It's a late night at Nomad Studios in Carrollton, where The Paper Chase's John Congleton works as a sound engineer. At the moment, he's sitting in a studio with one of his clients, gospel popster Kirk Franklin; Congleton, who worked with Franklin on 1997's God's Property, is acting as an adviser while Franklin writes new material. When Congleton hands over a CD-R copy of his band's first full-length record, Young Bodies Heal Quickly, You Know, it catches Franklin by surprise. "I didn't know you were in a band!" Franklin squeals as only a five-foot-nothing gospel singer can. Congleton rolls his eyes from embarrassment.
Dressed as inconspicuously as possible, sporting a white T-shirt tucked into khaki pants and loafers, Congleton looks like just another sound engineer--at best, a weekend warrior with an insignificant band of his own, spending his days working out the guts of other people's records. It could be so easy for the band to be mediocre, pretentious, and uninspired. The Paper Chase could be just another band on the North Texas circuit, playing three-chord, three-minute songs about girls and beer. Their newest record, which, Congleton insists upon presentation, is "meant to be listened to as an entire piece," could be just another mock concept album put together by a bunch of kids trying to make their own version of the White Album. Or, more likely their own version of Enema of the State.
Thankfully, none of the above happens to apply. The Paper Chase is in a league with ...and you will know us by the trail of dead and Centro-matic as the best this state has to offer, and joins the ranks of Carbomb, the Butthole Surfers, and the Big Boys before them as the kind of punk band only Texas could spawn, melding bored ambition with whacked-out, fucked-up Texan fervor. Their live show is consistently inspired, at times nearly improvised, with Congleton directing the show as he dances with his guitar, until the microphone stand cuts in.
The Paper Chase
Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios
Sweep the Leg Johnny and The Hope 12 also perform.
The Paper Chase's soon-to-be-released Young Bodies Heal Quickly, You Know, is miles ahead of any expectations, the rawest album to come from Texas since Trail Of Dead's Madonna hit stores last year. It's a concept album, sadly enough, but one so good that it's not at all sickening when Congleton says, "It's a record that's a commitment, like The Wall, where you don't just skip around to your favorite songs. You have to listen to it all the way through."
Sitting in a chain Tex-Mex restaurant in Richardson, the band--Congleton and drummer Aaron Dalton, both 23, and bass player Bobby Weaver, 21--scarf down meals consisting of side orders of tortillas, beans and rice, guacamole, and cheese decidedly not from Wisconsin. Dalton and Weaver smoke before, during, and after their meal, as the conversation turns to Coen brothers movies and Joyce Carol Oates novels. Congleton's the first to respond to any question; it's understood that he's the mastermind of this, but the three are in total agreement as to how they want their music made. Although relatively young, all three have paid dues in mediocre bands: Congleton, for instance, was in Bad Hair Day, and Dalton moved from Arkansas to Dallas with his teenage band. "We played one show here and broke up," he notes, somberly.
From out of a cloud of cigarette smoke, this picture emerges: The Paper Chase began in 1997 as a project they all considered temporary, playing experimental songs Congleton had written "as a result of being in that kind of [boring] band and gaining the confidence to do something more adventurous." The group clicked somehow, resulting in the best work any of them had produced. In the three years since they formed, The Paper Chase has taken an ideal path for a young band with other obligations, gradually building a solid body of material and an audience in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Denton, then playing regularly and gaining a following in college towns within a 400-mile radius, such as Norman, Oklahoma, and Fayetteville, Arkansas.
After a week in the Midwest with [DARYL] this past spring, the band is setting out for most of October in part with Sweep the Leg Johnny. "We haven't done a full tour, but we've done the region pretty well," Congleton says. Weaver is enthusiastic about touring, saying, "We really don't have an excuse [for not touring] now that we have the full length." Congleton, however, is doubtful that touring is the best thing for the band, or its members, right now. "The work I do is really fickle," he begins. "I feel that there is a medium between this band and my job, and Aaron's job, and Bobby's...life. I don't wanna come home sick of two of my best friends, sick of my own music, and out of work." Dalton cuts to the heart of the matter: "Anything over two weeks is sickening."
Both on tour and in Texas, they've built ties that have led to getting their record heard by audiences in different parts of the country. Young Bodies will be released by Washington D.C.-based Beatville Records and the venerable Chicago-based Divot Records will release an EP by the group in the fall. "That [record] is so important to us," Congleton explains, indicating the label's and Chicago's potential as a stepping stone for building a following nationwide. "So many bands--Sweep the Leg Johnny, Braid--got their start on Divot. It was so surprising and so great to be embraced in Chicago the way we were."
The band has kept their focus broad, only playing a handful of times in Dallas this summer. Weaver spent time traveling in Russia. Congleton has been hard at work in the studio, which is right where he belongs. "I hear things in my head all the time and I know exactly how I want them recorded," he says. Weaver sighs with relief that the band doesn't have to deal with by-the-hour studio guys. "We don't have to go into the studio and have some yahoo rip our shit up."
"We did once," Dalton clarifies. "We walked out."
"One point I like to make is that The Paper Chase and my job are so separate, but we wouldn't be able to make this album if I didn't do this already," Congleton says with no reticence. After all, technical recording stuff isn't in the plan for most who set out to make a record. "We made this album for a little under three grand. I mean, the only thing we didn't have to pay for is an engineer, but we knew what we were doing." Congleton's almost dismissive of the voice and guitar elements that are most essential to everyone else. "I went in and, I think, I did all the guitars on the CD in five hours."
Young Bodies is, as the band implies, almost a straight feed from Congleton's head. Beginning with a 45-second tinkering melody on the piano, it's a story about destruction that clocks in at just over 50 minutes. "The concept isn't that deep," Congleton assures. "All the things that could happen to you, all that feeling--if you could contain that in one song, would it kill you? The first song on the CD, 'This May Be The Last Song You Ever Hear,' that's the idea. It was rolling around in my head about how we're all kinda living life, and after horrible things happen...." He trails off. "It's divided into five parts--they all touch on different aspects of bad things happening." The record is a mock documentary: Standing in front of the vocals-guitar-bass-drums backing is a constant stream of effective sampling, from two-second, unrecognizable phrases, placed repeatedly throughout the album, to clips from the television show Unsolved Mysteries, to an unsettling two-minute recording of a breakup via telephone. It could be so easy for this to be another post-Nine Inch Nails pile of Fragile detritus, but the saving grace lies in the songwriting, musicianship, and the solid construction of the whole thing. "Apple Pies and Alibis" and "Off With Their Heads" are good examples of rock songs rode hard and buried under a wreck. "When (And If) the Big One Hits, I Will Meet You There," the closing track, is almost a ballad--stark, quiet, and hysterical, but undeniably lovely.
Congleton adds, as a footnote, "It's ambitious to think that people are going to get that much out of this, but if a handful do, it's worth it; it's cool." Speaking like a sound engineer--he's worked with Baboon and Kid Chaos, among others--Congleton definitely has an opinion about less innovative music. "I'm so tired of CDs I hear where it's three-minute punk-rock song, two-second pause, three-minute punk-rock song, two-second pause," he says, making a distinction between eight or more songs on a compact disc, and an album of the sort, he says, The Paper Chase has put together. "All three of us enjoy those albums that are commitments."
"If your live show can be contained to a 5-inch piece of plastic, then there's something wrong with your music," Congleton says, doing away with the notion that The Paper Chase is just a studio band. "I mean, AC/DC can record an album of their songs, and it's just as good. Do they really want just the songs? We're not AC/DC." Although the piano and the mixer won't adapt to the stage, The Paper Chase's live show incorporates the samples, and allows for improvisation and creativity that Congleton knows is key. "That's what we love about this band," Congletion says. "Lots of things come out live that we never could have thought up." Method of attack is unimportant: "You could cut off my arms and I could play a show. I'm so moving away from guitar rock."
The band has been tossing around the idea of adding a fourth member to add to the sound, but so far, no one's come along to make that a possibility. "This isn't, like, an ad," interjects Dalton.
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"But whoever it would be would have to get in the flow," Congleton continues. "The ideas are already there, I'm not looking for someone with a vision."
Weaver adds that that's the way to make good music. "Nirvana, Pink Floyd, those were bands that were one guy with a couple of others helping out," he says. "The Beatles, even, were just two guys. The other guys were pretty crappy."
Recalling formative experiences seeing bands in Dallas, he talks about what led him away from straightforward, conventional music making. "I, personally, was very inspired by the Denton noise rock scene around seven or eight years ago," Congleton says. "Whitman Maneuver, Baboon--all those bands inspired me to do something interesting." Weaver continues: "Baboon's a band that really helped us get shows, and just get stuff done." As they and their friends start to come into their own, is there a Dallas scene right now that people will look back on?
"There are more good bands than there have been in a long time," Congleton says. Weaver finishes the thought: "There are a lot of people that I know in Dallas that are doing what they want now, and people are responding to it."