George Reagan and Tony Barsotti's Lower Greenville house is a true rock and roll home: slightly decrepit band stickers (Hagfish and Tripping Daisy) stuck to the front door, posters (for Mercury Rev and the Beastie Boys and the like) tacked to walls, a back room filled with Barsotti's drum kit and guitars and mikes. Every spare nook and cranny is filled with something collected or borrowed, whether it is a month-early advance vinyl copy of the new Tripping Daisy album or a see-through gold lame shirt given to Reagan by a member of the band Motocaster.
In the bathroom shelves, where most people keep towels and sheets, Reagan--Hagfish's charming and suave frontman, author of such lyrics as "eat my box while I work"--has stashed a couple dozen skin mags with titles like Ass Fuck Fantasy. And in the kitchen, a parrot noisily squawks from atop its tree-limb perch, which it often leaves in order to take a dump on the couch that sits next to the sink.
"Just don't yell or make any sudden moves," Reagan cautions half-seriously.
It is a clubhouse, a grown-up's version of a treehouse, where boys hold secret meetings and girls fear to tread. The members of Hagfish often congregate here--bassist Doni Blair is married and lives close by with his wife Shelly, and Doni's brother Zach (the band's guitarist) also lives near--to listen to records they've just bought, to write songs, to hang out, sometimes even to sleep.
A month before these four men are to make the leap from local darlings to national question marks, they gather here to discuss their hectic past and tenuous future--to consider what has been and what might be. It was not long ago that Zachariah and Donivan Blair were outcast kids growing up in Sherman, looking less like clean-cut and cheery would-be punks and more like country-boy rockers. (Zach keeps in his wallet one unsavory and nearly unrecognizable ID photo in which he sports shoulder-length curly locks).
Hooked on bands like the Ramones and the Descendants--which marked them as outcasts in the small town--the brothers began Hagfish several years ago almost as an escape. They would drive down to Dallas with their drummer , play their short, sharp songs, then drive home.
Reagan began his musical career a decade ago, when he was 16, attending Lewisville High School, and playing in a band called Aspirin Damage with Nick Brisco (who would later front Fever in the Funkhouse and now has Pluto) and Bryan Wakeland (now Tripping Daisy's drummer). "At that time," Reagan says, "Nick was a good as Bruce Springsteen, and he basically taught me the necessities and inspired me to make a song out of my brain and play it on a guitar. That was school for me, being with Nick and Bryan."
Reagan hooked up with the Blair brothers after Hagfish had gone through several lineup changes and still had no singer--a problem since the band was scheduled to open for All, members of which had once been in the heroic Descendants. Reagan stumbled across the band at their rented rehearsal space, complimented the then-drummer's All tattoo on his leg, and offered his talents as a singer and songwriter.
"He opened us up to a lot of shit," Doni says of Reagan. "We were really close-minded before, and the band took off after that." From there, the band went through one more drummer, Scott Carter, who was fired in late 1993 during the recording of the band's debut on Dragon Street, Buick Men. Barsotti, who had been in the glam-rock band Cool Christine, had become close friends with Zach and was brought in.
"George was skeptical at first about firing Scott," Zach says. "He said, 'All right, fuck it, you guys handle it.'"
"It was the way they wanted to throw him out of the band," Reagan explains.
"No, it was because we wanted to throw him out of the band," Zach says.
"Yeah, but it was without very much politeness: 'Get the fuck out,'" Reagan says, smiling.
Interviewing Hagfish is like stepping into a conversation that began long time ago. They have the sort of arguments that occur only between friends--they disagree but there is never dissension, they raise their voices but never shout at each other. The band agrees, for instance, on limiting the live show to less than an hour, but Zach and Tony disagree on the merits of an encore: Tony believes you should leave the crowd begging for more, Zach believes in giving them what they want.
Right now, the discussion involves what will likely become the national media's tendency to lump Hagfish in with bands like Green Day and the Offspring (assuming, of course, the national media concerns itself with Hagfish at all). It is a justifiable fear: when Green Day's Dookie became a surprise hit of 1994 for Warner Bros. Records, followed by the Offspring's success on a minor indie (Epitaph), locals complained how Hagfish had missed the boat; Buick Men, grumbled some, was at least as good as both the Green Day and Offspring albums--just as punk, just as pop, just as much fun.
To set things straight, perhaps, ...Rocks Your Lame Ass contains six songs from Buick Men (including the first single, "Stamp"). Retooled for a major-label album, they are bigger and better than their original counterparts, faster and cleaner, quicker to get in and out. No song on the album is longer than two-and-a-half minutes, with two ("Minit Maid" and "Crater") clocking in at less than 90 seconds and another ("White Food") at 52 seconds.
And each song is indeed a short contained burst--not the insane sound of suburban rage that fueled the Descendants' best music, but more like the quick surge of hormones (which the Descendants always seemed to feel guilty for). It's the sound of lust and disgust, love and hate, the first flush of attraction and that final moment of wrenching disdain. One minute Reagan's telling a girl she's his "Happiness"; the next, he's giving her the self-deprecating kiss-off ("I'm just like you/You're boring, too); the next, she's just an "irritating bitch" who's looking for attention and won't stop calling.
And in between, they're boys who want to eat "it" while they work, smooth-talking one woman ("You're so beautiful"..."I want to wash your dirty feet") even as they roll over and kiss another. The one "statement" song--"White Food," about a racist who doesn't dig "soul food"--seems almost the throwaway; it's short like an outburst, the words almost incomprehensible in the sprint toward the finish line.
If Hagfish is indeed perceived by the outside world--that is, the one outside the four-block area of Deep Ellum--as a mere knock-off of success stories like Green Day and Offspring, whose platinum-selling albums launched a laughable "punk rock revival," it is unfortunate. Where two years ago the band was pulling the cart, now they are open to accusation of having jumped on the bandwagon.
And so the four bandmates find themselves in the middle of an ongoing, overlapping dialogue in which they worry how--or if--to categorize themselves: Are we punk? Are we pop? And why do we care? And in their search to define themselves to the outside world, they also are struggling to define themselves to each other.
"Once [the album] gets released, it gets automatically categorized," Zach says, to his bandmates as much as his interviewer. "You're not just a rock and roll band anymore. You're a whatever, and that's why I use the [punk-pop] term because I know the MTV generation hears the hooks and the aggressive guitars and they go, 'Oh'..."
"We are a pop band," Barsotti interrupts.
"That's what we try to be," Zach insists.
"Everybody in this band loves punk, we love being cynical--we love all that stuff," Barsotti says. "We love AC/DC, we love Van Halen, we love all those bands that have nothing really to do with punk rock. But we also love punk rock..."
"If you listen to the Buzzcocks or the Ramones, you don't just listen to them for punk effect," Zach says. "You listen to them because you can sing along with the songs."
"The thing about bands like the Ramones that I love so much is just Joey Ramone's stardom," says Reagan, who sits up from his position on the floor to make his point. "It wasn't the music, really, it wasn't much of anything except seeing him and going, 'Fuck'..."
"It's like an animated thing," Barsotti offers.
"They were cartoon characters," Zach says.
"That was what got me to thinking about those bands," Reagan says. "That's probably the most punk aspect about our band--just that we appreciated everything about what [Joey] was."
"It's almost like people ask you what kind of music you make, and you just tell them, 'We're loud,'" Zach offers by way of final explanation. "We're just a loud band."
"I don't think it's an issue anymore," Reagan says, trying to cut short the discussion. "It's an issue with the music world, but it's not an issue with me."
"Even my saying 'pop-punk' and that whole fuckin' shit is because I'm categorizing bands like Green Day and Offspring because that's what Rolling Stone is calling it," Zach says.
"Our band's really not that good at talking about all this because we're always just joking around about it," Barsotti says. "But this one guy--what's his name? David something?--from Polygram said one thing. He was talkin' about Green Day and the Offspring, and he said...'There's not a punk thing happening. There's a song thing happening.' Green Day had a bunch of good songs and an album, and they looked like carbon-copy '77 rockers, and so everybody puts the identity with the sound and thinks that's what our band sounds like. The Circle Jerks say Green Day ripped them off. No way."
"I remember in the mid-'80s in barber shops there was this thing called the Punk Haircut," Zach says. "They would spike it up on top..."
"I was the first one at my high school to have one," interrupts Reagan, the only Hagfish member who has not shaved his head.
"...and that was the Punk Haircut," Zach continues. "Punk is a look. Green Day had that look, but they're not a punk band. It's just a stereotype."
"I can't speak for the band," says Doni. "I'm kind of anxious, kinda nervous, a little excited wonderin' if the album's gonna do good or if it's gonna flop--either way. But I'm not lookin' forward to the interviews and all the other bullshit and people thinkin' we're copyin' Green Day. I'm not anxious to have people talk shit at us and say, 'Y'all are just doin' this shit and copyin' them' because we were doin' this shit a year before it got popular--a long time before it got popular."
"I'm anxious to finally get a band out there like Hagfish that's more party-esque, more like a good-new kind of band," Barsotti says. "Even if Green Day..."
"Quit sayin' Green Day," Reagan says from his spot on the floor, rolling his eyes in disdain. "Jeeeeez."
"But, George, you got to," Zach insists.
"Let's do an interview about what we think about Green Day," Reagan says, his voice thick with sarcasm.
"OK," Barsotti suggests, "don't put Green Day anywhere in this article."
"Hagfish performs naked."
This is how one director begins his proposal for the video for Hagfish's "Stamp," which will be the first single off ...Rocks Your Lame Ass. The proposal lays on a table in the kitchen, stapled to another proposal that outlines a scenario in which the band would perform in a high school cafeteria during a food fight.
Both copies have been faxed to the band by management, and they must decide on a director and a proposal within the week, as they are closing in on the release date. The band members scoff at the first suggestion, dismissing it as a silly interpretation; these men might come off as dumb on stage--ogling females in the crowd, bouncing up and down like Super Balls, the silly side of punk--but they aren't stupid.
If Hagfish comes off as a "dumb and fun" band, as their label often characterizes the four, that's deceptive. Their presentation blurs the line between irony and homage: they wear suits not as a cute joke, but because it helps attract the ladies; they play short and fast only because they have no patience with filling the space that separates the beginning of a song from its end; they disguise their skill in these short, sturdily built songs. And they act off stage as they do on--more with a smile than a smirk, a wink instead of a leer.
During long stretches of the interview, they wander off into detailed descriptions of some of the "hot chicks" who come to a Hagfish show. Some women, they proudly exclaim, stand at the foot of the stage and flash their breasts; some just give knowing glances and wistful smiles. The four men are like X-rated Marx Brothers: Zach, for instance, likes to say he sometimes is forced to play his guitar horizontal to the ground because "my woody gets in the way."
"The coolest thing about playing shows is you don't realize who you actually are," Reagan says. "I don't know. It's like, I think I'm just George like I am at the house and I go play a show and stuff. Then I realize, 'I could do a lot of fuckin'.'"
"That's why we only play 45 minutes when we're headlining shows now," Zach explains. "We just want to get up there and get off"--in, of course, more ways than one.
But for all their crass boy-talk, they are passionate about their music and, actually, sweet to the point of sickening: Doni dotes on his wife, Zach is puppy-dog faithful to a girlfriend of only a few weeks, George has been seriously involved with the same woman on and off for years. And, with the exception of Reagan, they do not drink or smoke.
"I think a lot of people like us because a lot of bands get out there and go, 'Heeeey, we're fun,'" Doni says. "I'm not the biggest party-er as if you couldn't guess--I never was--but..."
"...but when blows come to blows, he can lose his fuckin' mind, too," chimes in his brother. "When it comes to gettin' naked and bein' a weird motherfucker and slappin' his balls in front of everybody, he's right there."
"All I'm sayin' is what we are on stage is what we are off stage," Doni says. "Zach is built for this fuckin' job because when he was a kid, he got in trouble all the fuckin' time for shootin' his mouth off. He was always a smartass. Everybody can tell we're not phonies, we're not fake."
Did they jump or were they pushed? For two weeks now, talk has circulated throughout town about the break-up of The Cartwrights--or apparent break-up, or time-off, or cooling-down period, or whatever they're calling it this week.
The local all-star band (yes, a more profound oxymoron you will never find) consisting of singing-songwriting trio Barry Kooda, Alan Wooley, and Donny Ray Ford busted up June 4 sometime during the Barley House "Barleypalooza" outdoor concert: Ford's Liberty Valance had performed earlier in the day, after which Ford and the band left to play a barbecue at Club Dada. Donny Ray was scheduled to return to the Barley House later that night to perform with the Cartwrights, but he never showed up. According to Kooda, Ford and drummer Richie Vasquez got into an unspecified but long-seething argument on June 3 at Naomi's; Ford said he would be willing to continue with the band, but only with a new drummer behind him. (Vasquez currently is playing in the Lone Star Trio offshoot The Collyers.)
"But I wasn't expecting any of that stuff," Kooda says. "I was at the lakehouse and came back Sunday for the Barley House thing, and there was a message on the phone from Donny. He said, 'Barry, if you want to play Sunday you can go ahead, but there ain't no more Cartwrights.'"
But the following day, June 5, Kooda, Ford, and guitarist Kim Herriage performed at Muddy Waters on Greenville--a standing Cartwrights gig--and billed themselves as the Do-Rights; Wooley and Vasquez were nowhere to be found. Three days later, at a birthday party for Mike Maddox, the owner of Big Iron Records, which released the Cartwrights' debut Ponderosa Fabuloso, Ford and Kooda were performing together and were later joined on stage by Wooley--though Wooley didn't sing.
Kooda, who still fronts Yeah!Yeah!Yeah!, says the Cartwrights actually broke up a month ago over "band differences--as usual," though the issues were quickly resolved. To complicate matters, the band's second album is in the can and awaiting release on Big Iron in the next two months; if it is released, Kooda says the band will do "whatever is necessary for Mike Maddox because he's a great guy."
Kooda says it's likely he and Ford and Herriage will continue to perform with each other; right now, they're using the name the Mutineers.
For those unable to attend The Nixons record-release party June 17 at the Bomb Factory (which also will include performances from Quickserv Johnny and Adam's Farm), Jeff "Chate" "Cottonmouth" Liles will host a release party of his own that night at the Gold Rush Cafe. Liles, a founding member of Decadent Dub Team way back when, will release his album of spoken-word musings--titled Cottonmouth, Texas--on Aden Holt's One Ton Records label in July, but copies of the disc are already available in a handful of local indie record stores around town.
Street Beat welcomes E-mail tips and comments at DalObserv@aol.com.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.