By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
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.
Their friendship is still intact--Lane's new bluegrass band will open for the Drams during their upcoming stop in Tampa--though the band has finally opened its Slobberbone floodgates, working up a few songs "to fill up so many headlining gigs," according to Harper. But the Drams, as fond as they are of the past, are taking the new things--band name, members, logo on the kick drum, whatever--and converting them to their most confident period in years.
"The collective consciousness of the band out of the gate is already on a higher level than Slobberbone was because of having three songwriters," Best says. "Maybe that is what makes the songs sound so much different now. On that basic level there's a lot more thought and work going into it...It's cool to be in that situation, where you're overwhelmed from possibilities within the band."
For the newest members, the transition from leads in Budapest One to supporters in the Drams should have been difficult, especially for Killoren, a wild man who romps around stage as a lead singer. But the duo is finally contributing songs to the Drams' catalog, and Killoren insists he's the one who wanted to join the group in the first place. He thinks he had good reason. "When you can play with a songwriter like Brent, you just have to do it. I mean, 'Holy Moses,'" he says, referring to one of the better songs from Jubilee Dive--a slow-dance wonder of wavering organ notes, white-hot guitars and the poetic story of a dead lover. For Killoren, it's also an exclamation of disbelief that he's in the band.
There's plenty on Dive to make that much of a fuss about, from the bewildering stream-of-consciousness lyrics in "Truth Lies Low" ("Pick-up game pundits play perilous pursuits/Fax the new dream, wax the new sheen/Color-code the obvious, reduce the rest to green") to the piano-anchored, return-to-arms anthem of "Shortsighted." Most of the album comes from a Big Star point of view--the little guy tryin' to make it--and after the last band's burnout, that new, humble outlook makes plenty of sense.
"It's not like Slobberbone was Hüsker Dü," Best says. "We were never that huge of a band. It shows you how meticulous people get about stuff that doesn't really matter. Not that Hüsker Dü was ever that big of a deal, now that I think about it," he adds, laughing.
But plenty of people would kill to be ranked near Hüsker Dü, and years of hard touring under the Slobberbone banner have earned Best and company status as local rock gods. Even Stockslager admits, "I was always intimidated by these fellas," earning another of Best's huge laughs. And at Dan's, that's possibly why the man at the mike is shaking like a junkie; "He's probably nervous because Brent's here," Barr suggests.
Though Best rolls his eyes at the accusation a week later ("He's a friend of mine; he just never reads [poetry] out loud"), he has to know there's truth to it. As approachable and funny as he is, he'll always be an intimidating genius to the fellow writers and musicians who know his work...and an utter unknown to everyone else. Makes sense, then, to enjoy life back in a band, back on the road, back where Best says he belongs.
"You just want to play with people you like hanging out with," Best says. "I'd rather play with somebody I'd share a pup tent with than some Steve Vai asshole."