By Jim Schutze
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The man onstage at revered Denton country bar Dan's Silverleaf is absolutely petrified. He's clutching a piece of paper like he wants to tear it in half, and his arms and legs are shaking: a strange sight during a heat wave.
Every other Tuesday is the Porch at Dan's, an open mike show with guitar-clutching songwriters, earnest storytellers and, in this man's case, poets. Hometown hero Brent Best, sitting only a few feet from the stage, laughs loudly; the 35-year-old singer and guitarist is about as friendly and jovial as they come, but he saves his biggest, deepest laughs for this poet's curse-laden tales of romantic frustration.
Best and the rest of the Drams meet here for our interview for a number of reasons: no A/C at the practice space; Dan's is nearby; they've got beer. But the random, blunt poet couldn't have hurt, nor could the band's history with the building. On March 12, 2005, Best, drummer Tony Harper and guitarist Jess Barr buried their previous band, Slobberbone, beneath the club's floors after covering them with two and a half hours of sweat, beer and boisterous country-rock anthems.
Barely a year and a half later, the current quintet is back at the club, handing out the first retail copies of Jubilee Dive, the Drams' debut, to their friends. The disc's love for Big Star-leaning power-pop is both a natural progression and a mind-boggling leap from the country-rock of Slobberbone, but it's hard to call the Drams new. The band's "newest" members, Keith Killoren (bass) and Chad Stockslager (keys), have been in Dallas and Denton's music scenes for nearly a decade, and Best's genius-on-the-porch songwriting is still as singular and identifiable, even with the addition of pianos, backing vocals and studio polish. The band members cop to it--"Isn't it just an evolution, anyway?" asks Harper--but if a new chapter requires a new band, so be it.
"Slobberbone was on break for a year and a half before we actually decided to shut it down," Best says. A year after releasing their fourth--and most mature--full-length mix of country spit and rock shine, 2002's Slippage, the group entered an unannounced hiatus and bassist Brian Lane moved to Florida.
Outsiders might blame the downtime for the group's eventual end. The way the guys tell it, that quiet period is the reason any of them can still play in a band together.
"If we hadn't gone on break, we probably would've broken up," Best says, seeing no need to clarify that "broken up" refers to friendships, not the band. "That was at the end of a year straight of touring where we'd run ourselves into the ground, and this was after nine years of touring straight. Bands get to that point at some point. We took the break to have time to really explore."
Best claims the most exploration, spending more time as a solo folk songwriter and a producer for musicians near and far (from Baboon bassist Mark Hughes to Ohio's Two Cow Garage). His most notable recording work was with Budapest One, the Dallas band helmed by the Elvis-and-Lennon songwriting duo of Killoren and Stockslager, both of whom were longtime friends of Best (and had filled in at some Slobberbone gigs when Lane was out of town).
The Budapest One sessions went on around the time that Best began writing loud songs again: power-pop songs in his post-Slobberbone life that, what the hell, made starting a band again worthwhile. He didn't take long to recruit the remaining local men of Slobberbone--"Who do you call to come in? One of these guys"--and as Killoren pestered him about gigging together, Best realized the last piece of his songwriting renaissance was beating at his front door.
"Years before, when [Keith and Chad] were living together up here on Bell Avenue, they'd have a bottle of cheap whiskey after the bar closed," Best says. "That was the first time I'd really hung out with Chad, sitting on the porch, doing Carter Family tunes and singing. I'd never had anyone to sing with since back in the first band with the guy I grew up with."
Only a week after Slobberbone's last concert, Best unveiled a surprise at 2005's South by Southwest, debuting the Drams' lineup and songs in a last-minute attempt to correct a scheduling mess-up: "I was booked solo down there," Best says. "I thought it was a solo showcase, but they had me between two bands." Thankfully, the set of all-new material--and Stockslager's contributions as back-up singer and organ player--wowed the crowd.
The newness didn't silence fans' requests for old Slobberbone material, which the Drams have firmly skipped in favor of covers of power-pop influences such as Big Star. They're not totally opposed to the old songs, though; Stockslager and Killoren worked up two hours' worth of Slobberbone songs when they sat in for Lane years ago, and Best can still be heard rattling off "Pinball Song" and "Billy Pritchard" at neighborhood solo gigs.
Choosing not to play old songs "was mostly me and Jess," Harper says, admitting that the biggest factor is respect for former bassist Brian Lane. "We decided years before that if any one of the core members left, we wouldn't replace 'em," Best adds.
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