It's just before New Year's Eve, and Roger Morgan is packing up his home, along with boxes of singles and CDs, moving his Unclean Records label from Austin to San Antonio. As career moves go, it's hardly an obvious one, but Morgan has no problem leaving the town that calls itself "The Music Capital of the World"--a place with a burgeoning underground of fellow indie rock and roll labels such as Trance Syndicate, Rise, Sector 2, Austin Throwdown, and others--and relocating to a bigger city to the south with a far less active and focused new-music scene.
"It's so expensive to live and operate here [in Austin]," Morgan explains, "and our best hope for some kind of success is down there...Part of me thinks that we'll be more useful [in San Antonio]. At the point when we started up the label, there weren't that many labels in Austin. But now it seems like there's a lot of activity here--people coming up, forming their labels. That's cool, I like that. I like to think that I helped with that--a little bit of encouragement to go lose money and be insane--but I did warn all of them. I told 'em, 'Man, you're crazy for starting a label.'" Morgan laughs at the thought. "'You're gonna go through hell for a while.'"
Morgan's own optimism springs from two San Antonio groups on Unclean, Sons of Hercules and The Dropouts, both of whom have not only become honorary Austin acts with their frequent River City appearances, but so-called "buzz bands" on the national underground circuit. In addition, Carl Normal--the leader of Stretford, another Unclean act--has relocated to the Alamo City. But San Antonio is hardly the next Seattle, or the next anything: "The scene is really apathetic," Morgan shrugs.
Still, out of such adversity has come music with perhaps a bit more pluck than the starry-eyed slackerdom that infects Austin's underground. With their sharp Stooges-meets-Ramones-in-mom's-garage attack, the Sons of Hercules might well be the best straight-ahead, post-punk band in Texas, while their compatriots in The Dropouts have been developing a feisty and bluesy brand of street rock that marks them as a '90s version of The Yardbirds.
Sons of Hercules frontman Frank Pugliese thinks it's "amazing" Morgan would relocate from a music center to a city with a music scene just this side of comatose. "I don't understand it," Pugliese says, laughing. "[Roger] asked my opinion, and I told him he should stay put. That shows how much my opinion counts."
But for Morgan, what counts is the music Pugliese and his band play--which, oddly and perhaps appropriately enough, echoes the sounds the veteran punk-rocker Pugliese has made for 20 years with such San Antonio acts as The Vamps, The Mystery Dates, and The Morlocks. "I don't know why it's happening there," Morgan says of the "unpretentious" San Antonio sound his label touts. "It's a working-class thing. It's definitely a working-class town.
"All those bands have jobs," explains Morgan, who now also manages the Sons. "That's kind of a nice change. Up here [in Austin], a lot of the bands I hang out with are bums. They don't have any money. They're bumming money off of me. I go down there, and everybody buys me drinks."
But free drinks or even some measure of success aren't what ultimately motivates Morgan. Instead, it's the continuing ripples of the Spirit of '76--the punk-rock revolution and its do-it-yer-damned-self ethos. Growing up in Tulsa and hating it, Morgan was a music fan from his youth, thanks to the records his parents allowed him to own--and the ones they kept from him.
"The most influential point in my life is when I was about nine or 10, and they wouldn't let me have a Jimi Hendrix album," Morgan recalls. "So I immediately went out and bought it."
He found his road to Damascus when, in 1978, the Sex Pistols played Tulsa's Cain's Ballroom, once the home base of Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys. Not long after, he moved to Denver, Colorado, where he formed a band called The Lepers, and started Unclean as a vehicle to release Lepers records. He also recorded Denver's Dead Silence and Anti-Scunti Faction, and became something of a friend with ex-Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, who frequently visited the Mile High City to see his folks.
"Anytime I would stop putting out records," Morgan says, "Jello would call and bug me and say, 'What are you doing? You don't have anything else to do.'"
In the early '80s, Morgan moved back to Tulsa to take a well-paying job during the oil boom that helped support his habit of releasing vinyl records from anonymous bands. During his stint in Oklahoma, he released records by longtime Tulsa punk pioneers N.O.T.A. (or "None of The Above") on Unclean. Then the bottom dropped out of the oil business, Morgan landed on unemployment, and, once more, he felt compelled to escape Tulsa.
During a trip with N.O.T.A. to Austin, Morgan became enthralled with the town's thriving scene, but when he finally moved to the Capitol City in 1986, he found the very scene of which he had become enamored had "died"--old clubs had closed and the good bands had broken up or signed to major labels or both. "I arrived and didn't find any bands," he explains.
Morgan put Unclean on hold and went to work as a buyer for Sound Exchange, the record store on "The Drag" across from the University of Texas campus. Perhaps not by coincidence, the store would eventually become the locus for Austin's next underground, and by 1991, Morgan's fellow Sound Exchange buyer Craig Koon had started Rise Records with poster artist Frank Kozik.
"I'd already made records, so I was jealous as hell," Morgan recalls. He jumped in with a single by The Flying Saucers, a neo-psychedelic band that came to include former Reiver Cindy Toth on bass and ex-Poi Dog Pondering guitarist Adam Sultan. Then another Sound Exchange buyer, Christian Caperton, "got the bug" and started Undone Records, says Morgan. Very quickly, a new and growing Austin underground had its own very crowded singles rack.
Since 1992, Morgan has released 15 seven-inch vinyl singles by such acts as The Inhalants, Cherubs, Crown Roast, Thomas Anderson, Blind Willie's Johnson, and Fuckemos; there have also been occasional CDs, including last year's compilation, The Beginning of the End Again.
"Seven-inch records are great [because] they're so much fun to make," he enthuses. "But there's no profit in them at all. You're lucky if you make your money back. They're like a business card."
A compact-disc EP by the now-defunct Saucers helped the band win a Warner Bros. demo deal, but Morgan's epiphany came when he saw one of the first Austin gigs by the Sons of Hercules, fronted by Pugliese.
"I was just blown away," Morgan says. "I went home to my wife and said, 'This is it. This is the band.'" After years of releases that went nowhere, Pugliese was similarly encouraged by Morgan's enthusiasm: "He gets the records out there. From other bands I was in, I have closets full of 45s. We had no distribution, no one helping."
The Beginning of the End Again documents Unclean's Austin years, revealing a more open-ended approach than the paint-by-number punk revivalism of Green Day and The Offspring. The bands recall a time when Texas was populated with so many unknown garage bands that went nowhere despite their talent and yet still live in a certain forgotten infamy--groups like the Esquires, the Mystics, Mouse and the Traps, the Exotics, and the Headstones. They were the first generation of Texas punks, issuing their 45s on tiny indie labels that became obscure even before they went to press.
Unclean, for better or worse, inherits the legacy of labels like Glenvalley, Fraternity, Gina, and Polly; but if nothing else, Morgan struggles against that legacy like any good punk-rocker. He has secured a European distribution deal and plans to release new albums from the Sons (Hits For The Misses), N.O.T.A. (Give 'Em Enough Dope, a parody of the second Clash album), The Dropouts, and rock critic Tim Stegall's band The Hormones.
"I wanna experiment," Morgan says. "I don't always want to do the sure thing. I want to do bands that are real ahead of their time, that I know won't make money for a couple of years. Somebody's gotta do it; somebody's gotta make those records. I grew up on the hardcore punk thing, where you hate 'The Man.' Anyone who has a little money is 'The Man.'
"I've even had a couple of scrapes with some punk kids who now view me that way. I'd crank all these records out, and all of a sudden it turned on me."
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Perhaps Unclean's move to San Antonio, predicated by Morgan's greater involvement in the careers of the Sons and The Dropouts, might also bring something to a city whose nascent, scattered scene needs a jump-start. Meanwhile, a couple of the Sons have opened their own music club, The Green Onion, located in the city's reviving downtown near the Riverwalk.
Pugliese laughs at the idea that after 20 years in this business called music, he has finally begun to follow a trend: "Some of my songs are from 1975, and now it's all fresh and new," he chuckles. "I'm just doing what I did then.
"I think the Sons of Hercules guys are onto something that's more of a rock and roll thing and not a faddish thing, like hardcore punk or disco," Morgan says of the band on which he's pinning so much of his hopes. "This is something that's going to last. I can still listen to Raw Power by Iggy Pop, and I think these guys are gonna be that way, I really do. I really hope."
Sons of Hercules perform January 12 at the Orbit Room. The Mullens and Grinnell open.