"My mother thinks I’m sick/ She smelled the liquor on my breath/ But they killed my brother, (expletive)/ I saw the blood stains on his chest."
--- "Drinking Good," Sam Houston and Blk Odyssy
Sam Houston changes when he talks about his brother. He turns pensive. His voice cracks. As he speaks, the 23-year-old rock ‘n’ roll screamer, who is set to bring his stage-scorching live show to South by Southwest and Urban Music Festival this month, casts his eyes downward, outward, away.
It’s been nearly a decade since David Elcock died in a police shooting in Paterson, New Jersey. But it happened in April, and every year around this time, the pain feels fresh.
Once an aspiring East Coast soul artist, Houston was seized by the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll when he moved to Texas a little more than four years ago.
"It had soul, but it wasn’t clean soul," he said in mid-February at 512 Studios, the South Austin hideaway where he’s been finalizing tracks for "Riot," his debut record with his band Blk Odyssy.
"It wasn’t always love songs. It was about pain," he said. "I felt more pain in the guitars. I felt more pain in rock music. I felt more aggression. I felt more anger."
On "Drinking Good," a visceral blood-letting that unfolds in several movements, the pain morphs into unflinching wisdom as the song emerges as a powerful meditation on pervasive inequality, trauma recovery and the way misperceptions kill black men in America.
News reports from the night Houston’s brother died describe a standoff with an armed man that lasted several hours and ended when the suspect fired a single shot at a group of a dozen police officers who returned fire, fatally wounding him.
There was no video of the incident and Houston’s family disputes the official account.
"On the autopsy report there was no gun powder on him," Houston said.
Houston was 13 when it happened and his brother’s death cast a pall over his teen years, a darkness he struggled to shake.
"That was the oldest brother so he was, like, our everything," he said. For the four remaining brothers, he said, "it created sort of an imbalance." Some days he would walk into his middle brother’s room and find his older sibling "sitting at the edge of his bed, no lights on, no TV, just staring off."
It seemed impossible, unreal. His father was a pro basketball player turned businessman and his mother a lifelong teacher. His brother was a recent college graduate with a degree in psychology and a young son at home. These things weren’t supposed to happen to them. "All the insecurities that I had about life in general became real to me," he said.
The event, "defined my purpose and what I wanted to speak about as a musician," he said.
Even before his brother’s death, early adolescence was a turbulent time for Houston. In eighth grade, he was kicked out of the American Boychoir School, a prestigious musical boarding school in Princeton, N.J. The school, fictionalized in the 2014 Dustin Hoffman movie "Boychoir," was famous for angel-voiced presidential performances and concerts with everyone from Yo-Yo Ma to Beyoncé. Houston’s uncle, choral director Anton Armstrong, attended the school in the 1950s and his position on the school’s board of directors allowed Houston’s family to waive tuition fees of upwards of $25,000 a year so the promising young musician could attend the elite academy, Houston said.
He was entranced by the classical music he was learning, and the pastoral setting with multi-level gardens on acres of land was breathtaking.
"For someone who really appreciates art in its rawest form, I was super infatuated with it, but at the same time, it represented such a confusing and bitter time in my life," he said.
While musically, he said, he was "sort of up to par" with his peers, he didn’t fit in with the other students or the school’s rigid protocols. Energetic and fidgety, he was pegged as a "kinesthetic learner" and diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. In order to continue at the school, administrators required him to take Ritalin, he said.
"It was crazy to see, because the line would be all the way around the infirmary for kids to be taking their Ritalin in the morning," he said.
The school had a long troubled history of sexual misconduct, chronicled in painstaking detail in a 2002 New York Times investigation, and Houston’s dismissal came shortly after he reported witnessing sexual impropriety between students, he said. (The school closed in 2017 "amid rocky finances, shrinking attendance and the lingering effects of a sexual abuse scandal," the Times reported.)
"That was sort of the beginning of my musical journey which, obviously, it left a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth," Houston said.
For years, he put music on the shelf, opting instead to play basketball, following in the footsteps of his father, who played in European leagues and did a six-month stint with the Utah Jazz. Out of high school, he was recruited by a college in New Jersey.
"I walked onto the court my freshman year and I noticed I was with all these 6’5" guys around me and they’re not big men, they’re the guards," he said with a laugh. "The big men are like 7" and I’m 5’10" and I’m sitting here like, ‘I’m not going to the NBA. I’m not even going to do good today.’"
He left the team and the school and decided to refocus his passion on music. With his father and one brother he decided to relocate to Texas because it "was kind of the scariest place for me to go," he said. His father had long held a philosophy that when you’re comfortable "there’s no progress being made," so with no connections in the region, they embraced the challenge of forming a new life.
Houston was working at a Dillard’s in the Hill Country Galleria when he met his guitarist and primary collaborator Alejandro Rios logging a shift at the nearby Tony C’s pizza. The two started talking about music and discovered a natural chemistry.
"He’s the one who brought the rock ‘n’ roll to me," Houston said. "Before I came here, I was strictly soul music. That was all I listened to."
As Rios introduced him to Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash and Stevie Ray Vaughan, the new sounds sparked "a shift in mentality," he said.
"I never considered myself to have that super strong voice," he said. Finding rock ‘n’ roll, "finding the screams," became a new vehicle to express the soulful sounds he grew up with.
The two began collaborating and soon were racking up substantial Soundcloud spins. But bedroom bands don’t always translate live. Their debut gig in 2017 was disastrous. Nervous, Houston blathered strangely on the microphone and tripped over the kick drum. They stumbled through one song out of sync with a backing track.
"A girl walked to the front of the stage. She knelt down and she sort of stuck her ear out to listen. (Then) she got up, shook her head and walked out the door," Houston said.
It was a painful wake up call.
"It was like, ‘Hey, you actually need to work super hard if you want to be successful in a city where there’s thousands of musicians, thousands of bands and every day a new band is being formed,’" he said.
But Houston was ready to put in the work.
"He's unbelievably focused and hardworking, which is something that was very apparent when he reached out for an artist consultation a couple years back," Adrienne Lake, a former talent buyer at Empire who is now a music programmer for SXSW, said in February.
"He's extremely responsive to input and listens very carefully," she said. She first caught him at a December 2018 show at the Swan Dive where the vibe was "downright steamy" and "since then he has fine tuned everything from the lighting (there is a very specific color scheme) to the way he and his band interact with the audience," she said.
He was mobbed by fans after a recent performance at the Scoot Inn for the nonprofit Black Fret.
As their profile grew, Sam Houston and Blk Odyssy landed a deal with a management company in Los Angeles who booked them a 17-city tour last year. The band has an agent and they’re looking at tours with larger artists this year. There’s also been some label interest, but feedback suggesting they shift to a more commercial sound makes Houston inclined to stay independent for now.
The group’s logo is a drawing of a black man’s face with Xs over the eyes and a mouth stitched shut, "because, you know, for the most part when artists do start saying things of substance and content they want us to be quiet," he said.
"It doesn’t sell. Let’s just be honest. There’s tons of artists out there that are putting out quality music but that’s not the music that is on the radio. It’s the ‘pop a molly, I’m sweating,’ it’s the ‘murder on my mind,’ it’s those things that are selling."
For Houston, shying away from the hard issues isn’t an option. Finding his voice as an artist was intrinsically linked to finding forgiveness, freeing his energy from the hostility and fear he felt toward the police in the aftermath of his brother’s death.
"I had to put myself in an understanding position because they’re trying to go home, too," he said.
With his music, he’s trying to open eyes and un-stitch mouths. To take a hard look at the underlying factors that lead to mass incarceration of young black people in America. To begin a conversation that might lead to unity.
"You have to take the platform that you have and use it because our people are dying. It’s a fact," he said.
"We think that if we stay true to the message that we want to spread and stay true to who we are it will pay off for us."