Playback: White Riot, Black Identity
Crowdfunding a black punk narrative, shuttering the Houston Press, and soundtracking Enchanted Rock
For all its best intentions of inclusivity, punk remains the hockey of music genres. Well-meaning Caucasians in Bad Brains tees believe they're progressive when attending Jesus Piece shows, but 41 years on, punk hasn't escaped its origins of white rebellion. In an upcoming narrative short, Austin writer/director Ryan Darbonne explores black punk musicians existing in a scene that's largely white and how that fits into the larger cultural identities of people of color.
I AM TX, titled for a lyric from Chicago punk atomizers Big Black, shoots next month. The three leads in the film are portrayed by Austin musicians: Blxpltn's Jonathan Horstmann, Pleasure Venom's Audrey Campbell, and Greg Williams of Chief & TheDoomsdayDevice.
"Casting real musicians who've actually lived this was important," offers Darbonne. "I didn't want to throw a denim jacket on an actor and call them punk."
Darbonne says the movie, depicting bandmates Sonny, Charlie, and Otis returning to Austin on their last night of tour, deals with specific themes that he and the cast have experienced.
"The big one is people being legit confused that they're a punk band when they show up to the gig,'" he explains. "There's been experiences where people don't believe them or mistake them for the DJ."
Horstmann says the script is on-the-nose with his experiences as a guitar wielding black musician.
"If you're a black musician who plays rock & roll, there's only a couple bands people will compare you too – and they all happen to be black," he says. "It's like your sound's filtered through the color of your skin."
Darbonne contends that punk music won't dictate the style of the film, which he describes as funny, slow-paced, and character-driven. The audience never learns the band's name or gets to hear them play.
"That's not important," he says. "What's important is them as characters navigating these spaces and how other people see them and refer to them."
The local filmmaker hopes to reflect racial realities with I AM TX: the alienation he felt growing up in Austin as a black kid with white interests like metal and anime, the underlying bigotry in scenes where musicians of color are viewed as novelty, and people attaching unwarranted political angles to Afro-punk musicians.
"There's a scene in the film where the band gets politicized and one of the members says, 'No, we're just playing fuckin' music,'" reveals Darbonne. "The idea's that what they're doing is being romanticized and while they're showcasing what their real identity is, people refuse to see it."
Horstmann, who's acted enough to merit his own IMDb page, says a smart screenplay complements the short's social relevance.
"The subject matter actually provided Ryan with a canvas to tell a really interesting story about black sheep – pun intended – in this scene. Especially in Austin, no matter what kind of music you're making, you get this feeling that it's not really there for you."
I AM TX is in the final hours of a crowdfunding campaign, ending Friday. Contributors will be the first to see the short in the first quarter of 2018 before it hits the film fest circuit. After that, Darbonne plans to expand it into a feature.
Stop the (Houston) Presses!
The busy reaper of print media was in Houston last week, scything the city's premier alt-weekly. The Houston Press has ceased physical publication to exist in an online-only capacity. An obituary cited industry-wide declines in advertising revenue, including recent downturns related to hurricane-impacted businesses being unable to afford ads. Aside from the editor-in-chief, everyone lost their jobs.
As you read this, music editor Chris Gray is standing at the counter of a record store selling all the promo swag he cleaned out of his office. From 2003-07, Gray documented Austin's music scene in an earlier version of this column, titled "TCB," before heading to H-town to take over the Press' top music position. In the wake of the restructuring, "Playback" asked Gray if he plans to continue working in music journalism or get a straight job after burning through his severance check.
"Things are wide open for me at the moment," he responded Tuesday. "I certainly hope to continue writing about music, but as you know, those jobs are scarce nowadays. I hope I can find somewhere I fit in and can contribute, but I frankly have no idea where that might be."
Probed on whether he saw the divestment as further proof of the extinction of print media or simply a bottom-line business decision by Voice Media Group, the Denver-based company that once sniffed around the Chronicle and has since shed NYC's iconic Village Voice in 2015 and is in the process of selling L.A. Weekly. Gray feels it was both.
"The handwriting had been on the wall for a while," he offered. "It's unfortunate because I speak as someone who's had a very tactile connection to print journalism. I've always loved to just sit down and read the paper. Obviously we've all felt the changes to journalism with the internet and especially social media. Still, for Houston specifically, the hurricane was really the coup de grâce."
When news of the closure went public, a handful of Austinites texted "Playback" concerned messages that seemed to imply, "You're next!" I tell everyone we're lucky: If the Chronicle owners hadn't co-founded South by Southwest and soon-to-be sole owner Nick Barbaro didn't value culture over cash, we'd be the next paper Voice Media Group shuts down. I'm thankful for that and Gray is too.
"It became very apparent to me the minute I came over to Houston that the Chronicle was not a typical newspaper," he chuckles. "It's a unique publication and it was a privilege for me to be accepted into that fold."
Music for Enchanted Rock
"It had always been this mythical place where kids went to do psychedelics and have spiritual experiences," composer Justin Sherburn recalls of his earliest notions of Enchanted Rock, the massive, rose-colored batholith protruding from the Earth north of Fredericksburg.
Years after moving to Austin in the late Nineties, the onetime Okkervil River multi-instrumentalist trekked out to the state park alongside hydrogeologist Rebecca Smith, who gave him an informed tour of the granite dome formed millions of years ago. The keyboardist was moved to compose an ambient classical tribute to the rock formation.
"The idea of it being epic played into the music," he reveals of the work. "It became a meditation on context, thinking about our day-to-day on a much grander scale. It's humbling and also very free."
Sherburn and his outfit Montopolis, featuring members of Tosca String Quartet and pedal steel experimenter Bob Hoffnar, mark the release of Music for Enchanted Rock, a suite of dramatic melodies and noise sculptures in geologic tempo, with a Sunday show at the North Door. The live performance will be backdropped by a slideshow of Enchanted Rock images from photographer Rip Shaub and intertwined with related audio interviews that range from Native American myths to stories of Texas Ranger gunfights that played out on the mystical formation.