Cruiserweight's last round
Austin's punk-pop band calls it quits after 11 years of putting its brand of family musicmaking in the ring
On a sweltering summer night in June 1999, Stella Maxwell, then a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Texas, smuggled a bottle of Manischewitz kosher wine into the soon-to-be-defunct Liberty Lunch.
Maxwell wasn't a rule-breaker, but that evening she needed a little liquid courage. In a few minutes, she was going to walk onto the same stage that had hosted everybody from Doug Sahm to Scratch Acid to Pavement to entertain a crowd of 150 revelers as the vocalist for Cruiserweight, a sassy pop-rock band she had formed with brothers Yogi (drums) and Urny (guitar) and friend Craig Tweedy (bass). The nascent band had recorded a four-song demo, jokingly referred to as "the White Album" for its white paper sleeve, but had never performed live.
"I never had a fake ID, so I wasn't one to be really sneaky or anything," Maxwell says. "But I just knew I wasn't going to be able to walk out onto that stage until I had a little alcohol in me."
She wasn't alone in her jitters. Her brothers had plenty of experience in local music, gigging with Red Boxing for three years in the late '90s, and Tweedy did time with beloved Austin ska band the Impossibles — and even they were a bit shy.
"We were all very nervous. We were trying to make it more of an event than it truly was, although there were a lot of people there," Urny Maxwell recalls. "I remember when we were hanging backstage we decided to go out one at a time, real grandioselike. But we were very nervous and very stiff."
Tonight, when Cruiserweight swaggers onto the stage at Emo's for its farewell Austin show, the band will have earned any braggadocio it exhibits. Bassist David Hawkins, who replaced Tweedy when he left nine years ago, is heading to Tempe, Ariz., to study sound engineering. The others have elected to step back rather than undergo the arduous process of replacing a member and co-songwriter — a trial they underwent after Yogi left in 2008, to be replaced by current drummer Daniel Lancelot. And this offers a good excuse to take stock of the band's accomplishments. So here goes:
They've gigged — and reliably drawn — in countless venues. They've produced three EPs, two compilations and three studio albums, including this year's "The Smith Tower." They've played venues as unusual as Central Park, where they opened for Jewel as part of a songwriting contest. They walked home with Austin Music Awards four years in a row — best alternative/punk band in 2003 and 2004, and best punk band in 2005 and 2006.
After 11 years, they've become fixtures on the local scene, dynamic masters of hooky riffs, sprightly vocals and zippy percussion, and are known for being one of the city's friendliest bands. It's kind of hard to imagine Austin without them.
"That's what I've become most proud of. We're not having this fairy tale romantic ending to it at all, but we've stuck it out a long time," Stella Maxwell says. "If your band lasts 11 years, that's kind of a big, defining thing. That means a lot to me."
The Maxwell siblings — Urny, 36, Yogi, 33, Stella, 30, and Alice, the youngest and only one not in Cruiserweight — grew up in Terrell, a small town 30 miles east of Dallas. Music was a constant at home, and all four siblings started playing instruments with brass in middle-school band class. Their father — a singer and guitarist — influenced their work and inspired the youthfully energetic passion that became a cornerstone of Cruiserweight's sound.
"He impressed on me the feeling that music should have some sort of power behind it. Some sort of gumption," Urny Maxwell says. "When somebody sings they should sing rather than pussyfooting through their songs."
He moved to Austin to study economics at UT in 1992, eventually graduating in 2003 ("We were all sort of in and out of school, which happens a lot when you tour."). In 1995 he dragged budding singer Stella, who was visiting, onstage for open mike night at the Cactus Cafe. Shortly after, he persuaded brother Yogi to leave the University of North Texas in Denton and move to Austin, and Stella Maxwell followed in 1998 when she came to UT to study theater and dance.
With Tweedy — soon replaced by Hawkins — on bass, the three siblings formed a conspicuously rocking family band. They quickly garnered a devoted local following, opening for high-profile headliners like the Alkaline Trio and the Get Up Kids. They cut a couple of EPs, the most successful of which — "This Will Undoubtedly Come Out Wrong" — sold 12,000 copies, almost all local. They signed to Doghouse Records, which released debut LP "Sweet Weaponry" in 2005. But some of their momentum stalled as much of the pop-punk scene the band was so synonymous with — including Dynamite Boy, Manatee and the Riddlin' Kids — gradually dissolved. (Stella Maxwell: "People grew up, got old, had kids. Cruiserweight said no!") Doghouse dallied on releasing Cruiserweight's records; the band eventually left the label and self-released "This Smith Tower."
Stella Maxwell's songwriting and driving voice anchored the band's sound. Her lyrics wrapped heartbreak and honesty in a sugary-sweet, hyper-energetic voice. The term "pop punk" stuck to the band, despite members' discomfort with the descriptor — they prefer "slumber party rock," an entirely appropriate invented genre of their own that sadly never caught on.
However referred to, Cruiserweight was one thing above all else: genuine. Irony had no place in the band's world.
"It seems like we were always the opposite of what was hip and cool any given year," Stella Maxwell says with a laugh. "We were just never cool or nonchalant seeming. But I feel a certain pride and confidence in that I am what I am and at least what we do is never contrived."
Cruiserweight became an essential part of its members' lives, which is not to say Stella and Urny Maxwell are defined solely by the band. Urny Maxwell, who is married, is putting his economics degree to good use as the owner and manager of a new Double Dave's Pizza Works in Southpark Meadows — an establishment he started working for as a driver 15 years ago ("It's not a lot of jobs that would let you go out on tour as often as we did").
And Stella Maxwell, as a member of the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls team Putas Del Fuego (where she skates under the name "Chicle") would be a local celebrity even without Cruiserweight. She's already turned her artistic talents toward writing a children's musical and has an obvious affection for her job as assistant director for an after-school program in Hyde Park.
But for a woman who's spent nearly her entire adult life on a project so passionate and demanding, Stella Maxwwell has a perceptible sense of sadness at leaving Cruiserweight behind.
"It's become part of my identity and something that I've leaned on to make me feel special. And I don't mean that it's about fame or recognition or anything like that," she says. "It's that I'm a part of something that I love so much. To leave that behind is really hard. To just be boring old Stella again, the prospect of that is scary. And it's sad."
At that, Urny Maxwell tears up a bit. His eyes are red. His sister shoots him an affectionate glance.
"Allergies," she says.
Maybe. The two siblings are seated outside Jo's coffee on South Congress Avenue, where the invisible springtime irritant of pollen floats through the air. But when they reminisce with the quick laughs and easy smiles of two siblings who have spent a lot of time in the rock-'n'-roll trenches together, it's hard not to imagine those tears are genuine.
Cruiserweight and Dynamite Boy 2004 Reunion Party
With: Cruiserweight, Dynamite Boy (reunion), Manatee (reunion), Petals
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Emo's, 603 Red River St.
Cost: $15 (technically sold out)