The 50-foot limestone angels trumpeting from the façade of Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth face a trio of venues hidden from the outside world. Hyena's Comedy Night Club is down a grand staircase on the right. There's a smaller stage next to it. And on the left is Queen City Music Hall, which opened earlier this year and is Fort Worth's biggest non-arena music venue. You could fit a couple hundred people on the sunken dance floor, and that's only a third of the available floor space. A few seating areas in the back are corralled off with thick metal handrails, which might give the place a rodeo feel if it weren't for the maroon carpet.
It's a little after 8 on a Friday night, and the first of four bands is on the stage, a Fort Worth singer with slick, desperate tunes straight out of the Top Gun playbook. He finishes his set and the crowd applauds politely, but then, from down on the dance floor, someone yells, oddly, "Do a cheer!" The singer, a thin guy with linen pants named Nathan Brown, relents and launches into a series of choreographed cheerleading routines, "Go, Fight, Win!" and that sort of thing, a grown man doing the claps and stiff-leg struts. He's got one about a pizza party, which slays. Everyone is laughing warmly and cheering now, no one louder than the guy who called for the cheers in the first place.
He's a big dude, more than 6 feet tall and meaty, but that doesn't explain the way he's swallowing his corner of the dance floor. People seem to get caught in his orbit. He's wearing a hat from a 1993 TCU sorority Spring Formal, when he was 11. He's 32 now, and he's got a bellow of a laugh, the same one as his dad. It starts -- revs up, really -- with a couple low HUHs and lands with a few deep HAs. He looks like the kind of guy who was either class clown or class president. Both, probably.
That's Jordan Richardson. Google him and you'll find a 2011 Drum Magazine feature and the Ben Harper Wikipedia page and a slew of YouTube videos where he's playing drums for Ringo Starr and John Paul Jones, on PBS specials and late-night talk shows. He's been playing drums pretty much every day since before he could walk.
Richardson will play second tonight, after Brown, with his band Son of Stan. He'll play songs he wrote as he traveled the world and recorded in the middle of night by a Los Angeles pool. They're about car wrecks and heartbreak and shootouts in shopping malls. But the melodies are so indelible they'll have people humming on their way out to their cars.
Some of those people, the ones orbiting near him now, absorbing his HUHs and HAs, have likely seen those YouTube clips, are aware of his history of going hit-for-hit with Ringo. But when Richardson takes the stage tonight, they won't see him touch a drum stick or sit on a throne, and that's the way he prefers it.
Richardson grew up in Crowley, a little railroad town 20 minutes south of Fort Worth, at a time when the interstate didn't come this direction and you had to take Farm to Market Road 1187. There's a quiet downtown and plenty of open space where the 12,000 residents keep horses and hay bales and expansive parking lots. One of the biggest items on the social calendar is the Crowley High School homecoming parade, which Jordan's mother, Georgia Richardson, ran during her 30-year tenure as a teacher in the district.
His father, Stan, is a car salesman, but more importantly he's a drummer. If Jordan didn't inherit his dad's rhythm before he was born -- Georgia says he "ticked" in the womb -- he certainly did soon afterward, when Dad would tuck Jordan into bed, put a pillow between them and pat out beats. By age 3 Jordan would mirror his motions, and by the time he was 5 he was taking the lead, inventing patterns his father could barely follow. "He would come home and drum from the time school was out until it was time for dinner or time for bed," Natalie says. "But it was never noise. He was one of those child prodigies."
At 7 Richardson could recite the entire Wizard of Oz movie. He soon moved onto the U2 documentary Rattle and Hum, marking a drum set in the carpet with his sticks and miming Larry Mullen Jr.'s every stroke. By then he'd decided he wanted to go pro.
"How will I know that I'm a famous rock star, mom?" he asked.
"Because you'll be on David Letterman," she replied.
Richardson inherited his dad's old kit, and by 9 he was hammering it loudly enough that the neighbors started asking about it. His parents decided to move to south of downtown, where the nearest house would be out of earshot. By middle school he was playing in a band called Random Plaid that played Steely Dan covers and cleaned up at regional competitions. His first original band was a ska group called The-Immigrants. They had a regular gig playing at home games of Fort Worth's now-defunct semi-pro hockey team, the Brahmas, where they played for concessions and cheers.
In high school, Richardson was so sure of his desired career path that one of his math teachers pulled Georgia aside to tell her, gravely, that her son wanted to be a musician. "I know," she said.
One day Jordan bought some jazz records and told his dad he wanted to learn how to play. He particularly admired Peter Erskine, a jazz drummer whose studio work includes records by Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell and Weather Report. Jordan loved the way Erskine played the cymbals.
Crowley High didn't have a jazz band, but Richardson and a few of his friends borrowed rehearsal space and played anyway. Crowley history teacher Kay Stano heard him play, and went home to her husband, Curt Wilson, who was the director of Jazz Studies at Texas Christian University.
"There's this great drummer at Crowley High School you need to hear," she said.
"Whatever you say," he replied. He'd spent decades recruiting jazz musicians across the state and country, and Crowley wasn't known for producing many. He brought the kid in anyway, unsure of what to expect.
"When he auditioned, Jordan knocked me out," Wilson says.
Richardson didn't study music at TCU, majoring instead in TV and Film Studies and playing in the jazz band as an elective. But by his sophomore year he was the lead drummer in the program's top band. He held the role for three years, recording a couple CDs and playing festivals from Budapest to Honolulu.
Wilson estimates he's taught somewhere in the vicinity of 5,000 musicians, and Jordan was among the 50 best. "After every performance, two or three people would come up to me and say, 'My God, what a drummer.'"
Partly that was Richardson's ability -- his cleanliness and feel for the song, the confidence of his grooves. But when you're watching a band, the thing that stands out the most clearly is not the notes and rhythms but the physical bearing of the person playing them. People noticed Richardson because of his smile, his bob, his vibe.
"I've never seen a kid love to play drums as much as Jordan. And that was infectious. When Jordan was in the band it was just a happy band," Wilson says. "Over 42 years of teaching, if I have to give the Most Enthusiastic award to any musician, I'd give it to Jordan Richardson."
Not long after graduation, Richardson moved to Austin and helped start the band Oliver Future. His sister, Natalie, was living in Los Angeles, and she gave her brother's music to anyone she thought would listen. One of those people worked for a management company, which was sufficiently impressed that it decided to sign the band to what turned into a five-year management deal. The relationship persuaded Jordan and his bandmates to move to L.A., where they were promptly introduced to what he calls "pay-to-play, Hollywood sleaze." But they settled in, finding the right clubs and the right crowds, getting better all the time.
His propensity for getting involved in as much as possible has probably cost him opportunities in life, but it's afforded him at least as many. While playing with Oliver Future, he maintained close ties with Texas, playing in bands in Austin and Fort Worth. When one of his Austin colleagues, a guitarist named Jason Mozersky, went to L.A. to play a studio session with Ben Harper, Mozersky brought along Jordan and Oliver Future bassist Jesse Ingalls. The session went so well that Harper scrapped one of the tracks from Both Sides of the Gun to make way for some of that day's work, which became the song "Serve Your Soul."
After the session, they parted ways, and Richardson didn't particularly think of it as a defining moment in his career. Oliver Future continued to find a foothold. In January 2006, producer Adam Lasus saw the band play at the Viper Room. He'd moved to L.A. not long before that from Brooklyn, where his credits include records by indie heavyweights like Yo La Tengo and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Lasus moved west to raise a family, but he was having a hard time settling into the music scene. Oliver Future changed that.
"They were amazing. They were fucking fantastic," Lasus says. "And I hadn't seen any good bands in L.A. yet. I was getting nervous." Oliver Future recorded their debut album, Pax Futura, with Lasus. It came out in 2007 to encouraging reviews and NPR mentions. Jordan moved into a home studio in East L.A. Its previous tenants included Danger Mouse, who recorded St. Elsewhere there.
And he might still be in that house today, picking up work as a producer and studio drummer, playing with Oliver Future or another young independent band. But in 2008, four years since they'd last spoken, Ben Harper called Richardson to tell him he was starting a new group and looking for a drummer.
The band became Relentless7, with Harper fronting, Mozersky on guitar, Inglass on bass and Richardson on drums. In the next four years, they toured six continents and recorded two studio albums. On February 2, 2010, Relentless7 made their first appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. Jordan brought Natalie to the taping. She sat in the green room, thinking back to all those countless hours she spent listening to her brother play drums through the wall that separated their bedrooms, and she cried.
The next year, they headlined Montrose Jazz Festival, 10 years to the day after Richardson played an opening slot at the same festival with the TCU jazz band.
In addition to his drumming duties, Richardson sang backup for Harper. "It was like working out with a heavyweight boxer," he says. With the exception of a couple mandatory studio lessons at TCU, Richardson has to this day never taken a lesson on any instrument, but playing with Harper was the equivalent of earning an Ivy League doctorate in performance and music business. One of the most critical things he learned from him was the value of immediacy. Most of the recording sessions were done in just a few takes. "The biggest lesson I learned from [Harper], from a production standpoint and a music standpoint, is to follow your gut," he says.
Ringo Starr saw Relentless7 performing in a clip on YouTube, and in April 2009, the most famous drummer in rock 'n' roll history invited the band to play at Radio City Music Hall. There is Richardson, sitting on his drum throne on a riser, smiling easily over at Starr, who is sitting at a kit right next to his. They're going riff for riff while Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder sings lead and Harper plays a slide guitar solo. The camera pans out to show people literally jumping out of their seats, cheering.
"I saw him looking over and asked if he was doing that to keep time," Stan says. "No, I know all the parts, no problem," his son responded. "I just couldn't believe I was playing with Ringo. I didn't want to miss anything."
Relentless7 spent another two months playing with Starr. Before his time playing with Harper was over, Richardson had played Led Zeppelin songs with John Paul Jones. He'd flown around Australia in Pink Floyd's private jet, talking about music with an idol in that band's drummer Nick Mason. And at night they shared a stage.
But gradually, some three years into his time playing with Relentless7, Richardson started to feel the groove turn into a rut. He still can't place the turn or describe what caused it, but he started to wake up feeling anxious. "I was feeling more bad than good about playing drums," he says, "the thing that brought me the most satisfaction in life."
Richardson's final show with Ben Harper was on August 25, 2012, at the Ride Festival in Telluride, Colorado. It rained in the afternoon, but the skies had cleared by the band's headlining set. By that point they were billed simply as Ben Harper. Richardson felt the bliss he always has on stage that night. "I always held a profound sense of joy and pride," he says, and even up to the end, "a total connection with the guys in the band that I was playing with." It would be easy to stay where he was, especially given the scarcity of stable jobs in the field of "member of rock 'n' roll band." On that cool night in Colorado, he could see ahead to more late night TV appearances, more months on the road, more long hours rehearsing songs he mostly didn't write.
There was this feeling, this stagnation. You don't get into this line of work in the first place if you're looking for stability. And those songs he'd been recording back in L.A. with his old friend Adam Lasus -- they sounded pretty good. Maybe there was something there worth making some sacrifices for. But these were just inklings. He didn't know for sure that this show would be the last. Neither did Harper. They just played, like they had countless times before. They covered Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City," and the stage lights flooded the pine forest beside them. The wet hippies on the field were exultant.
It's the second weekend of August in Dallas, and it feels like the third circle of hell, assuming that's the circle with cold beer and weird art on the walls. Richardson is in high spirits at the Dallas Contemporary's Design District Market, glistening with a little more sweat than most people. He just finished playing drums for his friend Ronnie Heart, a diminutive Fort Worth frontman with good moves and better guitar riffs. There wasn't much of a crowd right up by the outdoor P.A. People were browsing the crafts inside or taking a dip in the Dumpster pool 50 feet out into the parking lot. But Richardson looks content, free of the burdens (and the paycheck) of big-market entertainment, released of the obligations of someone else's sheet music. Drumming is a hobby again, an afternoon playing with his friends.
By the time he got back to L.A. from the Ride Festival in Telluride, he was halfway done recording what would become Divorce Pop, the debut album of his new band, Son of Stan. Whenever he had the time and energy, he'd leave the day's work drumming with Ben Harper and drive across town to Lasus' home studio in what used to be a pool house. He and Richardson would stay up through the night, experimenting with strange sounds and chasing the hallucinatory convictions unique to the tiny hours of the morning.
Richardson had been writing the songs for some time. He'd sat in Corsica, Italy, on tour with Harper, thinking about home, about the past, about his mom's old Cutlass nicknamed Manilla Marge. The language of music had always been his strongest method of communication. So he sat in his hotel room, describing the confusion he was feeling with guitar chords and metaphors about the trips he used to take as a kid to shopping malls. Eight-year-old Jordan, like most suburban boys, felt somewhat imprisoned by those trips. Inside Show Off Fashions, he gathered plastic shirt hooks, which he called saxophones, and escaped under the round clothing racks. He held the saxophones to his mouth and played songs he'd invented or that he had memorized from the heavy rotation of Fort Worth's pop and oldies stations, hits by Phil Collins and Gene Pitney and the Thompson Twins.
When Natalie thinks back to her childhood, two things stand out the clearest: "There was always music," she says, "and we were always going somewhere."
On these shopping trips, Georgia would bargain with her young son: If they spent an hour at a place she wanted to go, they could stop somewhere for him. On one such visit to Montgomery Ward, Jordan saw a GI Joe maze. It cost an insane amount, $75 or "something unprecedented," says Jordan, so of course he didn't get it. He was inconsolable for reasons he didn't understand.
His sister's cheerleading camps bored him until he was about 10, when the revelation hit him that he was watching 100 17-year-old girls dancing to pop music. "It was just cool," he says. "The cool music of the time, the cool dancing of the time."
You can hear the sexual uncertainty and strip-mall malaise and the sounds of '80s pop radio on Divorce Pop. Lasus and Jordan used strange recording methods, plugging instruments directly into the mixer instead of using amplifiers, so they could only hear the music through their headphones. It was a sonic experiment that interested them both, born of the necessity of silence with Lasus' child and wife sleeping in the adjacent house. For the same reason, they didn't use a drum set, instead recording each snare and tom line individually, often using an electronic drum pad. The final album features no cymbals at all. It is languid and vibrant. Songs start imperceptibly and hum to life in sparkling keyboard lines and hypnotic guitars tuned strangely. His voice comes in, layered on top of itself, his tones a schizophrenic chorus of patience and agitation, brazen confidence and paranoia. The imagery is equally fantastic and mundane. The words came later, an impressionistic combination of specific autobiography and fictional emotion.
"In an Olds' 98/We were young/You were straight," he sings on lead single "Corsica." They released the song last year, midway through the recording sessions, in a sort of trial run. It's been picked up by radio stations as far away as London and Mexico City. Audiences in New York and Los Angeles and Fort Worth sing along to every word. "A buzz was starting to happen while we were making the record," Lasus says. "You could just tell. He was having so much more satisfaction and fun doing this."
Son of Stan is officially signed to WizardVision Records, a label Richardson helped his friend Steve Steward establish. Divorce Pop is its first formal release, though they've dabbled with a few Fort Worth bands before this. Steward describes the aesthetic of the label as "Conan The Librarian on UHF, weird malls and dying shopping centers." He's hoping to release a few albums from danceable electronic bands and also sign a metal band or two. "We listen to a lot of heavy music," he says. "But there are a lot of Hall & Oates fans in our circle."
For now, Son of Stan is Richardson's full-time job. He just finished a nationwide tour with Happy Hollows. His merch includes two T-shirts, one with a burrito running vertically up the ribcage and one with a blurry photo of someone dancing and three lines of text that read, "Son of Stan" then "#divorcepop" and finally "#girlsasses."
Jordan sells plenty of everything at Son of Stan shows. He mostly takes opening slots at this point, but he's rarely ignored. It's hard to mistake the quality of the songs and even harder to avoid the infectious joy of the man singing them.
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Nathan Brown finishes his cheerleading at Queen City Music Hall and takes his guitar off the stage. Son of Stan is next. Richardson ducks out of the conversation he's surrounded by and heads onstage to set up. There are two Son of Stan lineups -- in L.A., it's a two-piece, with his roommate Dan Marcellus on drums. Fort Worth's Son of Stan is typically four people: Jordan on guitar and vocals, Brian Garcia on drums, Ronnie Heart on guitar and Cliff Wright on bass. Tonight there's also a saxophone player. They set up quietly, and without much warning they kick into "Chip Away," Divorce Pop's most patient song, and feet start tapping all the way in the back of the Hall. Stan and Georgia are here. They almost never miss Jordan's North Texas shows. Stan takes a spot on the floor and sings along to most of the lines, even the dirty ones.
The crowd gets more and more attentive. This is not a fetal Fort Worth band at its debut, finding its voice. Nick Offer, frontman of the dance-punk band !!!, is standing near the soundboard, nodding approvingly. "We listened to the songs before the show," he says. "It sounded like Sonic Youth demos with a drum machine. It was cool." The music resonates the way you'd expect from an indie band cresting on buzz. The saxophone comes out on "Sadie" and the room practically pulsates. They close with "Corsica" and there's not a straight face anywhere.
Stan, Dad of Jordan, looks on approvingly, his hands folded together behind the small of his back. He's seen Jordan play thousands of shows; this, he'll say later, is the best ever. Better than the ska band at the hockey rink, better than the big band at TCU, better than the ones with Ringo Starr and Pink Floyd and all the rest because tonight, singing these bright songs about dark things, is when his son looked the happiest.