Austin's ST 37 prove that in space, no one can hear you age
"We find ourselves being both part of and an influence on this moment. Which is exactly where we want to be."
-- Colin Newman of Wire, September 2002.
"I want us to be like the Willie Nelson of psychedelic rock, just keep on doin' it," says Joel Crutcher, founding member and lead guitarist of Austin psyche rock institution ST 37. "We don't even care how many people show up. We'll play to five people, we don't mind."
After playing scores of shows over the years where the band barely outnumbered the crowd, ST 37 are hitting a late peak of sorts, finally earning some overdue respect for the ingenious, influential, and downright bizarre musical cocktails they've brewed over their 15-year career.
This weekend, the Texas space rock godfathers, along with the crème de la crème of the psychedelic music community in the States and beyond, are trekking to Boston for Terrastock 5, an annual event run by Ptolemaic Terrascope, the quarterly British magazine devoted to all psyche-related arcana.
It will be ST 37's first Terrastock, and they picked a good one, as this year's notables include Sonic Youth, Acid Mothers Temple, and Bardo Pond. The veteran quartet is not only primed to win over new fans with cosmic blasts from their scorching new Emperor Jones album, Down On Us, they might just steal the entire show. Literally. This time next year, the fantastic carnival of sound that is Terrastock could be wending its way down Congress Avenue, thanks in no small part to ST 37.
Their presence and perpetual support of local creative music has helped nurture a new wave of Texas psychedelia that resulted in the successful Texas Psyche Fest in August, a sort of regional Terrastock. That the event actually benefited the Ptolemaic Terrascope was not lost on Editor Phil McMullen. ST 37 bassist/vocalist Scott Telles, along with Kurt Brennan of Houston out-rock label Fleece Records, has plans to meet with McMullen in Boston to discuss bringing next year's event to Austin.
"Since Texas showed the initiative by setting up Texas Psyche Fest, since we showed what we can do, Phil is more than willing to give Texas a shot at it," says Telles. "Plus, there's so many [Terrastock-type] bands in this state, you could do a whole day of just Texas artists."
The mere existence of a local space-rock and psychedelic scene has been in part the result of ST 37, who have lent support to a wide variety of local fledgling acts as well as out-of-town transplants like fellow Terrastockers Charalambides, and Psyche Fest organizers Primordial Undermind (see "2002: A New Spaceage," p.60). ST 37's perseverance, as well as their unyielding commitment to melting minds while moving bodies has taken them on an odyssey through such Austin institutions as the Cave Club, Austin Outhouse, Dong Huong, Bates Motel, and even a mud-caked 5am romp in a barn during a one-off festival called Plywoodstock at the old Zendik Farm in the mid-Nineties.
"That was a wild show," says drummer Dave Cameron. "Everybody was on mushrooms."
It certainly wouldn't be the only time hallucinogens turned up at an ST 37 gig, but the band's inspirations have always stemmed more from a record-collector-obsessive love of music than from any wanton intent to inflict psychic damage on their listeners.
"We all came from a punk rock background," explains Telles, whose first band, Vast Majority, formed in 1979 when he was a high schooler from Houston. "We were a typical punk band," recalls the bassist, now 40. "We could barely play."
Telles later formed the more psychedelic Elegant Doormats after a move to Austin, while brothers Joel and Carlton Crutcher played in the noise-punk outfit Tulum. The brothers got together with Telles and drummer John Foxworth in 1987 to form ST 37, named after an old pharmaceutical antiseptic.
"When we started in '87, we were still a loud punk rock band," declares Telles. "It probably wasn't until '90-'91 that we found our niche as far as the kind of stuff we do these days. We like our punk rock as much as we like our Krautrock and psychedelia."
That's saying a lot. If there's anybody in Austin more devoted than Telles to old-school cosmic rockers like Hawkwind and Chrome, or Krautrockers like Amon Düül and Can, it's probably ST guitarist Mark Stone. If it's not Stone, you can be sure they're a ST 37 fan, whoever they are. Not many bands have been known to cover each of the aforementioned acts -- plus first-wave Houston punks the Hates -- on one record, 1998's Spaceage.
"Basically, we're like record collectors bonding," says Stone, a longtime fan who joined the group in 1997. "I was working at Sound Exchange in the late Eighties and early Nineties, and that's where I met these guys. I was getting into Hawkwind and stuff like that. Scott's got just about every album. I was like, 'Okay, that's the quick way to find the stuff I need!'"
In 1996, the band added veteran drummer Dave Cameron, 46, who has played with dozens of bands, including Brave Combo, Glass Eye, Three Day Stubble, and Roky Erickson.
"Until Roky went off on him!" exclaims Telles.
"He said he was gonna shoot me in the head," avers Cameron. "But he didn't mean it. At the time, he'd just split up with his wife."
Cameron, along with Stone, now 34, who joined on rhythm guitar in 1997, finally completed the "classic" ST 37 lineup after a dizzying array of 7-inches, cassette releases, CD-Rs, compilation appearances, and albums on small indies and European labels (www.st37.com/st37.disco.html).
The following year saw an appearance at the Strange Daze festival in Sherman, N.Y., at which both versions of longtime favorites Hawkwind performed. In 1998, the band opened for Chrome at Emo's, completing a longtime dream.
"When Carlton and I first talked about starting the band," recalls Telles, "we talked about being a fusion of Chrome and Hawkwind. We talked about taking the harder-edged, punk rock experimental-type tape-to-tape stuff that Chrome does, and mixing it with the space rock stuff that Hawkwind does. To be able to play with Chrome and Hawkwind in the same year was a dream come true. We could've quit after that and been happy."
After releasing a handful of albums, including Spaceage, on Italian labels, ST 37 has built up a healthy audience there, to the point where the band appeared on the cover of Rockeria, the Italian equivalent of SPIN.
The album, a landmark in their massive catalog, finds their sound close to that envisioned Hawkwind/Chrome fusion, but with a certain head-in-the clouds distance to the music -- an intentional one, given the album's title. Yet their cover of Can's "Vitamin C" gives away the eternal truth of ST 37: their ace rhythm section. Telles' powerful basslines never fail to make a statement greater than the sum of their forceful notes, and when they mesh just so with Cameron's nuanced propulsion, a sturdy, complex canvas falls into place, which the brothers Crutcher vandalize with reckless abandon.
The band's 1999 Emperor Jones debut, I Like to Talk If There's Anything to Talk About, found them with solid distribution for the first time. It also featured a return to the mic by Carlton Crutcher, the band's original singer before shifting over to keyboards. Carlton's paranoid, stream-of-consciousness vocalizing, and Joel Crutcher's cracked freestyle licks always kept the band squarely in the realm of Texas psychedelia, and made for a common aesthetic alongside the Trance Syndicate noise-rock scene of the early Nineties. ST 37 shows with bands like Ed Hall, Crust, and the Pocket FishRmen were a regular occurrence.
"I think we're the only band to ever play a Trance showcase  and not get a record out on Trance," laughs Telles. "So it's nice to be on Emperor Jones, which is the closest thing."
Even now that Trance and virtually every band that ever recorded for them has gone the way of the yeti, ST 37 still stands to this day, releasing their most fearsome rock record yet, Down On Us, on Trance offshoot Emperor Jones. Time has not expanded the aural girth of these fortysomethings; in fact, Down On Us represents the leanest, meanest ST 37 captured on tape. The shift in approach is largely due to the departure of Carlton Crutcher, who left midway through the recording sessions.
"Carlton wanted us to be an all-improv band, and we had a bunch of pop songs ready to go, and he balked at that," explains Joel Crutcher, 40, now working in a band without his brother for the first time in nearly 20 years.
"We still like doing the jam-oriented stuff; we just did a whole double CD of jam [the all-improv Nunavut CD-R]," explains Telles. "But we were seeking to compartmentalize the two aspects of the band a little more. I really felt like we should try to be a little more accessible on this record.
"It was very painful, with Joel and Carlton being brothers. But in a way it was good. They'd been spending too much time together anyway; they were constantly arguing and bitching at each other, so it probably all worked out for the best."
The band had a replacement keyboardist for a time, but eventually scaled back to a quartet.
"We've become a tight rock unit over the past couple of years," says Stone. "It's nice to have that extra layer of sound, and in a way, it frees up some clutter, allowing us to concentrate on the songs a little more. We can still wig out and improvise all we want, but we can also just bring it all together and kick it in. I like being able to do that at will."
The difference is striking. The riffs go straight for the jugular, the free floating effluvia of previous recordings mostly swept away. Trash-rock opener "The Grain Kings" makes the intentions clear from the onset.
"It made a big difference going into a real studio," acknowledges Telles. "Bryan Nelson at Sweatbox, I can't praise him enough."
Indeed, it had been over a decade since the band recorded anywhere outside of Telles' garage. "Stack Collision With Heap" is the band's new headbang anthem, a "We're Not Gonna Take It" for third-millennium literati caught in a high tech boondoggle. Telles insists it's the band's attempt at the Guided by Voices formula. Whatever the word, the result is a direct hit, though the esoteric cyberpunk lyrics and eerie kaleidoscope of sounds will prevent it from following up Linkin Park on 101X.
"It's still the same fantastically silly psych mess it's always been," posits Emperor Jones' Craig Stewart, one of the group's earliest supporters. "After Carlton heard the album, he proclaimed it the best ST 37 album and the worst ST 37 album, and I tend to agree with him. While the foggy and murky recordings they'd done were always a part of the charm, the new album lets them at least not appear to be so one-dimensional.
"They've found their way out of the tunnel, but the air outside is still hostile -- meaning it wouldn't matter if they'd gone into a $1,000-a-day place with Daniel Lanois, it's still going to be underground due to the nature of the band and their overall vibe."
Telles' charismatic falsetto and absurdist double entendres are free to take center stage, an ace in the hole the band had yet to spotlight on album. Carlton Crutcher's unique world-view and twisted rants might be gone, but his legacy lives on in Joel's vocal contributions, which keep the corn-fed dementia and backwoods ramblin' prominently in the equation, only with a more in-yer-face, noise rock attitude.
Then there's Cameron's "Caves of Ice," something else altogether. The drummer takes a page out of his utterly weird death skronk project, Jherri Seignfeldt's Atropheed Sac, to bring us a ludicrous Nordic black mass abduction, inspired by the Viking-like violence, desecration, and reputed cannibalism of the Norwegian black metal scene.
"We all four have different songwriting styles," admits Cameron. "It makes for an interesting collage. I'm more into the experimental and metal, Scott's into New Order or Hawkwind-type stuff. Mark's into hard rock and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Joel's really into old-timey Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams."
Perhaps it's good that Crutcher will be the one driving Australian fragmented folk cult legend Pip Proud 4,000 miles from Austin to Boston for Terrastock. There Proud will make his American debut, 35 years after his debut album hit the stores, as he joins ST onstage for his song "Sweet Thought," which the band covers on Down On Us. It should be yet another memorable moment for a band that ages like classic Krautrock.
"Just the fact that we're 40 years old and still playing, still able to play in the scene, still make records, it's pretty amazing actually," says Cameron.
"I just wanna keep on doing it till we can't anymore," declares Crutcher. "I kinda like that idea."