A chapter out of the Zykos road diary
It's another Flannery O'Connor night at Emo's, the sultry, late-September air weighted further by 400 bodies gathered at the outdoor stage. Not a night for corduroy, no matter how great your ass looks in it.
It's easy to forget the feel of your britches adhering to your skin, however, when you see Zykos frontman Mike Booher bopping joyously through the crowd, greeting friends and strangers alike with his trademark hand-on-shoulder approach. His other hand, for the majority of the night, is occupied by an Amstel Light, which, as the evening progresses, makes Booher's social trajectory that much more interesting to watch.
A few days before the release of Zykos (austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2004-10-08/music_phases.html), the eponymous second album from Austin's latest breakout hopefuls, and this late September release party has turned into a surprisingly big deal. Booher's parents are here from Houston, as well as keyboardist Catherine Davis' folks. Post-Parlo label owner Ben Dickey is in from Chapel Hill, and Britt Daniel lends his regal demeanor to the proceedings.
Anticipation hangs thick in the air alongside the cigarette smoke, and the mood is celebratory. The 3-year-old fivepiece is gathering steam on the local scene, and it looks like the sacrifices its individual members have made for this band are on the cusp of paying off.
Booher, who left a decent job in pursuit of his rock & roll dreams, eschewed employment for the better part of 2004 to devote his energies to writing the new album. As has been previously discussed in this paper, drummer Jerod Cykoski was obliged to leave his plum job in the Chronicle's ad-sales department in order to tour. (He's since been reinstated.)
Bassist Mike Roeder is the most gainfully employed of the band; his programmer's salary allows him to serve as both landlord for his bandmates (excluding Davis), and also primary bankroller of Zykos. The investments are risky, the returns are unknown, but the band couldn't be more determined to make things work. The people that love them couldn't be more concerned about them.
Emo's is certainly a safe space for these childhood friends from the Houston burbs; they're surrounded by friends both inside the industry and out, as well as a growing local fan base. The performance of "Understanding Fire," the most intense song on the new album, serves as a metaphor for all that lies ahead for this band. Austin's Okkervil River, having played earlier, joins Zykos onstage to perform the song, and the energy coming from the 11 musicians is overwhelming. It's exhilarating to watch, and the sound is huge. When Zykos is in its comfort zone, the sky's the limit.
In a few days, though, Zykos will take this act on the road without the comfort and safety of friends and parents, and joyful moments such as these will be few and far between.
According to a local scenester, the Warehouse is the place for up-and-coming indie bands to play in D.C., but if no one has heard of the band in question, a local megahipster has to bestow his or her seal of approval in order for anyone to plunk down $7. No one pays to be bored. Out-of-town bands have a rough time of it, as the D.C. scene tends to be a bit elitist.
Go East, Young Band
Zykos is no exception to this rule: When we arrive at the Warehouse, a plain space in an old building with well-worn wood floors, our party of six accounts for a little more than a third of the audience. The show has gotten absolutely no publicity, and the scent in the air is that of defeat. A duo calling itself Stamen & Pistils is onstage, singing about "microscopic salmon going upstream to mate" and "rolling around in freshly mown grass." There's some giggling, despite the grimness of the scene.
Zykos sets up awkwardly on the box stage set in front of a black wall. In a motif that will sustain itself over the course of the week, one of Booher's strings pops early in the set. He very politely asks a member of IQU (the headlining band on this leg of the tour) to change his B-string, then borrows bandmate Jarod Harmeier's guitar in the interim. It's a small hiccup, but as there's scant momentum in this show to begin with, the stall doesn't help.
Later in the set, Davis steps aside and Booher assumes the position at the keyboard and licks his chops. It's a very sexy gesture and it is, surprisingly, followed by a sideways glance and sly grin in my direction. In addition to the knowledge that I'm watching him, he's completely aware of the sexual power inherent in his position as a rock & roll frontman; indeed, there's at least one young lady in the audience who'd gladly seize the opportunity for a solo performance. It's just a shame that there's no one here to appreciate it on any sort of macro level.
Despite the poor audience showing and the monumentally crappy sound, the band powers through a middling set that gets the meager crowd bopping along enthusiastically during the set's closer. "Hot!" cries Stamen (or is it Pistils?). Despite the tiny audience's approval, Booher is deeply discouraged after the show, visibly wilted but still good-natured.
"Touring is a delicate thing for the ego," Roeder explains later. "One person has to step up. Booher believes in everybody else, but he doesn't believe in himself. He knows that the burden for us is on him."
After all, this is a band that's just come off a very successful week in Georgia and North Carolina, playing sold-out shows in support of fellow Austinites Explosions in the Sky.
The rest of the members seem to take it in stride, but Booher is bummed in his happy-go-lucky way. Ever the optimist, he decides to set his sights on Baltimore. Surely things will be better there.
Things you need in order to navigate the exitless mixmaster of interstates around Baltimore: razor-sharp wits, keen instincts, and superfast reflexes. On the way to meet Zykos in the birthplace of Philip Glass, Babe Ruth, and Jada Pinkett Smith, we get lost in a neighborhood straight out of The Wire. Twice.
Sunday Night in Sketchville
The Supreme Imperial is a residential artists' collective that bills itself as the "only alternative for the Urban Sophisticate" in Baltimore. In truth, it's a shabby, chilly warehouse that seems too artsy-cool for its own good. What's more, it's in such a sketchy part of downtown that the proprietors are locking the door behind us as we come and go.
We wait and wait and wait for the opening "band," which Booher had earlier claimed had good buzz, an outfit called Cupid's Daughters. No one is quite prepared for what happens when the quintet finally takes the stage. Be warned: Not everyone with a guitar is a musician, not everyone with access to a microphone is a singer, and not everyone calling themselves a band should be given stage time. Because you could just end up forced to listen to someone barking at random for 10 minutes. While we're waiting for the blessed end, Harmeier talks about how to fill up spaces like this when you have absolutely no following in the area.
"You have to rely on word of mouth," he says. "People showing up from the night before gives you a boost."
Indeed, there are two people from the D.C. show present, not including me, and the three of us compose roughly a third of the audience, which also includes a childhood friend of the band's who lives in the area. The showing prompts the question: What happens if no one shows?
"We always play," Roeder laughs. "We've been perilously close to playing to no one, but we always play. That's part of the fun."
He scans the nearly empty room.
"It's more fun to play to a lot of people, but you want to play."
And play they do, winning over a teensy crowd of strangers despite the spectacle of two of Cupid's Daughters dancing sarcastically to the poppy opener. A pair of pantyhose is wrapped around the mic stand, and as the set comes to a close, Booher unwinds it from the pole and crams it onto his head. A guitar string pops; he rips all of them out angrily.
Afterward he explains his actions.
"I try to infuse the show with my mood, whether I'm in a good mood or mad or sad. I tried to make it angsty. How was it?"
What better cure for existential angst than a night of gambling? Monday morning, we pile into the van and head to Atlantic City, baby!
Lady Luck Takes a Holiday
Booher drives, and Davis, known within the group as "Nipples" because she rarely wears a bra, navigates, resulting in a 45-minute detour to Reagan International Airport in Washington. Roeder, in a black mood, bites his tongue in response to the navigational follies, while Cykoski dozes, and Harmeier sits quietly in the back row, gazing placidly out the window.
Booher greets every tollbooth collector with an adorable smile and a "Hi, how are you?" The collectors, mostly women, eat it up this is a running joke in the van.
"Booher has the touch with the toll collectors," grumbles Roeder. "They love him."
We stop for lunch at an Arby's touring is a nutritional no-man's-land where the topic is the Supreme Imperial. When a band gives up control of things like booking, it's a leap of faith, especially when a night's earnings equal half of what it costs to fill the van's gas tank.
"It's hard when other people are working hard to make you a success," says Davis. "You don't know exactly what they're doing or what the result will be. It's very hard not knowing."
Arriving, we cram ourselves into a double room at the Tropicana, then set about wandering aimlessly through the casino, slurping up free drinks as quickly as we get them and planting ourselves in front of a row of video poker machines. Somewhere along the line, Harmeier sneaks off and holes himself up in the room, content to watch the Astros' playoff game; he often ends up doing his own thing.
After a while, we decide to go for a stroll. The fabled Boardwalk is deserted, a chilly Atlantic gust chapping our faces as we float down the worn but well-tended planks. Booher, Davis, and I are discussing a divide among Austin critics: Some think Zykos is ready for radio; others think their most recent album lacks that pop necessity: hooks.
"That's not really our mission," Booher insists. Davis concurs.
"We just make music we like, and hopefully, other people will like it, too," she says.
And there it is: that veiled reference to not selling out, not bowing down to the Almighty Hook in service to Artistic Purity. Many a band has gone down playing that particular tune. Either you make your music marketable or you don't, but even the Sex Pistols had hooks.
The next morning, Davis and I queue up for coffee with the rest of the bleary-eyed tourists. I ask her about the challenge of carving out personal space while on the road with a bunch of smelly guys.
"It's really hard to get time alone," she says, confirming my suspicions. "It's definitely tough being the only girl."
Being the sole female in a band with four other men inevitably inspires speculation as to whether any of the guys is a love interest. This would not be a fruitless line of inquiry.
"I have this idea that someday I'd like to start an all-girl band," she says, juicing up with a glass of fructose. "The problem is that I don't know any girls who can play guitar."
Roeder, who reports that Booher and Cykoski are finally stirring after a night of epic alcohol consumption that may or may not have contributed to their staggering losses at the craps tables, joins us. We've got 15 minutes to check out and hit the road.
Roeder takes the wheel on the drive to Philadelphia. Pulling up to a tollbooth, he attempts Booher's affable "Hi, how are you?" approach. The collector stonewalls him.
If a Band Falls in the Forest
"Okay, great. Have a nice day, and a nice life," he mutters as he pulls away, shaking his head. We all snicker.
"I've got experience with toll people, man," Booher says consolingly. "You're good at other things. Like, smart stuff."
Later that night, while North Carolinians the Rosebuds sound-check at the Khyber, which is the first real club Zykos has played this week, Roeder sounds off on the frustrations of being a young little-known on the road.
"We were actually supposed to do a West Coast tour after this one, but [label head and booking agent Ben Dickey] had to scrap it because none of the promoters knew who we are and didn't want to take a chance on us."
He gulps down more beer and gazes at the trio onstage.
"At some point, I'm going to have to face being a grownup. I mean, I own a house, and my job situation is not one that will continue to allow me to take five weeks off at a time."
In poker, it's called "steaming," acting aggressively after losing big. Whatever the phenomenon is called in the music biz, tonight's show is the strongest of the week. Zykos very nearly recaptures the phenomenal energy of that sticky night back home, and it works. The (again, meager) crowd is so fired up that no one from the band is able to make it over to the merch table in time to greet interested patrons, so I bolt over there and start taking cash and handing out copies of the new CD.
An incredibly shy young man skulks up to the table after the initial mad dash and asks quietly to purchase Zykos. I ask his name. "Ben," he squeaks. Ben lives in New Jersey, and this is his third time seeing Zykos; he makes it a point to see them whenever they're in his neck of the woods. He hands over his $10 and, after inquiring about the band's next few stops, he slinks out of the club.
A few days later, the band plays its first-ever CMJ showcase in New York City. The club is packed, although it's clear the crowd is camping out for the Mendoza Line rather than some strangers from Texas. Nonetheless, there are some friendly faces in the crowd, including Dickey, Daniel, and Spoon drummer Jim Eno. Despite traces of home dotting the sea of faces, creating a safe place away from Austin's loving arms, the band has got to nail it tonight.
They don't nail it.
Booher has slightly catastrophic technical difficulties, although when his mic stand falls off the stage, the band keeps the song together. Even then, after a disappointing week, it's obvious the band's energy is sagging. Roeder, walking me to the subway, blames himself.
"I didn't play with any energy or conviction," he says. "I just wasn't feeling it tonight."
This just wasn't your week, was it?
"The funny thing is, things were going so well the week before," he sighs. "You saw the worst of it. You're our bad luck charm!"
Never mind the fact that I'm the only one who came out ahead in Atlantic City, because at the end of the day, Zykos' success outside of Austin is in the hands of people like Ben, the fans who love the music and remain loyal despite the distance.
They are the wildfire that either spreads or peters out over time. It's up to Zykos to sustain the momentum. They just have to decide how much they're willing to gamble.
Zykos plays Emo's Friday, Dec. 3.