Tattoos and Politics: On Tour in Texas with Sub-Sahara

Alex Mireles doesn't want porn music with his McBreakfast.
Alex Mireles doesn't want porn music with his McBreakfast. David Fletcher

It's 2:30 p.m. when a beige 1999 Chevy Suburban pulls up to the curb, a Sears cargo carrier attached to its roof rack, weighed down by amps, a guitar, a bass and a drum kit.

The three members of Dallas dance punk band Sub-Sahara emerge from the van — dubbed "Stella" — before venturing off on their four-date tour around Texas with Fort Worth darkwavers The Fibs.

They have to be at Houston's Continental Club to load in the gear by nightfall, and without the hospitality of a local friend, have to stop at a motel first to ensure that they'll have somewhere to crash for the evening. After going on a full East Coast tour solo last fall, the band is excited to be back out on the road for a brief run, and back into the touring mind-set before they head out on a Midwest tour later this year. Besides, three of the four dates on the tour are cities the band has never played before — Houston being one of them.

"You just have to get into a routine," says guitarist Elvis Martinez. "Once you've got a routine down, it gets a lot easier. And, actually, when you get back from a tour, getting back into the normal routine is more difficult."

For a DIY band without major record label support, tours like this are important for several reasons. Aside from seeing new bands and new cities, making new fans and new contacts at venues stands as the most important aspect of touring.

There's not a lot of money to be made this way. In fact, often more money is lost on a tour than is made. Sure, the band will make a little money off the venue and possibly some take from the bar. They might even sell a bit of merchandise, but that's not a guarantee. When you take into account the gas, motels, food and the drinks (even with a drink ticket here and there), there's just not a lot to expect outside of making new contacts.
click to enlarge The Dallas band doesn't go on the road to seek out fine accommodations. - DAVID FLETCHER
The Dallas band doesn't go on the road to seek out fine accommodations.
David Fletcher
The show in Houston doesn't go as one would have hoped. Performing that night is a Beatles cover band, Beetle, which drew a substantial crowd, but after going almost an hour over their allotted time, the older audience they generated had grown too tired of sweating to the oldies to stick around for a bunch of bands they'd never heard of.

That night, the audience consisted mostly of bar staff, the other bands and one local who did seem to genuinely enjoy the show, but bought nothing to show his support. It's a bit of a letdown after all the hassle of driving, finding a motel, loading in, dealing with a less-than-helpful door guy and suffering through yet another encore by a Beatles cover band.

"It doesn't matter," says bassist and singer Aarón Mireles. "I bring the same energy to every show, because you never know who that one person in the audience might be. You always want to put on a good show, because if we ever want to come back here for a bigger show, we have to make a good impression."

Sixteen dollars and 30 tacos from Jack in the Box later, the band is crashing at 3:30 a.m. on two twin beds in a Studio 6 motel room with one show and 239 miles behind them, and three shows and 600 miles to go.

It's 10 o'clock the following morning, with an 11 a.m. checkout time, when the band really starts moving. The first task at hand is figuring out the busted piece on the faucet to make the damn shower work. The band makes it a practice to load the most valuable gear into the motel room before leaving the rest in the van overnight. Strange people in bad motels aren't the most trustworthy. So, it's a quick shower, a quick load-out and a quick checkout before getting back on the road.

There's a lot of time to kill between Houston and Austin, and a free art museum with amazing air conditioning offers the perfect spot to pass that time. The Menil Collection, with its Warhols and sound installations, make for a different kind of artistic release — something to ponder on the traffic-filled road between the two cities.

After a quick trip to Twin Liquors to visit a friend and advertise the show, the band partakes in a bit of drinking, out of some Days Inn paper coffee cups, before Aarón yells at Martinez, “Put some pants on. You can’t go onstage in cargo shorts. What is this? A ska band?”

It’s a bigger crowd with better promotion, The Acid Test is a monthly event at Swan Dive on Red River near Sixth Street. Acid Carousel’s scheduled performance with Texas psych legend Johndavid Bartlett had generated a lot of buzz. It's on this evening when Aarón debuts a message scrawled on white duct tape adhered to the back of his bass, brandished high above his head at the end of the show: “Close the Camps” — a deeply political message for a covertly political band whose mere presence has become an act of defiance in the current political climate.

The night ends on an outdoor dance floor, with the band’s members dancing in a circle to the sounds of '90s hip-hop in the club behind the bar, loading out through the busy streets of Austin, getting back to the motel for beer and pizza, and falling asleep to the soothing sounds of a South Park rerun.

Aarón wakes up with one thing on his mind. He wants to get a tattoo before he leaves Austin. But first, it’s breakfast at McDonald’s where the sexy, smooth sounds of '70s-era porn jazz are just too much for his brother, drummer Alex Mireles.

“I guess McDonald’s wants you to get your freak on,” he says in hungover resignation. “It’s too early in the morning for this, McDonald’s.” Choosing the “X” from The xx’s debut album as his model, Aarón decides to get four Xs tattooed above his knee — one for each brother — at the Austin Tattoo Company.

“I’ve been wanting this for seven years now,” he says. “I figured I should just do it now or I was never going to do it.”

Next is a quick meeting with the recently relocated Paul Hernandez, formerly of Dallas’ Bummer Vacation, to talk shop, recent happenings and the best dietary habits to support vocal health at Mozart’s Coffee Roasters on Lake Austin.

"I bring the same energy to every show, because you never know who that one person in the audience might be." — Aarón Mireles

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By the time they make it to San Antonio, the only thing available in their price range is an America’s Best Value Inn, where they get a shoebox-sized room with no toilet paper or towels, a crooked TV, dirty sheets and a broken ice machine.

“It just makes you want to start drinking,” Alex says.

At Jandro’s on St. Mary’s in San Antonio, things won't get started until later; at least that’s the tip the band gets from Travis Hildenbrand of local band Collective Dreams, a band reminiscent of Explosions in the Sky. The bands decide to move their set times back an hour to accommodate the foot traffic, and it pays off. Those who stick around are absolutely captivated by the band, two of whom decide to buy CDs — the band’s first merch sales outside of a sale to a friend in Austin.

Cameras flashed and the crowd cheered at the sight of the pro-immigrant message. As the bar closed, Aarón managed to make a contact to help him book a show in Galveston in the near future. One patron walked by saying, “The band was sick.”

Not a bad night for the last night of the tour.

Early the following day, a Sunday, the band is hauling ass to make it to the tour’s final stop, an afternoon show in Bryan, College Station’s party annex. When they arrive, the city feels like a Twilight Zone episode. The streets are dead, and the band is dead tired. The only things open on a Sunday afternoon are a Subway and a tourist-focused consignment shop that the band uses as a spot to stretch their legs in the air conditioning.

When the Revolution Café & Bar finally opens, the bartender assures them that the weekly Sunday matinee show draws a great crowd of locals. At 15 minutes to show, with the only people there being the other bands, Sub-Sahara is skeptical, but they take the opportunity to play with the freedom presented by a show with no audience.

Aarón and The Fibs singer and lead guitarist Preston Newberry decide to play a cover of The Cure’s “A Forest” in between the bands’ sets, after working out the logistics in the beer garden. That’s when the people start to show up, and keep showing up. Looking back, it was arguably the band’s most supportive audience on the tour.

It wasn’t like seeing Sub-Sahara at home, where mosh pits break out and the crowd sings along. This was a different kind of support, where people listened closely, the bartenders danced behind the bar and people bought music and shirts.

“I can’t believe it,” Aarón says truly shocked. “We had the best crowd, sold the most merch, got free drinks and we got paid.”

You can’t judge a book by its cover. You can’t judge a city by its reputation. You can’t judge a venue by its crowd. And you can’t judge a tour’s success on its turnout or sales. Sure, none of these cities offered the band the same kind of love they can always expect at Three Links or Armoury D.E., but what they gained was a bit more touring experience, closer ties with tourmates The Fibs, a few more contacts and T-shirt advertising behind a little bar in Bryan.
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David Fletcher writes about music, arts and culture for the Dallas Observer. You can usually find him at a show in Deep Ellum whether he's writing about it or not. A punk scholar and local music enthusiast, David focuses his attention on the artists screaming in the margins of Dallas' music scene.
Contact: David Fletcher