Eighth place in your face
The rain bombs out the street before Peter Thomas, and he wonders if the adverse weather will significantly affect the turnout this Saturday night. He and two bandmates, Aaron Lyons and Mark Sodders, stand under the overhang of the Dogstar, one of the few dives where a local band can play in this foreign land called Fort Worth.
If you saw them together at Trees as Slow Roosevelt on Halloween night--when they performed their killer take of "Greased Lightning" at the release party for Sandy Does Dallas (the CD on which local bands cover the Grease motion picture soundtrack)--you wouldn't recognize them by the Dogstar's door. Based on the performance and the sound of Starving St. Nick, their debut album, you'd expect guys who looked...well, meaner.
Instead there was Thomas, 29, in the kind of tan sweater that your dad or grandpa might wear. And, ironically, without his glasses, he looks unassuming in an uncontrived "geek-chic" sort of way. On stage, though, his frame transforms from gawky to twisted. He doesn't just sing into the microphone--he takes command of it, often yelling into it with a megaphone. Screaming "God hates you, God hates you, he told me!" ("Machine Head"), Thomas brings to mind that quiet guy in high school who, upon snatching away the coach's megaphone and commandeering the P.A. at a pep rally, has gone majorly nutball.
With their broad builds, Lyons, 25, and Sodders, 26--carrying Slow Roosevelt's rapid rhythms on drums and bass, respectively--could be two of the school's linebackers who have joined Thomas in pissing off the faculty. The fourth guy in the band--guitarist Scott Minyard, 29--would be the "freak." After all, he's the one with the long hair.
As formidable as this mismatched crew is live, they're subdued when talking in a bar across the street from the Dogstar. Obnoxiously loud patrons playing pool near us periodically drown out conversation; Thomas' megaphone would have come in handy.
Although the necessary elements (good songs, talent, personality) converge favorably in Slow Roosevelt, lending the feeling that it's only a matter of time--and some luck--before they hit it big, there are currently no talent scouts scoping them out or major deals in the works. Right now the band is merely trying to put together a wider-ranging tour schedule in support of St. Nick, released by local label One Ton in October. It's this same something that you could already sense in Vibrolux or the Old 97's before they got signed away to the music machine. Three years ago, the Toadies had that something, too, despite the ups and downs they had to endure before going on to sell a million CDs.
The members of Slow Roosevelt are notably cautious in their reactions to this kind of talk. Thomas has heard it before, when he was in Last Rites, a Denton funk-rock act he sang for during the New Bohemians era. "A lot of people definitely looked for Last Rites to put Dallas on the map--kind of like the New Bohemians," he says. That, of course, never happened.
Though in existence for only 18 months, Slow Roosevelt has already achieved a confident, consistently catchy and identifiable sound. Imagine the energy and smartass attitude of punk, fueling the thunder of heavy metal--good heavy metal, classic Metallica before the band devolved the slow, turgid, "fat" sound it has today. The driving beat, built up by Minyard's guitar and Sodders' bass, makes the music a series of orchestrated outbursts that grind into your gut, complementing Thomas as he sings "Felt like you kind of hit pavement." On stage, Thomas looks edgy, twitching sporadically and itching the back of his neck before unexpectedly lunging at the audience. His voice is heavier, thicker, and more forceful without the megaphone; it's as if the stage is too small to contain the energy that festers inside him.
The band rarely meanders; songs like "Alabama Man," "Damn Fine Mule," and "Greased Lightning" are akin to electric storms: Thunder rumbles, unexpectedly breaks into lightning, and suddenly you find yourself caught in a nasty hailstorm. The band's aggressive and angry sound tends to mask the sarcasm behind lyrics like "God hates you" (a quote that has gotten their T-shirts banned at a local high school). The band also took heat from local metal scene 'zine Harder Beat for lyrics in "Detective Head" in which Thomas declares, "I say rock 'n' roll is dead, so you should send some flowers and get over it."
When the band produced self-mocking promo stickers--one declared Slow Roosevelt the "8th best" local band--some people took it to mean that the band considered themselves one of the 10 best (another stated "Mean People Rule"). In response, other stickers were printed: "Slow Roosevelt: Your band sucks."
They're just kidding about all of this, Slow Roosevelt insists. If anything, Thomas says, their attitude is "anti-mean," and his humor and performance are definitely inspired by what he calls the attitude of "over-dramatic, bloated musicians who just make me ill." Thomas has the most local music experience of any band member: Before Last Rites, he sang for Green Engine, a local act that was like Last Rites "minus the funk." As a teenager, he hung out in the Dallas punk scene during the era of the long-gone Twilite Room and Circle A Ranch in the early '80s.
Lyons and Sodders met in Denton while both were students at the University of North Texas in 1990; Sodders would graduate from the school's department of psychology. Lyons originally studied music, but switched to architecture (he's working on his degree at the University of Texas at Arlington). "I was getting very cynical because it was such a labor studying music all the time and not doing what I wanted to do," he says, "which was to play drums for a band."
While they studied, the two jammed together and went through a variety of guitarists and singers, staying together throughout because they felt they formed the basis for a strong rhythm section. Sodders met Minyard when both worked at UPS; Minyard had taken "pretty much every" music course that was offered at North Lake College and worked gigs running sound for local bands at their shows. "Scott was very open to the direction that Mark and I were pursuing musically," Lyons says of Minyard.
And so the three, fronted by a different vocalist, had their first show at the Deep Ellum heavy metal bar R&R Revolution (now the Copper Tank Brewery). It was their first real gig, and a "real uncomfortable" one at that, as Lyons recalls. They couldn't even decide on a name for their band, so they went on stage without one. "That show was mainly done out of pure frustration--out of us not being able to play anywhere else," Sodders says. "It went well for what it was worth, but it's not something we like to recall."
"I didn't feel we were ready," Minyard says simply. There was also a creative conflict with the singer. "He was a good singer, but the style that we were shooting for was more on the edge," he says. "We tried to work with him, and he tried, but it didn't work out." After the amicable departure of the singer, their situation went unimproved until one night when Sodders recognized Thomas in Deep Ellum as the former singer of Last Rites. Even though both were studying psychology at UNT, neither knew the other. Sodders asked Thomas if he'd be interested in working with their unattached trio.
In the beginning, Thomas was uncertain. "I had no idea who these guys were. I never saw them hanging out [in the local music scene]," he admits. "And the stuff they played...it was early Pantera and Alice in Chains--stuff that was dated...but I stuck with it, mainly because of Aaron. He's fantastic, and I think it's very difficult to come across good drummers. Aaron gave me a good feeling.
"Because I was unsure of the band's material when we first started out," he adds, "I wanted to bring in an element that made it a little more unique." That element was a $10 "toy," the Radio Shack model T-200 electronic megaphone. Thomas admits that screaming into the mic with an electronic megaphone isn't original (Austin's Butthole Surfers and Milwaukee's Season to Risk have done the same thing), but he liked the effect.
"When he came in, he brought a whole different element," Sodders says. "It took some getting used to. Everything we had been doing before was kind of cliche." Things eventually worked out, thanks in part to their mutual affinity for sarcasm; a month later, the four landed their first gig at Rage, yet another hard rock club that no longer exists.
"God--talk about your pretentious, over-dramatic, bloated rock-star club," Thomas says. "Half the club was filled with long-haired, glam-boy musicians watching bands play and going, 'Yeah...I could do that.'
"But it actually went over pretty well," he concedes. "It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be."
They went go on to gig at the Dogstar, Orbit Room, Trees, Galaxy Club, and other local venues. They also followed an unconventional route--doing shows inside local CD chain stores--where they caught the attention of teen audiences (and the police, who shut down one of their shows for excessive noise).
Back at the Dogstar on that rainy Saturday night, Thomas looks over the audience while his bandmates set up their equipment. Most of the people look to be in their mid-20s to 30s; outside, a trio of young folk approach Thomas and ask when his band will take the stage. They definitely look under the legal drinking age, and they dress like the older teens who cruise the sidewalks of Deep Ellum. Right before the show more kids file in, and Thomas points them out as Slow Roosevelt's principal audience, the 21-and-under set. Thomas says that playing for older crowds isn't as appealing to him--though not in these exact words.
"Most of the kids are there [at a show] to really see the band," he says. "They're not there to be seen."
Incidentally, Thomas works as a therapist, where he often consoles teens. Some of his young patients have even shown up at his shows, but the fact that he sings for a band in the local music scene isn't something he mentions at work. It's not only unprofessional, but maybe even disconcerting, he imagines, for one of his young patients to see him bawling into a microphone as though he were going through scream therapy. And don't expect an obvious connection between what Thomas does as a therapist and what he sings for Slow Roosevelt: Career and band are separate, he maintains, and in fact there really is no point in delving into deeper meaning behind the lyrics or song titles. Most of what Thomas sings makes about as much sense as the end of "Once Upon a Drunk:" "Sometimes I sit back and think about how different my life would be if I were Snoop Doggy Dog."
Huh? Sometimes, as he tells the listener, it's best to "just hear my empty point."
Taking a break from their Tuesday night rehearsal, Thomas and Minyard grab dinner at a Whataburger. Lyons and Sodders pass on food but listen as Thomas tells them that One Ton president Aden Holt has chosen their contribution to Sandy Does Dallas as the one to push aggressively for wider airplay across the country.
There's also the possibility that Sandy, along with Slow Roosevelt, could be mentioned in Entertainment Weekly. There's an article in the works--maybe for an issue as early as December--that would focus on interest in Grease as the latest in pop culture nostalgia.
Though it was Slow Roosevelt's first choice, "Greased Lightning" almost wasn't theirs: It had been given to another band. Instead, the four spent three weeks struggling to turn "Sandy"--their original song--into something that they felt could work with their sound.
"It was really hard for us because 'Sandy' is this ballad-type song," Lyons admits. Then the band that was supposed to do "Greased Lightning" dropped out, and Slow Roosevelt immediately snapped it up, recording it in less than a day.
"Greased Lightning" is the best cut on Sandy, cranked up with a rapid-fire intensity that's as deliriously dizzy as a spin in a mosh pit. The song has become so associated with the band that audiences have begun to request it, but they've forgotten how to play it; they may dust it off for future gigs.
Somehow the subject turns to the band Garbage. Thomas groans, remembering a magazine article in which its lead singer, Shirley Manson, said she was only interested in men who would let her urinate on them. Thomas calls her a good example of the rock star pretension that he so loathes.
Perhaps she was only kidding when she made that comment; maybe she was daring the public to take her seriously. Thomas considers the possibility that he and Ms. Manson could be kindred spirits.
"Maybe," he says, then snorts cynically. "But she probably meant it--after all, she's...what, English, right?"
Actually, she's Scottish.
Thomas doesn't respond, but the dismissive way he shakes his head fairly shouts "same difference."
Slow Roosevelt plays Saturday, December 21 at The Impala in Fort Worth and New Year's Eve at the Orbit Room.
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