It's been a full six months since Swivel and Blush last played together. Simply billed as the July 3 Show, it was the last of several set up by the kids in the bands and their friends at the Bishop Arts District's Oak Cliff Coffee House. With vocals sent out over the guitar amps in lieu of a PA system, and a diverse and devoted group of friends as audience, both acts put on their best performances to date. The audience assembled wasn't the Shiner Bock-swilling late-twentysomething and suburban teenage crowd of The Dallas Rock Show, but 70 or so of the neighborhood kids, old friends from schools and shows, families and grown-up friends of the band members, and others who -- while everyone didn't exactly know how they knew them -- were fast becoming regulars in this microcosm of a scene.
These ongoing grassroots shows were the greatest things to happen to Blush and Swivel in a while. In this space, the kids cranked out new songs to their friends, a group of people who, as Swivel drummer Raul Espinosa points out, "[would not] want to hang out at some club in Deep Ellum."
Live, it's most evident that Blush and Swivel are doing something different. When Blush is playing, there's a pretty, skinny guy singing, rolling his eyes and coming close to ripping the strings off his guitar, an impish girl with pigtails and rosy cheeks pounding on drums, and a goofy kid with lots of hair playing bass, almost forgetting he's in front of others. And the songs on Blush's The Night Sky EP stand up to their live incarnations. They are poppy and melodic, sometimes reminiscent of Joan of Arc or Austin's Silver Scooter, but the band takes a handful of risks that, in most cases, pay off in creating a sound that not only is larger than one would expect from a three-piece outfit, but that ventures far outside of the mild pop-punk of Dallas bar-rock.
The lack of disaffected self-consciousness so charming in Blush occurs to an even greater degree in labelmates and friends Swivel. There's a constant reminder that the hardest audience for what you're making is yourself. Splitting vocals and melodies, bass player Patricia Rodriguez and guitarist Rene Espinosa function as dependent opposites. Drummer Raul Espinosa, Rene's younger brother, serves as backbone and reactionary on a set of drums put together from a couple of kits and a history of garage sales. It could be called post-rock, but that term strips away all notions of intensity and enthusiasm. It's quiet and noisy, long-winded but muttered, and they're telling the truth. The group's album, Time Framed in Real Time, is one of those unassumingly savage discs that leaves listeners sitting on the floor by the last track, not quite sure of what they have just heard.
Rodriguez and Rene Espinosa met in the visual arts classes at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in 1993. A year ahead in school, Rodriguez "moved him in the direction of Fugazi," and they began playing together shortly after. Raul joined in soon, learning to play drums when he was 13 years old, barely big enough for his makeshift kit. They began playing as Swivel in the fall of 1995, playing house shows in East Dallas and Oak Cliff, doing in-stores at the now-defunct Last Beat retail outlet, and sharing bills with friends' bands during the Major Theater's short life as an all-ages venue.
Dallas was completely different at this time for earnest teenagers with hopes for a "scene." In addition to the Major -- which sat off East Grand Avenue, across the street from the now-vanished Brownie's, and far enough from the reaches of downtown's uniformity -- The Galaxy Club and the Orbit Room booked local acts outside the pop-punk white-boy norm and touring acts that were akin to those now going to Denton's Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios, mainly because there is no longer an alternative.
The summer of 1996 saw the self-release of Ten Minutes, a seven-inch single ringing fast, noisy, and idealistic compared with the full-length released more than three years later. "The Swivel Kids," as they were known, began making music in downtown's Arts Magnet high school, surrounded by peers with the same countless aspirations. But those peers have vanished, much like the Orbit Room and the other all-ages venues. As Blush singer-guitarist Cordon Simons says, "There are no kids in Dallas." Their original peers have either left Dallas permanently or left behind the accessible, downtown ideals they once helped thrive for Denton, Austin, or the beery blandness of the half-dozen nightclubs that make up the Dallas "scene."
Cordon Simons began playing with his younger brother's classmate, Aaron Gonzalez, while he attended the Talented and Gifted Magnet and while Gonzalez was an eighth-grader who played upright bass in the Greiner Middle School Orchestra. They became the core members in Blush, a fixture at TAG birthday parties that did pretty good Cure covers and featured a revolving group of up to three other kids, all of whom had grown up in Oak Cliff and attended the Magnet Schools.
By 1997, Gonzalez and Simons had released a tape (with drummer Laura Ellis), Nightgown. With Laura's move to college approaching, Gonzalez's best friend, Andrea Couch, was recruited as a replacement. Simons says, wholeheartedly, "We started again with Andrea. This incarnation is all about her. She's such a good drummer, she's part of the songwriting just like Aaron is or I am." Andrea learned the drums in less than a year; their first show was at her parents' house, playing to other parents, neighbors, and a crowd of kids fast losing a place to see and make music.
Both bands' stories may sound the same, but it took a while before they were reading off the same page. It was at Booker T. Washington, where they both focused on classical music, that Couch and Gonzalez met up with Raul Espinosa, then a visual arts junior, who, although from the same neighborhood, was scarcely aware of the younger band. "It was so cool, meeting people who were doing things and lived down the block," Couch recalls. The two bands fast became each other's much needed allies, setting up shows together where, as Trish Rodriguez hoped, "kids are working off each other's energy."
In mid-1998, those kids worked with the nearby Oak Cliff Coffeehouse to begin hosting all-ages, late-evening shows. Along with Blush and Swivel, these increasingly frequent and well-attended concerts brought along like-minded acts such as the the Fed-Ups, Vasanic Switch, and Time and Pressure. Gonzalez organized the last show held at the coffee house this summer, featuring Akkolyte (his noise no-wave project with 14-year-old brother Stephan), Bread and Water (an amazing girl-fronted grindcore outfit), and Stephan's hardcore band, Target Rats.
Shows at the coffeehouse ended by order of the ownership after mid-July 1999. At that point, regular show attendance had outgrown the front room, moving the performance space to an unused back room of the retail strip. The success of the coffeehouse shows, along with neighborhood newcomer Dave Aponte's orchestration of sometimes raucous shows in the Cockrell Avenue space Moon Tunes, were proof that the once thriving all-ages inner Dallas scene had begun to re-emerge independently of the governing rock music sensibilities downtown.
The members of Swivel, along with longtime friend Jens Larsen, an SMU art student, now rent a studio space one block down Bishop from the coffee house. Serving as mixed-media art space and an all-hours hangout, the space also houses a small gallery storefront, an answer to the established art scene similar to the one they have given the music community. "Everything we're doing is in reaction to the place we're living," Patricia declares.
Managed by Rodriguez and brothers Martin and Alex Campos, the space shows their work as well as that of Larsen and Rene and Raul Espinosa. The group took upon the task of showing their own work after the local galleries showed little interest. Similarly, Alex Campos is helping Rene to head up 111 Records, an imprint whose first releases were Time Framed in Real Time and The Night Sky. They plan to release a Blush and Swivel split seven-inch next, featuring "Hopscotch," a stunning pop song and the best thing Blush has ever recorded.
"Slowly, I'd like to put out seven-inches of bands that I like: friends and other people in the same situation, people getting ignored in Dallas," Rene says. Young (Patricia and Rene are the oldest of the group at 23), moralistic, and unwilling to "buy their way in" to any scene, they're skeptical of the cottage industry of rock music in Dallas just as they're skeptical of the mainstream galleries. Rene states flatly, "If we [Swivel] wanted to play in a bar on a Friday night, we would. But we've stopped playing clubs...We don't want to be any part of that".
Raul, who at 20 has had to stand outside waiting before shows at bars, recounts now-deferred plans for a "Revolution" show. "We wanted to play a big show [outside of the clubs], and people were all worried. People were worried about offending the clubs they weren't playing in the first place."
Couch and Gonzalez, both 19, can't help but agree. "In Dallas, you have to put your foot down to make music that's different and do things outside the norm, even if it's just making music you think is worth doing," offers Couch.
"My Dad got me interested in music at a very young age," Gonzalez says of his father, jazz musician and longtime KERA-FM DJ Dennis Gonzalez, and more important, "in making music that I thought was interesting. There's not really much else you can do, I think."
Blush has stayed in Dallas as a way of staying together, yet for the most part, only the band is located here; Simons lives in Austin while he finishes a degree in sound recording technology at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos; Couch lives in Denton while she goes to the University of North Texas. Gonzalez is the only member still in Dallas. They practice almost every weekend at Simons' house off of Jefferson. Simons, 22, says, "I like living in Dallas, and I like making music here. Our shows in Dallas, in Oak Cliff, those have been so much better as far as shows were concerned...It's not that we don't want to play clubs, but we don't want to be known for playing clubs. There are bands that are 'stars' in those clubs. That's so insignificant."
Although he resides in Austin, sharing a house with the older brothers of Couch and Larsen, Simons is reluctant to enter the intimidating sphere of Austin music. "In Austin, it's different, because music is almost disposable," he says. "There are so many bars and so many bands. I am battling indigestion and deadlines. They don't return your phone calls. You have to really want it."
Both acts have found somewhat more receptive audiences in Denton. "There are more kids there that are in some way involved with music and the shows," Rodriguez says, agreeing with Cordon, who doubts that "kids want to be a part of things going on in Dallas. Anyone who wants to be involved has to go to Denton." And it's still an hour's drive from Sylvan Avenue to Rubber Gloves.
It's an insult to have to drive 50 miles to see the Make-Up or Will Oldham when one lives in the middle of the nation's ninth-largest city. And, as Rene says, "Rubber Gloves is basically a club."
The next show for both bands is their first gig at Moon Tunes, a warehouse booking mainly hardcore shows and populated with young, oh-so-punk-rock kids. Shows had stopped for a while after fights had gotten out of hand. The fights have begun again, and the surrounding neighborhood is ridden with violence. Yet the kids remain optimistic, as it's the only real option left. "I'd like to see it grow, and I hope they'll be more accepting of us," says Simons. "By opening up in that area, they've gone out of their way to listen to music."
"What Dallas needs," says Morris Currance, a friend and patron of both bands, "is exposure to music. An all-ages mid-sized venue and a radio station where we can actually hear the new Paul Newman record."
Until then, Blush and Swivel have their sights set beyond the limitations of their city. Swivel is in the process of booking a tour of the Midwest and East Coast for March and April, and Blush hopes to tour in July. Simons says that, ultimately, Swivel and Blush would like to finish what they started in Dallas, finding other kids in bands, doing 'zines, and making art on their own terms.
"Dallas could have a lot of stuff going on," says Simons, on the phone from Austin. "There could be a totally great scene in Dallas. Too bad there's no kids. Who's getting together to start a scene?"
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