George Reagan has been a musician for almost half his life, starting in 1985, when he was a 16-year-old Lewisville High School student playing with ex-Fever in the Funkhouse singer-guitarist Nick Brisco and former Tripping Daisy drummer Bryan Wakeland in a band called Aspirin Damage. He's been in bands ever since--many of them all too forgettable--from Scam, which did little beyond appearing on the Dude, You Rock! local-music compilation in 1990, to The Bratz, which did even less, notable only because it also included Darlington drummer Steve Visneau. Throughout much of this decade, Reagan has been Hagfish's dapper frontman, managing to look so grown-up singing songs that, well, never really grew up. It's the resume of a much younger man, and now that Reagan really has grown up, he's ready to move on. He just doesn't know if anyone will let him.
"I realize that everyone I know has a fucking Mohawk deep down inside. They look at me like I'm crazy. I don't know who to give this shit to, so it's just been sitting there," Reagan says, referring to the album released in July by his new band, Tele. "I don't know R.E.M.'s manager. I think punk-rock connections are going to be the end of my career."
For the last few years, Reagan has felt trapped, confined by Hagfish's punk-pop riffs, limited by what he thought Dallas audiences would accept. He looked at bands like Tripping Daisy and saw the freedom he desperately wanted, so he fiddled with the formula, tried to add two and two together in order to get five. After Hagfish's second album, 1995's ...Rocks Your Lame Ass, Reagan began trying to incorporate his newfound love for such groups as Radiohead and The Verve into the band's rigid descendants-of-the-Descendents design, attempting to meet his bandmates halfway between what he wanted and what they needed.
But he never could make it work; punk rock isn't for those who like to order off the menu. Reagan now calls those failed experiments "just wrong...a huge clash of concepts, like if Pink Floyd tried to play Wham! or whoever." It didn't stop Reagan from wanting to write different kinds of songs; he just gave up trying to force his new musical influences on Hagfish. In fact, lately he's beginning to wonder if he wants to write any songs for Hagfish. He's a 30-year-old man now with a wife and two young children, looking back on his punk-rock past and questioning whether it should be a part of his future, or even his present.
"Today, there was somebody at my work, and they said, 'Hey, man, you can't be the same George Reagan that was in Hagfish,'" Reagan says. "I was like, 'Yeah.' And then I realized they were like 14 when Hagfish put their first record out. I think that was like a year ago or something, but that was a long time ago. All those kids...they're not kids [anymore]. They're full adults now. It's weird. It made me think about what I was doing with my music, and am I getting the point across? I don't think I have been."
Getting his point across is why Reagan embarked on Tele, a low-key adventure in hi-fi with a few longtime friends, a band as diverse as Hagfish was consistent. Tele's music gently bounds from trip-pop melodies to effects-laden acoustic gems, songs that are as out there as they are in here. Last July, Tele quietly released its self-titled debut on Womb Tunes Records--the same label that put out Mazinga Phaser's first album, Cruising in the Neon Glories of the New American Night--selling a little more than 200 copies so far, a respectable number for a project that has had so little publicity. As the band works on a follow-up to be issued later this summer, Reagan isn't sure that people will get the point he's trying to make with Tele, but he's happier with his attempt.
"I know it'll probably piss off a lot of people," Reagan admits. "I mean, the last Hagfish record [1998's Hagfish], I was trying to put some heart and soul into it, as far as expanding, saying what I really mean, not what I wanted to do. I think people in the band got frustrated with it. Like, you know, 'He's kind of pussying out on me,' or whatever. I really want to say a lot, and it's hard to do that with three chords. If people don't like it, that's cool, because it's really kind of personal art."
As much as Tele is a personal leap for Reagan, it's not really his band--or not only his band, at least. He doesn't even sing that much (only one song, "Glitter"), leaving it up to Meikle Gardner, who formed Tele two years ago with guitarist David Trammell, several months before they recruited Reagan. Actually, Tele is more Gardner's band, springing from four-track recordings he's been making at home for the last several years. Even after Trammell and Reagan joined, it was a hobby more than anything else, existing mainly in their garages and bedrooms, occasionally spilling over into Reagan's brother-in-law's home studio in Garland when inspiration hit. Now, Tele is ready to fully reveal itself to the public, begin the process of moving from the garage to the stage. And if people come to see Tele or buy their record because they are fans of Hagfish and know Reagan is a member, that's fine by Gardner, Trammell, and recently added guitarist Jonathan Price. After all, every little bit helps.
"We are banking on the name recognition of George Reagan, and there is no problem with anybody about that, George included," Gardner confesses. "I think George is a little more apprehensive about wanting us to get some of the recognition, because we really started the band, but that's just George being a nice guy. We're in this together. There may be some people that are disappointed because it doesn't sound like Hagfish, but I think that people are going to buy [the album] and say, 'Wow, there's a whole other side to George Reagan than we knew.'"
Gardner has known about Reagan's other side for years, since they attended Lewisville High School together in the '80s, where Gardner was an "annoying, asshole jock," according to Reagan. Still, a friendship was sparked there that has grown stronger through the years, weathering Reagan's brief stint in Louisiana after high school and Gardner's move to Memphis for a few years to pursue a master's degree in fine art. They've been together through it all, including Reagan's marriage to Gardner's ex-girlfriend. When Gardner began dabbling in music, Reagan was one of the first people he let hear his songs, the ones he picked away at after teaching himself to play guitar. It's not a stretch to say that Tele began when Gardner gave Reagan that tape of his four-track recordings. It just took a few years to get going.
"He couldn't play [guitar], and he couldn't sing the first time I heard him, but, man, the songs were so good," Reagan remembers. "I said, 'Someday, we're gonna have a band.' And I just now made the time."
Reagan had just joined Hagfish when he heard Gardner's first forays into music, but he always kept alive the idea of forming a band with Gardner when the time was right. Eventually, he gave a copy of Gardner's tapes to Trammell, a guitarist he had met when Trammell's band, Ping, opened up for Hagfish at Rick's Place in Denton. Trammell had also been fooling around with some home recordings, little keyboard symphonies, and Reagan suggested that the two work together. Since Gardner was still in Memphis at the time, they began a long-distance collaboration, trading tapes without ever having met face to face. By the time Gardner returned from Memphis, they had already hammered out a few songs, and Tele was officially born. Along with Reagan, they've been getting together a few times every week since that initial flurry of activity, tinkering with each other's ideas, recording when it feels right, amassing more than 500 songs between them.
At some point, the band's self-titled debut emerged, seemingly accidentally, from the dozens of tracks they recorded. The band didn't really know what it was going to do with what it had; it was just a group of friends making music they liked, playing their songs for only themselves to hear. J. Bone Cro, owner of Bonedaddy's record store in Plano as well as Womb Tunes Records, heard some of the songs that were coming out of those sessions and was amazed; he immediately decided to release it himself. It's no surprise that Cro would offer his services to Tele. He and Gardner and Reagan had spent their 20s together, learning from their mistakes and making new ones. They were a unit back then, one mind with three bodies, so it made sense that their relationship would continue after they had figured it out.
"When we got together it was like the Three Amigos," Cro says. "We partied a lot. That was our formative years. All we did was write music and create artwork. It was kind of like a power surge. Over the years, we've almost done everything together, kind of like a family. George is married and has kids, and Meikle moved off to Memphis and he moved back here. It's kind of like we're all back together again."
They may be back together, but Cro won't be releasing the band's forthcoming disc. Tele will release its as-yet-untitled second album on its own ETI Records. As appreciative as they are of Cro's help, the members of the band are finally taking themselves seriously, and they're ready to start doing things on their own. They want Tele to exist in every bedroom, not just their own anymore. To that end, they've cut a four-song EP for radio airplay--with drummer Michael Jerome sitting in--that's been played a few times on Josh Venable's Sunday-night show on KDGE-FM (94.5), The Adventure Club.
They're ready to start playing live as well, adding extra members to the lineup (possibly including Hagfish drummer Tony Barsotti) so they can pull off the songs onstage as well as they did in the studio. Though the band has played only once before, opening for Tripping Daisy at Rick's Place last Halloween, the experience went so well they can't wait to do it again.
"Probably only 30 people in there had ever heard of Tele at that point, but they sure got a good dose of it. And no one left," Gardner says, with so much pride you can actually hear him beaming. "I figured there would be about 15 or 20 drunk people out there, and most of them would be our friends. When we got through, we were all just kind of looking at each other in a daze."
As Tele becomes more of his main focus, Reagan is torn between his commitment to Hagfish and the independence Tele allows him. He wants to stay at home and play with his kids and make music that means something to him. Talking to him, you get the feeling it would be a surprise if Hagfish makes another album, at least with Reagan at the helm. But you never know.
"[Guitarist] Zach [Blair] called me up the other day and said he wanted to do a new record. We have the option to do that if we want, and I've got the songs," Reagan says, hesitating as though he's still weighing options. When he continues, it sounds like he's made up his mind.
"I'm interested in it. It's Hagfish. It's been my blood, sweat, and tears for I don't know how many years. It's still in my heart and everything, but I really, really like doing what I'm doing now. I've got a lot more freedom. I want to make music that makes people think a little bit more, not just kind of stoop to it or whatever. Listening to Josh from The Edge, listening to his show, I hear bands and go, 'Man, fuck! These bands are so great, and nobody's listening to them.' I want to be able to do that too. Not be unlistened-to, but do whatever I want. I want to be unlimited."
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Send Street Beat your sock monkeys to rwilonsky@dallas observer.com.