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Houston Underground: The Bayou City’s New DIY “Golden Age”

It’s a pretty good time to be a music fan in Houston, a city in the middle of a DIY renaissance, with a new venue opening up seemingly every week. It’s a small but passionate community. Diverse, both musically and culturally. And it’s growing.

by Paul DeBenedetto
Aug 31 2015, 7:00pm

On a typically muggy Houston night in the city’s East End neighborhood, local punk stalwarts Secret Prostitutes are set to play their last show, in a gutted dive bar with a lone pool table and a barely-working toilet. The venue, emblazoned with a giant crawfish across the front of the building, sits next to a Whataburger, behind an AutoZone, and is called the Shop. To get in, ignore the front door and head to the back entrance.

Directions and descriptions like this have become increasingly common. One venue is an old taqueria, another is an old sewing factory or a tire shop. The front door is locked, so enter through the side street or the back. BYOB.

It’s a pretty good time to be a music fan in Houston, a city in the middle of a DIY renaissance, with a new venue opening up seemingly every week. It’s a small but passionate community. Diverse, both musically and culturally. And it’s growing.

“There was always cool stuff happening here, but it was always a very unapproachable city,” says Zack Palmer, who owns downtown venue Walter’s. “Unless you knew where to go, you’d be clueless. But there’s so much exciting stuff going on now.”

There’s no one identifiable sound to describe Houston DIY culture. On this night, the Shop showcased a punk and hardcore show. A few blocks away, the Summit showcased three indie rock bands. Later in the week, Wonky Power would prep for an electronic set.

Palmer’s business partner John Baldwin, who also plays in local bands Wild Moccasins and Vacation Eyes, said it’s that diversity that has brought a new life to a somewhat-stagnant DIY culture.

Every time he goes to he a show, Baldwin says he meets ten or 15 new people, when just five years ago, the same 20 people would be at every show.

“You have all these different kids from all these different scenes who are friends, who are working together,” he said. “They say, ‘Let’s do something really fun and positive.’ And I think it is very positive. Right now I’m very proud to be from Houston.”

The scene’s eclectic vibe is a direct reflection of the city’s demographics. The country’s fourth-largest city is also its most diverse, with no racial or ethnic group claiming a demographic majority, according to a Rice University study. And the city’s population has exploded, bringing with it new blood: Between 2000 and 2010, no other metropolitan area added more people than the more-than 1.2 million who came to Houston, according to that same study.

This isn’t the first “golden age” in Houston’s DIY history. In the early 2000s, when Palmer’s mother Pam Robinson acted as a maternal presence in the scene, there was a similar renaissance period. Tons of bands or kids who wanted to otherwise participate had an opportunity to do so. One of those kids was Baldwin, whom Palmer ended up keeping on once his mother passed away last year and he took over the business.

The two now run Walter’s in its new space Downtown, after gentrification reared its ugly head on Washington Avenue. Venues closed and reopened, kids moved to Austin. As Houston grew more into a destination for touring bands, DIY culture shrunk.

Which isn’t to say there wasn’t some presence. One of the city’s more-established venues, House of Creeps—where Palmer also lives—is still going strong, with at least a show per month. In July, the warehouse boasted four shows in four weeks, with another in the first week of August.

Then there’s what some people consider the first in the new crop of DIY spaces, The Summit. (Named after the former home of the Houston Rockets, before that arena was closed and transformed into a megachurch run by creepy televangelist Joel Osteen.)

To hear co-founder James Vehslage tell it, The Summit opened two years ago more as a matter of convenience than as a model for a new venue. He and some friends needed a practice space, and they rented out a warehouse. When they started putting on shows, Vehslage said they were surprised by the excitement.

“I wouldn’t say the DIY scene was non-existent. But I was in a band in town and we used to tour and do house shows all the time. So when you tour the entire country doing house shows and you’d come back here, it seemed like nothing,” he said. “Once we started doing events, it’s like, oh, well people are really enjoying this.”

The Summit, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it location on a strip of Navigation Boulevard better known for world class Mexican food, abandoned warehouses and the occasional stray dog than for live music, has since become one of the most popular places to see a show in the entire city, playing host to local bands like Young Mammals, Hearts of Animals and Rose Ette, along with touring acts like Jeff Rosenstock and Chumped.

The venue and others like it have brought a lot of young excitement to the town, Vehslage said.

“I see kids that are so much younger than me come out,” he said. “When I was their age, in Houston, I didn’t do this kind of stuff. It’s cool to see the faces of young kids, mind blown, walking into something like that.”

Watching the crowd lined up to see Secret Prostitutes at The Shop, both Palmer and Baldwin remarked on the parking lot littered with anxious kids smoking and drinking tall boys, waiting for things to start.

People were excited about something, and it was an image they said some locals were once afraid would go away: A crowd of young people who decided Houston was the place for them.

“Ten years ago as soon as someone turned 18 and they were into art or music, they moved to Austin. And now they’re moving into town,” Baldwin said. “This is the most excited I’ve been to live here. Ever.”

Ak’Chamel

To see Ak’Chamel is to experience a weird sensory experience. At times improvisational psych rock, performed in full costume, they’re about as weird as we all thought the first season of True Detective was supposed to be.

Black Kite

A project from singer Vicki Lynn, James Templeton of Limb and By the End of Tonight, and producer Birdmagic, Black Kite’s formula combines a percussive, electronic art rock sound with Lynn’s gorgeous, almost haunting vocals.

B L A C K I E

B L A C K I E is considered by many to be the sort of vanguard of the Houston underground, and it’s not hard to see why: Some argue the former noise rapper is responsible for Kanye West’s last record, not to mention Death Grips’ entire career. Now going on more than a decade in the scene, Noisey interviewed B L A C K I E at SXSW in 2014, where he detailed how his music has moved into a jazz direction.

Deep Cuts

Deep Cuts, who recently released a new seven-inch, recorded, mixed, and mastered both tracks themselves in their own home studio. Last year’s debut, Love Grows is a sweet, dreamy, and fun indie pop record.

Hearts of Animals

What started as the solo bedroom pop recordings of singer/performer Mlee Marie Mains has turned into a full-fledged rock outfit featuring her brother on drums and members of classic Texas psych weirdos The Linus Pauling Quartet. 2014’s Another Mutation, her first album in five years, is one of the most underrated records of 2014, in or outside of Houston.

Indian Jewelry

Indian Jewelry have become iconic amongst a certain crowd in their hometown. Their droney, ambient, electronic rhythms have traveled the country since they formed back in 2002, including a stint living in New York and sets at Austin Psych Fest/Levitation.

Talk Sick Brats

At a recent Walter’s show, this band was in the middle of a three-band bill topped by Downtown Boys. By the end of their set, it felt as if the headliners had just gone on second. The punks in Talk Sick Brats grind through their set faster and tighter than nearly any band in Houston.

Vacation Eyes

In addition to John Baldwin, Vacation Eyes features Mlee Marie Mains, Mars Varela of the now-defunct Houston band Busy Kids, and Jenny Hoyston of Erase Errata. In a 2013 interview, Hoyston described the post-punk group’s formation as a sort of scene-serendipity: Varela’s husband, who also happens to be Baldwin’s DJ partner, worked Food Not Bombs Houston in the 1990s with Hoyston’s girlfriend. Hoyston has since moved to Austin (come on!) but still makes the drive out to Houston: They last opened for Ian Svenonious’ Chain and the Gang at Alley Kat.

Young Mammals

These guys have been playing since high school, and in 2014, after roughly ten years together, they released Alto Seco, an album full of what’s arguably the best stuff they’ve ever recorded. It’s rare to see a writing team like Cley Miller and Carlos Sanchez, joined by bassist and Carlos’ brother Jose Sanchez, stay together for so long when forming at such a young age. But it also gives a lot of perspective into how far the band has come. The four-piece indie act is one of the city’s biggest draws, and one of the few local bands that gets a shot at playing Houston’s larger venues. But the band can mostly be found any given weekend supporting or playing The Summit, The Shop, or any number of other smaller joints.

Other Houston bands on the rise...

Dress Code

The Pose

Rose Ette

Paul DeBenedetto is a Houston-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.

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