Welcome to Hell's Lobby

Although he doesn't claim to know everything about the Denton music scene, Wanz Dover likes to say he's trying.

Clad in a well-worn My Bloody Valentine shirt and dark jeans, the tousle-haired leader of newly formed band Mazinga Phaser talks eagerly about the Denton underground and its emerging space-rock trend. According to him, it's the "fastest rising scene around here," built around a core of bands that includes MK Ultra, Comet, Thorazine Dreams, and, of course, Mazinga Phaser--all relatively young groups tinkering with psychedelia and experimental sounds, making music that's dense and dreamy all at once. Then Dover speaks the praises of two more not-so-familiar names: Sure Toss, a likable punk-pop trio, and the Oddfellows, Denton's lone surf-rock act.

Talk to anyone in Denton's flourishing extended punk-rock family, and sooner or later they will mention Wanz Dover. What they say about him--that no one knows what's going on in Denton better than he, that no one supports and encourages the up-and-coming bands better than he--indicates that Dover is their community's most militant booster. The young bands voice their thanks to a friend who has given them a much-needed stage at the venue he books, the Kharma Cafe. Scene veterans who haven't been keeping up defer to Dover, aware of what he is trying to do.

A native of Wichita Falls, Dover moved to Denton a little more than two years ago at the invitation of punk-rockers Brutal Juice and Caulk after his old band, Bush Hog, had shared a couple of dates with the hardcore heroes. Unlike so many of the musicians who attend the University of North Texas as they pursue musical projects, Dover relocated solely to become part of a scene of which he was enamored.

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"I'm here for no other reason," Dover explains. "This is pretty much what I do full-time."

Dover is currently unemployed, scraping by on food stamps and occasional proceeds from the door at Kharma shows and living with any friend who's got a space where he can crash. As such, it's difficult to locate Dover on any given day. Yet the living conditions aren't enough to persuade him to leave Denton and check out another stop on the indie touring circuit. While he admits he has mulled over that thought and claims most bands would leave if only offered the occasion to do so, Dover remains for the same reason he came to Denton in the first place--the vibrant scene's tight-knit nature.

"I have four reasons for staying," he says. "First reason--MK Ultra. Second reason--Comet. Third reason--Thorazine Dreams. And the fourth reason is, as far as bands go, there is a camaraderie. It's not so much our band against the world. It's our bands against everybody else. That's a camaraderie you don't find in many scenes. It's one that I'm not going to give up on easily."

Not long ago, Denton was known musically merely as home to a famed jazz program, a handful of funk bands, a lone concert venue, and, forever and always, Brave Combo. It was regarded as Dallas' bastard stepchild, just another place to be from until you could land a show somewhere else.

But over the past few years, an underground has slowly begun bubbling toward the surface, and from it, an honest-to-God scene has begun to take root. It's one that embraces the warhorses and the newcomers, an environment that fosters eclecticism whether it comes bearing an accordion, a harmonium, or an electric guitar.

Those who live and perform there like to refer to their hometown as "laid-back" and "open." To what? Everything. Denton, with its population of fewer than 70,000, is the sort of town in which polka enthusiasts and punk rockers comfortably co-exist for the same reasons; the sort of town in which bands are content, if not downright happy at times, to perform in relative obscurity, not necessarily burdened by the need to make it in, say, Dallas.

Even if you had directions and a compass, it would be easy to overlook Denton's thriving music scene. It exists in a part of town that's a street-width away from the University of North Texas campus, on a concentrated single block of Fry Street. It's the natural gathering place for the college's disillusioned and starry-eyed, famous around the area for the annual street fair-cum-daylong concert that packs thousands within its tiny confines.

Fry Street is also home to the only two rock and roll clubs in town--the Kharma Cafe and Rick's Place. Both places unassumingly blend in with the street's storefronts, as do the anonymous performers who fade in with the other participants in the laid-back crowd.

Look closer and the scene reveals itself on the most basic grassroots level. Flyers paper the Fry Street landscape, from shop windows to a streetside bulletin board to giant electrical boxes. An announcement for a Rick's Place show featuring Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks and Dooms U.K. is pinned next to one for Dallas' Apartment 213 (which has since become Transoma Five) over at the Kharma that same night. Below them are flyers for two Slobberbone shows that weekend--one of which will take place at a Mr. Gatti's pizzeria, the other at someone's house.  

It's Denton's musical diversity in microcosm, a symbol of how musical styles as different as Little Jack's neo-cabaret and the Dooms' oddball noise and Slobberbone's downhome country-punk all have a place beside one another in the musical community. The handbills are like Cliff's Notes for the recent history of Denton music, there being no better example than the notice publicizing a record release party by mainstays Brave Combo. That band, part of this town's music community for more than 15 years, traces the continuum of the scene past, present, and future.

And behind those sheets of paper is a network of individuals and groups connected to one another--sometimes tenuously, more often quite strongly. The camaraderie at which Dover marvels has been one of Denton's great constants, perhaps the one defining characteristic of this scene; after all, Denton musicians will say, their town is known for its back-slapping, whereas Dallas' music "scene" is infamous for its back-stabbing. And the Fry Street Fair annually brings together scores of bands from all genres--from the old-time funk of Pops Carter to the noise-core of Caulk--to perform in front of thousands of people from all over the area, always for the sake of charity. And it's no small feat, given how the city fathers (and mothers) have long threatened to cancel the event, citing one specious reason after another.

Just a few years back, a close-knit community of punk bands came together in the den of the near-legendary Hell's Lobby--a ramshackle old house on the corner of Sycamore and Bernard, which has since been boarded up. (It was called Hell's Lobby because Denton's resident musicians considered their town the entranceway into Dallas--that is, Hell.) Before anyone on the outside knew who they were or gave them even a crappy gig, bands gathered there at all times of the day or night to perform--sometimes for parties, sometimes for a few friends, often just for the hell of it.

Among their ranks were bands who would later achieve modest recognition outside of Denton (including Brutal Juice, Baboon, and Caulk--the bands that make up the so-called "Fraternity of Noise"), and those who would either toil away unappreciated till later (Dooms U.K., Slobberbone, Love-swing, Thermus) or disappear altogether. They would fill the house with sounds as different as the riot-grrrlish screams of Wayward Girl, the laconic punk of Record Player, and the industrial crunch of the Sodom and Gomorrah Liberation Front. (These bands, and many others, would be captured for posterity on the terrific Welcome to Hell's Lobby compilation CD, released last year on the One Ton Label run by Caulk frontman Aden Holt.)

College-aged musicians mingled and experimented with one another in Hell's Lobby, joining the tiny crowds who came around to mingle and listen and jam and drink beer. Long after others caught on, they continued to flock there to perform together and appreciate what they were creating--music, atmosphere, maybe even a bona fide scene in the process.

"I know, and everybody else in this town should know, that if it wasn't for Brutal Juice, probably [none] of us would be doing what we're doing now," Dover says, stressing the importance of what was born and raised in that decrepit house.

But to really understand Denton and what makes it so special and unique, consider the parallels between Brutal Juice, which recently made its major-label debut on Interscope Records, and Denton's other renowned provocateurs, Brave Combo. Beyond the more than palpable respect each has for the other, they are joined by coincidence in history--as groups that went against the grain of the environment only to imbue it with an identity of their own. While Carl Finch's "nuclear-polka" outfit flew in the face of the pop music fads of the late '70s and early '80s, the hardcore Brutal Juice helped to phase out the funk-fueled thing led by the likes of Whitey and Goodfoot that dominated Denton music a decade later.

"It seems like there's a big variety of good bands from Denton," observes Brutal Juice bassist and scene stalwart Sam McCall. "That's the general deal. I have failed to see a lot of good original music coming out of Dallas. Or Austin. There's just a whole lot of bands [in Denton]. I don't know why. Just look at Brave Combo. They're thinking they might even win a Grammy this year, for God's sake."  

What ostensibly draws almost all of the aspiring musicians to Denton is the University of North Texas. In no small way, the university is responsible for fertilizing the ground for an active and interesting scene. After all, most recently it is the place from which members of New Bohemians and Tripping Daisy got their starts before the bigger D claimed them.

Only the tone-deaf could ignore UNT's hallowed College of Music, one of the nation's largest music schools and one of its best. Through the years, it has had an immeasurable effect in imbuing the town with an appreciation for music and in opening young minds toward exploration and acceptance. Many of the funk bands studied there, weaned in the school's world renowned jazz program. The area's most accomplished jazz drummer--Earl Harvin, who fronts his own bebop trio and quintet, leads the hardcore band rubberbullet, and is a member of both MC 900 Ft Jesus and Seal's touring bands--honed his craft in the same school. What's more, the College of Music claims to encourage the non-academic music community that neighbors it.

"Rock and roll is not a bastard child to us," says Will May, the associate dean of the College of Music. He also notes, with great pride, that Mark Griffin (aka MC 900 Ft Jesus) and recent Interscope Records signees Deep Blue Something are music school alumni.

And yet for all its reputation and significance, a large part of the Denton music community has little or nothing to do with the College of Music. Steve Carter (best known as Little Jack Melody) pursued a degree in composition there and gives the school credit for instilling the town with an interest in music; but at the same time, he points out that "a lot of the best ideas don't come from the school of music."

"You need not look further than Brave Combo," Carter continues by way of illustration. "I think [Carl Finch] might have taken some theory classes or something, but he never spent a whole lot of time in the school of music. A lot of people start out in the school of music and, for whatever reason, become disenchanted or 'disenlisted' and wind up doing more pragmatic things like English."

Sam McCall was one of the disenchanted. He originally entered UNT in 1986 with a focus on classical guitar and jazz, but found he "just really couldn't handle, like a lot of people at North Texas, the rigorous program," so he changed his major to computer science. Finally, when Brutal Juice started making headway and McCall's career as a producer began to pick up, he quit school altogether.

On a very practical level, Denton's music community--like those in Austin or Athens, Georgia, during the early 1980s--exists in large part because of the presence of a large university; it attracts young musicians because it is easy for them to attend classes during the day and gig at night. (For instance, Funland drummer Will Johnson recently moved to Denton to re-enroll in school.)

But McCall's experience underscores the difficulties of juggling both schoolwork and the band projects the student-musicians encounter. In some cases, there's also the necessity of holding down a job to keep the other two going, adding another time-consuming responsibility.

For Mike Throneberry, the drummer of two of Denton's brightest yet least known acts, Sure Toss and the Oddfellows, his music outweighs his other priorities. A one-time College of Music student, Throneberry quit because its technical training was getting in the way of his experimentation. Now a junior in the psychology department, he struggles to balance work in two bands and a grade point average.

"The bands usually happen to come first," Throneberry says. "I don't know if it should be that way. But I'm doing okay in school and I don't have to work extremely hard to stay abreast. So long as I get my schoolwork done. During exams and stuff, it sucks."

Denton musicians usually have two complaints about their city: It is too close to Dallas, and it is too far from Dallas. They grouse that the two cities have ties that often bind, yet just as often cut off the circulation--that is, bands often feel they must make it in Dallas to be considered successful. And so they either move south or simply quit in frustration, torn by the realization that while Denton may be a great place in which to create and experiment, it is not a market that can sustain itself without some help from the outside.

The reason for that is primarily a practical one: The town's two live-music venues are unable to accommodate the mass quantities of musicians, which leaves many bands, even those with strong followings, without a stage on which to play in their hometown. On one hand, the Kharma Cafe's puny 140 capacity is too small for an established band; on the other, Rick's Place can accommodate 700, but the club--booked by Dallas' 214 Entertainment--caters to a more mainstream crowd and takes fewer chances on fledgling acts, due to financial concerns and loyalty to longtime Rick's performers.  

Which means Denton's bands must either compete for the few slots at Rick's and the Kharma, or trek to Dallas or Fort Worth on a regular basis. And not being located in Dallas places out-of-town Denton bands at a disadvantage.

Often, Deep Ellum booking agents unfamiliar with out-of-towners saddle them with the middle-of-the-week gigs that attract tiny crowds. When the inevitable happens and nobody shows up for an act they've never heard of, the club is dissatisfied with the poor draw and the band becomes discouraged. What results is a vicious cycle in which club owners hesitate to book unknowns, and unknowns can't build decent followings, so they stay in Denton, backed into a corner.

As Gerard Young of hip-hop quintet Bassx puts it, "I've seen a lot of damn good bands go down in flames 'cause they don't leave the city border."

Topping out its audience at home but gaining little ground in Dallas, bands like the three-year-old Bassx are stuck between Denton and Dallas. In the case of the Observer Music Award-winning Bassx, the band can find good gigs once in a while but nothing on a regular basis that will allow it to establish and increase its Deep Ellum audience. So instead, Bassx is circumventing Dallas: The band's guitarist is in New York over the summer to seek out a record deal and make preparations for a forthcoming East Coast tour. While Young maintains that Denton will remain home base, he says his band won't be a Denton burn-out case.

Caulk frontman Aden Holt felt much the same way. After graduating from UNT with a degree in graphic design, Holt had few good work prospects in Denton and eventually landed a job in Dallas. He tried making the long haul to and from Dallas every day, but ended up commuting to Denton just for band practice while his bandmates were still working on their studies. Eventually, the rest of the band resettled in Dallas, and Holt began his One Ton Records label here.

"If you want to deliver pizzas and be in a rock band, yeah, you can live in Denton and not go to school," Holt says.

Slobberbone's lead singer and songwriter Brent Best has labored in obscurity for three years now, enduring a circuit that included countless free shows in Denton pizza joints and diners; the band performed in convenience store back rooms, in cramped corners, and behind pool tables and empty boxes, undergoing scores of personnel changes as Best honed his craft.

A few good notices in the Dallas press helped garner Slobberbone some local shows, including a standing Thursday night gig at Club Dada, but Best will shrug and say it's unfortunate that the band couldn't make its name in Denton first. He is one of those Denton musicians, like Brave Combo's Finch, who wishes Denton were more of its own town, less dependent upon Dallas for gigs and fans.

"Denton definitely has the pool of talent," Best says. "Maybe not even talent, but just enough people who really want to do it--make music and be in a band. But it's just sad that the town itself can't sustain those people without Dallas and Fort Worth involved. I don't know. I feel like if it was more isolated, with all that's going on and the people not leaving to go try to see it somewhere else, it would just be building on itself and be a lot bigger deal than it is."

Carl Finch figures history is on his side. When Brave Combo started out 16 years ago, he recalls, "there were four clubs rocking in the Fry Street area that had music almost every night of the week, and it was all different."

Brave Combo's history spans that of the Denton music scene, the lone offbeat holdover from a time when the town boasted only one other near-popular act called Schwantz Lefantz, a pop-fusion band that featured the future Little Jack Melody on bass. Back then, Brave Combo was considered a hip, kitschy in-joke--polka performed by rockers--but it has since evolved into Denton's longest running and most revered act, one that packs them in at home and in Europe and Japan to crowds familiar with its polkas and cha-chas. Finch draws parallels between his band's first days and the initial stages of the punk movement: With its anti-image, anti-pop music sentiment and its unheard-of sound, Brave Combo was, for all purposes, Denton's first punk band.  

"It was our intent to be influenced by things that were not fashionable," Finch says. "Part of it wasn't that we were just going after a hook. We really loved the music. It just wasn't cool. It was definitely not cool at all. Nobody was doing it. Really, the closest thing we could find in attitude and in the way to approach it were the punk musicians."

Since its inception, Brave Combo has become an institution: Finch has produced a number of Texas musicians, from Sara Hickman to conjunto legend Santiago Jimenez Jr., and has released his colleagues' records on his own Four Dots label. Longtime friend Steve Carter tells how Finch helped him out as he was launching Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks a few years ago, often by writing letters of recommendation on his behalf to club owners and booking agents; Four Dots also released Little Jack's 1991 debut, On the Blank Generation, in addition to Hickman's Equal Scary People and Josh Alan's Famous and Poor.

Now, Finch and Brave Combo have created their own Dentone label, primarily as a vehicle for more diverse projects by the band, including last year's Hokey Pokey EP. (The band's regular releases, including the new Polkas for a Gloomy World, are distributed nationally on Boston-based Rounder Records.)

Feeling that "it's becoming a more powerful situation all the way around," the scene's elder statesman finds Denton a viable and comfortable home base for a promising business and a successful band. Although the Combo has admittedly given thought to relocating elsewhere, they haven't bought into the idea that Denton is holding them back from anything.

"I want people to know [what we have in Denton], being able to live here in a very free environment," Finch declares. "A lot of people, I think, don't have the advantage of that. It's far enough from the city. I can walk outside my front door and not hear traffic. You're just a lot freer. But I was brought up in a small town, so this is more my style."

Where Finch is a punk in spirit, Sam McCall is a punk both in spirit and in deed; like Finch, he has no intentions of leaving Denton, though his bandmates often speak of moving to Austin. Calling from a pay phone outside a club in Spokane, Washington, Brutal Juice's bassist reels off names from Denton's hardcore roots, going as far back as the bristling underground that was happening when he arrived on the scene in autumn 1986.

McCall describes a band called the Angry Jasmine as "incredible," and mentions that Last Rites "was real punk" before they became funk. The bassist himself links the past and present, having played with Angry Jasmine guitarist Brad Tucker and current Fireworks leader Darin Lin Wood in the Red Devils.

To McCall's knowledge, none of those bands ever recorded any music, dooming them to the memories of those who were there. In a way, McCall is making sure that doesn't happen to today's scene, helping to preserve and promote it by recording and producing his counterparts--much like Carl Finch, in fact. Perhaps McCall's greatest contribution to the hometown underground lies not in his role of scene historian or as a crucial player in the scene's only other Major Label Band, but in the generous support he has given to musicians in the studio.

A piecemeal setup assembled around a used reel-to-reel eight-track, McCall's Resin Recording Studio has provided numerous bands with that first tape needed to get the music out to clubs, labels, and the press. Among his first recording jobs was Brutal Juice, which eventually led to his becoming the band's fourth bass player; it also gave him the confidence to pursue a career on the technical side of music-making. Since then, he has gone on to record such bands as Wayward Girl, Baboon, Loveswing, and many of the other artists on the Welcome to Hell's Lobby album. McCall also recorded various singles and a CD for the Joy Division-inspired Factory Press, which has since left Denton for New York City.

"I just started undercutting the competition and justifying it by thinking that the stuff I produced wasn't really good, quality-wise," McCall says. "Any band who wanted to come in and record for a hundred bucks or a couple of hundred bucks, I'd do their project. And generally, they came out pretty good. Eventually, word just spread."

Slobberbone--which recently released its debut CD Crow Pot Pie, recorded at Resin--is one of McCall's satisfied customers. Brent Best praises McCall as "one of the biggest catalysts for the Denton scene" on account of his work behind the board. In the case of Best's band, a whole year elapsed between the initial recording and the final mixing and sequencing of the album; considering the amount of studio time, Best guesses it would've cost the band between $2,000 and $3,000 had they recorded somewhere else. McCall only charged Slobberbone $450.  

"That was the biggest thing for all the bands that started out," Best says. "Everybody recorded there, you know? It was quality. For what you were paying, it was pretty good quality. And you could put out a tape, get gigs or send it out to the Observer. I've always said that he's one of the biggest reasons in recent years the scene kind of did what it did."

It's almost impossible to sustain a music scene without at least one independent record label, if only because there must be some way to make homegrown music available to the hometown crowd--and beyond. Wanz Dover and his friend Beverly Lynn realized this, and in December began an imprint called Atomic Sound. So far, the label has only released a single from the San Antonio band Not My Son, but between now and the end of the year, the two plan to release a 10-inch record by Comet, a split single featuring Fireworks and Shiva the Destroyer, and an EP by MK Ultra.

In fact, the label was inspired in large part by the idea of giving Dover's space-rock pals MK Ultra an opportunity to record and release their work.

"The main reason I [helped to start] this label was the first time I saw MK Ultra," Dover says. "They're the best band in the world. I started going to see them and I started going crazy just to get copies of the tape, running around to different people's houses, going, 'Listen to the tape! Listen to the tape!' Before you know it, in less than a year, they'll sell the place out every time they play at the Kharma."

MK Ultra's singer-guitarist Chris Plavidal is actually a newcomer to Denton, having moved there only six months earlier. The Houstonian came to Denton via Fort Worth--where he attended TCU and graduated with a double major in English and history--because Denton "seemed like a fun place to live."

"There are a lot of bands [in Fort Worth], but there's not really an outlet for them," he explains. "There are a couple of places to play, [but] people usually don't come. Here, it's really different. Everybody is open to stuff and people are really cool about bands doing different new things here."

MK Ultra plays to the listenable, melodic side of experimentalism, drawing upon the psychedelia of the Flaming Lips and early Pink Floyd along with the indie noise stuff of Tortoise and Gastr del Sol. Their only recording to date, a seven-inch single on Dallas' Direct Hit Records, is a well-crafted work, startlingly understated and refreshing for a first effort.

If MK Ultra has the goods, getting them to an audience has been difficult. Plavidal idles in neutral as his bandmates continue their studies at TCU, all of them impatiently waiting to see how far they can take MK Ultra, caught as it is in the throes of the growing pains so common to Denton's college-aged groups. The single is selling well, but is available only at shows because of distribution delays. The band has yet to record the long-planned EP for Atomic Sound, which has had its own development stunted by a lack of funds and time.

More frustratingly, those good gigs on which to build a solid foundation have been few and far between. Though MK Ultra has outgrown the Kharma--fans are often forced to eavesdrop from outside--Rick's Place isn't yet a viable option, and the band has suffered disappointing turnouts in Deep Ellum.

"If you're not from Dallas or the people from Dallas haven't heard you, they're not going to come," he shrugs.

The difficulties and hopes expressed by Plavidal echo those of most Denton bands, young and old. Indeed, the health of the musical community is measured both by its possible successes as well as its longtime struggles; it is defined as much by where the space-rock movement is going as by what Brave Combo and the Fraternity of Sound have achieved. After all, what makes the Denton scene strong is that it fulfills its potential while always promising more.

Thorazine Dreams, another member of the space-rock contingent, has recently planted itself in Denton. On an unbearably stuffy Saturday night at the Kharma, the scene's newest residents play something of a housewarming show, performing anxiously in front of a lazy, lounging crowd of 20 or so. Between songs, the band's bassist announces the move to Denton, as his bandmates fiddle with the muddled mix.  

"Me and my roommate just moved here," says the bassist, a floppy-haired kid named John, almost swallowed inside a pair of enormous pants that always seem in danger of sliding down. "We love this place. Everyone is so laid back." Then, before the band launches into another song, John invites the small crowd back to the band's apartment to, you know, hang out.

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