Places have sounds.
Chicago has electric blues and experimental rock and footwork. Detroit had Motown and techno and garage rock that birthed the Stooges and the MC5. Washington, D.C., has homegrown funk called go-go and political punk.
And Austin? Austin has Stevie Ray Vaughan’s idea of the blues, Willie Nelson’s idea of country and extremely loud, psychedelic guitar noise, as vital as Stevie or Willie.
Distortion and trippy sounds have always been a crucial part of the Austin music story. The city’s own 13th Floor Elevators — with Roky Erickson’s blues-shouter voice, druggy lyrics and a haunting electric jug — were the first psychedelic rock band and, in some ways, Austin never looked back. From the Butthole Surfers to Ed Hall to now, heavy guitar noise has always been part of the mix.
Of course, sounds fall in and out of fashion: Some years, heavy, weird punk bands seem thick on the ground; other years, everyone sounds like they should be opening for Spoon.
» Related: Roky Erickson, the man who made Austin weird
In 2019, a comparative bumper crop abounds. There are bands of art-punk lifers like Cherubs and USA/Mexico and younger acts like Xetas, Exhalants and Super Thief, full of folks who probably weren’t alive when the older musicians were starting out.
Time was, you could see this stuff at Beerland (the club actually employed a few members of these outfits). The club was sold in May to an undisclosed buyer and has not hosted shows since. If you're looking for where the Austin noise scene lives on, one would do well to check out Barracuda, Hotel Vegas or the Lost Well.
Places have sounds. Austin is having a moment of very ugly, gorgeous noise.
Starting a sound
When Cherubs singer/guitarist Kevin Whitley was in seventh grade, he saw the band Kiss at the Summit in Houston. It was his first concert ever — Sept 2, 1977.
“I was chickening out on the days leading up to the show and my parents made me go, God bless them,” Whitley says.
That fall, Whitley and his pals would gather at someone’s house and pantomime the parts to Kiss' "Alive II" record.
“We would take turns being Paul and Gene, and everybody had to do a turn as Ace and Peter even though it was boring,” Whitley says. “You had to get the stage banter exactly right, or someone had to go over to the record player and we'd go through it again.”
Kiss, the most visually extreme arena pop-rock band of their era, was the first live gig he saw. But Butthole Surfers, the most visually (and musically?) extreme punk band of their era, was his first punk show.
“To see the Surfers then was to wrestle with their context from the second you come up to the club,” Whitley says. “Then you are dealing with a reworking of the delivery mechanism: They’re making sounds that sound like total noise, then it starts to coalesce into something you can understand classically as music, then becomes something almost spiritual.”
Knowing these formative experiences, Cherubs — Whitley’s band with drummer Brent Prager and bassist Owen McMahon — makes a ton of sense: a blast furnace of guitar and bass noise sometimes hiding a simple rock hook, buried in the muck.
The band, which returned after a 20-year hiatus in 2014, releases its fourth album, “Immaculda High,” July 26 on the Relapse label.
Their timing couldn’t be better. Thanks to the internet, Cherubs might be better known now than they were in 1994.
During Cherubs’ first run — about 18 months or so between 1992 and 1994 — similar-minded outfits were all over the place: Crust, Ed Hall, Drain, Starfish, Crown Roast and more all pursued a particularly heavy strain of rock music filled with hellaciously distorted guitar, bass, drums, everything. Such bands seemed fueled by acres of effects pedals, equipment that may or may not have worked correctly and copious drugs (for some).
Many underground rock nerds mentally filed this stuff into “psychedelic punk” or “noise rock,” but these were genres in the way that former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously viewed pornography: You know it when you see it. In the 21st century, of course, everything that can be vaguely codified as A Thing has its own Facebook group. A rather vigorous group called Noise Rock Now is a very good place for aging noise-rockers to hang out and worship.
In the 1990s, Cherubs made two albums and a bunch of singles. Their brilliant second full-length, “Heroin Man” (for label Trance Syndicate in 1994), was released after the band ended. It’s a stunning collection, gnarly and weird and catchy in sound and mind, and it made every noise-rock dork who didn’t get to see them wish they had.
And that would have been that, except a funny thing happened. As the years went on, "Heroin Man” kind of hung around as a record you needed to hear if you were the sort of person who needed to hear stuff like that. Fans passed it around on tapes, then CD-Rs, then over the internet. The album eventually commanded hundreds of dollars on the open market.
In 2014, well after anyone who was a fan had lost all hope, Cherubs started playing again. The album “2 Ynfynyty” arrived in 2016 and flattened longtime fans with how good it was. The songs were well-structured, the playing was better and they still sounded like a hair trim from weed wacker.
» Related: Cherubs release first album in 20 years
With a very small handful of exceptions (looking at you, Mission of Burma), reunion albums are never as good as their predecessors; “2 Ynfynyty” sure was, as was the follow-up “Fist in the Air” EP.
So is “Immaculda High.” It has miasmas of chaos, Whitley’s wailing voice barely audible (“Turista”) and odd, sludgy riffs bulldozed into shape (“Sooey Pig”). As a rock album from a bunch of 50-somethings who were cult figures even back then, it’s about 10 times better than it has to be.
If there’s one person who would know where this Austin noise scene got its start, it’s King Coffey. The Butthole Surfers drummer, who also drums in the band USA/Mexico, was there for almost all of it. Coffey was on a drum throne as a lot of this music took shape. He started in the Fort Worth hardcore band the Hugh Beaumont Experience.
“After a few years, hardcore (punk) just seemed like a dead end,” Coffey says of the Texas underground in the early 1980s. “Around that same time, acid was everywhere, cheap. My friends and I were tripping a lot and having a blast. Hardcore sounds ridiculous on acid.”
Coffey subjected himself to massive amounts of Jimi Hendrix and Blue Cheer while also simultaneously discovering psychedelics.
“I was a senior in high school by that point,” Coffey says of the period around 1981. “We just got into weird and heavy. It made the most sense and gave us the greatest thrills.”
While bands like Big Boys and Dicks were blending funk and soul in their sound in Austin at the time, bands such as Really Red (from Houston) and Stick Men With Ray Guns (from Dallas) were going in a more frightening direction.
Coffey says his heroes in Dallas, where he grew up, were Stick Men With Ray Guns. “They were a punk band. But they played slow, noisy as hell. It was scary stuff. Big Boys and Dicks were much more soulful and fun.”
When Coffey began hanging out with the Surfers, they turned him on to lots of “damaged art rock,” as Coffey puts it, but also Freddy King and Grand Funk. Coffey, in turn, was playing them lots of 13th Floor Elevators and Killing Joke.
He joined the Surfers 1983, around the time the band was getting into extreme light shows, weird film backdrops and long jams. They soon became the stuff of legend.
As one fan told me in 2004, "I think a mid-'80s Butthole Surfers show is the closest thing to the festival of Boujeloud that most of us will ever see," referring to a Moroccan fertility rite where a naked man dresses in a goat skin and dances as hard as he can, beating the crowd with oleander branches while musicians egg him on.
“Once you make that commitment to that sort of experience,” Whitley says of the Surfer’s extremity, “you never go back.”
“Everyone in Austin had a big tent approach to what punk even was,” Coffey says. “It was certainly artier than a lot of other cities. And acid was everywhere.”
In the 1990s, Coffey began to document the Texas psychedelic punk scene on his Trance Syndicate label, including records from Cherubs; his own trio, Drain; and the first album from And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead.
Like Cherubs, Coffey’s latest band, USA/Mexico, is another crew of long-term punks making extreme stuff.
Guitarist/vocal wailer/head cheese Craig Clouse was in the Austin noise punk act Crown Roast in the 1990s, then spent some time making a racket abroad in Todd, as well as (Expletive) and Shine. Bassist Nate Cross did time in Marriage, Expensive (Expletive) and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, part of a handful of large, jammy outfits that translated this aesthetic to larger ensembles around 10 or 15 years ago. Cross also runs the experimental music label Astral Spirits.
Clouse has always seemed a bit more hook-averse than Cherubs, but the two USA/Mexico albums, 2017's “Laredo” and this year's “Matamoros” (both released on the 12XU label) are prime examples of music about as disassembled as rock music gets before morphing into something that's not rock at all.
It's a perfect band for Coffey. "I love me some heaviness,” he says. “I love me some punk bands that don’t sound punk.”
And it's a perfect moment for bands that make sounds like his and his friends.
"Getting older means getting back to not rejecting yourself," Whitley says. "When you're a little kid, you're happy with who you are. Then you go from your teenage years to young adulthood and spend a lot of time denying your free self. You get older, you go back to being free."
This sort of thing isn’t just being made by folks dodging junk mail from the AARP.
Exhalants came together after the demise of frontman Steve Pike’s earlier outfit, Carl Sagan’s Skate Shoes. Their self-titled debut album (released on Self Sabotage in 2018) and new self-released demo collection “... Trample the Cross Underfoot” are essential listening for Austin noise fans.
“I wanted to be loud and a little bit more aggressive and heavier than Sagan’s,” Pike says.
Exhalants recently played a gig with USA/Mexico at Leona Gallery in East Austin, one of the most Austin-feeling shows I have been to in some time. “It’s nice when the old heads put some shine on us,” Pike said.
» Related: Check out Austin360 for complete coverage of Austin music
Xetas, who have been kicking around since 2014, are similarly thrilling. While the band prefers to be simply known as a punk-rock outfit, 2015's “The Redeemer” and 2017's “The Tower” (both released on the 12XU label) are gloriously roaring albums, tight and over-driven and screamy, perfect for a show with Cherubs or indie-rock idols like Built to Spill, for whom they are opening a few dates. The band will release a new album later this year.
“There weren’t really any bands in Austin doing what we wanted to do,” Xetas guitarist Dave Petro says. “I wanted to be in a punk band but take a more abstract approach to punk. This felt like the opposite of that.”
Xetas share a drummer with Super Thief, who have also been kicking around for about five or six years and lean into noise punk. It says as much on their Bandcamp page online. Their most recent release, last year's EP “Eating Alone in my Car (released on the Learning Curve label), sounds like 1993 itself.
"Texas, and Austin in particular, does have a pretty remarkable tradition of punk and noise rock," Super Thief bassist Jordan Emmert says. "We have drawn influence musically from some of these bands to a certain degree, but haven't ever wanted to just replicate the exact same thing.
"I agree that we're doing our best to maintain the local/DIY culture and tradition of what's come before us in Austin, so that other musicians can do hopefully do the same after us."