Rock bottom

Tucked away in the cellar of a Denton pizza shack is a club that offers punk rock bands a place to re-discover why they make music in the first place

College towns, Denton included, have gears that click and whir to the beat of a youthful pulse--growing, restless suburban kids free from parental scrutiny for the first time. Denton's University of North Texas and its 25,000 students make up a sizeable portion of the city's population, and its academic and creative energies float like a passionate and sometimes pretentious haze over the whole town.

Clusters of young people, like their counterparts in Chapel Hill and Austin and Ann Arbor, find their way into music projects with surprising ease, thanks to punk's introduction to the do-it-yourself ethic, MTV, and the rapid spread of all things counter-cultural by the media. Old boundaries of rock have evaporated. Ten years ago, playing in a band was the special realm of the creative, the determined, the eccentric. Now it's as common for a 20-year-old to start a band as it is to eat breakfast.

UNT's prestigious music school attracts would-be geniuses from all over the country to its flat, beige jazz-focused campus, but over the past few years, the membership of Denton rock bands has shifted from music students to other kids--English majors and film majors and, frankly, a shitload of dropouts. They chose UNT because it's cheap and easy to get into; they stay in Denton because it's cheap and easy to negotiate. And since the bands are often new and ever-transforming (some would call their interchanging line-ups incestuous), the members haven't started calculating their money-grubbing potential. They're still learning to play their instruments and write songs.

Thus, the non-agenda of a college town music scene; Denton has built itself a healthy rock microcosm, one that often shows more backbone and credibility than commercial-minded, non-college-enhanced Dallas. Even though crap-quality Denton rock clubs open and close as often as school lets out, the Dallas music contingent has learned that Denton rock bands are a force to be reckoned with, either on their own academic turf or as they move on and trickle into Dallas itself, often infiltrating Dallas bands. Many of Dallas' strongest acts--from Baboon to the tomorrowpeople to Bobgoblin to Slow Roosevelt--have at least some genetic makeup in Den-tone's music scene. As Denton bands recognize that migrating to Dallas doesn't guarantee musical happiness, Dallas bands migrating to Mr. Gatti's may be finding just what they are looking for.

"We wanted to play here. We asked to play here," says Benji Bollox, the spike-haired Visitor, after finishing his Gatti's gig. "It's a good room, it's fun, it's a good audience." The band had driven in from Dallas to unload its cheerful ire on Denton music fans, as did the act that followed them on the Thursday-night bill. Supersport 396, three guys looking far more like a 1998 band than the Visitor's circa-1978, with unremarkable haircuts, tennis shoes, and slumped postures, graced the dim basement for the second time in several months, and had made the trip up from Dallas as well.

"It's one of the most comfortable rooms in the whole country," says Will Johnson, better known as Centro-matic, a musician who, while touring with his former band, Funland, has played just about every indie-rock club across America. "And I feel comfortable in most rooms. I booked [Centro-matic's] only June show there. It's like playing in a friend's living room with beer and pizza being served, and pinball games, to boot."

Johnson, who moved back to Denton a few years ago to finish up his undergraduate studies at North Texas after a four-year stint in Dallas, could play anywhere here--Trees, the Curtain Club, you name it. But he chooses to play Mr. Gatti's basement, as have so many since the club opened in late 1994.

George Neal is the pizza guy-musician who started Gatti's puppy-love affair with rock. At the time, the bespectacled, articulate Neal was newly employed at the pizza place, playing in various Denton bands and recording solo work as Little Grizzly. He was also frustrated with the lack of music venues in his town.

"Gatti's had only been open a few months," he recalls. "We had that downstairs set up for dining, and we already served beer. There really wasn't any place in Denton to play; the Main Event had shut down, the Argo hadn't opened yet...We thought, why the hell not?"

And the precise notion spark? In October, 1993, Neal attended a party at the same spot, which then was just the hollowed-out apartment of John Norris, who at the time was a member of the band Chomsky (now of the tomorrowpeople). Norris had invited some fellow bands to play a Halloween bash--Factory Press, Caulk--and Denton's close-knit rock community flooded the place. Shoot up to fall of '94, when Neal was walking around the just-installed pizza parlor and reminiscing: "At that party, there had been all these cats running around, all this cat shit covering the floors. So it had been rock bands and cat poop. It was perfect." (Now is when we all yell, "Punk rock!")

"I wasn't sure what kind of club it should be at first, whether to charge cover, what kind of acts to book," Neal says. "Rock bands, or have a coffee-house feel, or what."

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