Rocker, Texas Ranger

Baboon kicks Chuck Norris' ass in a Deep Ellum club...sort of

It is 9 in the morning, a time most musicians do not see unless their day jobs beckon or they wake up to find themselves in the unfortunate embrace of a sleepover mistake. Deep Ellum usually does not wake at this hour, either, save for the construction site that is sprouting high-priced apartments on Gaston; this is a neighborhood that looks best at night, when the trash and cement pockmarks and fratboys disappear into the dark.

But here it is exposed in all its early-morning brilliance and late-winter chill, and the four members of Baboon huddle on a street corner waiting to load their instruments into Trees. Attractive women, grimy punks, young would-be thugs and should-be college students stride past them, heading into the club. It's an accustomed scene at night, but an alien one in the light of day.

"This is just so...ridiculous," singer Andrew Huffstetler says of the setting and circumstances.

Baboon is here to capitalize on the good fortune that comes to a lucky few bands in a lifetime--the chance to appear on a top-10-rated network television show, to perform in front of unsuspecting millions who tune in each week to watch Chuck Norris kick a little bad-guy ass and spit out his pithy good-ol'-boy aphorisms. Walker, Texas Ranger doesn't demand much of its audience, which is why it's probably such a hit--and the most unlikely of venues for a band as brutal and loud as Baboon. (When the Flaming Lips appeared on Beverly Hills, 90210, or Juliana Hatfield guested on My So-Called Life, at least there was some logical connection.)

Baboon is the featured band in a scene that takes all day to film in the real-and-fabricated-smoke-drenched confines of Trees, providing the "raucous and discordant" (so says the script) entertainment in the background. But they are also the key to this particular episode, which features the murder of attractive young women and Hollywood's idea of a Deep Ellum crowd. If it seems slightly ridiculous on the surface--especially after a full day of shooting and reshooting, lip-syncing to a song the band hasn't even performed live in a year--the benefits far outweigh the annoying delays and the surreal atmosphere.

The band was hired after an ex-girlfriend of an ex-roommate of Huffstetler's (connections are everything in show business, baby) heard the series wanted a band to perform in a nightclub scene. After some calls were made by Walker personnel to a few Deep Ellum clubs, Baboon got the invitation. "It worked out well," says Barbara Blanchette, head of extras casting for Walker. "Plus, they didn't have jobs to go to today."

Oddly enough, the script makes several references to the band as a "long-haired, bare-chested, hard-driving band of the Guns N' Roses school"--which couldn't describe Baboon any less accurately than if it said they wore dresses and yodeled. "Yeah," says drummer Steven Barnett, laughing at the Hollywood clichŽs. "That's us." At one point, the band was even going to be called Mach 10.

"We went to meet with the director [Michael Preece], and it was obvious he was sizing us up," Barnett says. "He didn't know what to expect. He asked us if the kids are into it, and we're like, 'Yeah, this is what's happening these days.' Andy said, 'This is how alternative bands look,' just to get on his good side. I mean, everyone on the show drives pickup trucks, rides horses, and wears cowboy hats. What else could they expect?"

This particular episode, titled "Hall of Fame," will air sometime in April or May--coincidentally, around the time the band plans to release its second CD, Destroy the Mad Brute. "Hall of Fame" finds Walker and old pal C.D. (played by Nobel Willingham, whose not-too-shabby film credits include Good Morning, Vietnam and Last Picture Show) on the case of a serial killer called The Hangman (who apparently made an appearance in a previous episode, for those who monitor such things). The Hangman has resurfaced in Deep Ellum working as Baboon's official photographer (welcome to Hollywood) and has murdered a pretty young woman outside Trees before a Baboon concert. (In the show, the band is booked for three straight nights at the club, which prompts Barnett to joke, "We're more popular in a make-believe world than the real world.")

Walker and C.D. figure out the young woman was a Baboon fan by searching her bedroom and discovering the band's 1994 CD, Face Down in Turpentine, in her stereo. When Walker plays the disc, a short burst of the song "Master Salvatoris" sends the lawmen into a state of agony.

"What the hell was that?" a startled C.D. asks Walker, at least according to the working script.

"Baboon," Walker answers.
"Guess I'm too many generations removed," says the crusty old C.D. "Funny thing. You wouldn't think a girl like that would listen to crap like that."

To which Walker replies: "Like you said, C.D., it's a different generation."
The trail ultimately leads the dynamic duo to Trees, where they stumble upon a motley assemblage of clubgoers moshing to Baboon.

During a break in filming, Willingham admits he shares his character's assessments of Baboon's talents.

"It's terrible," he says of the band's music, "but I guess you gotta have that kind of music, too." His tastes run more toward show tunes--"like Showboat," says the Mineola native who, ironically, attended college in Denton, the birthplace of Baboon.

Over the course of the morning and afternoon, Willingham, Norris, the cast of stars and extras, and the crew hear Baboon's "Thumbhead" dozens of times; even the band grows sick of hearing it and pantomiming along with it. (A third Baboon song, "Why'd You Say Die?," is also scheduled to be used in the episode, during the murder scene.) It is indeed true what they say of filmmaking: There is nothing so dull and stagnant as watching actors creating their so-called art, nothing so mundane as observing them retrace their steps and recite their lines dozens of times.

Even worse is the fact that Baboon must perform for the camera when there is no music blasting from the club's speakers, and the moshers have to do their vicious dance in silence. This allows the real actors to recite their lines while the cameras capture the background action uninterrupted by the music. It's a surreal and altogether dumfounding thing to watch guitarist Mike Rudnicki and bassist Mark Hughes strum in dead quiet, or to witness Huffstetler do his patented belly-rub and disco-punk dance without any sound. Barnett, wearing a pig mask during the entire shoot, never even touches his drum kit with his sticks. It's what deaf people must see when they go to a club.

It is, however, something of a cheap thrill for the band to perform--even if it's only make-believe and for a CBS series--while Chuck Norris walks through the crowd in front of them looking for The Hangman. Wearing his brown leather jacket, a white banded-collar shirt, sable jeans and boots, and his coal-black cowboy hat, the King of Cowboy Kung Fu doesn't need to speak to act. He must only stare and squint, and when he snakes through the crowd, he casts a steely eye toward anyone who comes into his line of vision.

"There's Chuck," whispers Huffstetler, to no one in particular. "Fight."
For this shoot, the casting director has hired a gathering of extras who touch upon all races and social classes; it's the politically correct rock show, white punks and black bohos and Hispanic homies mixing it up and pretending to be out for a night on the town. Some wear their own tattered clothes, others are outfitted in special Baboon shirts the band's label made up damn quick and Federal Expressed to the location. One guy wears a frilly pirate shirt and sports coat, a few women are clad in leather or some facsimile, but the norm is tattoos-and-pierced whatever.

The few Deep Ellum regulars who have landed gigs as extras--guys like Mouse and Duncan Black and Sixty-Six guitarist Alan Hayslip and Pump'n Ethyl frontman Turner Van Blarcum (who gets his catered breakfast, his $50 voucher, then leaves)--remark that they've never seen any of these people downtown before. But it's an eerie sight nonetheless: For all its prefabrication and patronizing sentiment, the Walker folks have managed to assemble a near dead-on collection for the club scene. (And who says Gen X is a defunct and insulting stereotype? Maybe the beer and jeans commercials are right.)

"We were just looking for people who had a good Deep Ellum look," says Blanchette. Which is? "You name it--a little on the wild and crazy side, somebody out looking for a good time." One sequence calls for a mannequin to be thrown over the club's balcony--it's a plot point (don't ask)--and an assistant director explains to the crowd, "Some people think it's an actual woman, and some people think it's a joke because of the type of club you're in."

After six hours of shooting and a lunch break, the cast and crew return to the scene of the crime to film the crime itself--the murder committed by The Hangman--and they have brought with them limos and fake paparazzi and "assorted local celebrities" (script again) to lend a certain elegance to the proceedings. It's a fantasy world, all right--limos at Trees, fans crowding outside the venue shouting the band's name over and over, and Baboon inside "pounding out their hits." At least, that's what it says in the script.

Later that night, the band plays an actual gig at the Orbit Room, and it is attended by maybe 100 people who just stand and watch; some will clap or cheer after a song. "We played at 10 this morning, and people were moshing," Huffstetler tells the crowd. "It's 12-something, so what's your excuse?"

On your avant-garde
The Vas Deferens Organization exists on the fringes of the local rock scene, out where the musical air is thin and "songs" are often nothing more than sounds piled atop noise piled atop studio effect. But the group, which is spearheaded by Matt Castille and cohort J. Bone Cro, is emerging as a scene unto itself: They have released four cassettes, each better than the last, and have been responsible for two J. Bone Cro records (the newest, For Cryin' Out Loud, being available on limited-quantity vinyl on the prestigious Rockadelic label) and the astonishing new Dragline CD. Castille has even been working with the likes of Mercury Rev; he remixed about 30 minutes of music for the band, which so impressed them that Castille has been asked to produce the second record for Rev side project Harmony Rockets.

Castille's next producing job may also be the oddest--and most ingenious: Beginning February 25 at Muddy Waters, Castille will start recording a live record for the Calways, a rockabilly band so far removed from the VDO ambient-techno-industrial sound they might as well be, well, rockabilly. The sessions, which will also include a recording of the Calways' February 28 Orbit Room gig, came about after Castille heard the band in concert and concluded he hadn't "seen such talent in Dallas since I've been living here." As a result, he hopes to do to rockabilly what Jon Spencer does to the blues--tweak the music without losing its form, screw with it just enough so it sounds familiar but still brand-new. (Think Al Jourgenson and Reverend Horton Heat, then think again.)

"The first time I saw them, my jaw was open the whole time," Castille says. "The next time I saw them, they did a Duke Ellington song, and nobody does a Duke Ellington song. That convinced me they were the ones I wanted to do next. I just think that I can pull out some of their innermost feelings about music.

"Sometimes what will happen is I've seen them play and they'll get into these grooves with the stand-up bass popping and the snare drums going, and there's this heartbeat you can almost get up and dance to rhythmically. I want to milk more of the rhythmic things and extend that so when you hear the CD, you can get the rockabilly thing going and then dance...They're a bunch of good guys who play their hearts out for people, and that's what it takes."

Street Beat welcomes e-mail tips and comments at dalobserv@aol.com.

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