Eat to the Beat
Austin's music and food mash-up in six verses
There's this old joke: "How do you get a drummer off your porch? Pay for the pizza."
Caleb Dawson's heard it before.
He's at my house with a large pie from Austin's Pizza, where he works as a delivery driver. With his turquoise rings, leather boots, golden brown mane, and a fringy leather satchel hanging from his necklace, he's nailing the biker-hippie image. His swagger screams rock & roll badass.
Dawson's one of Austin's most prolific percussionists, keeping the beat for R&B street rockers the Bad Lovers, Sabbath-inspired stonemasons Sweat Lodge, Lone Star psych gang the Wolf, and modest supergroup the Best. He's already played two shows this week and has three more on the weekend, plus meetings to plan a summer tour for the Wolf and to ready a new LP from the Bad Lovers. For Dawson, who also works almost full time transporting pies, it's a relatively light workload. Not like during South by Southwest, when he played 29 times in a week.
"I don't sleep much," he reflects.
He gets crazy good tips though. How could he not, looking like that?
It's common for Dawson to get recognized on a pizza run. He even heard one of his albums playing once. That's Austin for you: The dude delivering lunch might very well be the same guy you'll be paying to see perform later that night.
"I almost don't know any musicians who don't work in the service industry," Dawson confirms. "The kitchen is particularly attractive to musicians because we usually don't have to wake up early and, if we do, it's not a big deal to be hungover or tired because you're not dealing directly with the customer so you don't have to put on your happy face. Everyone's sweaty and pissed off."
Cook of the House
Sue Davis works 80 hours a week in a restaurant. Don't feel bad for her. She's the owner.
Davis founded Eastside eatery Counter Culture, a charming little restaurant on Cesar Chavez that offers vegan and raw foods so hearty they satisfy total meat fiends.
"There was a lack of accessible vegan food in Austin," offers Davis, who opened her venture as a trailer in 2009 before upgrading to brick-and-mortar digs a year ago. "But Counter Culture doesn't say 'vegan' anywhere because I want to feed omnivores."
As I munch a Philly Seitan, the veggie take on a cheesesteak made of grilled plant protein and topped with cashew cheese, Davis explains that many of her 14 employees are musicians. Not because she intentionally hires them, but because that's who makes up the local workforce.
"Every restaurant in Austin has a musician working there," she points out. "To me, the restaurant and music industries here are tied together just like the acting business and restaurants in L.A."
Davis counts herself among those ranks as "DJ Sue," one of Austin's venerable vinyl selectors. Around the millennium, she began a weekly dance party at local watering holes Nasty's and Beerland, where she spun garage rock, pop oldies, and whatever eccentric audio she grooved to. Sometimes she hosted bands, sometimes guest DJs from the Sixties scene. Fuzz Club – maybe you heard of it.
These days, she's too busy shopping for organic produce and making quiches. Instead of night clubs, she reigns over the stereo at work, playing cool old music that, like her food, comes perfectly unprocessed.
In transitioning from underground DJ to a restaurateur standing against Monsanto, animal cruelty, and big agribusiness, Davis sees common ingredients.
"It's a do-it-yourself kind of thing. Much like bands in their garage, it's not about making money, but about making change."
Living in the food trailer capital of the universe, Austinites are used to seeing wheeled vendors pitching edible obscurities like designer donuts, "Detroit Style" pizza, kimchi fries, and even questionably-named Asian "Love Balls." So it's no surprise that the market remains such that it can support something as specific as a vegetarian Jewish sandwich trailer and even less surprising that it's owned by an awesome local musician.
This breezy Friday afternoon, on the corner of Cesar Chavez and San Marcos Street, Schmaltz is slammed. Filling the picnic tables are a cross section of black-clad, tattooed thirtysomethings, collegiate bookworms, upper middle-class families with well-dressed babies, and sandal-wearing long-hairs. The Stooges' "No Fun" plays on some small computer speakers near the order window and the condiment rack has copies of the Razorcake zine. By no contrivance or calculation, Julia Hungerford's Jewish-style veggie sandwich trailer feels overtly rock & roll.
Hungerford, an ex-Tennessean with a long history of drumming in rock bands, stands inside grilling sandwiches, working through a long line of order cards that read menu names like the "Gertrude Stein" Goatcheese and "Art Spiegelman" Patty Melt. She's looking appropriately Eastern European: a head wrap and gigantic old-lady sunglasses. Later tonight, she'll let her hair down onstage at Holy Mountain, banging the hell out of her drum kit behind local garage great John Wesley Coleman.
"'Schmaltz,' like many Jewish words, I'm told, has at least two meanings," she explains. "One is clarified kosher butter. Otherwise, it means 'overly sentimental.'"
Hungerford's grandparents were survivors – Polish Jews who immigrated to America after the Second World War. They exposed a young Hungerford to the great institution of Jewish delis, which emphasize good bread, pickled vegetables, and sliced, seasoned meats.
While the homemade meatless pastrami slices on the "Harvey P" Reuben I order might dismay Carnegie Deli purists, few could argue with the fresh baked marble rye, fresh cabbage, chipotle Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese.
As I dig into the delicious sandwich, Hungerford explains that she operates as a lunch spot so she can be available to play shows and practice at night. She recalls the separation anxiety she experienced while touring with Coleman's band in December, leaving an employee to run the trailer.
"I tried to just let him run everything, but I couldn't stop worrying, so I'd still call almost every day."
While Schmaltz serves no meat, Hungerford's proud to be a member of HAAM (the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians), the low-cost health insurance program for Austin's working musicians.
"There's no way I could afford health insurance otherwise," she admits. "It's one of the best things about living in Austin. I get the benefit of being a musician even when I'm doing my own business."
Ice Cream Man
Inside the deep South Congress location of Amy's Ice Creams, Black Sabbath's "Electric Funeral" oozes from the stereo and a housewife in exercise clothes rattles off an impossibly complicated order, punctuated with: "and don't be stingy with the whipped cream!"
Store manager David Thomas Jones, who looks like an author with his beard and longshoreman cap, dutifully beats together the ingredients with giant metal scoopers, putting the mixture in a cup and adding copious whipped topping. He smiles as he hands it to her. No tip.
It's been a busy, sometimes thankless day for Jones who, by night, sings and plays guitar for local indie rockers Watch Out for Rockets. His musician/creamery manager duality came out in a video for the incredible single, "Our Lives," from his solo debut, Comfort Creatures EP. It contrasts playfully sedate footage of Jones behind the counter at Amy's with him drunkenly singing and dancing onstage across town. It speaks to the lifestyles of Jones and other musicians.
"My life is a routine: Have a band, find drummers, book shows, write albums, record them, release them."
Jones sometimes considers furthering his education and landing a fancy adult job, with a desk and a collared shirt and all that. He'd make more money, no doubt, but he knows it wouldn't be conducive to musical creativity. It might even kill his dream. So he continues to do ice cream. He's happy here.
"I've tried turning my back on music – I can't," recalls Jones about the short period he ditched his art. "I need to get things out of my head and make them something I can listen to. I need to hold myself up to the mirror all the time. I need to be another working musician in Austin. It churns my spirit."
Gus Baker stands in my kitchen whisking a bowl of eggs I just gathered from my backyard coop. He's teaching me how to make a grade-A omelet, specifically the Magnolia Omelette, my favorite order at Austin's legendary 24-hour diner where Baker's worked for the last two years. Magnolia's breakfast plates are of such reverence that even during the graveyard shift, which he typically works, he's making omelets nonstop.
"You gotta have a good nonstick pan," he begins, tilting the pan to evenly cook the first side. "You cook a good base – a shell. Then it's really a pizza at that point."
He flips it, reduces the heat, and adds avocado, tomatoes, black olives, and cheese. Then he folds it and tops it with sour cream.
"There've been points in Doom Siren where every member worked in a kitchen," he says, referring to the hardcore punk band he's brutalized guitar strings in for six years. A legit example of underground punk culture, Doom Siren's relentlessly heavy D-beat/blast-beat hardcore remains a local staple at drunken punk shows. They've cemented their colossally heavy accord with two indie LPs and tracks on national compilations.
"There's always going to be kitchen positions available and musicians are always going to need a job," he shrugs. "It's just not like it used to be where record companies would give you money for a house and a tab at the cafe so you didn't have to work. It's not like that for any of my friends.
"We work. We play. It's great."
Baker even likens kitchen staff camaraderie to the bonds between bandmates.
"You see these people day in and day out. They help you out when you need it, and you do the same for them."
It doesn't hurt that several Magnolia employees are rockers themselves. When Baker needs the night off to play a punk show, they know how important that is.
The omelet comes out perfect. We cut it in half and sit down to eat while a Japanese crust-punk record plays in the background. It's well past noon, which might be late for breakfast in some people's books, but for a couple of musicians, it's an early bird special.
Now if only there was a waiter here ... I could use some coffee.
Nobody else in town, or potentially on Earth, plays the mountain dulcimer like Tim Bryan. He plays the traditional Appalachian drone instrument with a violin bow running through a delay pedal into an electric guitar amp, adding a psychedelic wail to local Southern string band, Starlings, TN.
The Florida native sits at the bar of Northside hangout Mister Tramps, where he works as a chef, sipping a beer and recalling the oddest of odd jobs that a working musician might take to make ends meet.
"Believe it or not, I was a butler," he laughs while recalling time he spent Jeeves-ing for a millionaire in Palm Beach after studying estate management at the Starkey Institute in Denver. "I took classes in everything from flower arranging to how to kill someone in three seconds."
Dressed in a white polo shirt and khakis, he'd pick out the family's clothes, write their checks, refill drinks at high-powered business meetings, and even draw the shades and turn down the lights at day's end.
"Trouble was, there's just no time for music in that lifestyle," he shakes his head. "You're the first person up and the last person to go to bed. I couldn't play shows, and it was killing me."
Despite making a six-figure salary, he made the spiritual decision to give it up and relocate to Austin to rejoin the band he'd co-founded in 2000. Upon arrival, he looked to the oh-so-familiar restaurant industry and found a position at Mister Tramps.
"They have the philosophy of a good kitchen," he says. "Everything is made in-house and fresh every day."
The adaptability in scheduling has allowed him to play about 50 shows in the last year, but, more than anything, he realized how much he'd missed the kitchen and the friendships you make in it.
"A chef's a chef. You can't really take us out of our kitchen. It's the same thing with musicians. We're going to play no matter what. It's just a matter of with who."
Under the stage lights, they can be mighty movers of masses, the creative core of our city's underground music culture. Yet commonness and obscurity await Austin's musical ranks when they load out of the clubs and punch the clock at their day jobs.
The harsh reality that few who play music can live off their band takes nothing away from their status. Success in creative fields isn't measured by money, but by the innovation, intensity, and impact of expression.
In these six profiles – each person an impressive artist in their own right – the flexible, friendly, and faithful vibe of Austin's kitchens gels nicely with the lifestyle of a musician. That's established a vast league of something better than rock stars: working-class heroes.