Outside a fading yellow house off of Montopolis Drive, the sound of guitars, drums, and horns rattles faintly onto the dead-end street. From a second-story loft inside, sound engineer Chris Seyler looks down through soundproof windows into the renovated studio. East Cameron Folkcore unloads cathartic energy even at practice.
Frontman Jesse Moore growls aggressively to the soaring vocals of his wife, April Perez, on keys. Guitarist Blue Mongeon, trombonist Blake Bernstein, and Phil Patterson on mandolin all shout harmonies in response. Mary Beth Widhalm bows her cello intensely as bassist Eric Lopez, whose house doubles as the studio, and new drummer Luke Abbey of the Gorilla Biscuits hold the rhythm together.
As rehearsal crashes to a close in the muggy studio, half the group breaks outside to smoke, and the others gather to plan the group's four-night stand at Salvage Vanguard Theater in celebration of new LP Kingdom of Fear.
"We want the set to visually represent the story of the album," explains Moore. "It's about the modern landscape, about shit that's going on and worldwide struggles. What makes somebody no longer let things go by psychologically? The whole point of the record is to draw that line in the sand.
"It's this narrative of growing up in America," continues Moore as his bandmates nod in agreement. "We've all lived that, growing up in small towns and wanting to get out and escape, slowly seeing cracks in the foundation of the illusion you're sold. You start to see things break down and the issues that are really happening."
On its third full-length, ECF builds on the biting social and political critique of 2013's For Sale, honing collective rage into an epic four-part concept album of their best work yet. The leap forward reflects the band's tightening into a dedicated octet, a committed core from the former sprawling East Cameron collective.
What began as a project of coping and survival has become one of Austin's most vital acts, giving voice to a frustrated generation and conscience to a rapidly changing city.
The roots of East Cameron Folkcore spring from beer-soaked Tuesday nights at the Hole in the Wall. When Denis O'Donnell and Nate Hill, now co-owners of the White Horse on East Fifth, began managing the venerable dive in 2007, they ushered in a new crop of local talent. Behind the alternating residencies of Clyde & Clem's Whiskey Business and O'Donnell's the Bread, a raucous and irreverent country-punk mayhem took hold.
"You'd hear doom rock, punk rock, alt.country, and bluegrass in the same night," recalls ECF mandolinist and Whiskey Business co-frontman Patterson.
"There was no scene for any of us, so we all just made it our own, accidentally," attests brass man Bernstein, who played in folk-punk quartet the Van Buren Boys along with Lopez. "All the bands playing there were friends of the managers, so it was a free-for-all. We'd help break up fights, and start fights."
Among the bands rotating through Tuesday nights, none were as ambitious as Bankrupt & the Borrowers. Led by "Cadge" Moore, "Deadweight" Mongeon, and Jon "Baggage" Pettis, they laid down bruising, bluesy riffs with an emotional and literate intensity. Moore and Mongeon met as dormmates at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and over a drug-fueled weekend recording session, recruited the latter's high school friend, the classically trained Pettis, to form what would eventually become Bankrupt & the Borrowers.
When Moore and Mongeon landed in Austin at the end of 2006, Pettis followed from L.A. two months later, and the Bankrupt house off of East Cameron Road soon became an extension of the Hole in the Wall's Tuesday night scene.
"We all became friends and started hanging out and then realized we all lived in the same neighborhood," remembers Moore. "So it was barbecues every weekend, parties every single night at our house. Debauchery."
He laughs. "It was being 25 years old and having a house with a bunch of like-minded guys. Growing up idolizing the Beat generation and that lifestyle, we just made it for ourselves, and found a bunch of people who were willing to drink all day long and write and be creative and manic. That's what we did for three or four years."
Bankrupt garnered attention behind the release of 2008's Beers on the Bible and their unhinged live shows. In 2009, they were tapped to play Fun Fun Fun Fest that November. On Oct. 9, next door to the Bankrupt house where Pettis stayed, an electrical power strip sparked a fire.
"Fire engulfed the house," Moore recalled to the Chronicle last year. "There were people on the roof trying to help others down from the second floor. Everyone was running around in hysterics. I thought I'd seen Jon outside. When we realized he wasn't, we started running around looking for ways to get into the house, but there was no way in."
The streets off East Cameron filled with friends and fellow musicians watching helplessly in stunned disbelief.
"I just stood in the yard and stared at this unbelievable scene," remembers Mongeon. "I'm not really sure that I fully processed it – even now."
Behind the bar of the Hole in the Wall, propped against the bottles of Jameson and Bushmills, a dust-covered photograph captures a group of kids laughing and slouching on the bar. They all look bleary-eyed drunk and impossibly young. In the middle, Jon Pettis stands with his arms spread over them, as if corralling them all together.
"Jon had an incredible capacity for unconditional love," smiles Mongeon sitting on the club's back patio. "He and I spent 14 years together, almost constantly, and we went through a lot. Jon wanted to have everyone around him all the time, just have it all out in the open. He had a very sweet way about him, and honest intentions."
"When Jon passed," says Moore, "for everyone in our community – for all the bands – it was the end of music in a lot of ways."
Bankrupt kept its Fun Fun Fun Fest appearance, playing one final show through tears in tribute to their bandmate. Bernstein took up Pettis' trombone, which had escaped the fire. Their friends crowded the stage in Waterloo Park.
In the months following the fire, Moore secluded himself in his bedroom. Outside his window, he watched Pettis' house being torn down, and he poured raw emotion and his confusion into writing. When he departed indefinitely for New England that December, he left behind a demo tape of songs that would become the foundation for East Cameron Folkcore.
Moore returned three months later and recruited Bernstein to help finish writing the album. They gathered members of the other bands and began crafting something greater from the wreckage.
"For the longest time, when we'd play, I couldn't sing without hearing Jon sing with me," admits Mongeon solemnly. "I was a mess. When we got to practices, I couldn't take anything seriously. I just sat on the stage and was pretty drunk, smoking cigarettes and playing harmonica. I didn't know what key the songs were in. There was a break of time where I don't really remember what I did or where I went.
"Still today, honestly, a giant chunk of me is gone," he adds. "What really pulled us through was Jesse sitting there and writing all of those songs."
That summer, the makeshift outfit took an offer from a friend to record at Sun Studios. They spent three days in Memphis laying down Sound & Fury and additional EP The Sun Also Rises. Cut in an effort for closure, the full-length opens with a lonely horn, the last recording Pettis made. It's brutal but beautiful, mournful and lurching for hope.
"To me, the mourning process ended at the Sound & Fury release show," says Moore, "because the whole time I felt Jon with me, trying to help me get through it. We had to have some kind of closure. There wasn't a grave. We had a memorial service at Hole in the Wall, but he doesn't have a resting place.
"With the release show, we were all able to come back together and just remember it a year and a half later."
Following the release of Sound & Fury, the future of East Cameron Folkcore was unclear. The sprawling collective had hit upon something potent, the whole greater than its individual pieces. Yet touring or even sustaining a dozen-member outfit proved impractical.
"We really had no idea what the band was going to be," says Moore. "In 2012, before we released The Sun Also Rises, I said to the band, 'For now, let's just be a hometown recording project.' That's what the idea of the band was when we went in to record For Sale."
ECF's 2013 sophomore LP prompted harder decisions as songs like "Robin Hoods Rise" and "Sallie-Mae" struck a chord with a generation saddled by debt and severed by income inequality. Moore's songwriting rose beyond the personal to tap a collective angst, and ECF's live sets became anthemic sing-alongs with increasingly enthused crowds. A chance encounter at SXSW led to the band's being invited to tour Europe, with a subsequent record deal on German label Grand Hotel van Cleef (revisit "East Cameron Folkcore: Tour Diary," Sept. 24, 2013).
"We knew that this chance could completely change the band that we are, and that's exactly what it did when we went over there," admits Moore. "The band has gone through different incarnations. We've almost broken up a lot of times, but somehow we managed to keep together a band this big for five years.
"After that, we coalesced, the eight of us, and everyone is committed and knows the band is the priority."
When the band re-entered the studio to begin working on Kingdom of Fear, they spent four months devoted to working down nearly 40 songs into the final 14 that made the cut. The result presents a powerful arc that stares determinedly into the modern socioeconomic machine, unleashed with an incisive ferocity driven by the dual threats of powerlessness and apathy.
"Kingdom of Fear is the record I've been trying to make for 15 years," states Moore. "I've always been attracted to conceptual records, to albums that just don't have any holes in them and you can listen to the whole thing start to finish. I'm attracted to finding ways of making albums into pieces of art, or finding ways of having more depth than just a collection of 10 new songs.
"The songs have to stand on their own, though, so you could listen to any piece of it and still understand and get its meaning without it being a part of the whole."
Sitting at one of Biscuits & Groovy's picnic tables in Hyde Park on Sunday afternoon, Moore tries to shake off the past week. ECF performed 10 South by Southwest shows, bookended by an opening Tuesday slot at Red 7 and Saturday night upstairs at Lamberts. Kingdom of Fear peaks with "Our City," apropos subject matter for just such a music hangover as today, its burning blues swelling to a chorus that's both an indictment and paean to Austin:
"What have we done to our city?
What have we done to our town?
What have we done to our city?
There's no use in staying now."
"We're the third verse in 'Our City,'" offers Moore. "We're the punks who came to live here in order to play music – not NYC where we couldn't afford it. We all came here to try and do something we wanted to do.
"But I feel like that part of Kingdom of Fear is universal," he continues. "Everyone understands the feeling that life is a joke because every time you try to get a step up, you get beaten back down."
As much as the new album rages against the machine, the song cycle closes determinedly hopeful with "Goodbye to Fear." It's a movement forward through the collective strength of community, which remains at the heart of ECF as much musically as ethically.
"I'm never interested in playing a frontman with just a backing band playing my songs," says Moore. "What's interesting to me is a band that collaborates and makes music uniquely. That's what we wanted the band to be from the start."
Later this month, Tyson Zoltan Heder releases his full-length documentary, The Sun Also Rises: A Tale of East Cameron Folkcore Told in the Keys of Love and Death. The film offers moving tribute to Pettis while tracing the arc of a microcommunity that forged meaning from his death. As East Cameron Folkcore evolves, the past remains front and center.
"Jon's on our minds every single day," says Moore, "every single show that we go out and play."
East Cameron Folkcore celebrates Kingdom of Fear four straight nights at Salvage Vanguard Theater, April 1-4.
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