl Sutton met. Pike came from a musically inclined family, who gave her a blue ukulele at age 2. With a grin, she recalls being in the country and singing heart-wrenching blues "about how the cows can't cross the road because of all the cars." Pike also recalls witnessing the nightlife firsthand, well before she lost her baby teeth.
"My stepfather was a guitarist in Dallas," recounts the singer. "A couple of weeks ago we played a club in Fort Worth that used to be the Hop. It was the first bar I went to. I was three. They served Italian food, pizza, salads, and they had rock bands. Nitzinger, Bugs Henderson . . . I'd have my dinner, stay up to a point, and then I was supposed to go back in the dressing room and go to sleep. They'd carry me out at the end of the night, put me in the Volkswagen bug, and we'd go home."
In other words, a musician's life has been Pike's life since before she could spell guitar, let alone play one. This also meant that things got worse before they got better. Financial and personal circumstance forced Pike's mother to move out of the Metroplex and into the country. Pike went into culture shock.
"We were living in a trailer house, and I was sleeping on a cot," she nods. "I'd grown up in the city and we were always financially challenged, but this was like night and day. One day I was a kid in the suburb playing sports, talking on the phone, going to school. Then, suddenly I'm in the country in the middle of nowhere, 10 miles from town. Middle of summer. No air conditioning. No phone. I had to ride my bike 10 miles to get into town.
"I freaked out. I felt I didn't belong where I was and didn't understand how I was going to be anything that meant something to me in that place. After a semester of school, I told my mother that if she didn't get me out of there, I would run away. So she called and got me an audition at Booker T. Washington in Dallas. I was 15, and it saved my life."
Meeting Wayne Sutton threw Pike a lifeline, too. After their initial encounter at the Dallas street fair, it took another meeting to confirm the chemistry. "He came over to my place and played me a song on guitar. When he sang that song to me, it made me wanna do nothing but play music with him."
The Jam Band Thing
The earliest version of Little Sister was "singer-songwriter-funky, nothing like what it turned into when we got a drummer and bass player," as Sutton describes it. He and Pike moved their band to Austin, landed the plum spot opening for Soul Hat at the Black Cat, and "got sucked into the whole jam band thing."
The "jam band thing" was Austin's most vibrant scene in the early Nineties, starting at the Black Cat and spilling over to Steamboat. Little Sister ruled as one-third of the triumvirate, along with Soul Hat and the Ugly Americans (morphed from Joe Rockhead), and garnered a large, loyal following. The band made two albums, Free Love & Nickel Beer in 1993 and a self-titled release in 1995, and the breakneck tour schedule was on. There was only one hitch.
Little Sister wasn't the most original of band names. At least seven other bands across the country carried the same moniker, and one in particular ("a cover band in Boston" snickers Pike) began sending cease-and-desist letters. Since the Austin outfit was the seventh Little Sister, they became Sister 7 in 1996.
Sister 7 continued their upward spiral through the mid-Nineties. They recorded two albums, This the Trip and Wrestling Over Tiny Matters, for Arista (briefly based in Austin), were enlisted for soundtracks ("The Only Thing That's Real" from Bounce), and toured with Lilith Fair and H.O.R.D.E. Soon, their fan base numbered upward of 20,000 on the mailing list. Unfortunately, it wasn't adding up for Pike.
"Over time, Sister 7 became such a production," sighs Pike, "this thing that had a life of its own. The audiences got bigger and bigger, and there was all this chatter from the record company about image and clothing, and all those things made it lose that everyday element for me. I became a workaholic."
"We were at the point where we'd gone as far as we could," agrees Sutton. "We were on our third major label deal. I don't think there was ever a point in which the four of us were satisfied at the same time."
"Ladies and gentlemen, the show is about to begin!"
Danny Crooks' voice booms out over the P.A. and is lost in the darkness as the Steamboat audience erupts into cheers and applause. Five silhouettes position themselves across the wide, shallow stage and seconds later are awash in bright lights. The Black Box Rebellion slides into "Jackknife Girl" from their first full-length album, Fencing Under Fire.
Sutton and bassist Danny Beltran flank the stage, drummer Mike Hale and percussionist Jack Bush behind them. Standing front and center is Pike, wielding an acoustic guitar like her weapon of choice. Her hair is a golden strawberry with bold stripes of pale blond, and she glows with radiant good health. Her deep blue eyes survey the audience as she steps toward the microphone to sing. With lights streaming over the band in ribbons of jewel-tone colors, Pike and Black Box Rebellion resemble nothing as much as the next big thing.
Being the Next Big Thing is nothing new to Pike, who acknowledges that the band has spent a lot of time reinventing themselves since Sister 7. The endless jams are gone, but the solid grooves remain. In less than two years, BBR has self-released an EP, Flat 13, and most recently, Fencing Under Fire. Pike's bands have always enjoyed radio support in Austin, and Fencing's "Jackknife Girl" is no exception.
Musical identities aside, the biggest difference between the Sister bands and Black Box Rebellion is that Pike's name fronts it. That makes Black Box Rebellion as much a statement about its frontwoman as her music. The rub is that she freely points to her partnership with Sutton as the liberating factor. "He really challenges me," she asserts.
"Black Box Rebellion is more song-oriented, not the big heavy rock thing that I was a little sick of," confesses Sutton, who's preparing his own solo album. "Patrice and I share a vision of passionate music, played with a certain kind of conviction. Sometimes it comes off as kind of corny, but we both feel the same way, and can relate to each other that way. It's like a brother and sister relationship. It's a very secure feeling."
That vision of passionate music doesn't pass unnoticed by their audience. "It's such a cliché, but I really relate to her music," concludes Sara, a 25-year-old local who discovered Pike in Sister 7 and followed her to Black Box Rebellion. Sara enjoys the solo performances, but prefers attending the larger shows because they're more "energized." She likes the band, but is clearly a fan of Pike's.
"She's just got this allure. She's dedicated to her music and I can feel it. She's so ...," Sara leans on the railing outside Steamboat, searching for words as she stares out at Riverside Drive. It's Saturday and the neon-lit lowriders boom and zoom by. Sara finds the word.
Of all the gigs Pike has played lately, one of the most gratifying was performing at a recent Booker T. Washington High School reunion. She went there in search of meaning in her life and found it in the curriculum of the school. The experience of returning was also a little bittersweet, a reminder of a time when her life wasn't stable and what happened when hope appeared on her horizon.
"I went to school with Roy Hargrove and Erykah Badu, who was called 'Peaches' back then," explains Pike. "You go back and you see these people, and you know why they are what they are. They came from this place that cultivated their highest potential.
"It was amazing to go back. There are teachers and administrators who never saw me do what I do. Their recollection of me was that I sang in a choir ensemble. I even ran into Dr. Cornell, who got me the audition in the middle of the year when my mother called."
Patrice Pike looks back to that time of teenage insecurity and is satisfied that the journey since has been significant and worthwhile. Between Black Box Rebellion and her successful solo shows, Pike maintains her status as a successful performer, but is just coming into her own as a songwriter.
"It's so cool, to be at the point where all I can think is, 'Look at all the different things I can do that I've never done before!' I don't have a target audience. I just want to play music and be real."
And that's the truth.